In the mock catacombs we encountered the enigmatic figure of St. Innocent, a child-saint sent to the monastery from Rome. Behind a glass box, low to the ground in a recessed wall, the figure of St. Innocent lay in death’s repose, immaculately concealed in pristine sartorial splendor, a death-mask of a child’s face frozen in a look that suggests an unimaginably peaceful slumber even as shriveled and blackened limbs sully the picture-perfect arrangement of the body. The juxtaposition of the sacred, unblemished relic with the gnarly evidence of the ravages of unholy time on human flesh is arresting; the imaginary is too polluted by the real. Also arresting, in a quite different sense, was our tour guide’s tale about this St. Innocent: an incorruptible (are you sure about that?), St. Innocent died as a child (no shit), and is now a patron saint of all (Christian) children. The end. Really, that was the most our tour guide was able to tell us about one of the only two actual corpses in their faux-catacombs, the other a relic with bone fragments from St. Benignus of Armagh, about whom our tour guide narrated ad nauseam.
As I spent the following week puzzling over, and then pretty much forgetting, the fragmented and incomplete – if not wholly fabricated – story of the mysterious St. Innocent, I was given the following as my first reading assignment for an independent study with my advisor: Saint Erkenwald. Oh, the uncanniness!! Oh, the dulcet resonance!! All the questions surrounding this ‘innocent’ child’s corpse appropriated by the Catholics and entombed in a Franciscan dungeo…excuse me, catacomb, rushed to the fore as I thought about what it meant for an early medieval bishop to pardon the soul of a “pagan” – read Welsh or British or, as Karl Steel might suggest, Jewish – judge. If the text is explicitly about fulfilling the desire to assimilate the past, it also worries about the violence that occurs when we touch the past, when humans make contact with and get caught in the maelstrom of the material flows of time.
Like the body of the cryptic St. Innocent, the pagan judge erupts into the narrative with an obscure story; after delving and digging “down deep into the earth" (45), miners hoping to re-establish the foundation of a cathedral built atop a pagan temple uncover a “wondrous fair tomb” (46).1 The earth gives up its treasure, an incorruptible human body, to these archeologists, these re-constructors of time and history, but it also conceals its occult story; the text hewn into the marble of the tomb is indecipherable. Unlike St. Innocent, however, the corpse itself is made to speak, is granted the opportunity to narrate its own history. The text is wonderfully mimetic in its description of corpse-speak, attending to the physical barriers that a well-preserved but nevertheless un-ensouled body might have in manifesting speech-acts: “Then he hemmed a little who lay there, and let his head roll, / And gave a great groan, and grieving he spoke” (281-2). The dead judge, buried for centuries, is as much an earthy elemental being as a human corpse; like Tolkein’s ents, beings of such enormous life spans that their temporal sensibilities are almost incomprehensible to the fast-paced and relatively short-lived hobbit and human audiences, the corpse is slow to speak, its joints stiff with immobility and its face groaning with age.
I do not mean to imply, however, that this body is ‘stuck in the past,’ that it is so sedimented in history that it is only an archaism, something to be excavated, studied, and assimilated. Clearly the anxiety of the text, its ambivalent temporalities (I dare you to determine precisely when it is set), the strange conditions of the pagan’s appropriation (accidental baptism?), the mixed responses of the crowd (mourning and celebrating), and the even stranger response of the body to Erkenwald’s touch and his embodied affective response (his tears, the very condition of the accidental baptism, catalyze the corpse’s rotting and turning to dust), ask us to make something more of this body, to let it continue to speak to us even after all that’s left are ashes. Although writing ostensibly about Beowulf and theory/criticism, Eileen Joy asks the following questions, quoted at length, that should be brought to bear on any conversation about the body and its relation to story and time:
Bodies (both dead and alive), history, and language, and all of the fiercely tangled relations between them – what do the dead want from us, what might we want from each other at any given moment, and how might we sufficiently record our past and present histories in order to lend some kind of meaning and ethical content to what some of us fear, deep down, is a kind of unscripted chaos? How, further, can the past inform our future in a way that is ethically and socially constructive? (LIII).2Like Beowulf – and perhaps the Gawain poet –, I conclude that the dead want to narrate their own stories, and not just stories of their past, but tales without finitude or tidy resolution; with incorrupt or eerily mummified hands, corpses continue to reach into each successive present moment and touch whatever bodies surround them. It is the responsibility of the touched to allow themselves to feel with the dead, and not only about them.
After considering Jules Michelet’s embodied affective responses to the historical events about which he writes, Carolyn Dinshaw concludes, “The historian manages thus, by writing, to ‘touch’ bodies across time. Resurrection is the aim of his history, unreached but nonetheless signaled” (47).3 I would add that the scholar and the lay person alike make contact with the past any time a reaction to story is corporeal, any time anyone “shudders to think about” or “trembles before” memory, recall, the historical event or, perhaps even more significantly, physical evidence. When one is confronted with a corpse, with the tangible, material evidence of a prior life, one struggles to forge a community with what was, to engender a story, whether fact or fiction – likely a mixture of the two – in order to sympathize, to feel with the imagined life that once animated the dead.
Yet why do we feel the need to hunker down and dwell in an object’s history? Is not a corpse still a physical body animated by its own material flows, part of very present and very active networks? Why must we bury the corpse in frozen time and sediment its story in ‘the past’? Is a dead body no longer an agentic being in the world just because it no longer speaks? What if it can be made to speak, what then? If we dwell only on the body’s history than we are no better than an Erkenwald, appropriating its story to satisfy our presentist and perhaps nationalistic/religious/political needs. We should work instead to be like crowd of onlookers, looking with fresh eyes at the mystery of the body; just as “Much mourning and gladness were mingled together" (350) for the crowd, let us sympathize with the dead and celebrate the yet-untold stories of the corpse’s futurity.
1. All quotations from "Saint Erkenwald" taken from The Gawain Poet: Complete Works trans. Marie Borroff (New York: Norton, 2011): 167-183.
2. Joy, Eileen A., “Introduction: Liquid Beowulf” in The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey (Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2006): XXIX-LXVII.
3. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. (Durham: Duke UP, 1999).