Saturday, 8 August 2009

Robert Bartlett, The Hanged Man (Princeton UP, 2004)

Lordy, it's been a while since I last posted. Apologies. I've been trying to finish something before term begins and it is taking much longer than I had hoped. Sigh.

I have very much enjoyed reading Robert Bartlett's book The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 2004). It is aimed at a broad audience, not exclusively academic; the highly engaging writing style will ensure such a wide audience.

The story is relatively simple, if somewhat striking. Around 1290 a notorious brigand called William Cragh was hanged in Swansea. The process of execution did not go smoothly: the gallows broke and while Cragh was considered dead, he was hanged again for good measure. This second hanging assured everyone that he was dead and the man was taken down and brought away. An eye witness (William de Briouze junior) described the dead man:
His whole face was black and in parts bloody or stained with blood. His eyes had come out of their sockets and hung outside the eyelids and the sockets were filled with blood. His mouth, neck, and throat and the parts around them, also his nostrils, were filled with blood, so that it was impossible in the natural course of things for him to breathe air through his nostrils or through his mouth or through his throat ... his tongue hung out of his mouth, the length of a man's finger, and it was completely black and swollen and as thick with the blood sticking to it that it seemed the size of a man's two fists together. (p. 6).

I provide this dramatic and rather gory account because it does not look like a man in that shape would be capable of much, let alone recover. But that is what he did, living for another fifteen years or so. As he was being prepared for burial those present noticed him moving. The Lady Mary de Briouze, stepmother to the eyewitness cited above, wife of the lord, he who condemned Cragh to death, had prayed to Thomas de Cantilupe to protect the man, and it was this event that lead to an investigation in 1307 into Thomas's sanctity. Bartlett sifts through the documentation of this investigation (now in the Vatican Archives) and provides a rigorous analysis and contextualization of what is found there. So there's a fascinating chapter on 'Time and Space', pp. 53-67, in which he discusses how the accounts describe distance and time. Distance, for example, is referred to in the length of crossbow shot, and time in terms of how long it takes to walk between places. There is a tradition that he who is hanged once cannot be hanged again, one that seems to be in the background of Piers Plowman B 18. 380-4, 'It is noght used on erthe to hangen a feloun | Other than ones' (cf. C 20. 421-422). This is not exactly the scenario here, in that it does not appear to be an imperfect hanging, but a case of resurrection. Cragh had prayed to the right saint, since Cantilupe was particularly associated with resurrections. Apparently resurrections were still rather unusual in the late thirteenth century:
'a careful study of 4,756 miracle accounts from eleventh- and twelfth-century France found only sixty cases of resurrection; that is, 1.26 percent. Thomas de Cantilupe's forty is thus a number equivalent to fully two-thirds of the miraculous resurrections over these two centuries in France. It is worth noting, however, that resurrection grew more common over the course of the Middle Ages. While they form only 1.26 percent of miracles recorded in eleventh- and twelfth-century France, they constitute 2.2 percent of miracles examined in thirteenth-century canonization processes and 10.2 percent in fourteenth-century ones' (pp. 51-52).

This is fascinating: why is there such a leap in resurrection miracles in the fourteenth century?

In sum, this is a riveting story, marvellously written. Read it.

I've been picking some interesting things up lately too (here in Dublin). Found a very nice copy of Helen Barr's Socioliterary Practice in Late Medieval England, and also Gianni Vattimo's The Transparent Society, which is marvellous. I then picked up his Beyond Interpretation, which I'd bought several years ago and never read, and am increasingly drawn to his work. Have also managed to pick up some very nice s/h philosophy, mainly Heidegger, but some Caputo, too who is quite fascinating. I also picked up a copy of the lovely Tel quel anthology from 1968 entitled Théorie d'ensemble (Éditions du Seuil).

On my desk now is the score of Scarlatti's Griselda (1721), and that's the next thing I'll post about.

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