Thursday, February 1, 2007

Query for the blogo-medieval-sphere (and you early modernists, too)

So in today's discussion of Beowulf, a student asked if Grendel's descent from Cain meant that he had the "mark of Cain -- meaning dark skin." I told him that as far as I could recall, no reference to or representation of Cain in the Anglo-Saxon period or the late Middle Ages depicted him as darked skinned, and that for these periods he was largely associated with wandering and exile, as being "other" in terms of social relations (outcast, foreign, belonging to no place) rather than race.

What I didn't say was where and when that association with race likely started, because I wasn't sure. I think, but I'm not sure, that such interepretations of the "mark" (which is nothing more than a vague "mark" in the Bible) didn't arise until Europeans were colonizing and enslaving Africa and trying to justify doing so. So tell me, oh wise Blogospherians and Netizens, am I right?

If the Anglo-Saxonists, medievalists, and early-modernists among you know of any such interpretations of mark-as-race in those periods, I'd love to hear about it. I'm pretty darn sure that's not the association the Beowulf poet was going for (especially since exile and wandering loom much larger in the poem and in OE poetry in general), but I'm just generally curious now.

15 comments:

medieval woman said...

This may prove my total ignorance on this topic, but I always thought it was the descendants of Ham that were identified as dark-skinned?

meg said...

Ham is certainly the one I'm more familiar with, particularly because the mark of Cain is all about NOT messing with the bearer, whereas Canaan is sentenced to servitude.

That said, I *have* seen the mark of Cain connected with dark skin, but not in anything medieval.

Tiruncula said...

I don't know the answer myself, but here are some thoughts on where to check this out: There's Ruth Mellinkoff's book The Mark of Cain, which I haven't seen but which seems like it might hit the mark :). For ASE particularly, you might see if there's anything relevant in the OE Genesis or the illustrations in the Junius ms. (I know there's at least one Cain scene, but I can't remember if he's racially marked in any way. Bodley's illuminated mss site doesn't seem to be opening for me at the moment.) Also Andy Orchard's book Pride and Prodigies might well have a useful tidbit somewhere in all the fine print.

Dr. Virago said...

Oof, Tiruncula, you're making me *look* *it* *up*? What do you think I am -- a scholar or something?

:)

Meg and Med-Wo (hee hee, I like that abbreviation) - Yeah, that's the association (Ham and darkness) that I think of when I think of the Middle Ages and these things. So the Cain-and-darkness association would be a supplement (both in addition to and later) to the Ham affiliations with dark races.

And I know (or I'm pretty darn sure) the late medieval drama doesn't make any explicit connections between Cain and dark skin, but then the drama texts don't often tell you much about what you'd be seeing. Still, I don't recall any documentary evidence (i.e., drama records) that make that association either. He's pretty much still just the generally outcast figure.

Tiruncula said...

Sorry!!! I spent the whole afternoon getting students started on their research projects :)

Anniina said...

Yes, I'd have to say this is the first I've heard of Cain as dark-skinned in any time period, actually. Sorry I'm no help.

What Now? said...

If it's any help, in American slavery, the "mark of Cain" was regularly associated with dark skin and was used as a justification for slavery. I don't know how far back this association starts, however.

Eileen Joy said...

I am currently teaching "Beowulf" as well in an M.A. seminar on monsters and demons in medieval literature. Descendants of Ham are typically associated with dark skin and Africa, but it has to be noted, too, that in many early medieval writing Cain and Ham [sometimes, Cham] were often conflated [see John Block Friedman, "Cain's Kin," in "The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought], with Cain/Cham [both names appear in "Beowulf" manuscript but "Cham" is changed to "Cain" by editors] being often depicted as the Father of monsters and deformed, pathological persons. Dark skin was often associated, in early classical and early medieval treatments of monstrous Others and/or "marvels" from other parts of the world, with places that were overly warm, with "Ethiopian" being the catch-moniker, in this case. In "Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art" [Princeton UP, 2003], Debra Higgs Strickland has a chapter, "Demons, Darkness, and Ethiopians" [pp. 61-93], that examines depictions of "blackness" in relation to the demonic representation of Ethiopians in medieval art. According to Strickland, the terms "black" and "Ethiopian" were synonymous in the Middle Ages, and also served as a point of departure for explorations of "spiritual darkness" in medieval thought and art. This relates to medieval exegesis on Noah's son, Ham, but not necessarily to exegesis on Cain [although there is confusion between Cain and Ham in some of the literature, which likely led to later conflations of the "mark of Cain" with skin color, although in most pictorial depictions of Cain in the Middle Ages, Cain's mark is figured as two horns protruding from his head or as multiple horns on various parts of his body. I hope this helps.

Dr. Virago said...

Eileen, you rock! There's so much that's compelling in what you've said, beginning with the Cain/Cham conflation in the MS. I'm still more on the side of Cain-as-exile as being most pertinent to Grendel, but I think if my student is interested, he could turn his off-hand question into his final research paper. At the very least, I could show the whole class how a question can become a research topic.

And WN -- yes, I think it's from American lit that I know Cain's mark as blackness. From slave narratives or Phillis Wheatley, perhaps? (Did I just misspell her name? Forgive me if I did.)

The Constructivist said...

You got Wheatley's name right. I remember being excited a few years back (2003?) that a major medievel studies journal had a special issue on race coming out, but then I lost the scrap of paper I wrote its name on and haven't tried to look it up myself. Anyone have it or know of it?

Rob Barrett said...

Constructivist,

Are you thinking about the special issue on "Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages" published by Duke's Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies? I.e., Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter 2001?

Eileen Joy said...

I agree with you. Dr. Virago, on Grendel's connection to Cain having more to do with his status as an exile, or as morally "stained," let's say, than it has to do with his possible skin color, or his association with demons who were often colored red or black in medieval manuscripts [if I recall correctly, though, I belive a black actor plays Grendel in Julie Taymor and Eliot Goldenthal's opera of Gardner's novel, which is kind of interesting].

Congrats on your book, by the way. If I knew who you were, I would actually look it up. Maybe you can privately email me and tell me: ejoy@siue.edu.

Dr. Virago said...

Seriously, Eileen, you haven't figured it out yet? Now I *have* to e-mail you...

Karl Steel said...

DV, Kofi Campbell's book Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic: From Pre- to Postcolonial also has some material on blackness and race, although what I was able to read in the 10 minutes I looked at it seemed to concentrate on the late 14th/early 15th century (John Trevisa's trans of De proprietatibus rerum and the physiognomy in the Secretum Secretorum as influenced by it). I think you might add this to the mix along with Strickland, the JMES issue, JJ Cohen's entry on race that he links to in the recent happy birthday post, and perhaps even Jack P. Lewis's A Study of the Interpretation of Noah and the Flood in Jewish and Christian Literature. The classic work on Cain's kin is Oliver Emerson's "Legends of Cain, Especially in Old and Middle English," in PMLA 21 (1906): 831-929.

Murky Thoughts said...

Is Beowulf referred to anywhere in the story as a honkey?