Presentation Type

Oral Presentation - Campus Access Only

Area of Focus

Humanities

Abstract

Medievalists who incorporate critical race theory and postcolonialism in their work have found in the fourteenth century Middle English romance The King of Tars a text ripe for interpretation. The poem features the marriage of a black Muslim Sultan and white Christian Princess who conceive a child, which is born a shapeless lump of “flesche…withouten blod and bon” (577, 579). Upon Christian baptism, this so-called monstrous birth transforms into a healthy baby boy, leading the sultan to request Christian baptism. When the sultan is baptized, “His hide that blac and lothely was / Al white bicom thurth Godes gras / and clere withouten blame” (922-24). The poem, with its emphasis on categorical differences of groups of people and even the difference carried by skin color, seems to invite a reading that considers race, or at least some sort of social mechanism that accounts for proto-racialization. While historians agree that the modern concept of race did not emerge until the fourteenth century, The King of Tars seems to support the argument of critics such as Geraldine Heng who argue that race-making mechanisms existed in the Middle Ages and that literary critics ought to interpret medieval texts with race in mind. My approach to The King of Tars takes the work of critics such as Heng, Lisa Lampert, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and others seriously, but I also read The King of Tars as a text demonstrating deep ambivalence about difference. I apply monster theory in my reading, arguing that the text’s association of Muslims with dog-headed monsters places it amidst a genre of medieval art and literature that imagined unknown monstrous races at the edges of the known world. By participating in this genre, The King of Tars reinforces assumed differences between Muslims and Christians, but it is not that simple. The monster, according to Cohen in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” is “difference made flesh, come to dwell among us” but also reveals “that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential” (7, 12). Thus, by reading monstrosity it The King of Tars, I identity the ambivalence the text betrays about the physical differences of Christians and Muslims. Within that ambivalence is the implicit question – is our difference intractable, or is it merely superficial? My reading of The King of Tars is important both to understanding of difference in the Middle Ages but also to the ways in which contemporary American culture envisions “difference made flesh,” in the words of Cohen. The monster as a category continues to be deployed in contemporary American politics, most notably in the recent “travel ban” imposed by President Donald Trump in the form of two executive orders. While I do not directly discuss Trump and contemporary America in this paper, I argue that considering white America’s portrayal of the Muslim other through the lens of the longue durée is essential to understanding the full implications of contemporary political discourse.

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Apr 27th, 1:45 PM Apr 27th, 2:00 PM

“Ther Hewe Houndes on Cristen Men”: Reading Monstrosity and Contemplating Salvation in The King of Tars

UC Ballroom, Pod #4

Medievalists who incorporate critical race theory and postcolonialism in their work have found in the fourteenth century Middle English romance The King of Tars a text ripe for interpretation. The poem features the marriage of a black Muslim Sultan and white Christian Princess who conceive a child, which is born a shapeless lump of “flesche…withouten blod and bon” (577, 579). Upon Christian baptism, this so-called monstrous birth transforms into a healthy baby boy, leading the sultan to request Christian baptism. When the sultan is baptized, “His hide that blac and lothely was / Al white bicom thurth Godes gras / and clere withouten blame” (922-24). The poem, with its emphasis on categorical differences of groups of people and even the difference carried by skin color, seems to invite a reading that considers race, or at least some sort of social mechanism that accounts for proto-racialization. While historians agree that the modern concept of race did not emerge until the fourteenth century, The King of Tars seems to support the argument of critics such as Geraldine Heng who argue that race-making mechanisms existed in the Middle Ages and that literary critics ought to interpret medieval texts with race in mind. My approach to The King of Tars takes the work of critics such as Heng, Lisa Lampert, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and others seriously, but I also read The King of Tars as a text demonstrating deep ambivalence about difference. I apply monster theory in my reading, arguing that the text’s association of Muslims with dog-headed monsters places it amidst a genre of medieval art and literature that imagined unknown monstrous races at the edges of the known world. By participating in this genre, The King of Tars reinforces assumed differences between Muslims and Christians, but it is not that simple. The monster, according to Cohen in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” is “difference made flesh, come to dwell among us” but also reveals “that difference is arbitrary and potentially free-floating, mutable rather than essential” (7, 12). Thus, by reading monstrosity it The King of Tars, I identity the ambivalence the text betrays about the physical differences of Christians and Muslims. Within that ambivalence is the implicit question – is our difference intractable, or is it merely superficial? My reading of The King of Tars is important both to understanding of difference in the Middle Ages but also to the ways in which contemporary American culture envisions “difference made flesh,” in the words of Cohen. The monster as a category continues to be deployed in contemporary American politics, most notably in the recent “travel ban” imposed by President Donald Trump in the form of two executive orders. While I do not directly discuss Trump and contemporary America in this paper, I argue that considering white America’s portrayal of the Muslim other through the lens of the longue durée is essential to understanding the full implications of contemporary political discourse.