Abstracts: Freedom, Slavery, Imprisonment



Chiara Benati, Università degli Studi di Genova: "Insprinc haptbandun, inuar uigandun: Magical remedies to escape from imprisonment in the Germanic tradition"

Despite class differences, the concern with freedom was present, at different levels, throughout medieval and early modern society and, as history clearly demonstrates, representatives of all classes were constantly struggling to expand their liberty. Complementarily, the lack of freedom in form of confinement, imprisonment, captivity or servitude was a condition that medieval and early modern people would desperately try to avoid. In order to do this, they also had recourse to magic: special runes were used to loosen fetters and charms (German Lösesegen) were pronounced to obtain the release of prisoners. The best-known formula of this kind is certainly the 9th-century heathen-flavored First Merseburg Charm. Nevertheless, as I will try to show in this paper, in the Germanic language area the tradition of release charms and blessings is much richer and more heterogeneous, as far as forms and motifs are concerned, than the immediate association to its most famous example would suggest.


Albrecht Classen, University of Arizona: The Experience of Imprisonment in Late Medieval Verse and Prose Narratives: Marie de France, Caesarius of Heisterbach, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Oswald von Wolkenstein, and Marguerite de Navarre


This paper discusses the motif of imprisonment as used by a wide range of late medieval poets who obviously realized the great use of this topic for many different purposes. Both satire and lament are at play, depending on the circumstances. Whereas most of the poems and narratives have already been discussed from a variety of perspectives, the topic of imprisonment in the literary discourse during the late Middle Ages has not yet been considered with any attention.


Allison P. Coudert, University of California at Davis: "A Question of Nerves: The Role of Neuroscience in Justifying Slavery and Incarceration in the Long Eighteenth-Century”

Although many scholars have rejected Foucault's characterization of the Age of the Enlightenment as one of repression and incarceration rather than progress and increasing liberalism, his contentious reappraisal encouraged scholars to investigate the less salubrious aspects of eighteenth-century culture. This essay examines the way the new science of neurobiology, established by Thomas Willis at the end of the seventeenth century, was deployed during the long eighteenth century to justify the enslavement and imprisonment (in reform schools, poor houses, and asylums) of those members of society deemed neurobiologically unfit and incapable of becoming fully civilized. This latter category included individuals from what were described at the time as the primitive races (especially slaves), the poor and disabled, and a significant portion of women depicted as childlike and hysterical. This is not to deny the progressive aspects of much of eighteenth-century science and philosophy but to emphasize the fact that neither science nor philosophy are neutral but embedded in culture and responsive to the convictions and prejudices of individuals. 


Fidel Fajardo-Acosta, Creighton University, NE:

Title: How to Celebrate Being Released from Prison: A Cat, A Crusader, and Two Courtly Ladies in William IX's "Farai un vers, pos mi sonelh"

The infamous red cat featured in William IX's "Farai un vers, pos mi sonelh" (I will make a song since I am sleepy) (ca. 1106) is a creature endowed with the proverbial nine and even more lives, at least symbolic ones. One of those symbolic incarnations involves its association with matters of freedom and imprisonment, captivity and delivery. The song in effect, as has been known for quite some time, at least since the studies of Rita Lejeune and Gerald Bond, appears to have been inspired by the 1106 visit to the Midi of the crusading hero, Bohemond (ca. 1054‒1111), after his release from almost three years of captivity (1100‒1103) among Danishmend Turks. In addition to visiting William in Poitiers, Bohemond made a stop at Noblat, near Limoges, to offer his thanks and tribute at the shrine of St. Leonard, the patron saint of prisoners. Both Bond and Lejeune believed that Bohemond was the model of the rascal pilgrim in William's song, who, while traveling on a road in the vicinity of St. Leonard's shrine, pretends to be mute and allows himself to be mauled by the red cat so he can spend over a week of debauchery in the company of two rather adventurous and sexually voracious courtly ladies, Agnes and Ermessen, said to be the wives of the Lord Guari and the Lord Bernart. In addition to his functions as patron saint of prisoners, however, St. Leonard was also venerated as a protector of women, especially during childbirth, seen as a moment of delivery, for both mother and child, from the captivity of pregnancy. In keeping with both sets of functions of the saint, the chains kept at his shrine represented both the instruments used to restrain prisoners and the umbilical cord tying child and mother. Further strengthening those associations, the town of Noblat appears to have ties to the cult of cats, which were seen, like St. Leonard, as protectors of women. A cat cult in the Midi included figures like St. Agatha (known as Santo Gato in Toulouse) and involved feast days allowing women both sexual freedom and freedom from domestic labor. The week of sexual license enjoyed by the pilgrim and the ladies in William's song is, in that sense, a manifestation of a, perhaps only imaginary but nonetheless culturally significant, medieval tradition of orgiastic celebration of liberation from literal imprisonment and also of the enjoyment of freedom from gender roles, social conventions, and the sexual restrictions and burdens associated with marriage and child-bearing.


Daniel F. Pigg, The University of Tennessee at Martin: From Imprisonment to Liberation: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale as a Multi-Layered Exploration of a Paradigm

Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, the first tale in The Canterbury Tales, explores the concept of imprisonment to liberation on several seemingly independent, but interconnected levels. The tale begins with Theseus’s imprisoning of Palamon and Arcite after a war, but without the possibility of ransom. Thus Chaucer through his knight begins with a very material representation of the classical-age taking of prisoners, but, of course, is understood through concept of imprisonment, particularly among the knightly classes of the Middle Ages. Closely connected to the knightly class is a pattern of written discourse that Chaucer had explored in The Book of the Duchess, and in the Knight’s Tale, the Knight has Arcite to explore this dimension with the songs that he sings in lament over unrequited love. It too, of course, is another aspect of imprisonment, but one rooted in futility given that Emelye knows nothing of his pain that is valorized in the lyric.

The first two of these imprisonment to liberation narratives are specifically related to Palamon and Arcite. As the tale continues, the building of the enclosure or theatre in which Palamon and Arcite will engage in a tournament designed by Theseus to reward the winner with the hand of Emelye represents another kind of imprisonment. In this case, three temples, shrines, or stations are built for Venus, Mars, and Diana, with the iconography of each space containing within the design images of violence, entrapment, and liberation. These geographically oriented centers around the circle present a more cosmic view of imprisonment to liberation, but they also introduce ambiguity in the interplay with the central narrative related to the tournament of Palamon and Arcite.

Finally, at the end of the tale, Theseus ask the question in a final meeting with the court, Palamon and Arcite relative to life itself; “Why grucchen we, why have we hevynesse, / That goode Arcite, of chivalrie flour, / Departed is with deutee and honor / Out of this foule prisoun of this lyf?” That life itself is called a prison raises the concept of imprisonment to the theological level, not unknown to the speculation of Theseus in the tale. The sense of transcendence is clearly present in Theseus’ words, and those words form the basis of reconciling images of imprisonment and freedom seen throughout the poem.

Chaucer through the Knight in his tale explores the implications of imprisonment and freedom in ways that critique and transform the understanding. Clearly, the Knight believes he has won the contest for the pilgrim tale with the most “sentence” from the very start, and in that sense he may actually be correct. What Chaucer does, however, is to critique that very stable sense of meaning by introducing the deconstructive analysis of each of these kinds of imprisonment to freedom paradigms in the clever analysis provided by the Miller. In that sense, Chaucer problematizes the very polarities and humorous contradictions of imprisonment and freedom from the outset of the quest toward Canterbury.


Tom Willard, University of Arizona: “Freedome, high-day!”: The Savage Slave in the Early Modern Imagination


The figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s 1611 romance The Tempest has become a point of reference for the consideration and reconsideration of the indigenous “other” in early modern culture. Described as “a saluage and deformed slaue” in the play’s dramatis personae, this character has a name commonly understood as an anagram of “canibal.” However, the play makes explicit reference to Montaigne’s essay “Des Cannibales,” which paints an idealized, almost utopian, image of the inhabitants of Brazil, showing them in stark contrast to the ostensibly civilized people of Western Europe.


For most of The Tempest’s stage history, Caliban was cast as a subhuman creature, more fish than human—one whom his master described as “a borne-Deuill, on whose nature / Nurture can neuer sticke.” In the nineteenth century, a university president wrote a book suggesting that he was “the missing link” between humans and lower life forms. Caliban and his counterpart Ariel, who is described as “an ayrie spirit,” were allegorized to represent the physical and mental aspects of Prospero, the play’s main character and almost a stand-in for Shakespeare himself as the manager of its stage action. Only in the later twentieth-century did directors like Peter Brook decide to cast Caliban as a handsome man whose only abnormalities were his moral outrage and his skin coloring—black if he was taken to be Negroid, his mother being of North African origin, or brown if he was taken to be an Indian of the New World or an Arab of the Maghrib. The Martinique playwright Aimé Césaire revised the play for a troupe of black and mulato actors. Whereas Shakespeare’s Caliban repents his attempted rebellion against Prospero, Césaire’s shouts “La liberté ohé!” as the play’s dernier cri.


As readers and theatergoers have become increasingly sympathetic to Caliban’s attempt to free himself from presumed slavery, others have retold his story as a postcolonial parable. The proposed paper will end with a reading of Marina Warner’s 1992 novel Indigo, based on the story of Caliban’s mother and her descendants over several generations. Perhaps the postcolonial interpretations of the play, though supported by evidence about England’s early experience with slavery, simply continue the tradition of allegorizing Shakespeare.