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. 



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.