Mo Pareles

Assistant Professor

Research Interests

mutual construction of species
sexual and ethnic difference in medieval English religious literature

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Growing mad: plant being and the medieval human in 'Sir Orfeo' (2020)

In the Middle English Breton Lay Sir Orfeo, the eponymous hero describes his wife’s madness as her becoming “wyld and wode” [wild and wooden]. An adaptation of the Orpheus myth in the popular romance genre, the poem relates the abduction of the queen by a faerie king from a Thracian orchard and her husband’s subsequent abdication from and return to the throne. Existing approaches to the poem typically link Heurodis’ madness and subsequent silence to nonhuman worlds, yet overlook Orfeo’s immunity to the touch of madness. Other paradigms understand madness as demonic possession (Doob 1977). Though sensitive to the link between madness and dehumanization, these readings neglect the unequal apportioning of wooden madness between Heurodis and Orfeo. The poem’s codes of categorization, relying on human-botanical spaces and bodies, thereby invite ecocritical queries of the principles of division and identity (Chen 2012, p. 40) which produce Heurodis’ madness as nonhuman being. Therefore, I investigate how literary imaginations of madness as a mode of plant being test the medieval concepts of humanness by elucidating the “thriving” (Chen 41) enacted by the mad plant-woman and the nonhuman beings who cohabitate at the peripheries of medieval society. Deploying a postumanist framework grounded in critical plant studies and Deleuzo-Guattarian philosophy, I argue that Sir Orfeo figures madness as a portent of the possibility of community at and beyond the margins of the human category. In making this analysis, I develop an image of plant life termed the conspiracy of plants through which aforesaid community is read as both welcoming (of exiles) and threatening to conventional hierarchies of medieval society. Turning to Orfeo and Heurodis’s response to her experience, I show that the “human” nevertheless remains an object of fraught attachment for these characters. Although both experience humanity as a dialogue with the nonhuman, Heurodis approaches humanness as a provisory strategy for understanding her experience in the orchard, while Orfeo insists on a belief that the human is a possible, achievable state. Ultimately, the poem’s humanity is one structured primarily around ambivalence rather than firm senses of belonging or exile.

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