Thursday, February 1, 2007

Anchorites in peril

In an effort to be a good scholar and fill in some of the gaps in my learning, I've been reading Ancrene Wisse. The language is a bit difficult--I normally work in later Middle English, e.g. Chaucer and the Pearl-ms and the like--but it's good practice. And there are some great words in there. Some of them are the obvious precursors to modern words, such as "cnawleachunge", and then there are the Germanic words we've lost, like "smecchen." I also have a real fondness for the i- constructions, or whatever they're technically called--you know, "iwis," ismecchet," "iheren." The sound of the language keeps me going even when I'm less interested in the content.

But there is some good stuff in there, content-wise. Last night I was reading the section in Part 2 where the author warns the anchorites against hearing ungodly speech, particularly the speech of men who come around to, you know, chat. Watch out, it warns, for guys who answer your rebuffs with speeches like the following:

"Ich nalde forte tholie death thenche fulthe toward te" (ant swereth deope athes), "ah that Ich hefde isworen hit, luvien Ich mot te. Hwa is wurse then me? Moni slep hit binimeth me. Nu me is wa thet tu hit wast; ah foryef me nu thet Ich habbe hit itald te. Tha Ich schule wurthe wod, ne schalt tu neauer mare witen hu me stonde."

I'm not going to translate that, because my ME is clunky, but essentially the gist is this: the would-be visitor accuses himself of baseness (who is worse than me?), swears solemn oaths attesting to his suffering, and beseeches the anchorite for forgiveness. Of course--the text goes on--should she grant this forgiveness, she will starting down a treacherous path. We all know how the story goes.

It's funny to be reading a work that's so foreign, in essential respects--an anchoritic guide from the thirteenth century, in this case--and to feel a flash of recognition. Not that I'm personally acquainted with this particular ploy, but it's easy enough, isn't it, to imagine a modern-day suitor using exactly this speech.

In retrospect, I think I have encountered this kind of speechifying in the past. It's annoyingly effective. What it does, obviously, is try to make the seductee (the woman, in this case) feel responsible for the seducer's anguish. And, being a nice person, she'll automatically seek to relieve that anguish. There was this time in Paris, some years ago, when I was walking around by myself at a big outdoor festival, and this guy started talking to me. I told him that I had a boyfriend, and he insisted (repeatedly) that he had no designs, just wanted to spend some time together, maybe have dinner, etc etc. I was increasingly uncomfortable, and said, finally, that I just wanted to be alone, and no thank you, you haven't offended me, but I don't want to have dinner. This was very hard for me to say. Harder still when I saw the blank anger in his eyes. With a huge effort I didn't take it back, and he went away. And I felt guilty. Which made me mad, of course.

So, while I don't think I'll be following most of Ancrene Wisse's advice, I can get behind this particular recommendation. Right on, leoue sustren. Just say no, and don't listen to the excuses.

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