Medieval Zombies: The Undead in Northern Alliterative Poetry

My proposal to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the University of West Michigan was accepted. The proposal comes from the same paper as the one I'll be presenting in England in June, but this conference paper is more skewed to poetry than art. Here's the proposal I sent:


“To tell the todus theropon with tung were ful tere:”

Transi Tombs, Toads, and Luxuria in Medieval Alliterative Poetry by Caroline Diezyn

Until the last years of the fourteenth century, medieval tomb imagery reflected a hope for salvation, with calm-faced figures representing a confidence in God’s mercy. Then, a strikingly different type of monument appeared in Northern Europe: the transi tomb. Gruesome emaciated corpses with exposed organs, skeletal frames with skin and tattered clothing drawn across the bones, and decaying bodies covered with snakes and toads were all incarnations of the new type of sepulchral memento mori. Kathleen Cohen writes that the transi tomb is not merely another iteration of a memento mori; the transi tomb also played a role in the expression of hope for the salvation of the soul of the deceased (181). I intend to argue that there is a link between this representation of the dead in transi tombs and descriptions of the dead in Northern English alliterative poetry – but not just in the male depictions of ghosts in poems like The Three Dead Kings. Guenevere’s mother in The Anturs of Arther is crawling with toads – just like the first known transi tomb in Europe, and unlike any others until the mid-fourteenth century. I intend to argue that The Anturs of Arther represents the specifically female counterpart to the male transi tomb representation – that of Luxuria. Transi tomb imagery and epitaphs that condemn a luxurious lifestyle specifically depict toads, changing the message from a simple memento mori to a commentary on Luxuria, the iconographic symbol of a woman devoured by toads and snakes as punishment for her sin. Guenevere’s mother, a ghastly animated corpse described in the same way as the transi tomb corpses, disavows covetousness. Her depiction and disavowal cast her character in a specifically feminine sinful way when we consider the symbolic significance of the toads devouring her as representing Luxuria.


Works Cited


Cohen, Kathleen. Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol: The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Oakland: University of California Press, Print.





Medieval Zombies: Transi Tombs and the Undead


My proposal was accepted to the Death, Art, and Anatomy conference at the University of Winchester in southern England. Here's the proposal I sent:  

“To tell the todus theropon with tung were ful tere:”

Transi Tombs, Toads, and Luxuria in Medieval Poetry

 Unlike English transi tombs, that of François de la Sarraz in Switzerland (late 14th century), and later German examples (1450-), feature the decaying corpses of the men they memorialize crawling with snakes and toads. The description of the ghost of Guenevere’s dead mother in The Anturs off Arthure (late 14th century) as having exposed bones, tattered clothing, and being covered in toads and snakes, is uncannily similar to this particularly gruesome type of transi tomb. Similarly, the Disputacioun Betwyx the Body and Wormes depicts a dream vision of a conversation between a woman’s body and the worms eating it within the grave (vividly depicted in an illumination accompanying a Northern England version (ca. 1435-40).

I intend to argue that the unusual representations of dead noblemen in continental transi tombs and descriptions of dead noblewomen in English alliterative poetry both have their roots in traditional images of luxuria. Transi tomb imagery and epitaphs that condemn a luxurious lifestyle specifically include toads, changing the message from a simple memento mori to a commentary on luxuria. When allegorized, Luxuria is often depicted as a woman devoured by toads and snakes as punishment for her sin. The Anturs and the Disputacioun, therefore, present a specifically feminized iteration of the transi tomb imagery. Their appearance draws on the memento mori tradition of the transi tomb, but combines it with the more specific representation of Luxuria, who is not just licentious but also vain and covetous.


What do Nostalgia, the Anthropocene, and Zombies have in common?

They're all part of the paper I'll be giving in Edinburgh at the 16th Triennial Conference of the International Society for the Study of Time. Here's the proposal I sent:

Nostalgia in the Post-Apocalypse:

the Anthropocene in Whitehead’s Zone One and Hurston’s “Zombies”

“First he is carried past the house where he lived. This is always done. Must be. If the victim were not taken past his former house, later on he would recognize it and return. But once he is taken past, it is gone from his consciousness forever. It is as if it never existed for him.” -Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston

“The last time he saw his childhood home was on Last Night. It, too, had looked normal from the outside, in that new meaning of normal that signified resemblance to the time before the flood. Normal meant ‘the past.’ Normal was the unbroken idyll of life before.” -Zone One by Colson Whitehead

In Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, humans are forced to confront the unhuman zombies who cannot return to a human (or “normal”) way of life. In turn, the zombies in each text must confront their home or a familiar place as part of becoming or being a zombie. In this conference paper, I intend to examine two types of nostalgia as defined by Svetlana Boym in The Future of Nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes rebuilding the lost home and memory gaps, while reflective nostalgia focusses on the longing and loss of remembrance. I propose that Whitehead’s Zone One is an example of restorative nostalgia, while Hurston’s chapter “Zombies” in Tell My Horse is an example of reflective nostalgia – but that both together are an example of how nostalgia in the post-apocalypse (and post-anthropocene) is a longing for a temporal and psychological place. Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia complicates reflective nostalgia further. Boym explains: “Reflective nostalgia is a form of deep mourning that performs a labor of grief both through pondering pain and through play that points to the future” (55). Whitehead and Hurston’s texts are examples of mourning and melancholia pushed past the limit of human experience to that of the post-apocalyptic zombie and survivor. How does this change in psychoanalytic circumstances complicate nostalgia? What happens when the “play that points to the future” is a post-apocalyptic future?

Race and Social Ecology in Rukeyser's Book of the Dead

My proposal to the 11th Biennial Conference of the American Society of Literature of the Environment was accepted. Here's what I sent:

In 1930, Union Carbide discovered a large deposit of silica during a tunnel-building project near Hawks Nest, and began to mine it illegally using a workforce made up of 75% black migrant workers. A West Virginia historical maker at the site reads:

"Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35.”

Rukeyser's “modernist poem as radical documentary” (Robert Shulman) about the Hawks Nest mining disaster is a polyphonic text incorporating government reports, correspondence, and her own interviews with the black migrant workers exposed to incredibly dangerous conditions in the illegal silica mine in West Virginia. I posit that there is a social ecological link between the “objectification of people as mere instruments of production” and “the objectification of nature as mere ‘natural resources’” (Murray Bookchin) but in the case of Hawks Nest and Rukeyser’s poem, this link is further complicated by the history of American racism. Because the lungs of the workers filled with silica and the dead were buried unceremoniously in nearby cornfields to cover up the tragedy, the disaster evokes rhetoric surrounding slaves as being legally “part of the landscape” (Michael Bennett). From the 1936 report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor: “one hundred and sixty-nine […] workers were buried in a field at Summerville, West Virginia, with cornstalks as their only gravestones and with no other means of identification.” Rukeyser’s text shows how Union Carbide kept their illegal environmental actions, wanton disregard for safety, racism, and the death toll underground.