Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Hermeneutical Perversions: Ralph of Coggeshall's "Witch of Rheims"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Hermeneutical Perversions: Ralph of Coggeshall's "Witch of Rheims"

Article excerpt

In his contribution to the Chronicon Anglicanum, the Cistercian chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall interrupts his account of the preparations made for the Fourth Crusade in 1199 to recount six anecdotes of local marvels and recent miracles. The focus in the first four "wonder tales"--the stories of the Wildman dragged from the sea, the feral children, the discoveries of giants' remains in Essex and Wales, and the changeling Malekin--is on corporeality and alterity. The fifth and sixth stories--about the witch of Rheims and the saintly Alpais of Cudot--address heresy and orthodoxy. Once dismissed as non sequitors, such "prodigious" narratives now suggest themselves as imaginative exercises in distinguishing the self from other. My interest in Coggeshall's Chronicon falls on a curious account of two French women heretics and known to scholars of witchcraft as "The Witch of Rheims." This tale begs certain questions of formal unity, if not textual coherence, both in terms of the wonder tales that precede it and the larger crusade narrative that frames these digressions. How are doctrinal issues raised by heresy an extension of the other wonder tales' interest in corporeality and difference? How are readers expected to parse this seemingly interpolated text in relation to the Chronicle's historicist agenda? One way to approach these questions is to focus on the thematic undertow of this section of the chronicle, a rationalization of the institutional project of defending what Elizabeth Freeman terms "the integrity of the Christian body" by justifying the crusades as an act of God. (1) I would like to propose that this concern for the integrity of the Christian body, both literally and figuratively, does not begin with the Cistercian order's involvement in the Fourth Crusade, and that Ralph's account of "The Witch of Rheims" registers a crisis of identity and authority much closer to home.

In this article I want to consider another possible textual link between "The Witch of Rheims" and the larger mission of shoring up the boundaries of the Church Militant. When Ralph writes his section of the Chronicon at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Cistercians have been fighting heresy on the Continent for almost eighty years. (2) English Cistercians in particular eagerly accepted the responsibility for the prosecution of heretics that Innocent III placed on the shoulders of the Abbot of Citeaux (and, by extension, on the Cistercian order as whole) in 1204. It should hardly surprise us, then, that the fifth anecdotal digression in Ralph's story concerns the heretical body, while the sixth, presumably by contrast, gives an account of the saintly body of Alpais of Cudot. What is perplexing, however, is that the narrative trajectory from alterity to orthodoxy, which would serve the overall ideological agenda of a crusade narrative, falters precisely when Ralph reaches the more conventional terrain of heresy and orthodoxy. The Cistercian's accounts of the unredeemable bodies of two heretics and the redeemed body of a saint communicate a curious ambiguity that disrupts and potentially questions the foundations upon which ecclesiastical authority itself is built.

By many historical accounts, as Western European society shifted from a warrior to a clerical culture in the twelfth century, literacy and celibacy became the defining attributes from which the clerical class derived its spiritual and administrative authority and through which it established a social hierarchy distinguishing between cleric and layperson, free and servile, male and female, orthodoxy and heresy. (3) Yet in the context of twelfth-century ecclesiastical reforms, the hermeneutic occupations and ideology of bodily purity that supposedly consolidated clerical authority in the high Middle Ages were also the bedeviled terms of the church's internecine struggles. In an age where monastic reform and lay evangelicalism proclaimed similar apostolic attitudes towards the institutionalized church as an administrative and educational body, lines between orthodoxy and unorthodoxy not only blurred but sometimes officially shifted. …

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