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Deposit“Systems of Fabric”

In the seventh chapter of Rome: the Book of Foundations, philosopher Michel Serres draws a distinction between what he calls “box-thought” and “sack-thought”. “I believe” Serres writes, “that there is box-thought, the thought we call rigorous, like rigid, inflexible boxes, and sack-thought, like systems of fabric”. Serres notes that while boxes can only be stacked, fabric can be folded and refolded; sacks can be used to carry a range of things, but can also be carried one inside another. “Let us learn to negotiate soft logics”, Serres concludes, a mode of historical thought that reflects on the interweaving of past and present, that proceeds (as throughout Rome) through conjunction, folding, and gathering, and that is productively ambivalent about our modern investment in the “thought we call rigorous”. This is only one moment among many in Serres’s writings where he makes recourse to fabric, where he meditates in a characteristically allusive style on time itself as something that might be artfully folded or crumpled by the actions of the historian and critic. In this paper, I follow, by way of Serres’s “soft logics”, some of the threads linking the shared Latin etymology of text and textile, the fabric of late medieval romance, and the manuscript anthologies and miscellanies in which we read them. Expansive in its potential for generic overlap and self-reflexivity, the composition of romance is a process open to conjunction and addition, just as potentially limitless possibilities are enfolded within fabric. In turn, a number of these works – such as Emaré, Sir Degaré, and Sir Degrevant – are replete with textile objects that form an important part of their fabric of reality. These objects also lead us outwards to the sewn object that is the medieval manuscript, a weaving together of diverse texts and materials. In this context, medieval manuscripts and the romances they contain emerge as “systems of fabric” in a number of both material and figurative senses.

ReplyReply To: Welcome!

Colin, I missed this. Apologies! My expertise is creative writing rather than early medieval history (I have a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University). But my most recent novel is Hild, set in 7th-C Britain. It won some awards and is taught in several universities (with both a Literature and Early Medieval focus). I’m still researching […]

DepositAirs, Waters, Metals, Earth: People and Environment in Archaic and Classical Greek Thought

This chapter provides a series of case studies that explore different ways Archaic and Classical Greeks conceptualized human diversity (modern race and/or ethnicity) in relation to environment, in particular, the land. It explores three inter-related approaches the Greeks took towards understanding this relationship: myths of metals, autochthony, and environmental determinism. I argue that these approaches to the relationship binding human and land attempt to rationalize human difference in a way that privileges indigenous status as well as hereditary superiority. This rationalization might be considered a type of “proto-social Darwinism,” a organization of human diversity that ranks peoples on a scale from superior to inferior based on a normative standard and/or “purity.” This scale derives either from environmental metaphors or in direct relationship to the environment itself.