• ‘I am a virgin woman and a virgin woman’s child’: critical plant theory and the maiden mother conceit in early medieval riddles

    Alaric Hall (see profile) , Shamira Meghani
    Early Medieval
    Arabic poetry, Poetry, Medieval, Hebrew literature, Latin language, Middle Ages, Ecocriticism, Ekphrasis
    Item Type:
    riddles, critical plant theory, Dunash ben Labraṭ ha-Levi, Heiðreks saga, Medieval Arabic poetry, Old Norse, Medieval Latin
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    While early medieval riddles in Old English and, to a lesser extent, Latin, have been studied extensively from ecocritical perspectives in recent years, the large corpora of riddles in other languages of western Eurasia have yet to benefit from or feed back into these methodological developments. Meanwhile, ecocritical research generally has focused on animals at the expense of plants. We respond to both problems by providing the first extensive study of riddles whose solutions are plants, through the lens of one recurrent conceit in ancient and medieval verse riddles in Arabic, Greek, Latin, Old Norse and, we argue, Hebrew. The conceit is that a plant is a virgin woman who nevertheless reproduces. By examining different permutations of this motif, we show how these riddles use plants to comment on human gendering, and how, while usually fundamentally patriarchal in their world-views, they register patriarchal anxiety at women’s reproductive capabilities, acknowledge critiques of patriarchal constraints on women, and queer gender-norms in other ways; inter alia we note that the Old Norse riddle studied here may be the only explicit (albeit metaphorical) representation of female homosexual eroticism in the Old Norse corpus. However, we also draw on critical plant theory to explore how the riddles situate plants in medieval Abrahamicate cultures, uncovering implicit recognitions in several of these riddles of the dynamic and reciprocal relationships between human farmers and their family structures, the plants that domesticate them, people’s and plants’ mutual shaping of the ecosystems they inhabit or colonise, and the economies that these interactions constitute.
    This is a working-paper, made available 10 January 2021. It is on its way (all being well) to journal publication and so will eventually be superseded by the published version, so be sure to check for that, before citing this version, at https://alarichall.org.uk and https://hcommons.org/members/alarichall/. Comments on this paper would be very welcome: please send any to alaric@cantab.net.
    Last Updated:
    3 years ago


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