To Make a Man Seem Headless

By Chelsea Silva, Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University


    To make a ma(n) seme hedles Nyme bre(m)sto(n) poud(er) & do yt y(n) a lampe abowte þe lyȝt & loke þer be no(n) lyȝt þe whyle y(n) þe hows but þe lyȝt of þe lampe

    To make a man seem headless: Take brimstone powder and put it in a lamp around the light & look that there be no light in the house but the light of the lamp.
    (Detail of San Marino, Huntington Library MS 1336, fol. 27v)



Summary:

In this post, Chelsea Silva explores how recipes in late medieval household books for creating all kinds of wonders, tricks, and illusions set in conversation—and interplay—the domestic and the natural, the strange and the familiar, the bounded and the unbounded. Focusing on a recipe for making a man seem headless alongside the Middle English Poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and its recent film adaptation The Green Knight, Chelsea’s post also interrogates how domestic settings and natural spaces are reconfigured across media and across time.

Headless Knights, Saints, and Ghosts

Near the end of the recently released film The Green Knight, Gawain and his host sit before a roaring hearth. Gawain’s difficult journey through the wilderness has exposed him to everyday travel hazards such as thieves, poisonous mushrooms, and bad weather, and to a slew of decidedly more wondrous encounters, including towering giants and the ghost of St. Winifred, who asks Gawain to retrieve her severed head from the bottom of a spring. The shelter of his host’s richly appointed castle should provide a much-needed respite. The Lord says as much, informing Gawain that while the outside world is “fit for all manner of mysteries,” a man’s house “should be safe from all that. One wall joined with another, line and plumb. Good, strong walls, and a fire within.”

The Lord’s home, of course, is hardly free of mystery; he admits to his guest that it is “full of strange things.” His enigmatic wife seduces Gawain, offers him an enchanted girdle identical to one he lost earlier in his quest, and demonstrates her pioneering use of an anachronistic camera obscura. The Lady’s elderly blindfolded companion remains unnervingly silent for most of Gawain’s visit. And although the film doesn’t reveal the Lord’s true identity, viewers familiar with the original Middle English poem are aware that Gawain’s host is in fact the Green Knight himself—neatly recovered from his own decapitation earlier in the poem—a fact that renders the Lord’s idealization of a castle “safe” from mysteries particularly ironic. This emphasis on the castle’s strangeness is not restricted to the film’s narrative. It extends to the slight surreality that pervades the physical space of the property, a subtler variation of the fantastic and at times nearly psychedelic framing and coloring of Gawain’s journey through the wild. The castle (the late eighteenth century Charleville Castle) that provided the filming location for the Lord’s residence was chosen because of what production designer Jade Healy has called its “unsettling quality,” one that enabled filmmakers to “create something that felt almost like an illusion, a dream.”[1] You can read more about the sets used in the film here.

Uncanny Domestic Spaces

The capacity of the domestic space to become strange and illusory was not only acknowledged but exploited by late medieval families, particularly those with the inclination and wealth to emulate the mechanical and culinary marvels exhibited by more noble courtly estates. Household manuscripts often include recipes that promise to transform the experience of the home by, for example, appearing to fill it with bats, birds, hares, seawater, silver, snakes, stars, or the corpses of hanged thieves. Other recipes claim to alter the appearance of the house’s occupants, making a person seem to burn, to be dead, to possess the head of an animal, or, like the film’s titular Knight and its ghostly St. Winifred, to possess no head at all. These texts rarely promise to physically manifest the objects or effects they conjure. Instead their impact is predicated on the believability of their illusion—that the house or its occupants will appear transformed, however insubstantial and temporary that transformation may be. This reminder of the marvel’s illusory nature allowed users to avoid accusations of collusion with demonic entities because, as many philosophers and scholars argued, these recipes make use of perfectly natural properties to produce results that only seem magical. As William of Auvergne reasoned in his De universo, a magic lamp that uses the semen of a donkey to make a man appear to have a donkey’s head draws on the ingredient’s generative and reproductive power.

In many ways, these marvels make use of the home’s affective ambience as a space that often—though not always, as Gawain discovers—facilitates comfort and sanctuary. The sudden appearance of wild birds within the familiar house is more marvelous than their appearance in the forest; so too might the transformation of a still-recognizable friend into a headless trunk feel more extraordinary than a similar encounter with a stranger.

A recipe ‘To make sterrys to seme lyinge on the grounde’ © British Library Board. British Library, MS Sloane 1315, f. 90v



Familiar Materials and Bounded Spaces

Even as they promised to transform it temporarily from something familiar into a space of wonder, these recipes and myriad others also relied on the home’s more tangible material elements. Its walls, doorways, and enclosed rooms provided spatial boundaries and sometimes served as the physical media from which marvels emerged, as in recipes that call for ingredients to be cast into the hearth fire or painted upon the wall. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert have pointed out, “the house is composed of domesticated earth, fire, air, water: house-breaking yet housebroken; companions, for a while, and the very substance of shelter.”[2] In addition to its material, the layout of the late medieval estate hall was itself instrumental in the presentation of these wonders; attention was often oriented towards the hearth and dining dais, which served as a stage upon which the household and its guests could perform the ritualized actions of hospitality, dining, and entertainment.[3]

Fittingly, it is in the hall where the Lord’s wife delivers her monologue about the natural world’s resilience in The Green Knight. Green, she warns Gawain, “comes back.” In fact, the natural world’s unending ebb and flow—echoed in the cyclical narrative and formal rhythms of the film and poem alike—means that no matter how hard civilization tries to regulate, constrain, or excise it, it will return, at the end as in the beginning, in the home as in the wild. It is never truly gone. The relationship between mankind and the environment is less a conflict than a waiting game. In light of the Lady’s speech, Arthur’s earlier words to Gawain—“Remember, it is only a game”—transform from not-so-comforting avuncular advice to a perceptive description of the true nature of the relationship between Gawain and the Green Knight.

***

It is certainly possible, then, to understand the household performance of marvels as a kind of domestication (and, in some ways, commodification) of the wondrous, a practice that saps it of any true sense of awe, terror, joy, or mirth in exchange for its use as social capital. But I think when we consider The Green Knight’s unsubtle messages about ecological endurance another perspective becomes visible, one in which a domestic setting did not lessen an audience’s sense of wonder but in fact heightened it. The revelation of the strange within the familiar might, in other words, amplify its capacity to provoke amazement by suggesting that far from being safely relegated to the wilderness, the marvelous persisted everywhere.


About the Author:

Chelsea Silva is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Oklahoma State University. Her work centers on the intersection of medical care and literature in late medieval England, focusing particularly on the way experiences of healthcare shaped authorial identity and, conversely, how medical practitioners made use of literary forms and sensibilities in their writing. Her work with household remedy collections led to an interest in the wonder recipes that are often scattered among more mundane recipes.


Further Reading:

• For more on the medieval experience of wonder, see Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity (New York: Zone Books, 2001).
• Laura Theresa Mitchell’s ‘Cultural Uses of Magic in Fifteenth-Century England’ (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2011) discusses many of the household wonder recipes named here; Scott Lightsey’s “Chaucer’s Secular Marvels and the Medieval Economy of Wonder” (Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001), pp. 289-316) discusses the commodification and circulation of natural and mechanical marvels from romance literature to courtly estates.

References:

1.Daniels, Robert. “Castles, Chapels, and Camelot: The Story Behind The Green Knight’s Incredible Look.” Rotten Tomatoes, 3 Aug. 2021, https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/castles-chapels-and-camelot-the-story-behind-the-green-knights-incredible-look/

2. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome and Lowell Duckert. “Introduction: Eleven Principles of the Elements” in Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (Minneapolis: University of Michigan Press, 2015).

3. Grenville, Jane. Medieval Housing (London: Leicester University Press, 1997).