Abstracts for 2023 MLA Session on Medieval Rebellion and Modern Insurrectionism

Katharine Jager (The University of Houston-Downtown), “Conspirituality, ‘Trewthe,’ and Lyric Sampling: The Prayers of the QShaman and the Rebel Letters of 1381”

Charlotte Ward defines “conspirituality” as a political idea organized around the twin beliefs that that the world is controlled by a secret cabal and that humankind is spiritually re-awakening (Meltzer). Beloved today by QAnon and yoga enthusiasts alike, conspirituality is often constituted by references to prior moral panics, gnomic poetry, and a populist obsession with “truth.” This paper argues that the free verse chants of the be-horned and shirtless “QShaman” of the Capitol insurrection, and the texts associated with the Peasants Rebellion of 1381 might be understood as conspiritualist poetry. While Steven Justice and Susan Crane have persuasively posited that the texts of 1381 cannot be disentangled from the historiography in which they are embedded, I argue that these “letters” taken from the clothes of condemned rebels must be understood as lyric, a genre built on derivation, sampling, and discursive referentiality (Jager, Butterfield, Green.) I closely read the QShaman’s vocal prayer performed from the dais of the Capitol Chambers, and its use of New Age and QAnon references, alongside the “Jakke Trewman” letter from the Chronicon Henrici Knighton (BL Cotton Tiberious C.VII fols. 174r-174v.) and its use of seemingly unoriginal textual derivations, to argue that each should be categorized as conspiritualist expressions of lyric performativity. Expressing the highly organized and violently chaotic desires of an insurrectionist political movement, these lyrics foment murderous, masculine retribution for economic grievance and (perceived and real) child sex abuse. In their public performance of conspiritualist “truth,” Chansley and Trewman’s lyrics offer a popular, oral alternative to the treason of an elite literati, and are at once liberatory, progressive, xenophobic, and destructive (Megna, Dumitrescu).

Spencer Strub (Princeton University), “Illegitimate Forms: Rumor, Conventicle, Riot”

The past decade has seen an ongoing struggle over the lexis of political action. Protests in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore in 2015, Standing Rock in 2016, Anaheim in 2017, and nationwide in 2020 have been valorized as uprisings, spontaneous but rational popular struggles against authoritarianism and existential threats, and stigmatized as riots, a racialized term used to signify irrational, self-destructive violence. Trump rallies, anti-lockdown protests, and especially the events of January 6 are subject to similar terminological flux: the last was advertised as a rally, described in retrospect as an insurrection, investigated by Congress as an attack, and denounced as riot, coup attempt, or terrorist act. (Far-right congresspeople have since renamed it a “fedsurrection.”) To be clear, these acts of naming should not be seen as equivalent in accuracy or ethical force. But they reveal political forms, capable of granting or denying legitimacy to speech and action, shared across our otherwise hopelessly polarized public discourse. Such legitimacy has the power of life or death: the protestor is notionally protected, but the rioter is open to violent “self-defense”; the activist is laudable, the terrorist prosecutable or worse.

Fourteenth-century England had a parallel array of legitimate and illegitimate forms of association and action. This paper will focus on three key examples, repeatedly invoked between the Great Rumor of 1376 and Oldcastle’s Rebellion in 1415: rumor, conventicle, and riot. They label, respectively, an improper speech act sometimes taken as sedition; a clandestine organization; and gatherings characterized by violence and disobedience. New Historicist scholarship often treated these concepts simply as paranoid projections of power. But the experience of the past decade invites a reconsideration: like “riot,” “terrorism,” and “protest,” these are discursive forms common across the sociopolitical spectrum, the contents of which were open for contestation. Drawing on statutes, chronicles, guild returns, and poetic satires, this paper will offer an account of late-medieval English social unrest that foregrounds such contesting claims to legitimacy. Episcopal courts stamped out heretical conventicles while Wycliffite polemic decried the conventicles of the mainstream church; rioters could be protesting laborers or celebrating magnates. Moreover, each of these forms haunts its legitimate double: rumor shadows clamor; conventicle, guild and fraternity; riot, assembly. Subtending these pairs are further oppositions—secrecy versus publicity, disorder versus order, illicit personal violence versus licit state violence—that point to the core values of late-medieval English politics in theory and in action. Excavating these assumed values provides a vantage point from which to examine the assumptions of North American liberalism in its ongoing crisis.

Respondent: Randy Schiff (SUNY Buffalo)

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