The Body as Text

While I was inching up his hip bone, a white shadow in the shape of a triangle caught my attention. It was deep under the surface of his smooth, perfect skin. Frowning, I looked across the expanse of his chest. There were more odd marks, some shaped like snowflakes, others in crisscrossing lines. None of them were on the skin, though. They were all deep within him.

Like Ashmole 782, Matthew’s body was a palimpsest, its bright surface obscuring the tale of him hinted at by all those scars. I shivered at the thought of the battles Matthew had already fought, in wars declared and undeclared.

A Discovery of Witches, chapter 28.

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Throughout the show we have seen the connections between skin, body, characters, creatures, and art in different ways, starting with Ashmole 782 marking Diana in the first episode. Episode five follows a similar trajectory in bringing these connections to the surface in the service of the narrative. Two key moments highlight this concern in particular: the infamous bundling scene and Ysabeau telling Diana about Blanca and Lucas in Matthew’s church. But first, I want to talk about the hunting scenes. [Oh, and spoilers follow for non-book readers or those who have not gotten to Shadow of Night and The Book of Life. Is anyone reading these even avoiding the spoiler-y parts???]

As several people have noted, the parallel of Ysabeau hunting a fox with Matthew hunting Gillian is simply stunning. In that parallel, we are told, without it being explicit, that vampires hunt for different reasons. Ysabeau is not just hunting for sustenance, but to force Diana to recognise the fact Matthew must kill to survive. Being a vampire, she implies, is not always pretty; it can be a literal bloody mess. Matthew, though, is hunting for information. Blood lore, readers will know, can be misleading. But here, Matthew gets the information he needs: that it was Gillian who broke into his lab. As Baldwin later comments, Gillian was hunted and attacked because she violated vampire privacy, not because Matthew has lost his marbles (well, everyone can argue that point later…). She was in the wrong. She was punished. Importantly, Gillian is killed in the books: not allowed to live and return to the witches. And it is Knox who finds her – his pawn becomes a warning. Now, I’m hoping she’s kept alive for a reason (and maybe that she just generally dies, too, because it’s in the book that way…) and it’ll make perfect sense when we get there.

The scene is hard to watch: there is an element of sexualisation in the attack. (TW for sexual assault in this, so please read with caution, especially the next paragraph. It goes back to other ideas and topics below the next picture. And know you’re believed.) This sexualisation is also evident, especially, with mates taking blood from the heart vein. (Book spoilers follow…) This is described as ‘the ancient way for a vampire to know his mate, the sacred moment of communion when thoughts and emotions were exchanged honestly and without judgment’ (The Book of Life, Chapter two). The neck bite, however, we see elsewhere in the narrative with regards to Jack and Baldwin in The Book of Life Chapter 21. There, Baldwin, in an attempt to show his dominance and learn something about Jack, viciously bites Jack in the neck before Diana is able to use her powers to protect (and punish) Baldwin. It is not described as sexualised, but about dominance and submission (which, of course, can be interpreted sexually) between a sire and members of a vampire clans. As Miriam comments ‘Every vampire alive has been bitten by their sire at least once.’

So, where does this put Matthew’s attack on Gillian? It’s cross-creature, for one, which seems to be unusual – though Baldwin certainly plays this down and implies it is expected, regardless of the creature type of the person who violates vampire space. It’s not a bite of a mate meant to show a sacred communion. It’s not the bite of a sire. Though, like Baldwin’s bite/attack on Jack, it does show dominance over, and the desire to get information from, Gillian. And it also threatens life: she is barely left alive, Matthew is then ordered to kill Jack. The neck bite, then, is certainly connected to the submission of the creature bitten in ways that taking blood from the heart vein is not, even if both represent a knowledge exchange. (One, moreover, is given; the other taken.) While the sharing of blood with a mate may be intrinsically sexualised as part of a bodily communion, the neck bite is not inherently sexual.

However, the way Matthew holds Gillian across him and how Gillian holds onto him, is sexualised. (And reminiscent of Matthew’s body across Diana’s in the bundling scene.) Is this necessary? I’m not honestly sure; nor am I sure that this scene could be shot without an element of sexualisation. But it certainly communicates exactly how much power Matthew has over Gillian. She is vulnerable in many ways. We’ve already seen her naivety and vulnerability with Peter Knox. We see her physical vulnerability here. She is reduced to an object that can be victimised, for an apparently understandable reason. Though this is surely Baldwin’s line to deflect more Congregation fury from his family because of Matthew’s actions; and, by having Baldwin dismiss the attack, it effectively excuses Matthew’s actions in the context of the narrative. The scene shows a dark side to Matthew that viewers are confronted with in more detail than in the books, where he simply kills her and leaves her at Knox’s doorstep. The reader can ignore it. Here, the reader is forced to watch; viewers, like Diana, will either have to excuse the action with the reasoning presented in the show, or accept and excuse it in their own rationalisation of Matthew’s other, often heroic, actions. (Though, I gotta admit I liked the touch of Gillian crawling and collapsing on Sylvia’s doorstep as a reference to the book imagery.) The scene also reduces Gillian’s agency further while supporting Matthew’s attack. Rather than shots of Gillian’s body as a whole, it is reduced to pieces – her feet dangling and kicking. She is ineffectual. Matthew is not moved: he is singularly focused. As with Ysabeau and the fox, vampires use creatures for their own needs. And, as we will see with Gerbert and Meridiana, that includes employing blood and taking blood for strategic attacks. Oh, and Gillian’s body also becomes a passive text to be read. Passive as Matthew takes knowledge from her, unlike Ashmole 782 which is active as it marks Diana (and will eventually give her all of its knowledge).

Sort of related side note: I love Diana’s later line when Ysabeau takes her to the church. Fully aware after seeing Ysabeau hunt and Matthew’s response to her asking what she would taste like, Diana embraces the idea that her blood can nourish him. Not only is Diana unimpressed by Ysabeau’s display during the hunting scene, she explicitly aligns herself with Ysabeau in a willingness to sacrifice for Matthew. ‘If I could use my blood to save him, I would.’ Umm, SPOILER… She does… (Can I just say how excited I am for that scene?)

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Right, that church scene. First off, there is no way that church is based on Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Deb’s inspiration for Saint Lucien’s. Sant’Apollinare is a sixth-century (like Matthew) building that, while in Italy, shows larger contemporary trends in Early Christian architecture – trends that are picked up in France. I’ve done a quick overview of Sant’Apollinare here, so I won’t go into much detail here about the church and its portrayal in the books. But, the key points are these: Matthew died building it; it’s completed in the mid-530s; it has a decorated apse, nave, and aisles. The church (Oratorio della Santissima Trinità in Arquà Petrarca – yes, Petrarch reportedly often prayed at the church) in the show, however, is first mentioned in the record in the late twelfth century, and was expanded later, with the apse added in 1400. In other words, the Oratorio is much later. Now, sure, Matthew’s church could have been expanded and renovated over the 1500 years since its creation, but we are never really told that (and the history of Sant’Apollinare and others shows us that some churches did not get sweeping renovations). Ysabeau speaks as if *this* is the church that Matthew built. Well, cool, but no way Human Matthew built a twelfth to fifteenth century building.

Saint’Apollinare in Classe; (c) Hari Seldon; https://www.flickr.com/photos/hariseldon/)

So, what’s the big deal? This is not the first change the show makes, and it’s likely one of the least important in terms of the narrative. As I’ve said elsewhere, the show’s ability to capture historical detail reflects Deb’s writing so well. Except every so often. And I am not here to take the production to task, but simply acknowledge the change (and maybe my disappointment in the jarring historical discontinuity here). Early medieval art and architecture is important for the development of the later trends in terms of both symbolism and technological advancements, and it sometimes, as it does here, gets written out, or, worse, labelled part of the “Dark Ages” (I won’t go into this rant just now).

The other change is the grave slab that commemorates Blanca and Lucas, (seemingly) marking the spot where they are buried within the church. In Shadow of Night, Diana finds Matthew mourning in Saint Lucien’s on Lucas’s birthday. Matthew points out where they were buried and Diana relates that ‘No inscription on the stone marked what rested underneath. Instead there were smooth hollows, the kind made by the steady passage of feet on stair treads. Matthew’s fingers reached out, fit the grooves perfectly, stilled, withdrew’ (Chapter 10). In the books, it is Matthew’s personal desire to keep his human family’s memory alive that makes a mark on the interior of the church. Ysabeau’s earlier introduction of the story is not grounded in an object beyond that of the church itself. Moreover, the story she relates is not so much about Blanca and Lucas as about Matthew: his human life, his past, his inner struggles. It’s also about testing Diana: she does not Matthew completely and to do so will uncover his past loves (and wrongs).

In the show, it is quite different: there is an inscription (la paix, la paix parfait) above the names of Blanca and Lucas. All of the writing is below a rather fancily conceived cross. By grounding the scene with a particular object, the show not only gives viewers something to focus on as Ysabeau tells her (Matthew’s) tale to Diana, but also changes the focus of the memory encapsulated. An unmarked grave is different to a marked one in many ways, including how a community can react to it. By identifying it as a memorial/grave marker and placing it in a central place, it is highlighted in the institutional memory of the church and its worshippers. It places the memory beyond Matthew, giving it to a larger community. Plus, art historically, there is a lot to critique here. That slab is by no means Merovingian or early medieval.

You *may* find stylised crosses and cruciform shapes on graves in this period. You may find names and inscriptions. The font here is not quite right. I think they are trying to imitate an Merovingian or Insular script – based on the L, especially; if this is the case, making the letters an equal height would’ve gone a long way to giving it a more authentic early medieval look. The a looks modern, but could be derived from Insular uncial and half-uncial scripts. Have a look at the Lindisfarne Gospels, for instance. Another parallel is the Gelasian Sacramentary, the second oldest extant Western liturgical manuscript. (Also, if you ever just want to scroll through digitised manuscripts of any given date or subject, have a look at the digitised collections of the Vatican or the British Library.) The cross, which is more reminiscent of nineteenth and twentieth century crosses (though, if I squint my eyes, I can kinda see how it was maybe quite possibly kind of influenced by a cross in the Gelasian Sacramentary) is more jarring. I commented to a friend, Dr Tasha Gefreh (who specialises in Insular High Crosses), when I was discussing this that it looked a bit like one I’d have expected my grandmother to own, not one I’d see on a grave from the sixth century, or the Middle Ages more generally. (I mean, I don’t think my gran was a vampire or time walker…)

I have tried to rationalise the reasoning behind the changes and design elements. And I keep getting stuck with the idea that it’s meant to be a timeless design: a font that is vaguely early medieval but also modern with a cross that references Christianity to anyone with any familiarity with Christian symbolism. It isn’t Insular, or Merovingian/French. The paix, or peace, the stone tells the viewer Blanca and Lucas have is forever, without an origin that is grounded in time or place. But this feels like a cop-out and over-rationalisation. This stone is important, and thus we want to give it as much meaning as we can construe. If it were recognisably Early Christian, I would argue its age also sanctifies the space since old graves and inscriptions were often considered as a type of relic that showed the ongoing importance of the building and those who constructed and commissioned it. But it is not, so it is difficult to assign such a meaning. It’s an object – a prop – that defies our expectations and desires. It is resolutely out with the art historical understandings of similar objects because of the hodgepodge of influences evident, highlighting its fictional nature for us as viewers, and its importance to a timeless, 1500 year old vampire within the narrative itself.

Plus, inscriptions are important: they say a lot about not just who they commemorate, but who commissioned them. Combined with the placement in the church, a person in the Middle Ages (at any point, even) would have queried who Blanca and Lucas were. They are at the centre of the nave just outside of the choir/apse, which is the holiest part of a church. Often, saints and rulers are in the choir, apse, and ambulatory areas – their sanctity and importance are marked by the positioning of their body. And if they became a saint, their holiness worked to glorify the space while the space glorified their holiness. This could carry through to the nave via burials, too, with high status persons fighting for the territory nearest the east end (usually the apse end in a church) to be closer to the holiest parts of the church (and often its saints) to guarantee their own resurrection and ascendency to Heaven. The dead, then, are firmly enshrined as important to the church, and, in the case of Matthew, to the church’s creator(s). But we don’t have a ruler or saint, we have Matthew’s human family written into the church’s decor, like other grave stones. Given the fact that this church appears devoid of other similarly placed stones, it further highlights their importance. To summarise: Lucas and Blanca are placed within the church, centrally, in a place of honour that seems to be reserved just for them, and not other later individuals. And this place is marked within the church by a (kinda bizarre) grave slab.

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The more important change here, though, is where within the church Matthew reportedly fell. In the book, Ysabeau tells Diana that ‘At the beginning of the second week in June, he was found on the floor beneath its vaulted ceiling, his legs and back broken’ (Chapter 23). As they walk out of the church, in the show, Ysabeau looks to the tower, telling Diana this is where he fell (slipped or jumped, no one is sure – either in show or book at this point). The camera then zooms up, to look down at Diana and Ysabeau as Ysabeau tells her ‘his body lay here on the ground.’ A few seconds earlier Ysabeau had noted that she ‘sired Matthew in the church.’ In the books, we are told that the other craftsmen ‘thought Matthew had jumped and were already talking about how he could not be buried in the church because he was a suicide.’ At this moment, in the minds of the local populace at least, Matthew has been cast out of the Church. His biggest fear comes true: he cannot be with Blanca and Lucas in death. In the show, this is literal: he is cast off/out of the church.

Matthew dies/jumps outside of the church and is brought into it for the sacrament-like siring. He has to accept Ysabeau’s blood to be reborn. That this takes place within the church creates an interesting parallel between vampire sacrament of siring and the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism within the church. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the person metaphorically died and was reborn into the community of Christian faithful during the process of baptism, which was a ceremony considerably longer and more complicated than the modern equivalent. At the Eucharist, Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood is commemorated. In the Catholic Church today – and throughout the Middle Ages – transubstantiation occurred at the Eucharist, with the Eucharistic bread and wine believed to be transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. (Protestants adhere to consubstantiation – the belief that the bread and wine/juice is representative of the body and blood, rather than the actual body and blood.) Matthew dies and, with Ysabeau’s blood, is reborn. Blood in both the Eucharist and vampire siring is key. To give blood is a sacrifice; to receive it, a gift. While this parallel is evident in the books, it is heightened by placing the moment of rebirth, of Ysabeau siring Matthew, in the church itself.

Blanca and Lucas may not have died in the church, but in death, they are placed firmly within it. Matthew, by comparison, dies and is reborn in the church. But only after he is cast out of it. In Shadow of Night, we learn that Matthew, knowing that is where his family was buried, and sensing they were trapped, desired to jump onto the stone and free them, thereby condemning himself to hell for suicide. Returning to the show, as noted, Blanca and Lucas are commemorated within, and thus recognised as important. That Matthew falls/jumps/dies outside separates him from the burial-place of Blanca and Lucas, which is not the case in the book. He jumps because he can “see” them. In the book, their anonymous burial (more in line with expectations of the period – it is a fairly safe bet that any stone in a medieval church or cathedral is concealing some burial, especially that close to the apse) is meaningful only to Matthew and his immediate family. In the show, the placement makes them important to a wider audience and community while separating them from Matthew at the moment he jumps/falls. Bodies are marked by – and reduced to – text.

Which brings us to Matthew’s body as text later in the show. The quote that started this entry directly parallels Matthew to Ashmole 782 as they are both palimpsests – texts overwritten by other texts. In the case of Matthew, his body is a palimpsest of historical moments and fights. Scars from the Hundred Years’ Wars, unnamed wars, and vampire life overwrite one other. The fact Diana describes them as within Matthew’s body rather than part of his skin is interesting when we consider what all Ashmole 782 contains – yes, it is written on skin, but as an object, it contains power and memory (as we will learn).

The body and the book have long been equated. A series of photographs by the artist Arthur Tress (American, b. 1940) shows that this tradition continues. (Thanks to Jonah for sending me the first image in our conversations about this episode!!) A naked man becomes a book stand for a large open volume that reminds of a rather large manuscript. In the image, book and man are united through their positioning. The man/book stand, however, is less important – or seemingly so – than the book which draws the eye of the dealer; however, it is the nude form that is foregrounded in this image. It is across the centre of the image and draws our eye as a comparatively blank swath in the composition. In another image from the sequence, the man’s flaccid penis is evident as the man/book stand clutches the book to his chest while the so-called book dealer reads the evidently blank book and seemingly checks the man/book stand’s pulse. His other hand reaches under the man/book stand’s leg to grasp the edge of the book. While he considers the man’s health, the dealer is predominantly concerned with the book itself. Yet, the fact the figure is nude (minus shoes/socks and a hat) implies a connection between virility and fertility of the man and book (knowledge). Moreover, time is stopped in these images. How, then, does time freeze for the man/book stand who has changed positions, indicating the passing of time in the sequence? Man and book are conflated in these two images in two ways: both draw the gaze (one of the viewer, one of the other figure within the composition) and both are “blank,” and thus invite the viewer to consider just what is written on or about them. One cannot consider the book or the man/book stand without looking to how it is connected to the other, and to the gaze of the book dealer. When time is introduced into the equation, it seems to imply a timelessness of the body and book, even as they move.

I bring this in for a few reasons. Firstly, because as we read the body in the photograph, looking for meaning in it, Diana considers Matthew’s body. Like Ashmole 782, she reads it as a creature palimpsest. Secondly, because the meaning for both man/book stand, Ashmole 782, and Matthew is contingent on time. As time passes, these texts change and yet are timeless. Ashmole 782 is literally timeless – we’re never quite sure of when it was created; the imagery might suggest post-14/15th century, but the creation of an object with the knowledge of past, present, and future suggests much older, but also timeless. The man/book stand moves and is changed but time, apparently, does not follow. Both images – and their constructions – bring in the issue of virility and visibility of the male figure as an object of pleasure and knowledge. While not sexualised as overtly as in other images and shows, the male figure (and it does not matter the gender of the viewer to grasp this) encourages looking and reading, and, because of this, can reveal knowledge. (Spoiler: this will become true of Diana’s body, too.)

In general as palimpsests Matthew and Ashmole 782 tell a story if one knows how to read it. As with medieval art (and thinking in particular of the swirling designs of Insular art), you have to know how to read correctly to glean the information described. The light has to be right to see the palimpsest. The body has to want to give its text – or be made to do so. And what this text tells you can reveal history.

And in other ways of reading the body, we have a head that speaks. In a few instances now, we have seen Gerbert with a speaking head. In The Book of Life, Diana describes what she knows about Gerbert: ‘It was hard to pin much on him directly, but the circumstantial evidence was clear: Gerbert of Aurillac had known for some time about the special abilities of weavers. He’d even held one in thrall: the witch Meridiana, who had cursed him as she died’ (Chapter 40). Gerbert himself admits as much in A Discovery of Witches where he tells Diana that ‘She didn’t want to help me unlock the manuscript’s secrets, of course. But my blood kept her in thrall…Each time I drank from her, small insights into her magic and fragments of her knowledge passed to me. They were frustratingly fleeting, though. I had to keep going back for more. She became weak, and easy to control’ (Chapter 29 – hopefully we see some of this scene in the next episode!). Based on what we know from Shadow of Night as well, the prophecy, as told in the show, tells of a witch, who carries the blood of a lion and a witch, who will destroy the vampires. Matthew, when Diana tries to persuade him the prophecy represents her, responds that it was something Meridiana dreamed up to scare Gerbert (Chapter 35). Gerbert aka Gerbert of Aurillac was Pope (Sylvester II) from 999 to his death in 1002 (or “death” in the All Souls world) and reportedly had a brazen head that answered his questions, and foretold his death.

In the show, Meridiana has been seemingly merged with the brazen head. Notably, each time Gerbert takes the head/Meridiana from its cabinet, he blesses it: a nice reference to his role as pope. Its text is oral: it speaks it, rather than writing it. (It is just a head, after all.) This captures Meridiana’s magic; that Gerbert also gives her blood in this episode to entice her to speak also references the fact he kept (keeps) her in thrall. This is a magical object/head that encodes a text that seemingly (definitely) has meaning for the overarching narrative, just like Matthew’s body and Ashmole 782.

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