Sheesh...I never did hear back from the New Yorker (!), or any other place I wrote to, but I happen to think this is a fine piece of nonsense / satire, so I am including it in full this time. Click to read the whole thing...
Close to the completion of my journal article on William of Pantatrydd and Radulph the Armless, I ran into a snag! The editor wanted a third case study.
Now, William and Radulph were no ordinary monks. These were fellows who had bled to death after cutting off their own arms at the elbow, to avoid showing evidence of their stigmata. It wasn’t a common thing to do, at all. Only the two of them had ever done it, and one was the inspiration for the other. But he wasn’t having that, my editor.
“Two just won’t do, you see,” said he. “You need three case studies.”
“Why three?” said I. “I can’t just invent someone. There were only two of them.”
“You just need three. Three is a nice round number.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is," he insisted. "If you have three studies, it suggests that there were four or more, but you are only sampling three of them. Three suggests that this ‘arm-cutting-off’ thing was exemplary of a trend, representative of a meme, part of the normal course of thirteenth-century life. Otherwise, your paper is only about these two strange monks who cut their arms off, and people might think that wasn’t very relevant. I’m sorry, but there we are.” He crossed his arms. I notice he had mustard on the sleeve of his cardigan.
“But there weren't four or more!” said I. “There were only two. And it was not representative of the norm! It was unique, an aberration, yet still the visible tip of a more general upswell of Franciscan piety. That is still relevant!”
He paused. “Well, all right then, you need an example of something else.”
“Well, a different sort of person," he replied. "As a counterbalance.”
“You mean somebody who didn’t cut off their arms? But that could be anybody. I still don’t understand why I need three examples. Why is that better than two?”
“Listen, if you really can’t find a third example, you at least need something to locate your paper, historically. Something to show how these two men differed from the mainstream, you see.”
“So, if I write a paragraph explaining that people in the thirteenth century didn’t normally cut their arms off, that will make my paper more relevant?”
“Well, no. That would be ridiculous. You’ll need to do better than that.”
Reader, I was in a pickle. I needed another publication, and there were only three journals of sufficient calibre to count in my application for the fellowship: I’d already been rejected by Imago Verbo and I knew the chance of getting into Medii Aevi were slim to none. If Vita Quotidiana knocked me back, it was goodbye to my dream of three years at the Walberg, sipping beer on the banks of the Tint.
I considered my options on the way back from the meeting. Firstly – and this was very tempting – I could just invent someone, despite my protestations otherwise. Names for a third armless monk came readily to mind: Gerald the Bloody was the most appealing, but Gerald of Yarmouth was the more auspicious on account of being the sort of name a thirteenth-century monk might actually have. A whole series of questions soon sprang up about this Gerald. Was he born near Yarmouth, or had he come from somewhere else? What was his relationship with the two monks from North Wales? Had he cut off his arms after they did, or was he, in fact, the initiator of the trend? What did he look like? Was he tall? And so on.
The problem was not that the editor would spot the fictional insertion. He’d never have known, if I hadn’t just gone and told him that there were only two. I cursed my garrulous tongue. If I suddenly turned up with a third armless monk now, he might wonder if I’d done my research properly in the first place. If it had only taken me a few more days to turn up with another armless monk, then there really might be four or more! My proposed article, so needed by the application date, could became a monograph, years in the writing, on armless (and possibly legless) monks, throughout England and beyond.
At the other end of the scale there was a tactical assuagement, a courteous nod to the ‘ordinary life’ that the journal’s editor so dearly wished the article was about. I could write a footnote, explaining that if the reader were interested in orthodox thirteenth-century monasticism, then, he or she could read a book about it. In the footnote, I would list three such volumes to show that I had in fact read four or more. Not one of these, the reader could be assured, made any mention of spiritual self-amputation, except for the case of William the Armless, which was rather well known.
But that course of action seemed coy, almost cagey. The editor would see through it, wouldn’t he? I could just hear him, demanding a redraft, still insisting on his third example, a final chapter in a story that only had two. What to do?
Like so many ideas, it came to me in a dream, as far as I can remember. I could not invent another true candidate, but perhaps, suspicion might not be aroused by the story of a monk who had nearly cut his arms off, but then, had a last-minute change of heart? Yes, why not.
And so was born ‘“Bloody” Gerald of Yarmouth’, (b. circa 1240, d. 1272.)
I make no apologies for my minor pollution of the historical record with Bloody Gerald, who in many ways has as much claim to veracity as a host of other figures from the period, about whom we know even less. Indeed, I’d argue his existence adds considerable knowledge to our understanding of the thirteenth-century context. Who could not be enlightened, or even edified, to read of his lengthy fasting, his vision of St Francis, his even more lengthy fasting, and his untimely discovery by the Prior in the act of trying to saw off his right arm, with a bucksaw?
Demonic possession was to put to blame. Gerald, who made a full recovery and recanted of his deed, lived a decade longer, before ultimately succumbing to septicemia. Originally, I had him die of injuries from the attempt, but I thought that might be too close to the bone.
The editor liked the new version of the paper and wrote “v. good” in neat red ink. It was published, and by the time polite requests from British academics to verify Gerald’s sources began to trickle in, I was well into the fellowship. And that was very relevant to me.