Delicious Rottenness: Women, Sex, and Apples


I promised Jenni Nuttall I’d write this post some time ago, when I first mentioned I was going to be teaching Chaucer’s apocrypha, including the rather nice poem titled ‘O Mosy Quince‘, which begins like this:

O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake.
I am ryght sory, masteras, for your sake,
Ye seme a thyng that all men have forgotyn;
Ye be so rype ye wex almost rotyn.

Most people read this kind of poem as a parody of the traditional love lyric, in which the charms of a beautiful woman are praised. The editor of this particular poem compares it to Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 130, beginning ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. And I can see that here. The poet is joking around: he’s claiming the woman remains on the tree, unplucked (yes, we got the pun), because she is too forbidding for men to dare to pick. Yet, at the same time, they have almost forgotten her, and while she seems to scare men away, she is also an object of pity. As the poet goes on, he revels in his insults, calling this woman ‘bawsyn-buttockyd’ (badger-arsed) and ‘belyed lyke a tonne’ (bellied like a cask of beer). Yet, by the end of the poem, he grudgingly acknowledges his limited affections, in the space of a single stanza declaring and retracting and re-declaring his love. ‘My lovely lewde masterasse, take consideracion,/ I am so sorowfull there as ye be absent’ he admits, then qualifies ‘To love yow but a lytyll is myne entent’ before ending in seeming exasperation: ‘Of all wemen I love yow best. A thowsand tymes fy!’

I hadn’t been thinking about this recently, until I saw Jem Bloomfield’s post, on a more modern version of the same idea, which I think you’ll agree is rather lacking in the charm of the medieval poem.


The modern meme simply ‘comforts’ single women by comparing them to apples high on the tree, which are more appealing than the ‘easy’ pickings of rotten fruit lower down. As he points out, in the modern meme, it’s assumed that men will happily consume ‘rotten’ fruit despite its seemingly unpalatable condition. This is, actually, quite an odd image. But it wasn’t until someone queried this in the comments that I started to think about it again, and it helped me clarify what I think about the medieval poem, too.

As an image, the apple tree is groaning under the weight of accumulated connotations: aside from Eve’s sinful apple picking and its suggestive associations with (sexual) shame, there’s an tree in Piers Plowman, supported by staves to hold up its branches, whose fruits cry out almost in human voices when Piers tries to pick them, and which the devil tries to steal. It’s this scene that C.S. Lewis would plagiarise (delightfully) for The Magician’s Nephew. There are innumerable malus/malum (Latin for evil; Latin for apple) puns in medieval literature. Where does the rottenness come in?

The pseudo-Chaucerian poem pictures a woman as a quince – a fruit which doesn’t actually need to be rotten before it’s ripe, but which is certainly hard and inedible in its normal raw state. It is often thought to be the actual apple of the garden of Eden. It’s closely related to another fruit, the medlar, which genuinely does get eaten when it’s been ‘bletted’ or rotted. It looks like this:

In medieval England, the fruit has another, ruder name, which Chaucer (real Chaucer this time) does use: it’s known, for its distinctive shape, as an ‘open arse’. In the prologue to the Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer writes:

“This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is mowled also as myne heris —
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers.

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype…”

These lines constitute the Reeve’s angry retort to the Miller’s raunchy tale of Alisoun and Nicholas, the young lovers who trick both Alisoun’s elderly husband and her would-be lover Absolon. The Reeve, as a carpenter by profession like the cuckolded husband in the story, takes personal offence.As you may recall, in the Miller’s tale, the suitor Absolon is tricked, in the dark, into kissing Alison’s arse instead of her face as she presents it at her chamber window, and, returning in rage with a hot poker, he mistakenly jabs it in Nicholas’s rear end as that young man sticks his bum out of the window to fart. The central image the Reeve uses here belies his attempts to pretend to be aloof from the Miller’s crude sexual interests.

It’s presumably this line that the later pseudo-Chaucerian poet was thinking of, when he compared his mistress to a fruit ‘so rype’ it is ‘almost roten’. But, in her appearance, the woman of the Quince poem seems more similar to another of Chaucer’s pilgrims. As the poem goes on, we find the mistress is ‘belyed lyke a tonne'; Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath similarly has ‘hipes large’. Both have complexions that deviate from the typical ivory paleness of the beautiful medieval woman: the Wife of Bath’s face is ‘reed of hue’; the mistress cheeks are ‘lyke a melow costard’. Crucially, though, the Wife is quick to institute her own standards of female beauty. Instead of conforming to the medieval preference for pale-skinned, slender, blonde women, she asserts confidently: ‘I was gat-toothed, and that bicame me wel’ (‘that suited me well’).

I don’t want to suggest that there’s too much of a feminist nature going on here, but despite that, I find this statement – and the lady of the Quince poem – much more appealing as descriptions of women than the modern meme. Yes, all of these poems are male-voiced, describing women as objects, and even the outspoken Wife of Bath is only able to say what her creator, Chaucer, puts into her mouth. Yes, these writers are working in a tradition (both poetic, and social) in which women’s beauty is a commodity, in which female sexuality is a consumer good. But they’re nothing like as misogynistic as the modern meme, because – unlike the modern meme – they give the impression that the speakers do, in fact, like both women, and words.

The modern meme’s main nastiness, in my view, lies in the fact that – as Jem’s blog shows – we can’t imagine why men would want to eat the ‘rotten apples’, the ‘easy’ women. The image of sexy women as rotten fruit doesn’t quite fit in this puritanical, sin-of-Eve ideology. It’s been grafted in from the older tradition, but pruned of all its enjoyably deviant, sensual connotations. Instead, we’re left with the underlying message that men don’t really like the women very much at all.

I nicked my title from D. H. Lawrence, who revisits the pseudo-Chaucerian image, and makes it much more explicitly sexual (though less gendered) in ‘Medlars and Sorb Apples‘. I’ll leave you with some lines from that:

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins,
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
In the medlar, in the sorb-apple,
Wineskins of brown morbidity,
Autumnal excrementa;
What is it that reminds us of white gods?

Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.

A kiss, and a vivid spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying, frost-cold leaves.

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Too Much Passion: Women, the Crucifixion, and Displays of Emotion

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

I thought I’d start with this image – a triptych probably painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-fifteenth century – because I find it both compelling, and, frankly, creepy. The central panel is full of van der Weyden’s signature images of heightened emotion: bodies arching and sagging with loss, faces contorted. But at the right-hand side, a little further from the dying Christ, stand onlookers whose stance appears more matter-of-fact: gesturing to one another, they might be engaged in devout contemplation (as the clasped hands indicate), but they also look as if they’re in the middle of considering the practicalities of getting Christ’s body down with that ladder. Even more disorientingly, in the left-hand panel kneels the patron, gazing impassively at the scene before him, as if looking through a window in a sunlit colonnade. With neatly tucked-in legs and politely clasped fingers in his lap, he displays a disturbing lack of emotional response … which is surprisingly effective in prompting a stronger response from us viewers.

I’ve been thinking about the way emotion is displayed or hidden in medieval literature a lot recently, and so this image made me think of how we’re invited to relate to medieval portrayals of emotion, how they manipulate us to feel and think. The central focus of the triptych is not really Christ – who looks almost peaceful in death – but his mother, whose emotional outburst provokes a swirl of motion around her. In contrast, the male viewer – the figure who acts as a bridge between us, onlookers from outside the painting, and the main scene – reveals nothing of his inner response.

This quality of hidden or restrained emotion runs through a lot of medieval lyrics on the same topic. This morning, I balked at the queue winding out around the quad at King’s College (sorry!), and, so I hear, missed a lovely service. But, instead, I saw Dr Kate Ash sharing one of the Middle English Passion lyrics, and it worked its way into the lecture I’m currently writing. So, I thought I would include it here, too.

“Nou goth sonne under wod;
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre;
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.”

(Now the sun goes beneath the woods;
I pity, Mary, your beautiful face.
Now the sun goes beneath the trees;
I pity, Mary, your son and you.)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (The Queen Mary Psalter)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (detail). The Queen Mary Psalter.

This lyric always reminds me of John Donne’s ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ in its sense of the motion of the heavens and the emotions of the human heart. I first came across the Donne poem in Sinéad Garrigan-Mattar’s classes ten years ago, and I love it. The medieval lyric, however, is much shorter, and the plangent tension between the beautiful image of the setting sun and the shocking disruption of Christ’s death only gestures towards the internal conflict Donne explores more fully.

The lyric is perfectly balanced, almost tranquil, in its repetitive economy of words. Yet, beneath the surface, its language is pulled in opposite directions by a series of puns. I can’t capture the precise depth of connotations ‘reweth’ carries in Middle English: it denotes not just pity, but also regret and pain, almost an admission of human guilt, which lingers underneath a series of puns set up through the lyric. The ‘tre’ is the tree of the Cross on which Christ sinks into death, as well as the woodland behind which the sun sets. The ‘sonne’ that sinks beneath the horizon is both a natural phenomenon, a beautiful image, and a ‘son’ whose death causes the world to shake and which (so medieval legend had it) temporarily blotted out the sun. Even the word ‘rode’, which refers to Mary’s tearful face, can also mean ‘cross’.

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

The tensions of this lyric are focussed, not on Christ – who is all-but-absent from the poem, glancingly evoked in the sun/son play on words – but on his mother, Mary. And it’s her ‘faire rode’ that is the most disturbing image of the poem: are we to imagine her face as ‘beautiful’ in its sorrow? Is the cross itself – an instrument of torture – in any way beautiful? Incorporating these problems, the lyric draws attention to the startling disjunction between its own beautifully crafted form, and the appalling sorrow of its subject-matter.

Like the triptych, the lyric shocks us into feeling the emotion it displays, by making us consider the aestheticization of grief and pain. Yet, at the same time, both forms concentrate the sense of excess – the overwhelming grief of Mary in the triptych, the excessive layering of double meanings in the lyric – in the body and face of a female figure, subtly undermining that gendered performance of emotion.

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Beyond April Fools: Everyday ‘Feminism’ Again

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

A very quick post, because I can’t not. Today, as you will have noticed, is April Fools’ Day. It is also, much more pleasantly,  – the day when medievalists, including the fantastic and wonderful Chaucer Doth Tweet, take to twitter to share snippets of medieval languages and texts. It’s really fun. Yesterday, two friends of mine, Sjoerd Levelt and Kate Wiles, were on the radio talking about why it is that so many medievalists take to twitter. Their piece is here, and it’s from 33 minutes in, and you should listen. In it, amongst other things, Sjoerd very elegantly expanded on a point first made by Dorothy Kim, that twitter’s cheery little bird icon has a special connotation for medievalists. In a lot of medieval poetry – and especially Chaucer’s work – the trope of the bird who speaks with the voice of a human is politicized: it lets poets take on a new persona, familiar but also strange, human but also not. Speaking birds interrogate the margins of human speech, the margins of comprehensible language. As Sjoerd explained, twitter may be understood as a margin, a space for the unofficial commentaries and informal conversations, but it’s also a forum that has given a lot of young academics a voice.

It won’t surprise you to know that there’s a gender connection in all of this. Many (though not all) of the birds in medieval poetry are female, and some – like the hawk I posted about before – seem to slip between genders. This reflects medieval views quite aptly. Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, Other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.

So, what does all this medieval tweeting have to do with Everyday Feminism? Well, I’ll tell you. A friend of mine, Sophia Baggins, just pointed out this cartoon on their site. Cheerfully, the editors of the Everyday Feminism write:

“What do you think when someone says “I’m not a feminist?” They might not mean what you think. If you identify as a feminist, check out some of the reasons people don’t.

And if you don’t call yourself a feminist, see if you find some of your reasons here. The stories in this comic can help us all have more respect for the wide range of ways we stand up to oppression.”

The cartoons show a variety of women (and one man), mostly, by implication, constructed as members of marginalized groups within feminism. The first is a Black woman, another wears a headscarf, another proclaims herself as a transwoman, yet another locates herself within indigenous culture. There’s finally, for good measure, the scapegoat: the woman who refuses to recognize her privilege.

All stand underneath the same two captions. Firstly, there’s “what they say”, under which each cartoon character proclaims that feminism is not for her, does not fit her identity, and so on. Secondly, there’s “what they mean”, under which each character gives her reasons for struggling to identify with feminism, or rejecting it entirely.

Now, I can see what the cartoonist was trying to do here. There are many reasons women (and men) don’t feel like identifying as feminists. Some of these reasons tell us about the history of feminism’s problems; many others remind us of ourselves, at times when we didn’t realize feminism can have space for us too. And these are important concerns we all have, and they need consideration.

But what I had a problem with was summed up neatly by Sophia’s comment to me. The cartoonist, she noted, refers throughout to these women as “they”. Not, ‘we’. They. There’s a good reason why lists like this – ‘what Brits say versus what Brits mean’ and so on – tend to be humorous in intention. And that’s because they’re fucking patronizing taken literally. There is a very long history of society telling women “what they mean”. A long history of claiming that women’s statements and emotions cannot be respected at face value. This is women’s speech presented as the speech of the Other, the speech that needs interpreting. It’s womanspeech, birdspeech, the not quite human speech that must be translated by someone else. In six hundred years, it seems we haven’t moved on much.

I’d love to think this cartoon is an April Fool, an subtle joke about how far we’ve come. But, unfortunately, it’s not.

Update: I wish I’d managed to articulate before (though I hope the implication was clear) that this cartoon has quite unpleasantly racist connotations, and that transmen – a group of people who patently do experience misogyny (trauma doesn’t disappear because you are transitioning, and identifying as a man does not magically make everyone treat you as one) – are, apparently, our only male ‘allies’. As you will notice, the one group absolved of either the responsibility to identify as feminists or the need to have their words interpreted is … men.

I wrote this piece on the fly, but I did want to come back and say just how appalling that is.

I have now been told that the cartoonist prefers the pronoun them for themself, so it may have been that this usage was not intended to invoke the history of othering women, and was just an accident. This doesn’t surprise me – I think Everyday Feminism is fundamentally well-meaning – but is sad in a different way.

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More rhetorical violence, aka diet advice.

In my never-ending quest to become more smug than Owen Jones, I have discovered the epitome of the middle class problem. I’ve found rhetorical violence in the Waitrose magazine.

To be precise, my housemate, who is a more skilled close reader than I am, found it. She was reading their loosely-disguised ‘women, hate your bodies’ piece on dieting, and found this gem. Under the rubric ‘curb your cravings’, the author writes:

“If you’re in the midst of a craving, remove yourself from the situation. Take a short walk, call a friend or try to distract yourself somehow. Remember that the urgency will pass.”

As my housemate points out, this sort of language and advice is a direct echo of warnings to people about to self-harm. This isn’t particularly funny (we both know people who actually need that serious advice). And it is possible to interpret serious diet malfunctions as a form of self harm, which is something Caitlin Moran (among others) has talked about pretty persuasively. But. It is also manifestly a piece of advice targeted, not at a small group of people in need of serious help, but at a general readership who are feeling faintly guilty about not buying a box of out of season raspberries for £2.50. And, lest you doubt, this general readership are mostly women. Funny, that.

It seems to me that this is related, in a deeply trivial but, also, pretty telling way to other conversations I’ve been hearing about rhetorical violence. By treating not actually reaching for another biscuit as if it required a twelve-step plan and a Crisis team, we’re reducing the communicative capacities of language. If the patriarchy were personified, as he is in my mental cartoons, he’d be the sort of bloke who props up the bar explaining away these women problems: “this male violence they complain about, it’s just hysterical nonsense. Look at the way they talk about reaching for a biscuit”.

It’s a problem, but it’s also a problem because this cosy little snippet in the most middle-class magazine on the planet is normalizing the kind of ‘violence’ women supposedly do to themselves by not feeling sufficiently ashamed of what they eat. It should not sound normal to spend time and energy fighting off a craving for a bag of crisps as if it were something you’d started injecting between your toes. It should sound normal to read this ‘advice’ and snigger in disbelief.

We’re going to make the cake on page 72 now.

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‘Everyday Feminism': Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Except the lesbians.

Image via and

Image via and

The photo above is one you may have seen before. It, and a collection of other photos from the Victorian and Edwardian eras have been collected together here, in 2012, as a tribute to 150 years of women’s history. It’s a lovely picture. I think most people enjoy the idea of looking at something like this and imagining the story behind it. And, it’s fun to try to glimpse a part of history that’s often hard to recover – the lives of women in same-sex relationships before those relationships were socially condoned, let alone celebrated. But, at the same time, it makes me uneasy. The woman who set up the initial collection of photos explains herself carefully, noting that we can’t always know whether women in photos like this – taken so long ago – would have understood themselves to be ‘lesbians’ in any modern sense.

As a medievalist, that’s an issue I encounter, intensified a hundredfold. You simply can’t say that a medieval woman was a lesbian, because sexuality was understood so differently. And – rather appallingly – you might very well find that same-sex desire was understood not as sexuality, but as a deviant and perverted desire amongst women to act like men.

I was thinking about this as I browsed through my news feed. And as I did, I was brought up short by an article in Everyday Feminism.

You may or may not know this site. Its premise is simple: it explains basic, intersectional feminist issues in clear, easy terms. I started following their feed a while ago, in the hope that I could get a sense of what people wanted to know when they started into feminism. Gradually, I’ve been getting more and more depressed, but today was a new low. This title just popped up in my timeline. “An Actual Answer to ‘Why is She Dating a Masculine Women Instead of Just Dating a Guy?‘”

I don’t mind admitting, this isn’t a question whose actual answer I have ever pondered. And it’s not really one of those questions that deserves a serious and lengthy reply. Women who date women do it because they like women. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that treating this as a legitimate question is yet another way of policing women’s activities: women are (implicitly) not entitled to date people just because they want to do that. They need to have Reasons. This is the logic your stalker uses when he asks you why you don’t want to go out with him.

So, strike one against Everyday Feminism.

I went on to read the beginning of the article itself. “Masculinity doesn’t belong to any one gender,” the author began, encouragingly. “Anyone can identify as masculine, masculine of center, or be masculine-presenting. That’s a fact.”

While I was temporarily amused by the idea of a ‘masculine of center’ identity – the Liberal Democrat of the gender studies world, surely the least sexy image ever to cross anyone’s mind – I did have a bigger problem here. We seemed to have gone from women who’re attracted to women, to something else. There is no particularly strong reason, so far as I can see, why certain characteristics should be read as ‘masculine’ rather than ‘lesbian’. Of course, not all lesbians are butch (this is the word I suspect the article figured might be a little tricky to use here). But then, not all men are butch either. And, you know, we are talking about women who’re attracted to women, I have this tiny clue that maybe ‘lesbian’ would be a more obvious term. Right?

Seemingly not. The article goes on to stress once again that this mysterious property that attracts some women to like other women is – amazingly! – the property not just of men, but also of women:

Think of it this way: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Some of us are shining brightly with masculinity, while others of us shine just a little bit in this respect, or not at all (but we sparkle elsewhere!).

Aww. That’s sweet. Why do I feel as if this sentence should be accompanied by a discreet image of someone throwing blackout curtains over those lesbians in the corner? So that they can ‘sparkle elsewhere’ without distracting us from the masculinity, you know?

In a rather confused way, the article tries to square the circle it’s created. It acknowledges all sorts of good, well-intentioned, comforting things. Heterosexuality shouldn’t be seen as compulsory. We shouldn’t conflate gender and sexuality (true, but not really in evidence in that first paragraph!). Attraction is complex. And, most importantly, it acknowledges that ‘toxic masculinity’ is a real danger to women, and a bad thing for most men. And this is all good, and I think the author really did try here.

But I couldn’t help feeling incredibly depressed, all the same. Your basic History of Sexuality 101 will tell you that this idea of lesbianism as a form of masculinity is actually pretty old. Lesbians were defined not by who they were attracted to, but as defective men. And what the article refers to as ‘masculine-presenting’ lesbians were seen as predatory threats to other women, corrupting influences who tried to supplant men in women’s affections. More recently, and equally offensively, we have the idea of lesbianism as ‘curable': a condition that just indicates the lack of ‘a good man’. Think a little bit about what this article is saying – ‘masculinity is for everyone, even the lesbians’ – and you’ll see that it’s basically the same message. Don’t be discouraged, ladies: you too can be attracted to the correctly-gendered attribute!

It has taken a very long time for society to begin to entertain the idea that women might be attracted to other women (and men to other men) not through some kind of deviancy or defectiveness, but for positive reasons: because they actually liked other women and wanted to be with them. This article takes a step back towards the 1920s, and in doing so, it erases something that is particular to women, labelling it as a form of masculinity (in some lesbians), or a form of attraction to masculinity (in some women who’re attracted to them).

Now, I don’t usually feel terribly qualified to write about sexuality, because it’s much less to do with my research area than feminism. But in this case, I sort of do know what I’m talking about. I’m attracted to masculine men and butch women, and, oddly enough, I don’t actually think they’re more or less the same. I feel sad that, increasingly, people seem to be embarrassed about using the word lesbian, preferring to use ‘queer’ or ‘gay’. That’s ok as a personal choice – but we do need to think about the history of these terms, how hard-won they are, and how difficult it has been for generations of women to talk about same-sex sexuality. Reducing this to an aspect of ‘masculinity’ shows both a disturbing lack of historical awareness, and a restrictive understanding of why women might be attracted to other women.


I’ve just seen this piece has been quoted on this site, and there’s a fair bit of traffic from them (thank you!). It occurred to me reading the comments that I’d obviously been a bit coy, as it’s not clear from the piece that I am writing as a bisexual woman, and a woman who doesn’t feel that all butch women are necessarily best described as ‘masculine’ (some are happy with that, but others aren’t, and I felt the original piece erased those important distinctions).

I hope that update makes things a little clearer, for people who’re coming to this newly.

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Five Wounds: Touching History


I’ve just finished reading my copy of Katherine Edgar’s Tudor novel, Five Wounds. Set during the Pilgrimage of Grace, it imagines the bloody rebellion against the dissolution of the monasteries from the perspective of a teenage girl. As the north rises in protest, Nan Ellerton is wrenched away from the world she knows by her father, and forced to choose which side she stands on.

The opening line is taken from a Book of Hours, a symbol of the religion Henry’s reforms would ultimately destroy:

Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…

This prayer echoes through the whole book, a reminder of the world that is being swept away. In late medieval England, the Five Wounds of Christ were objects of deep religious emotion. Prayers like this one are found everywhere, from the scribbled margins of cheap prayerbooks to the most expensive and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. One of the first manuscripts I ever touched – the bizarre, home-made Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 61 – contains not only prayers to the Five Wounds, but also a crudely-sketched image of a shield. It contains the four wounds to Christ’s limbs and the fifth heart in the centre, drawn with little dashes around the edges, as if they were stitched onto a banner. In other manuscripts there are vivid, blood-red images of the wound pierced through Christ’s side, sometimes rubbed away by devout readers who touched, and even kissed, the page.

Magic figures and the Wound of Christ from a prayer roll

London, British Library, Harley MS T. 11. Prayer Roll with Wound of Christ

What strikes me about this prayer is that, in picturing Christ’s wounds, it pictures something that is empty space, a rent in the body. It tries to make tangible that which is by definition intangible: an opening where no opening should be. And that’s how history itself often seems to work. We look back into the past and try to touch it, to feel it, to make it seem real. We try to overcome its intangibility. Five Wounds achieves this perfectly, making you want to reach out and touch Nan’s world.

The great thing about good historical fiction is the way it teaches you without you even noticing – especially if you read it as a child or a teenager. I must have been nine or ten when I first read Cynthia Harnett’s A Load of Unicorn – so, slightly younger than the intended audience of Five Wounds – and a passing description of medieval printing and paper-making stayed with me, detailed enough that it’s still what I have at the forefront of my mind when I’m reading about real medieval book culture. The detail in Five Wounds has this blend of painstaking accuracy and lightness of touch. I liked that a minor lord’s name links him to a manuscript of Handlyng Synne that still exists; a relic kept by women stands for a whole culture of medieval piety. You don’t have to puzzle out these links, but they’re there if you recognize them – or there for you to recognize later on – and that’s what makes this world seem real enough to touch.

You can read an extract of Five Wounds here.

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Rhetorical Violence and Actual Violence (trigger warning)

I’m reading a lot about rape at the moment, which makes me an exceptionally cheerful person to be around. Specifically, I’m reading about rape in medieval romance, but it’s hard to separate that from contemporary debates about violence, and rhetoric, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. So, I’m writing this to try to set out some of my thoughts. I’m going to start by talking about an academic article and a medieval text, but I think what I’m saying isn’t just relevant to academia or medievalists.

The article that’s been nagging away at me is in many ways a great read. It’s amazingly detailed in its close reading; it’s full of insight about the influence of Biblical hermeneutics on medieval romance.* It’s also fifteen years old, so I am sure there are things that might have been written differently now. But, it bothered me.

The author, Monica Brzezinski Potkay, is talking about the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a romance in which a married lady exerts some considerable pressure on a man to sleep with her. She surprises him as he’s naked in bed, and – as Potkay points out – she draws on the romance convention of treating rape as a normal form of interaction between men and women to imply, archly, that he could force her to have sex if he wanted.

This is quite disturbing for modern readers. But Potkay’s point is not about the suggested rape – which doesn’t happen – but about the rhetoric of the romance in general. She makes reference to Saint Jerome’s predictably misogynistic comparison of a person interpreting Scriptural text to a man forcibly ripping off a woman’s clothing in order to sleep with her. This, she explains, is also offered as a mode of interpretation in the romance text, with the hero, Gawain, attempting to ‘interpret’ the women he meets through this form of figurative rape. Yet, the text performs a ‘critique’ of this mode of interpretation, empowering its female characters with the capacity to interpret for themselves. Thus:

Sir Gawain can teach that men should acknowledge and beware the violence concealed in their own behavior, for that violence can be turned against them. The rapist can easily become raped.”

There are two things going on here. The first is the structure of the text, and the kind of interpretation it invites: this, as Potkay argues and as many people would agree, shows the women of the romance to be rather more skilled than the hero in controlling the twists and turns of narrative. The second, however, is that metaphor of rape. As a metaphor for textual interpretation, it has plenty of interest, and Potkay is, of course, doing nothing so crude as to think literally about raped women raping men.

Yet, still, that claim bothered me. The rapist can easily become raped. Easily? Raped? Well, no. In the space of that romance, in medieval culture, in modern culture, women do not ‘easily’ rape their rapists. Nor do I find it easy to imagine anyone would want to. There is a gendered structure to sexual violence, which is not easily flipped around, as if both men and women were equal. At this point, then the metaphor fails: if interpretation of a text is something that can be gender-flipped without unsettling the underlying gender hierarchy, then no, it is not like rape.

This is a point which, I suspect, plenty of queer theorists would find deeply crude and unsubtle. You don’t understand. She doesn’t mean it literally. She’s just opening up the transgressive possibilities of the text. The term ‘rape’ isn’t meant that way. It’s only rhetorically violent.

Yes: this is all true. But, it is also true that, in this article, the word rape has ceased to mean what it means. It has ceased to be a useful term for describing that act, and has instead become just one more way to imply that gender hierarchies can be playfully flipped over.

My title for this post might seem a problem to some. Rhetorical violence is, after all, difficult to separate from ‘actual’ violence: should we even make a distinction? After all, most people will know what it’s like to read something and feel a very real physical response to it: pulse leaping, hands shaking, the works. And it’s not just about personal responses: the very fact that a debate exists about whether there are ‘grey areas’ in rape, itself contributes to keeping alive the view that there are grey areas, and perpetuates rape. A conversation about whether or not women lie about rape gives rapists crucial cover to do what they do. And so on. These are not ‘performative acts’ of speech, speeches that enact what they describe, such as saying ‘I do’ at a wedding. But their consequences can be measured quite directly in the real world. And what is at stake, in some rhetoric, is not the fictional power structure in a medieval romance, but the real relationships between living people.

So, why distinguish between rhetorical violence and actual violence? My difficulty with Potkay’s article (and with this debate more widely) is that I know who is allowed to interpret text. If I say, this article is rhetorically violent, that it is using the concept of rape in a way that contributes to rape culture and makes it harder for us to talk about the gendered power structure behind the act, then I will be held to be ‘misinterpreting’. I will be told I do not understand the subtle nuances of Potkay’s use of the term ‘rape’ in this context. And yet, that’s not a criticism everyone is expected to take.

Something I have found difficult, recently, has been the response to the letter in the Observer about debate in universities, which I signed. It’s a tiny, tiny issue if you’re not in certain circles, and a rather bigger one if you are (as Mary Beard found out). I haven’t kept up with all of the responses, partly because there were many signatories (many of whom I don’t know personally, and some I’m proud to say I do know). But I have noticed that a common response has been to characterise this letter, and the debates it discusses, as literally violent. Not rhetorically violent, but violent in the way a performative speech act might be violent, or even violent in a direct physical sense. Discussing the Nordic model (the context here is sex work, if you’re not familiar), for example, is characterised as a form of violence that ‘endangers lives’ (I’m quoting Marika Rose, who spoke to me about this on twitter, but similar phrases were flying about everywhere). In this context, there is no ‘interpretation’ to be done: the gap between rhetorical and actual violence has closed up fast, for there’s no comeback to people repeatedly telling you there mere fact you have spoken, is violence.

Patently, these two attitudes towards ‘rhetorical’ violence should not be able to coexist. The one presumes the speaker’s perfect right to define the terms of debate, and to describe any violence in language as merely rhetorical, and therefore beyond the reach of critique. Thus, I am misinterpreting Potkay: violence is only rhetorical. The other presumes that the mere act of speaking is, in itself, actual violence, and no amount of interpretation can change this. In my experience, an awful lot of people seem to hold both positions simultaneously, and so the position from which we can speak becomes wafer-thin.

The result is the more general application of the specific problem Potkay’s article gives rise to. Just as, there, rape becomes something we can no longer properly name, something divorced from its social context, so too here, violence becomes impossible to pin down, impossible to name. And that means it’s impossible to fight.


* Monica Brzezinski Potkay, ‘The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, inRepresenting Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97-124.

To be clear: I don’t believe (honestly) that discussion of the Nordic model does do violence to women. Nor do I even believe supporting it does violence to women. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I wouldn’t set myself up as such. But, I think my views here are less important than the shape of this wider issue of how we communicate about rhetorical and actual violence.

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