A Horcrux Theory of Chaucerian Manuscript Transmission

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Adam Scriveyn

To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:

‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’

The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.

For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.

But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus –  gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.

Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.

Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.

Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.

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This is not a Horcrux – though it is a split manuscript body – but rather, how I picture Dumbledore’s face, when Rowling outed him.

A small and pleasing discovery (possibly?) about Sir Gawain

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The mathematics of medieval architecture: Peterborough Cathedral

I’ve somehow never written this post about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem that is many people’s first encounter with the gorgeous poetic language and spellbinding storytelling of medieval England – though I’ve been wondering about a minor detail I’ve noticed in the poem, for a while. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century, somewhere in the West Midlands to judge by the dialect, and it survives in a single manuscript along with three other works by the same writer: two religious poems and a long, very beautiful and very evocative dream-vision about mourning and loss. All of these poems – but especially Gawain and Pearl – show a fascination with symmetry and number-patterns, and there are any number of complicated interlocking sequences of pairs and triplets and fivefold symmetries, as well as concentric circular structures of narrative and verse form.

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I’ve noticed when teaching Gawain that this is an aspect of the poem that invites a remarkable degree of visual concentration – and a kind of visual, mathematical concentration that always seems remarkably medieval (think about the complicated numerical structures of a cathedral, or even of a fan-vault roof). Foremost amongst the visual symbols of that poem is the pentangle – the five-pointed symbol Gawain wears on his shield as he rides out from Camelot, and which symbolises his linked, fivefold virtues bound together forever into a locked, endless knot.

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Gawain’s shield device is – patently – not a heraldic display of identity, like the medieval shields we more commonly see on old buildings and in church windows, where quartered symbols might show parentage, ties of marriage, position in the family birth order, and more. Rather, it is his personal device, and a somewhat inscrutable design. Almost as important, as the narrative wears on, is another object: a lady’s girdle, which promises Gawain sure protection against his deadly enemy, but which also (female-wise) entangles him in a complicated web of competing obligations and broken promises. This slender green circle becomes the badge of Gawain’s shame, the symbol he takes on to show his later, compromised identity as a sadder and wiser knight.

Conventional readings of this poem interpret the two objects – the shield device and the girdle – as representative of a conflict between two sides, or two orders of morality. The pentangle speaks of chivalric virtue with a hefty dose of Christian piety, for it aligns the five points of the pentangle with the wounds of Christ and the joys of the Virgin Mary. The girdle, meanwhile, smacks of feminine, perhaps even superstitious, reliance on amulets, and is indelibly associated with Gawain’s creeping fear for his own physical safety. It is easy to read the pentangle as an ideal view of chivalry – a view of chivalry that knots virtue to virtue in an unbroken, regular shape – and the girdle as its insinuating undoing. In reality, my feeling is that the pentangle, and the brand of chivalry it advertises, is nothing remotely so unambiguous or perfect. Nor, indeed, is the girdle so easily interpreted as the polar opposite of virtue: as scholars have more recently noted, its protective qualities have their real-world parallels in the religious prayer-girdles (tightly written with invocations to the Virgin) that pregnant women would use as they prepared for the terrors of childbirth.

This superficial, binary opposition of pentangle and girdle, of five-point star and circle, is, in any case, elegantly and suggestively resolved by the poet. In the final lines of Sir Gawain, he departs from the world of romance and – in the final allusion to encircling narratives arching over and around the tiny matter of Gawain’s own temptation – he evokes the wider frame of Christian history, praying:

‘Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bryng vus to his blysse!’

Now, He who bears the crown of thorns,
Let him bring us to his bliss!

The circle; the girdle. The pentangle; the points. The two images, superimposed, underlie these final lines, bound together in this last image: the crown of thorns.

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I really don’t know if this is something other people have noticed. A not-quite-cursory but not-entirely-focussed look at the scholarship doesn’t throw up any other scholars mentioning it, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But, every year, I always find students who are as delighted with its neatness as I was, and I do believe that – in a poem full of numerical and structural richness and subtlety – it is significant and meaningful.

Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition

The Guardian ran a piece today, reviewing the upcoming exhibition at the V&A, Opus Anglicanum, which focuses on the dazzling medieval embroidery produced in England in the fourteenth century. I was especially interested, because the book chapter I’ve been working on recently has to do with medieval textiles as objects that fire up the imagination – specifically, Chaucer’s imagination.

This is a really fascinating period for the textile trade in general: English weaving, for example, is just beginning to shift from being a craft carried out by women on a small scale, producing fabric from their own looms, to a more lucrative business on a larger scale, using a bigger, fancier loom, and dominated by … yes, of course, men. Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, though set in France, is a beautifully imagined story of a household of weavers in such a situation, a story told partly through the eyes of Christine, a skilled weaver banned by her town’s guild from contribution to the official (and taxed) labour of her husband’s workshop.

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Penelope, cheerfully weaving away as Odysseus murders her suitors, in Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus. From London, BL MS Royal 20 C V, f. 61v (detail).

But many aspects of the trade were, and remained, associated with women. In this period, embroidery – the specific subject of the exhibition – was taking on a distinctly seedy reputation, for this very reason: its women practitioners were suspected of involvement in the sex trade. Women were strictly banned from moonlighting in the opposite trade – sex workers as well as textile workers – and a delightfully scandalous legal record of the late fourteenth century concerns the famous cross-dressing prostitute known as John (or, alternatively, Eleanor) Rykener, who electrified his witnesses by coolly declaring his habit of having sex with men while posing as a woman, and preferring to seek out priests for the better money they paid. Who was Rykener’s formative influence in this piece of (presumably, successfully constumed) deception? A embroideress known as Elizabeth the Broderer, already known to the courts for her role in trafficking young women into the sex trade, using her embroidery shop as a front. Such sensationalism about women and the textile trade persisted long after the Middle Ages, for what it’s worth: there’s a fantastic piece of writing by an anxious Parisian doctor in 1886, who claimed that the, ahem, stimulating friction caused by peddling a treadle-operated sewing machine was leading to a sexual frenzy amongst the city’s female garment-workers, leading to a generation of young women exhausted and weak from the debilitating effects of near-perpetual orgasm.

Well, if you say so.

But women working in the textile trades could, of course, be thoroughly respectable: we have plenty of records of solidly reputable medieval citizenry making their money from their cloth merchandise, and plenty of evidence of women in the trade organising morally improving situations for their young female apprentices. Indeed, as I wrote on this blog in 2014, by the fifteenth century, we can see parallels between highbrow courtly literature and the most prosperous London families working in the cloth trade, including women and their young female apprentices.

My interest in medieval textiles is piqued by these kinds of contextual detail – the scandals, the insights into ordinary working conditions, the changes in production that changed real women’s lives. But, I am aware that these textiles were also, often, incredibly beautiful and skilled products in their own right. The exhibition photos show sumptuous clerical vestments, spread to show the magnificent embroidery that would have draped over a priestly body, as well as rarer survivals of the humble equipment used to make them, and the fragments of material treated less kindly by time and the ravages of unscrupulous collectors. Reviewing the exhibition, Jonathan Jones admits to the significance (as well as the impact) of this work:

In the 14th century, if you wanted the very best cope or orphrey (a kind of long bishop’s scarf) you ordered it from embroidery workshops in London – the finest gothic embroideries in Europe were being done a stone’s throw from Old St Paul’s. Opus Anglicanum is Latin for “English work”, and it was in huge demand. In the middle ages, the embroidery makers of London had the kind of status that Flemish tapestry weavers were to achieve in Renaissance Europe.

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The Jesse Cope (detail) ca. 1310-25, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

So far, so positive, right? Admittedly, if you’re not particularly clued up, you might find the clarifying comparison of the last two lines about as clear as mud: I didn’t know what kind of status Flemish tapestry weavers had in Renaissance Europe, to be honest, and now I’m not much clearer. But ok.

Jones’s review provides the kinds of intriguing details I enjoy finding out in an exhibition – such as the fact that much of the clothing shown is, in fact, taken from the opened graves of medieval churchmen by archaeologists of later periods who did not scruple to remove even shoes and stockings. But it also seems ambivalent about its own displays of knowledge. Ultimately, Jones condemns

… the dry manner in which this exhibition relentlessly demands that we admire its orphreys. It misses the point about medieval religious art. … For no one in the 14th century ever looked at copes in glass cases. They saw a bishop wear one as part of the vast, stupendous aesthetic experience that is a gothic cathedral. Illuminated by filtered light from stained-glass windows, glowing beneath a shadowy vault, to the sound of harmonious singing, these robes were a component of a much larger and more powerful artistic event.

I do find this a bit rich coming from someone who presumes we’re all up to speed about the state of Flemish tapestry making circa 1550. And I could certainly quibble about the rather bizarre idea that everyone in the fourteenth century enjoyed the kinds of unimpeded sight-lines to the altar that Jones seems to imagine here (medieval churches and cathedrals tended to have rood screens, blocking much of the view to the altar, and allowing the priest to get on with his business, as it were, in a semi-private space with God. It’s also, arguably, slightly dubious to talk about ‘harmonious’ singing in this context, at least as I understand medieval music, which is to say, not very much. But the major point that bothers me here about Jones’s rather style-over-substance image of medieval art as a vast multimedia experience is that it suggests that embroidery, on its own, just isn’t very much worth bothering with. It’s not like proper art, is it? The kind we are, of course, accustomed to seeing without the supervention of tinkly recorded plainsong or gently strobe-like light patterns mimicking the effects of stained glass.

And – cynic that I am – I can’t help wondering why medieval embroidery attracts this particular kind of criticism. Why is it so unworthy of an exhibition to itself, so direly in need of some kind of leavening of spectacle and show? Why does Jones cling so desperately to the nice chivalric image of the Black Price’s embroidered grave clothes and to his own vision of the bishop animating the robes with his busy masculine body?

Hmm. I wonder.

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Women spinning and weaving together in Boccaccio, Le Livre des cléres et nobles femmes. From Paris, Bibliotèque Nationale de France, MS Fr. 12420, fol. 71. c. 1403.

Note: There is a more positive (and, frankly, for my money more interesting) review here, also from the Guardian and written by Maev Kennedy.

Technologies of Touch and Queer Errors

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London, BL MS Royal 17 E VII 1, f. 247r (detail)


‘Reading medieval manuscripts … begins with the noise of the cover opening, depending on how tight and in what (boards, leather, velvet) the volume is bound, and with the dry sound of leather leaves touching each other. Light diffuses in opaque, milky, soft vellum but glances off stiffer, buttery parhment. The pigments capture and imprison the light, but even a hairline of gold sharply ricochets it back. … There is also a soft irregularity, as with a dollop of cream – although the ground is usually tinted red with minium, giving the gold its characteristic warmth. In comparison, gold applied directly to the page as dust or leaf looks somehow modern, like a house with a flat roof. Plants, seeds, slugs, trellises are painted directly over the gold ground, wasting swaths of it, except for a brief period after the gilder applied it and before the painter got his hands on it, a period confined by the workshop. … Then, there are the cuts and holes. Small slits allow the sinews of the binding to slide through. Regularly spaced pockmarks set the grid for the ruling or,far less frequently, mark a pattern copied from the master. Ink, if incompetently prepared, eats into the page. …’

Manuscripts are, apparently (and like so many things), ‘queer’. Queer in the Queer Theory sense, that is: queer as in ‘other’ or ‘strange’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘transgressive’, opposed to – and perhaps even capable of annihilating – the norm.

When I heard this statement made (and contested) at NCS this year, I immediately thought of the passage above. This gorgeously sensory description comes from a much longer set of passages in Anna Kłosowska’s book, Queer Love in the Middle Ages, in which she introduces a fascinating, speculative discussion of the complicated, layered, mutable ways in which we perceive and understand sexuality, with this passage on the precise tactile and visual experience of reading a medieval manuscript book. Kłosowska’s prose is both a virtuoso display of how to evoke sensory experience and also a practical demonstration of the value of seemingly tiny, decorative or curious details, to tell us about the lived experience of medieval scribes, illuminators, booksellers, book readers, and even the dismembered medieval cows and sheep whose skins form that disturbingly human-feeling surface on which all of this is written. It’s a sharp piece of writing, capturing the defiant but defining desire to touch the skin that marks out all confirmed medieval bibliophiles who’ve ever risked the wrath of a hovering librarian, and suggestively segueing from this into a discussion of a different kind of defiant-but-defining desire to touch skin that is socially verboten.

At the NCS conference this year, papers by Zach Stone and James Sargan got me thinking more about the way different surfaces and materials – not just vellum or parchment, gold leaf or brown ink, but also print as opposed to manuscript, modern print as opposed to medieval print, and digital media as opposed to hard copy – invite different kinds of touching, and militate against others. Manuscript ink, for example, is typically oak gall ink (as James observed). Printers’ ink, by contrast, is a much thicker, stickier substance. A nice illustration of the odd, back-handed ways we learn things is that I learned this detail, in the first place, from Cynthia Harnett, who wrote children’s fiction in the 1950s. With her novelist’s sensitivity to the way touch and materiality inform our experiences of the past, she picked up on details literary scholars were – I think it’s fair to say – rather less interested in at the time.

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Glasgow, Hunterian Library, Sp. Coll. BV. 2. 30, f. 17v (detail)

Rather like Kłosowska, Harnett delves into the finished product (in her case, Caxton’s printed edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to think about the technologies behind that product and the lives and experiences of the people making it. She describes how a medieval printing press required at least two pairs of hands in the process: one, to cover the forms (letters) with sticky ink and the other – with clean hands – to lay the pristine sheet carefully over the top without smudging its surface. Print ink, therefore, militates against casual touching. It segments the production process in a way that manuscripts don’t absolutely have to, requiring a division of labour.

It’s tempting to interpret that resistance to touch, and that division of labour, as a form of ‘control,’ or even ‘policing’. We could say that the technology of print constrains makers, alienating them from the intimate, skin-to-skin contact experienced by the medieval scribes Kłosowska describes in such sensory detail. We could understand this process of the necessary division of the labour of in printing as a form of early mass production (which printing is, though the difference between print and manuscript really isn’t as big as you’d think, given manuscript makers were perfectly capable of farming out the illumination, rubrication and so on to someone else). We could – thinking back to Kłosowska’s seductive, suggestive parallel between the touching of pages and the touching of human skin – read this mode of production as an finger-wagging response to the lovely, messy, too-keen desires to touch, stroke, lift, pierce and limn manuscript pages.

It should not shock you to discover that (pre-empting the inevitable), no, I don’t think this makes manuscripts ‘queer’ and print culture a horrible, controlling, hegemonic impulse dedicated to straightening out their tactile quirks. But I know why that reading’s tempting – and it’s because it lets us map onto medieval technologies some of the drama of histories of sexuality, and (if we are manuscript scholars or people who love looking at, and hoping to touch, medieval manuscripts) it lets us place ourselves on the side of the angels, aligned with the tactile, queer, erotic technology and bravely opposed to the restricting regime of print. It lets us construct a sort of reverse-teleology of technologies, where the medieval represents sophisticated postmodern brilliance and every subsequent technological form becomes that bit more restrictive, one-dimensional, colourless and – we medievalists imply smugly – dull.

I have a bit of a problem with this, which I can best illustrate by thinking about how an academic, five hundred years from now, might look at today’s digital technologies.

We’re inclined to think of the digital as impermeable, untouched and untouchable, all surface. But information about it is laid down in the body. If a forensic archaeologist working five hundred years from now found my body, he or she would be able to identify the muscle attachments – the grooves in the bone – that show that I regularly type on a keyboard; moreover, that this keyboard has a bias towards certain letters. Even if no such keyboard survived, with those bones and a working knowledge of the letter distributions in the English language, you could have a fair crack at figuring out what it might have looked like. You could work backwards, as Kłosowska does, as Harnett does, to reconstitute the ways twenty-first century people touched and typed and sat and moved as they read, just as you can with a medieval manuscript.

In celebrating – maybe (and I think Kłosowska is getting at this, too) even fetishising the tactile and the sensory in medieval culture, we forget that we’re not untouchable in our own technologies. We’re not invisible readers and writers, leaving no traces. And we can’t easily conceal the sleights of hand that satisfy liberal desires to identify with the ‘queer’ – the other, the disadvantaged, the disruptive – while still allowing us to study the remarkably expensive products of a predictably narrow and privileged medieval elite.

 

Jesus Wept: On Umberto Eco and John Donne

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East Window, King’s College Cambridge

At 5.30 on Monday, I was sitting in King’s College Chapel, looking up at the stained glass, which – from where I was – was mostly shades of blue, with the afternoon light behind it. We were waiting for the beginning of a service, a service for Lent, on the theme of tears. As we waited, candles were lit, and by the time the choir began to sing, the fading light outside made the stained glass darken almost to black.

I was noticing these details, because I’d got there early. I was running over the passages from a sermon by John Donne, which I was going to read. Donne’s sermon is based on the text from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus responds to the death of Lazarus by weeping. All week, I’d been enjoying getting emails from the chaplain of King’s with the faintly blasphemous-sounding subject line Jesus Wept. But Donne takes a predictably serious approach, and he makes a characteristically perceptive point that, while the Bible describes God in terms of human body parts (hands and feet, eyes and ears) as well as human emotions:

“I do not remember that ever God is said to have wept. It is for man. And when God shall come to that last act in the glorifying of man, when he promises ‘to wipe all tears from his eyes’, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?”

I enjoyed this point, and this rhetoric, but while I was enjoying it, I was also figuring out how to negotiate one of those lines you can’t read without raising an irritated feminist eyebrow. Discussing the idea of Jesus weeping, Donne comments on contemporary attitudes towards tears:

“We call it a childish thing to weep, and a womanish; and perchance we mean worse in that than in the childish; for therein we mean falsehood to be mingled with weakness.”

Donne glides over the idea of duplicitous feminine tears so quickly you don’t have time to explore the implications of the claim, nor what it says about the visibility of emotion and the sincerity of feeling. Donne would not be the only writer to see tears as something that should be contained, repressed, controlled, kept within the limits of the body. But Dr Thomas Dixon – who’s a historian at Queen Mary – gave the fascinating and wide-ranging address during this service, and he pointed out that Donne was writing at a time of rapidly-shifting ideas about the acceptability of emotion, a time of post-Reformation perceptions of medieval emotional display as a form of excess or insincerity. Dixon also notes that Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears, and I admit that this surprised me.

I was thinking back to the conversation about another kind of emotion Christ may – or may not – have displayed, which is notoriously central to the plot of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Eco died this week, and I was reading obituaries and reviews of his books.

The Name of the Rose is a classic detective story, transplanted to the early fourteenth century, and told from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears young monk, Adso, and his preternaturally observant, cynical, and jaded mentor, the evocatively-named William of Baskerville. Both men are visitors to a monastery in which mysterious and gruesome events are occurring, in best murder mystery tradition. But if William of Baskerville is a composite of Sherlock Holmes and of the stagey trickery that created one of his most famous cases, he’s also a skilled theologian, and early on in the novel he and Adso become dragged into what seems to be an absurdly dry argument over whether or not Christ ever laughed.

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William and Adso in the Library. Still from The Name of the Rose (1986)

Looking over the comical and carnivalesque illuminations in a manuscript in the scriptorium, William is amused by scenes of abbot-monkeys and pope-foxes. Jorge of Burgos, an impeccably pious, irascible and deeply misogynistic scholar, declares that it is blasphemous to imagine that Christ – in full knowledge of human sin and sorrow – could ever have engaged in something as carnal and trivial as laughter. Amongst the thorns in his side is the charismatic dilettante and – whisper it – possibly not entirely heterosexual Berengar, the assistant librarian, who, it turns out, has been attempting to probe the hidden secrets of the monastery library. When William refers learnedly to Aristotle’s famous, lost treatise on Comedy, Jorge responds with rage, insisting that such a book could never have been written.

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The Pope as a fox. London, BL MS 10 E. IV, f. 49v (detail)

Their argument is, as you’ll see, based on real theological points of view. I’ll quote from the film script, since I enjoy imaging Sean Connery’s accent as William, and you can watch the scene here.

Jorge: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face, and makes men look like monkeys.

William: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man.

You can see that the outline of the debate is the same one that Donne presses into service in his discussion of Christ’s tears. While William (and Eco) describe laughter as particular to man, as opposed to animals, Donne describes tears as particular to man, as opposed to God. Together, they form a theory of emotion that determines the ordained place of humankind in the scheme of things. But gender doesn’t seem to come into it – at least, until I came across this old review of The Name of the Rose, written in 1983. It’s spiky praise, given grudgingly:

“Filled with the good-natured polyglot banter of the superfluosly learned, “The Name of the Rose” might be seen only as a effete “Canterbury Tales” except for tell-tale markings on the walls of its medieval monastic library, markings declaring that this records of those walls’ destruction is itself a labyrinth in the library’s image.”

It’s that word ‘effete’ that caught my attention. It’s a rarely-used term today: our vocabulary of habitual and ingrained misogyny is fashionably up to date. I have my suspicions about what the author might have considered ‘effete’ – from Eco’s choosing a genre usually dominated by women, to the portrayals of monastic homosexuality, to his poncey in-joke academic pastiches of language – but, as I was thinking about emotion, its containment and its display, it made me reassess a crucial scene in the novel, and the understated way it plays with gendered expectations.

As William and Adso become dragged further and further into the disturbing events of the monastery, they find themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders that seem somehow to relate to the highly secret portions of the monastery’s impressive and labyrinthine library. Racing through that library with suspicions mounting in their minds, William and Adso discover the  seemingly Stoical, dispassionate and authoritative Jorge, the monk who has spoken out so harshly against the idea of a laughing Christ, desperately cramming the poisoned pages of a book into his mouth in an act of destruction that will also kill him. It transpires that the fabled Aristotelian treatise on Comedy does indeed exist – hidden within the depths of the library – and that Jorge, having failed to suppress rumours of its existence, had daubed the pages in poison to trick any reader who licked his fingers as he leafed through the forbidden accounts of laughter.

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William and Adso confront Jorge. Still from The Name of the Rose

This frenzied activity is, to a medieval eye, not simply bizarre and desperate. It’s also gendered. In medieval religious literature, there’s a huge and long-standing tradition of imagining readers who devour their books. But – crucially – they are women. Religious writers approvingly described how holy women, from St Cecilia to the Virgin Mary herself, devoured the words of the Bible as if chewing, eating, and enjoying the sweet taste of the book; instructional works directed to women described how a female reader should feel and imagine each word in her mouth as she shaped its syllables with her lips. The root of this image is a quintessentially feminine experience, that of pregnancy: as Mary read the words of the Bible, she became aware of the angel Gabriel, come to tell her that she was to bear the Word of God.

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The Annunciation, attrib. Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1465-75 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

So, when Eco has an elderly male monk – a fanatic, opposed to laughter and display of emotion – cram the pages of a book into his mouth, he’s participating in this tradition of gendering the internalisation and the display of emotion. The eating of the book feminises Jorge, even as he attempts to destroy the evidence of Christ displaying an emotion that later writers would see as suspiciously human, even suspiciously feminine. But Eco also participates in a process of aligning the medieval – as represented by Jorge and his ilk, and challenged by the proto-Humanist and rational William – with the crazed repression of emotion, the distorted and dishonest response to religion, that post-Reformation writers would seize upon for polemical purposes, like Donne’s.

 

Wings, Hearts, and Medieval Lesbian Valentines

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Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r.

The other day, I saw this brilliant image come up in my twitter feed. The work of the delightfully titled ‘Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse‘, it shows two women engaged in the mutual attempt to entice a flock of winged hearts into their net with what looks like skipping rope. Naturally, I read it as a Valentine’s Day image. I blame my partner for this: just before, she’d shown me the Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. The de-centred heroine of the original story grows up as the daughter of the man who stole Maleficent’s wings and her heart, and when she returns the wings, she gains queenship of Maleficent’s kingdom. Like the original, this isn’t a story that is completely devoid of same-sex implications.

Charming as it is, I’ve got to admit that the medieval image isn’t a lesbian Valentine after all. In fact, it comes from the determinedly heterosexual Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) written by Pierre Scala and dedicated to his mistress. The British Library has a lovely and informative post on the real context of the image and of the manuscript in which it’s found, which formed their 2013 Valentine offering. In medieval English and French literature, stories of women who fall in love with other women are exceptionally rare – the Roman de Silence excluded – and I’ve been trying to find some for a while.

So I followed up my first thoughts about women trapping winged hearts. After all, the tropes of hunters catching birds, and of women as birds, are both pretty prevalent in medieval culture, and both often relate to debates on love. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls begins with the lovely regretful line (referring to love, but also to writing love poetry) “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne …” and goes on to describe, in the first ever ‘Valentine’ poem, the meetings in which the birds choose their mates on this day.

The bird-lover also features in one of Marie de France’s lais, the story of Yonec, which is traditionally read as a love story between the mysterious knight Muldumarec and the unhappy wife of the jealous lord of Caerwent, who has imprisoned her in a high tower. In Yonec, the trapped woman sees a dark hawk fly in through her window, and it transforms into a man who declares his love for her. Doubting his faith – and, indeed, whether he is truly human – the woman insists that he must take on her shape, and take the Eucharist in her place, which will prove whether or not he comes in good faith.

The hawk-man consents, takes on the woman’s form, and receives the Eucharist, and the validated couple hurry to bed. But, seeing his wife’s happiness, the jealous husband places spikes around the window, and when the hawk returns a second time, its wings are torn and it flees away bleeding, leaving the desolate woman to follow the trail of drops of blood out of her window and into a silver city, where she finds her lover lying bleeding on his deathbed. It’s a dream-like sequence, full of mysterious images and shape-shifting visions of the supernatural, which works hard to make us forget the cold logic of the real world.

But I wondered about the implications of that central test of truth. The Eucharist, we’re assured, reveals the ‘truth’ form of the lover: human, not bird; Christian, not supernatural demon or fairy. We’re primed by the shape of the narrative (and by heteronormative assumptions) to discount the fact that the lover is, at this moment in the story, in a third alternative form: that of a woman. If the Eucharist reveals the truth, then perhaps the hawk-lover’s true form is female. Following this up, I checked the text, and found that it’s not clear when this female form is given up: or even whether the lover retains it into the woman’s bedchamber. And it would perhaps be no surprise to a medieval audience to imagine a hawk-lover as female rather than male, for hawks are often associated with women in love. In Yonec, then, a disguise of hawk-wings hides a story of women in love, as well as the identity of the ‘knight’ who flies in through the window. I think it’s a good story for Valentine’s day.

 

 

 

 

The Artifice of Femininity: Double Standards in The Danish Girl

There are, obviously, spoilers for the film in this post.

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Still from The Danish Girl, starring Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne.

I saw The Danish Girl, the film loosely based on the real story of Lili Elbe, at the beginning of the month. But I’m only now writing this blog post, because it took (as usual) a little while to organise what I wanted to say. The film is a strange mixture. I thought it was subtle in the way it told the characters’ stories, moving and engaging. As you might guess if you know Elbe’s history, it is pretty dark, with some appallingly disturbing scenes: notably, the episode in which a doctor emotionlessly diagnoses Elbe as a homosexual and enforces a ‘cure’ involving radiation of the genitals, and the scenes of Elbe’s horrific pain following a surgery that was crude beyond belief. But – disappointingly – it’s also saccharine in places, with some surprisingly false notes.

First the good: the film is beautifully shot, and worth seeing on those grounds alone. It is truly painterly: a breathtaking series of natural images prepares us for the scene in which we see young Einar Wegener hailed as an up-and-coming artist, the painter who captures the spare, structural and natural beauty of the leafless trees we’ve just seen growing. As the film progresses, the imagery becomes richer, with heavy tactile fabrics, swishing kimonos, drapes and silky scarves. This visual vocabulary, in turn, is echoed in the paintings associated with Gerda Wegener, Einar’s ambitious, talented, and bohemian wife.

The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between these two. Lili Elbe isn’t played as a saint: there were times when you definitely sympathised with Gerda Wegener; times when Elbe’s actions and words seemed selfish, thoughtless, or shallow. This was refreshing: one of the things that annoys me about, for example, Sophia in Orange is the New Black is that she’s almost never allowed to be anything but an anodyne cardboard cut-out, tiredly bringing out clichéd remarks about hairstyles or Our Shared Struggles As Women. By contrast, Elbe comes across as a human being, and at the same time there’s a rare sympathetic portrayal of the struggles Wegener faces. And I could appreciate the film makers’ decision to portray Wegener as a heterosexual woman: it was a good change from the irritating and guilt-inducing contemporary assumption that female sexuality must always be ‘fluid’ and accommodating.

But, a bit of me is quite sad that the film makers decided to edit out the historical part of Elbe and Wegener’s lives during which they lived as an out lesbian couple in 1920s Paris. A quick google of Wegener’s art, made during this period, is eye-opening, and very different from the tasteful, Impressionist-lite images the film substituted – and the image below is definitely one of the politer pieces. But, in place of this, there’s a single scene, in which Elbe rocks an androgynously-tailored, lesbian-chic suit and is momentarily (and delightfully) thrilled to hear a couple of men speculating: “lesbienne?”

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Gerda Wegener, ‘Ved Spljlet’ (‘By the Mirror’).

… And then they beat her up. It’s undeniably moving that the film makers’ decided to follow this moment of Elbe’s delight in ‘passing’ with sudden violence from the men, and it’s sadly ironic that she’s treated to the same violence lesbians did and do face for being too easily confused with men. But the film doesn’t really explore the possibility that Elbe – or anyone else – might associate femininity with anything other than dresses and makeup, and certainly not with lesbianism. Indeed, it’s quite hard to interpret that scene of violence as anything other than the film’s own brutal insistence that there is only one legitimate way in which to be female.

And it was this insistence that began to nag away at me as I watched.

In one pivotal scene in the film, Elbe – whose cheerfully bohemian wife is in need of a model to stand in for the absent female subject of her current painting – draws a filmy silk stocking over a strikingly hairy, masculine-looking leg. It’s a moment that’s been criticised, with some viewers arguing that to reduce Elbe’s desire to transition to a single moment of rather coy cross-dressing (ooh! women’s underwear!) is a bit simplistic. My issue was different. We see Vikander’s naked body at several points during the film, and at no time are her legs anything other than perfectly hairless. This is, of course, a tacit nod to twenty-first-century aesthetics: audiences are deemed unable to imagine the possibility of an attractive woman who doesn’t come pre-packed as hair-free, even though it’s highly unlikely a woman living during this period (and wearing the long-skirted fashions Vikander’s character wears) would have been shaving her legs. Vikander’s femininity is socially constructed, but that social construction is actively obscured, hidden, made as invisible as the hair that surely grows on her legs.

I found this telling. I didn’t expect The Danish Girl to break the mould and go for exact historical verisimilitude. I read trash media; I know that women and men alike are (supposedly) transfixed with horror at the sight of a furry female and would be utterly unable to sustain their interest in a film that portrayed one. But that’s the problem. The film works very hard to make us believe that the main character we see is, and always was, a woman; it works against the fact that Redmayne, who acts Elbe, is a male actor. But, because it also makes invisible the performances we demand from female actors (Vikander) and not from male ones (Redmayne), the film lands itself with a problem of confused categories: why is this one leg hairy, when the other is not?

By contrast, the artifice Redmayne uses is highly visible – even too visible, leading to what’s probably the complaint I’ve heard most frequently about the film as a whole. Redmayne, as Lili, spends much of the film batting, fluttering, lowering and raising, his enhanced feminine lashes.

Critics on all sides have weighed in with acidic questions: is this Redmayne’s poor acting?Is it something the director decided? Does Redmayne imagine that being a woman is a kind of performance, a kind of artifice? Does he think transwomen all look like this? What is it? The questions keep coming, because – at root – we’re aware that there’s some visible artifice here, some mannerism, that obtrudes between us and our sympathy with Lili Elbe, the character. But discussing one kind of artifice has, I’d argue, blinded us to another kind, which is hidden in plain sight.

In the film, Redmayne wears lashings of thick mascara. And unlike Vikander’s shaven legs, this isn’t an anachronism. Like quite a lot of cosmetics, mascara is a bit of an irritant. It’s come on a long way since 1933, when a new product on the market caused the death of one woman and the blindness of sixteen more. But, however hypoallergenic a product may be, the advertising boasts of new, un-clumping formulas, lighter-weight versions and waterproof options remind us that painting something onto the hairs around your eyes is never going to be a totally fuss-free option, especially if you’re not used to it. On balance of probability, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Eddie Redmayne probably doesn’t wear mascara as a day-to-day habit, and certainly not heavy, thick, dark lashes like the ones in this film. It doesn’t particularly surprise me, then, that he’s batting his eyelashes a fair bit. It’s a natural reaction. And in an actor supposed to be playing a woman, nature looks like artifice.

These details – hairless legs, mascara’d eyes – may seem tiny. But they’re telling examples of the rigid system of expectations society places upon women, the rigid demands to perform femininity. For decades, feminists have been arguing that these performances – these ‘minor’ artifices – are neither transparently innate to women, nor matters of free and natural choice. This film – which might have taken the time to expose the artifice of what it means to be accepted as a ‘real’ woman – instead chose to essentialize differences rooted not in biology, but in the aesthetics of a misogynistic culture.