‘Positively Medieval’: My Talk on Imagining Unseen Women for BBC Radio 4

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At Peterborough Cathedral

This Wednesday, at 8.45pm, I’m speaking on the BBC Radio 4 series Four Thought. In addition to that broadcast, the programme will also be available as a podcast little later, in a longer version including questions from the audience.

I’ve been getting nervous all this week, because I was so excited to do this talk. I got to mention some of my favourite medieval women, amongst them Margery Paston, who stood up to her entire family plus the bishop of Norwich, and the brilliant, bizarre artist Jeanne de Montbaston, for whom this blog is named. But I was also a bit terrified – I wanted to do these women justice.

Radio is an unseen medium, and that feels oddly appropriate, because the women I study are – by and large – unseen women, as well as unheard and unheard of. We simply don’t know what Jeanne de Montbaston looked like, nor Margery Paston. When I think about medieval women’s lived experiences, I’m usually working backwards from laws drafted by men, texts copied by men, manuscripts compiled by men.

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But traces of women do survive, in the bodies of work they left behind. And I wanted to spend the rest of this post thinking about how I like to imagine these often unheard, unseen women.

Although no known picture of Jeanne de Montbaston survives, her name instantly calls to mind a host of evocative images: who could forget the strange penis tree, with its industrious company of nuns harvesting the fruit?

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Jeanne’s nun leads a (surprisingly enthusiastic) monk on a chain from his penis.

The penis tree image comes – like the other images on this page – from a series of illustrations Jeanne made for a copy of the bestselling Roman de la Rose, a poem firmly part of the male-dominated and misogynistic tradition, which she skilfully and boldly subverted. Jeanne’s artistic perspective remains resolutely original, refusing to conform to the expectations of a male-dominated literary culture. Her little nun is instantly familiar, with her expressive hands and lively face constantly suggesting personality, whether she’s picking penises, spreading her fingers wide to measure their unexpected size, bossily pointing the way forward for her captive monk, or pointing authoritatively at the text beside her.
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But my favourite of the series of illuminations is this final one, where the nun stands in a high tower, while her monk companion doggedly attempts to scale the walls with a rather precarious-looking ladder. The image evokes the classic trope of fairytale romance: the captive lady; the dashing man to the rescue. Jeanne must have known such stories: she provided images for the classic tale of Tristram, who rescued his lover Isolde. But this was not the story for Jeanne: her nun’s mouth is open mid-diatribe, her hands spread in almost preacherly eloquence, as if she’s turned the feminine tower into a decidedly masculine pulpit, and one fist is outstretched to rap on the top of the walls for emphasis … and she appears not even to have noticed the climbing monk whom she’s almost hit over the head. Does she need rescuing? Does she heck.

Jeanne’s name is known to us only through a quirk of fate: she might easily have been one of the thousands of medieval women whose personalities I can only reconstruct by imagining, by thinking how they might have thought, felt, reacted, spoken, responded, to the male dominated culture all around them. But in her images, she puts forward a vivid sense of self, a sense of personality, that demands our attention. Jeanne is an unseen medieval woman, a woman we can’t picture. But, today, the illuminations she made have been shared all over the internet and reproduced in books and papers and exhibitions. She is far more ‘visible’ for her work than her male peers, far better known than any male illuminator of the same period. By attending to medieval women – by sharing their work, reconstructing their lives, thinking about who they were and how they lived – we can bring them to life again, and let their voices be heard.

Notes

All images are from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526.

Jeanne also provided images for texts about the Crusades and the voyages of Marco Polo, such as this one in the British Library, which tapped into contemporary interest in tall tales of exotic countries and exciting travel narratives. She worked on a manuscript of the French Voeux du Paon (‘the Vows of the Peacock), now Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 165, a strange and ambiguous moral narrative. A copy of the popular Tristram romance with its salacious and sexy adulterous theme, also contains some images by Jeanne, and is now in the Getty Museum in New York (MS Ludwig XV 5). For more on Jeanne and her books, see:

Richard H. Rouse and Mary A. Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500, 2 vols (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

D. J. A. Ross, ‘Methods of Book-Production in a XIVth Century French Miscellany (London, B. L., ms Royal 19. D. I.)’, Scriptorium: Revue internationale des études relatives aux manuscrits, 6 (1952), 63-75

Keith Busby, ‘Text and Image in the Getty Tristan, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV, 5′, in Medieval Manuscripts, Their Makers and Users: A Special Issue of Viator in Honor of Richard and Mary Rouse (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), pp. 1-25

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‘Spices I have, in my Ships’: Crusaders, Caricatures and the Medieval Kitchen

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The image above comes from a manuscript made in the late fourteenth century. The company of the French king, Charles V, sit at a lavish dining table as they watch a re-enactment of the Crusades – complete with an impressive prop ship captained by the legendary hero Godfrey de Bouillon:

A ship with masts, sails and rigging was seen first; she had for colours the arms of the city of Jerusalem: Godfrey de Bouillon appeared on deck, accompanied by several knights armed cap-a-pee: the ship advanced into the middle of the hall, without the machine which moved it being perceptible. Then the city of Jerusalem appeared, with all its towers lined with Saracens. The Ship approached the city: the Christians landed, and began the assault; the besieged made good defence; several scaling-ladders were thrown down; but at length the city was taken.

This interlude brings together jingoistic nationalism with the celebrations of the feast. The association between celebratory food and the triumphal caricaturing of a subdued foreign enemy may seem strange, but it’s deeply rooted in medieval culture. Feasts were filled with symbols of status and hierarchy, with reminders of wealth and dominance. Nicola McDonald writes about the way a medieval delicacy known as ‘the Turk’s head’ – a  pie made to resemble a dark-skinned, long-haired man’s head with a luridly coloured filling, and flavoured with cloves, pepper, sugar and pistachio – reflects the same dehumanising attitudes towards ‘exotic’ foreign enemies that we find in the Crusader romances of the period.

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A Saracen or Ethiopian Crusader battles a Sea-Monster in a Fourteenth-Century Prayerbook

For kings – but also, increasingly through the medieval period, for prosperous people much further down the social scale – images of exotic foreignness went hand in hand with the luxury items for the table. As Charles V and his companions watched their interlude, they ate food flavoured with spices brought in on the same sea routes the Crusaders had followed in reverse.
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Medieval manuscripts are filled with recipies for ginger, for saffron, for cinnamon and mace. By the fifteenth century, we find recipes mentioning not only the spices, but also a new ingredient – sugar – and a play performed around 1500 has a character describe the exotic cargo of his merchant ships: ‘Spycis I hawe..In my shyppes..Gyngere, lycoresse and cannyngale’ (‘Spices I have … in my ships … ginger, liquorice, and galingale’). In the same year, the cosmopolitan text Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land foreshadowed a hundred foodie blogs in conflating quality of ingredients with obscurity of their source, advising: ‘Of peres..suche other comfytes, the further ye gone the better shall ye fynde, as well as grene gyngere’ (‘As concerns pears … and other such preserves, the further you travel the better quality you’ll find, and the same with green ginger’). These spices serve as metonyms for the geographies from which they come, representing the wide reach of English and French trading ships and the prosperity that enabled Western European nations to import their cargoes.

Recipies blend with medical remedies, with spices featuring in both. In one textbook on surgery, in a fourteenth-century manuscript, we find the recommendation to give patients ‘fleisch..sauerid with swete spicerie, as canel, gynger’ (‘meat … seethed in sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger’); in another, copied in the fifteenth century by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton, the list of ‘spices þat are hate: gynger, longe pepir, white pepir, aloes epotik’ (‘spices that are heating: ginger, long pepper, white pepper, liver-coloured [hepatic] aloes’).

Some concoctions sound fairly unpleasant to modern readers – in the 1325, we find instructions for cooking pike or turbot with almond milk, spices, saffron and sugar – though others sound more familiar, such as the ‘good hypocras’ made of wine and spices – mulled wine – recommended by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. In the Middle English romance Reinbrun, found in the London Auchinleck manuscript of the 1330s, we hear of merchants bringing expensive and varied stocks including spices:

Gingiuer and galingale,
Clowes, quibibes, gren de Paris,
Pyper, and comyn, and swet anis;

Fykes, reisyn, dates,
Almaund, rys, pomme-garnates,

Kanel and setewale …

(Ginger and galingale,
Cloves, cubeb [pepper], grains of Paradise,
Peper, and cumin, and sweet anise;

Figs, raisins, dates,
Almond, rice, pomegranates,
Cinnamon and turmeric … )

These spices were popular – luxury items, certainly, but in the category of luxuries affordable to quite a lot of reasonably well-to-do people, and as a treat, to more. Official documents relating to legal weights and measures give an intriguing insight, recording that ‘warys that be sold by the lb., as peper, saffryn, clowys, mace, gynger and suche other..be called Sotyll Warys’ (‘goods that are sold by the pound, as pepper, saffron, cloves, mace, ginger and such others … are called Subtle Wares’). The term ‘subtle’ suggests refined luxury, but the idea of buying a pound of ginger – let alone saffron – would be beyond most keen cooks’ budgets today.

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Comparative lists, giving the prices of various items – some luxuries, some common purchases – bear out the (relative) availability of spices. In a letter of 1471, one member of the Paston family writes to another, off on business, asking ‘sende me word qwat price a li. of peppyr, clowys, masis, gingyr, and sinamun’ (‘send me word – what price is a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon?’). As early as the thirteenth century, we find surnames redolent of the spice trade: Roger Spice, William Gingerer, Simon Pepperwhite.

The rich fragrance of spices, and their appealing colours and shapes, lent themselves to imaginative imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible translates the ornate lists of spices and aromatics in the Song of Songs into English as ‘fruytis of applis, cipre trees, with narde; narde, and saffrun, an erbe cleipid fistula, and canel, with alle trees of the Liban, myrre, and aloes, with alle the beste oynementis’ (‘fruits of apples, cypress trees, with nard [incense]; nard, and saffron, a herb called cassia, and cinnamon, with all trees of Lybia, myrrh, and aloes, with all the best ointments’).

The same lyricism, and same profusion of spices, is put to very different, and sadder ends, in the Middle English elegy Pearl, where the speaker laments over his dead daughter’s grave and declares:

That spot of spyses mot nedes sprede
Ther such ryches to rot is runne:
Blomes blayke and blwe and rede
Ther schyne ful schyr agayn the sunne.

(‘That spot must spread with spice-plants,
Where such richness has run to rot,
Blossoms yellow and blue and red
Must shine there, clear, against the sun.’)

As this lament reminds us – like the familiar imagery of the myrrh brought to the baby Jesus and foreshadowing his death – spices are also associated with the colder side of religious life. The preparation of spices for medicine gives rise to more monitory and penitential metaphors, such as this description of penitence, found in the didactic Book to a Mother:

Þe soule..pouneþ in a morter of hure conscience monye and diuerse bitter spices of hure synnes. 

(‘The soul … pounds in the mortar of her conscience many and diverse bitter spices of her sins.’)

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‘Thiese serpentes … with white peper theym feden.’

Spice suggests both sanctity and penitence, both sweet taste and bitter medicine, the mingled attraction and danger of the exotic. A (fictional) letter from the great conqueror Alexander claims that dragons – serpents – fed on white pepper.  In Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel A Load of Unicorn, the ringleaders of a Lancastrian plot against the Yorkist king Edward IV use a quick-witted Cockney spice-peddlar as go-between, and his seemingly innocent tallies of wares conceal a careful scheme to record covert sympathisers to the cause: “I’ll put them down as peppercorns in my list of spices.” 

The same link between spices and enemy threat crops up in Mummers’ Plays, which were recorded in versions from the medieval period onwards. There are several versions of the St George Mummer’s play – one here – and it makes use of the stock characters of medieval interludes and romances: St George, the enemy Turkish knight, the King of Egypt’s beautiful daughter. Early versions give St George a jingling rhymed challenge in defiance of the Turkish knight:

“I’ll slash him and stab him as small as the flies!
And send him to the cookshop to make mincepies!”

Later on, the homely English ‘cookshop’ is replaced with a more exotic location. In 1899, we hear:

“I’ll hack him up as small as dust,
And send him to Jamaica,
To be made into mince-pie crust!”

Here, ‘Jamaica’ probably functions not so much as a ‘real place’ as it does as a generalised symbol of the exotic, a mingled image of racial alterity and of the sugar and spices of mincemeat. Yet the racist undertone is pointed up by a third alternative, which has the valiant St George vow to send his Turkish adversary ‘to Satan, to make his mincepies!’.

Charles Causley’s brilliantly chilling Christmas poem ‘Innocent’s Song’ – which gives the Coventry Carol a run for its money – exploits the same imagery, with its description of the evil King Herod as a ‘smiling stranger/ With hair as white as gin’. Echoing the medieval ‘Saracen’s Head’ delicacy, or the Mummer’s Play with its Turkish knight chopped into spiced mince-meat, Causley’s poem transforms the human figure into a concoction from the medieval kitchen:

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

The image, like the earlier texts, turns a once-real threat of danger into something both more exotic, and more palatable. The texts exoticise and parody images of foreignness in a way that makes us uncomfortable, linking to a disturbingly long tradition of caricatured, indeterminate foreign Others – Saracen, Turkish, Jamaican, Ethiopian; they also draw on the seductive scents and tastes of spices to cover up – like rotten meat – the unsavoury hints of nationalistic propaganda lurking beneath.

But, there is another side to this coin. The images and anecdotes, recipes and remedies and lists of prices for spices here prove to us that medieval English men and women were not cut off from a world of cultural – and racial – difference. Even ingredients we tend not to expect in medieval cooking – sugar, for example, or cubeb peppers, cumin, turmeric – are all there alongside the more traditionally-expected mace, ginger and cinnamon. In the same way, these texts and images are part of a wider reminder that medieval England – and medieval Europe – were not unvaryingly white spaces. The Medieval People of Color project – which I’ve mentioned before, and which regularly receives abusive comments for its excellent work uncovering the histories and images of medieval people of color – gives a fascinating and complex picture.

It’s hard to guess at what ordinary medieval people – of whatever skin colour – thought of the images around them, or of the geographies evoked by the spices that passed through their kitchens. But we can at least look at this history and acknowledge it, think about it, work its images of strangeness and familiarity into our understanding of the medieval past.

Happy Christmas!
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With thanks to Ruth Allen for the St George Mummers’ Play, Sjoerd Levelt for the baby dragon in the margin of BnF Latin 919, and Emma Goss for food styling. 

References:

Food History Almanac, Vol 1, ed. Janet Clarkson (2014)

Peter Millington, ‘Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries’, Folk Drama Studies Today (2003), 97-132.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: University Press, 2003), pp. 124-150.

Images in this post are taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813; London, British Library, Add MS 4213o; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919; Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456 and London, British Library, Royal MS 10.

The medical textbooks are to be found respectively in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1396 and Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91. The play with the spice-merchant’s ships is found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in Dublin, Trinity College MS 652. The Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land is found in London, British Library, Cotton Appendix 8. The Book to a Mother is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 416.

 

Roger Fuckbythenavel and the Strange Case of the Queer Deer

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Christmas cards, available at the Fitzwilliam Museum Shop. Image from Cambridge, Fitzwilliam MS 254, f. 10r (detail).

Browsing in the Fitzwilliam Museum shop last week, I found this image in the selection of upmarket Christmas cards. It’s charmingly medieval and vaguely reindeer-like, and no one else seemed to think it was out of place in the nice display of highbrow Christmassy gear. But I’d like to believe that the sinister cult responsible for the rainbow over Dublin last May was in on this one, because these, as you see from the matching masculine antlers, are queer deer.

Let me explain. Way back in the summer, I went to the EEBS conference in Oxford, where Kathleen Tonry showed parts of the illuminated manuscript now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335. It features a pair of be-antlered deer who seemed to be whispering intimate secrets to each other as a hunter hidden in the bushes peeked at them like a fifteenth-century flasher. Since only male deer have antlers, I figured this was a particularly subversive homoerotic and cross-species take on the romantic trope of pursuit, and I got halfway through planning out a very erudite paper on the idea of queering the objectifying gaze that was studded with references to Wyatt and George Boleyn, Dame Juliana Berners and the genderqueer hawks of medieval lyric, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s steamy hunt-and-homosexuality subplot.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From 'The Master of Game'.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From ‘The Master of Game’.

Then I came to my senses.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of queer deer. On the quiet, I enjoy the way they’re hidden in plain sight, in the middle of a fairly conservative, William Morrisey, white middle-class Christianity type of display. I also like the surprise factor that you get from thinking about a medieval image from a modern perspective. There’s a long-standing popular belief that medieval culture is a mish-mash of chastity belts and sighing ladies, kneeling knights straight out of pre-Raphaelite painting and a vague sense that them Dark Ages folk were illiterate, superstitious and dull. This popular belief doesn’t have room for the idea of queer deer – let alone queer humans, or even any kind of sexual activity not heavily policed by church and state – because it suits us to imagine medieval England as a particular kind of oppressive, sexually repressed regime, a neat historical parallel to Islamic fundamentalism.

A recent bit of news demonstrates how tightly we cling to that image of medieval England.

Someone recently proposed a new candidate for the first English usage of the f-word – it’s a hot topic – in the name of one Roger Fuckbythenavel, who was outlawed in 1311. Dr Paul Booth, suggests, perhaps rather wishfully waving one hand towards the REF impact agenda, that the epithet might have come about as a form of medieval ‘revenge porn’, put about by a fed-up ex-girlfriend wanting to mock poor Roger’s clumsy technique. I quite like this discovery, not so much for the swearing or the tendentiously topical gloss, but because it lends weight to a homoerotic reading of a romance I work on, where men are constantly thrusting things suggestively at each others’ middles. I’ve been suspecting for some time that the word ‘navel’ had a whole lot more euphemistic connotation than it ought to, in that text. Euphemism is hard to prove in the absence of suggestive eyebrow-raising from a live audience, and so I’d like to think this discovery might be a tiny hint about fashions in innuendo, as well as formative fucks.

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don't ask me why. Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century. Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don’t ask me why.                                            Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century.
Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Yet, there is a special circle in Hell for people who dash into the comments sections of articles to dribble their confidently-asserted idiocies all over the internet, secure in the belief that the world is waiting with bated breath for those same urban myths every other idiot has just posted, and I knew this discovery would bring them out. Kate Wiles, who’d shared the link on twitter, had also linked to her old post ‘On the Origin of Fuck’, which rattles through the common misconceptions about the term:

“One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.”

She includes a discussion of the term ‘windfucker’, a nice Anglo-Saxon-influenced name for a kestrel unaccountably overlooked by Hopkins when he was writing The Windhover, and points out that the term originally meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to beat’. But, despite reeeaaallllly detailed and patient explorations of different uses of the word and different theories, her comments section is full of people falling over their keyboards to rush in and reinstate the myths she’s just busted. When that article went viral, Wiles reposted it on the Huff Post, and, delightfully, some idiot zoomed in to accused Wiles of ‘stealing’ a published piece and reblogging it. Commentators who accept the idea of male-dominated, officially-documented authority that lies behind the F.U.C.K. myth don’t seem to recognise any professional expertise behind a blog by a young female historian like Wiles.

I mention all of this because – predictably – the same thing’s happening on the new article. There’s the classic pompous idiocy (“I guess the author has never read the Canterbury tales (@1387) wherein Chaucer used the word (The Miller’s Tale) …”), which manages to be wrong in at least two ways as well as pretty funny (the Canterbury Tales, that arcane and little-known text). There are a couple of comments by people who obviously haven’t realised reading medieval handwriting is something you get trained to do, and not a matter of squinting hard and making things up (well … ok …). And obviously, there’s a zillion repetitions of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge bullshit (and its variants), of which my favourite is this:

“Fornrication Under Consumation of the King !!! Only the King could give permission to fornicate. Women wore Chastity belts when the spouse went to war and was gone for long periods of time. Then the King would have the belts removed.”

It’s unfair to pick on random people, I know. But I am picking on it, because the issues with this persistent set of confidently-asserted myths are pretty revealing. Chastity belts are one of the images of the medieval that never seem to die. At best, they’re literary devices or symbolic objects, until the Victorians come along and decide that the image of maidens locked into iron belts perfectly fits their somewhat fetishistic idea of medieval womanhood. There’s a strange, nursery-rhyme innocence to the idea that the king would relate personally to each of his subjects (all 2.5 million of them), and a rather more worrying lack of anatomical plausibility (hundreds of women, locked into metal belts for months and years, might just possibly struggle with basic biological functions, not to mention getting gangrene from metal rubbing against skin). Suffice to say, these are misconceptions that aren’t just implausible – they’re downright absurd.

But it’s what they say about ideas of authority and freedom of expression that I’m interested in. In this re-writing of medieval England, the king is absolute ruler, literally and physically controlling his subjects’ sexuality. His surveillance is so complete, so meticulously recorded in writing, that it has given us our foremost swearword. It’s an image of medieval England that couldn’t possibly have existed, one that draws on immensely more powerful and overt methods of control and legislation than any medieval king ever had. People cling tenaciously to this image of masculine totalitarian control.

Medieval practices of gender and sexuality undoubtedly were policed, just as ours are. But much of that policing was – just as ours is – carried out indirectly, through habits of thought and action far more subtle than a king’s command and far less visible than a written order. My ‘queer deer’ are so unthinkable – so incomprehensible to whoever selects the cards for the Fitzwilliam – that we assume, automatically, that they must be a modern interpretation imposed on medieval imagery. And yet, we accept the ahistorical – multiply ahistorical – idea of the medieval woman, bound into her chastity belt and constrained by the order of her king – because that image of controlled feminine sexuality fits our image of the medieval period, as an image of queer sexuality cannot. Why is that?

My ‘queer deer’ are currently sitting on my desk, and I’ll definitely send some of them out as Christmas cards this December. Sadly, the reason for their paired masculine antlers is most likely quite mundane. As the repetition of the image across several manuscripts shows, it’s not unusual Fitzwilliam MS 254 is a bestiary, written in Latin in the early years of the thirteenth century. It illustrates the word ‘cervus’ (‘deer’), which is related to the word for ‘horn’ – so etymologically-correct deer have to have antlers just like snails have knights and lions have St Jerome. We moderns – thinking of couples of animals as automatic sexual pairings, like Noah counting creatures into the Ark – are probably alone in reading a bit of cervine neck-nuzzling as quasi-sexual. But – as penalties laid down for lesbian nuns, as records on medieval women seeking divorce, as stories of medieval men marrying forbidden women indicate – we’re not alone in suspecting medieval England of being more than a totalitarian regime, and perhaps even a place where queer deer could roam free.

Update

I am now even more delighted by the queer deer cards, because the fantastically learned G. H. Finn (@ over on twitter) has this brilliant update. When I saw the card, I figured the modern card-maker must have thought these looked vaguely like reindeer, hence, Christmassy. But I put that thought mostly to one side, as I know for the medieval artist, they’re not probably not reindeer. 

Finn points out, though, that unlike the common British species of deer the artist might have seen, horns aren’t a marker of sex difference in reindeer – except during the winter, when male deer lose their horns but female deer do not. As he sweetly puts it, this means ‘Rudolph must be female’.

And it also means that my Christmas-card identically horned deer may not have been queer deer for etymologically-minded medieval artists, but they’re certainly lesbian reindeer for us.

Deconstructing the Visuals of Martin Hudáček’s Anti-Abortion ‘Memorial’

'Memorial for Unborn Children' by Martin Hudáček

‘Memorial for Unborn Children’ by Martin Hudáček

You may well have seen this image – it’s not newly out there – but the other day a friend of mine mentioned it again, and I wanted to take a minute to pin down what’s so disturbing about it. Obviously, it’s easy to get angry at the basic message, the idea that a male sculptor has decided to guilt-trip women in this particular way. It’s also easy to take shots at the twee aspect – the toddler touching the crying woman on the head is cheaply emotive, designed to provoke a cascade of sympathetic reactions before we read what the subject matter is. But I wanted to go deeper than that, to explain why I find this so particularly disturbing in its connotations.

There’s a visual vocabulary here that’s subtle and manipulative.  If you know Christian art, you know that the child’s gesture isn’t merely affectionate – it is a ritualised gesture, a gesture of blessing or forgiveness. The woman kneeling before a child who raises his hand over her head is a Christian trope: it’s evoking the sinner Mary Magdalene kneeling at Christ’s feet, or the baby Jesus with his mother Mary. Implicitly, the statue invites us to parallel the child’s figure with the saintly, the holy.

Notice how the woman isn’t really sobbing in a realistic way, but kneeling with her back straight and her head bent, and propped up on her knees with one foot supporting the pose? That’s not a casual posture, but a ritualised use of the body. In Christian culture, from the early centuries, men wrote manuals describing the proper postures of prayer, the way the body could be disposed to function more effectively as a channel for prayer and penitence. I’ve read medieval books with drawings of how one should kneel or prostrate oneself, and they still exist today. Such images came to have a reciprocal relationship with aesthetics of prayer and penitence, so that the famous images you will have seen of people kneeling in prayer are shaped by this body of work. In this image, the woman’s body is deliberately unrelaxed – imagine taking on that posture and you’ll see how much bodily concentration it requires. It would quite quickly become painful. Her emotion is not spontaneous, but physically disciplined.

There’s something duplicitous about this, then: the sculpture purports to reflect an outpouring of emotion – and there’s an idea of spontaneous, unconsidered action and long, considered regret in the anti-abortion narrative – but it does no such thing. In the context of abortion, it is telling that this is, visually, a woman doing with her body exactly what the Church tells her, positioning her body in the posture of grief dictated by this tradition.

Women have been saying for a very long time that we should be able to talk more about abortion, and I’ve heard claims that this sculpture facilitates that, that – even if you disagree with its anti-abortion message – it has value in that it might allow some women to own their emotions, to express feelings. But, because it is imposing not only the aesthetic and ideology of one man (the sculptor), but also of a long tradition behind him, its effect is erasing. Rather than expressing loss and regret, the statue subtly conveys the message that a female body should be scripted in a tradition of discipline and concentration, dedicated to holding its uncomfortable posture and telegraphing its inferiority.

There’s an obvious level at which any male attempt to represent what is a uniquely female experience is going to be an appropriation, and potentially an erasure of genuine female experience. When that goes hand-in-hand with propaganda designed to control women’s bodies, it is grotesque, and you might feel that knowing about this (largely historical) tradition of disciplining the body through prayer is far from the worst thing about this image: and that’s fair. But, I find it the more disturbing, because it is subtler: it displaces real women’s emotions and renders them unreadable to many viewers. Reading the sorts of sites that approve of this sculpture, I find both men and women approvingly labelling this posture and image as a representation of female ‘anguish’ or ‘heartbreaking’ pain – they cannot even recognise the difference between reality, and ritualised performance designed to control the kneeling female body.

Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

Nike of Samothrace, from the Louvre collection.

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself:

” … [the women] weren’t counted when the Cenotaph went up. Their work was non-work. Just air, like the holes in my lace. Wind the bobbins, twist and cross, work the piece, catch all the nothing in the looping patterns of the thread. This is how we see women’s work – the pretty arrangement of nothing. …In war, men made heaps of bodies, women made the things that would be consumed and need to be made again.”

This sudden twisting of the beautiful into the violent is shockingly effective, and I love how her writing creates its own mimetic memorial, structuring itself into an object of beauty looped around the idea of women’s absence from historical monuments, just like the lacework it describes. But her mimesis approach made me think about how language, itself functions as a memorial, and the way that idea is gendered.

It’s a theme that runs through a lot of what I’ve been thinking about this term. I’m working on trauma and memory, and my students – who’ve finished their medieval dissertations – have been preparing to sit their final exam, the Tragedy paper. Yet, tragedy, in the Western literary tradition, is very often an extended exploration of men doing unspeakably awful things to women, and authors constructing something beautiful and memorable out of these actions. It poses an ethical real problem: how do you ask women to study 2000-plus years of literature which is, amongst other things, interested in violence against women as an aesthetic process?

First I thought about women’s speech. A friend of mine recently wrote this piece, titled ‘Why Women Talk Less’, about the dynamics of male/female speech within mixed gender groups. It has a huge amount of research behind it, and for me, the stand-out point is that the problem isn’t women failing to speak; the often-proposed solution – that women should be more assertive, more forceful – simply doesn’t work. Women who attempt that approach are penalised for it, perceived as rude interrupters (a perception I notice a lot when teaching medieval woman writers). Women are expected to spend time, and words, validating male peers, and this reinforces male authority to speak up.

We can see this throughout history. We tend to see women’s speech, and women’s writing, as insubstantial, provisional, lacking the weight and authority of men’s words. Writing in the first century BC, Catullus declares that the words of a woman in love are so fluid, so fleetingly true, ‘in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua’: they should be written in the wind, on the rushing water’. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the only woman whose words have any power is the Sibyl of Cumae, the mouthpiece of the god Apollo, her body racked with pain as he forces her to speak not her own words, but his. Yet she also figures the fragility of women’s speech, for she scribbles her messages on fluttering leaves, which are blown into disorder by the wind. Her legend links her raving and her ineffectual attempts to communicate to her physical imprisonment in an ageing female body: coerced to give up her virginity to the god Apollo, she bargained for as many years of life as the grains of sand in her hourglass, and so lives on in painfully protracted old age, shrunken to tiny size:

‘For I saw the Sibyl of Cumae with my own eyes, hanging in a little jar, and when the boys asked her: “Sibyl, what would you do?” she replied “I would die.”‘ 

These powerful tropes of ephemeral, disordered female speech lie behind a more violent tradition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid imagines women deprived of their human voices through literal, oral violation. I wrote a while ago, following on from comments by other scholars, about the way in which women’s speech is marked in medieval literature as the speech of the Other, as birdspeech. The paradigmatic example of this Ovid’s story of Philomela, raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. Her tongue cut out, Philomela is forced to weave her story in order to communicate with her sister, and once this is done the two take gruesome revenge by killing and serving the body of Tereus (and Procne’s) son Itys to his unsuspecting father. Philomela’s communication becomes – of necessity – another looping-together of words around an absence: the physical mutilation, the loss of her tongue, driving her back to that seemingly decorative ‘woman’s work’ Ditum describes. 

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail).

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

As Tereus pursues the two women in murderous fury, they are miraculously transformed into birds: Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow, forced to cry out the swallow’s song of ‘Itys, Itys’ in echo of her dead son’s name. The sound telescopes her grief to a single word, reducing it to birdsong, and it echoes backwards and forwards in literature to other women, losing its specificity of reference: Aeschylus’ Cassandra, doomed never to be believed, cries out with the same bird-like sounds, ‘like swallows, in some barbarian language’, ‘a tuneless song … Itys! Itys!’; Pound’s Canto 4 places the same horrified cry into the mouth of the medieval Frenchwoman, fed the heart of her lover Cabestan, as she throws herself to her death:

Et ter flebiliter, Ityn, Ityn!
And she went toward the the window and cast her down,
All the while, the while, swallows crying:
Ityn!
“It is Cabestan’s heart in the dish.”
“Is it Cabestan’s heart in the dish?

… the swallows crying:
‘Tis. ‘Tis. Ytis!”

These echoes empty out the significance even of women’s bird-like mutilated speech, reducing it to a shared effect of sound, as if all women’s voices blur into one unintelligible twittering. Eliot, incorporating the story of Philomel into The Wasteland, reduces this song further. Responding to Ovid in the sixteenth century, writers claimed that the soft ‘tereu, tereu’ sound of the nightingale represents Philomel’s crying after her rapist; they also hear the word ‘fie’, and, inexplicably (but accurately representing the birdsong), ‘jug, jug’. Eliot’s Philomel once sings ‘Tereu’ but her speech is dominated by the jarringly incomprehensible: ‘twit twit twit/ jug jug jug jug jug jug’.

Pottery_jug_painting_swallows_1700-1650_BC,_PMTh_138_0503173x

Akrotiri swallow vase (detail). Prehistoric Museum of Thira

The contrast between these evocations of women’s empty speech, and men’s depictions of their own words, is striking. Male writers and speakers aspire to permanence for their words, and with their words they construct memorials cemented in stone and engraved in metal. Horace, writing between Catullus and Ovid, offers this image:

“I have built a monument more lasting than bronze
Higher than the royal structure of the pyramids
… I shall not wholly die, and a greater part of me
Will escape Lady Death.”

(Exegi monumentum aere perennius/ reglalique situ pyramidum altius … Non omnis moriar, multaque pars mei/ vitabit Libitinam).

For Horace, words – the words that for women are ‘wind-written’ and fleeting, twittering and muted, looped beautifully around absence –  are paradoxically concrete and lasting. And, whereas the repetition of the words attributed to women create an echo-chamber of twittering confusions, we find later writers build on Horace’s image as if it were the solid structure it describes. Chaucer’s House of Fame pays tribute to Virgil’s Aeneid by picturing it, engraved on a tablet of brass; Shakespeare adapts it into his sonnets. But this image of permanence – of the memorialising quality of words – also stands behind violent displays of eloquence in which masculine memorialisation acts upon voiceless women. So, Othello muses:

I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

His words construct a memorial for Desdemona in the Horatian tradition, an aesthetic object that takes on the function of the marble statue it describes. There is something psychopathically disturbing about the way Othello slips, so readily, from the act of smothering his wife to the glibly eloquent image of a funeral memorial, as if to elide the intervening death and his own part in it. The violence of this memorial image is something in which Shakespeare becomes complicit, because he participates in the process Horace describes – making a memorial, an aesthetic object, out of words – but uses as his raw material, his sculpting block or tablet – the image of Desdemona’s dying body.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

Sixteenth-century tomb memorial to Joyce Acton, Charleton Church, Warwickshire.

This unsettling linguistic memorialising becomes grotesque when it is brought into contact with the tradition of treating women’s words as muted and mutilated language, as in Titus AndronicusTitus is an incredibly violent play – the plot revolves around acts of murder (or human sacrifice), counter-acts of revenge, the threat of forced marriage and the horror of rape. Its rape subplot is based, explicitly, on the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and where the tongueless Philomela weaves a tapestry to tell her story, in Shakespeare’s version, the rapists tauntingly anticipate this possibility, and cut off not only Lavinia’s tongue, but also her hands:

Demetrius: So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.

Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.

It is in this state that Lavinia’s uncle, Marcus, finds her. Like the mutilated statue of the goddess at the top of this post, she wants to speak but her body stands poised in a frozen space, mouthless and armless, unable to speak or communicate. This moment is one of the much-discussed scenes of Shakespeare’s work, for, as Lavinia stands bleeding, Marcus launches into a speech whose length and self-conscious rhetorical eloquence seem jarringly out of place. His attempt to find beauty in the horrific image, to construct an aesthetic object out of his own emotional response, echoes Othello’s memorialising self-justification, yet agonisingly prolongs the display of Lavinia’s unanswered suffering. Her pain becomes, as we listen, somehow unreal; her bleeding seems fake, because quite obviously she would have died of blood loss had the wounds been genuine. The words memorialise Lavinia at the expense of making her pain, and her humanity, seem unreal.

This speech prepares for Titus’ own response to his daughter’s violation, which bursts out of him when he discovers – as she manages to trace out a message in the sand, holding a stick between the stumps of her hands – who her rapists are. Echoing Horace, he vows:

I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands, like Sibyl’s leaves, abroad,
And where’s your lesson, then?

I can’t help reading Titus’ image of engraving words in brass as a violent one, the words cut sharply into the surface of the metal, penetrating its surface in a disturbingly pseudo-sexual way (I’ve written about the history of writing as penetration before). As with Othello, the act of memorialisation is also – although inadvertently – an act of silencing, as Titus vows to ‘lay it by’ once he has recorded the story: to preserve it, but, also, to set it aside, a memorial, but an unread memorial. In proximity to the image of Sibyl’s leaves, too, the image of scattered sand carries a submerged reminder of the coercive sex that reduced the Sibyl to a woman trapped in a failing, constraining body, wishing for death. The lines insert a masculine, permanent, solid written text over the already-scattering feminine words, and over Lavinia’s enforced muteness, speaking for her but also speaking over her.

The horror of the tragedies comes from their attempt to make beautiful – and then to make permanent – the suffering of the women they depict. But their power also comes from the long histories of conceptualising male and female speech in different ways, of imagining men’s words as permanent, inscribed, gouged upon the memory while women’s words are scattered, muted, mutilated birdspeech, a series of echoes looped around silences. If we see literature as a long conversation, stretching forward from Horace and Ovid to Shakespeare and onwards, we can interpret the repeated processes of citation and adaptation as something akin to the validation of men’s voices we see in conversations.

So what does reading tragedy – or reading literary history – achieve, especially for women literary critics? How does it relate back to that dynamic of the silencing of women, which exists outside literature, in debates between men and women?

Running a commentary around these words – knitting them up into a new pattern – feels substantial to me. Commentaries are seen as reactive work, not original work, but, like Ditum’s lace-making, they create something much more than the sum of their parts. In the context of female absences and silences, building this structure – writing this piece – feels productive, a way of relating to these texts and responding to these tropes, without replicating them. By analysing the imagery of male speech as solid, concrete and authoritative, we can deconstruct it, unpick it, turn it into the sort of text that can be unravelled and understood. Writing this, I had at the back of my mind a question about women studying tragedy: should we do it, or is it unfair to expect women to immerse themselves in literature that is so filled with violently silencing images of women? I think writing can function as a form of memorialising of that problem, a mode of ‘speaking up’ for women that fills in their silences without speaking over them.

Note on Copyright

Casualties of the Popular History of Sexuality

Awesome (possible) lesbians again, because really, why the heck not?                                                                           Image via flickr.com/photos/sshreeves and http://www.autostraddle.com/150-years-of-lesbians-144337/

I really should be writing a lecture on medieval lyric at the moment, finishing off a book review and marking essays. But I procrastinate, and the world keeps turning, so I’m going to write this post instead.

The Guardian has a puff piece for a new play by Glenn Chandler, based on the lives of two Victorians who, so Chandler argues, ought to be known as early activists in the struggle for gay rights. The article’s language makes it very easy to picture these two – living in London decades before the landmark trial of Oscar Wilde – as if they’d been transplanted from a rainbow-coloured twenty-first century, because the key word throughout is ‘fun’. Wilde becomes ‘poor old Oscar’, guilty of little more than ‘play[ing] the wrong cards’, while his slightly lesser-known peers were just having ‘[so] much fun’. Now, I understand the impulse. Trying to recognise ourselves in the past is something we all do, and it’s incredibly tempting to smooth away the negatives and imagine that, from the bare outlines of historical fact, we can build a wonderfully familiar, positive, happy image. In the same way, I’ve written before about how brilliantly compelling the images of Victorian women cross-dressing are, and I’ve tried to explain, too, why I get slightly worried about people who assume we can interpret images from the past using our own modern categories of gender and sexuality.

So I started reading the article wondering how – or if – it would negotiate this. I read that the two men in the play, Frederick Park and Thomas Boulton, regularly dressed as women and used female alter egos, and – whether prudently or just because they fancied it anyway – took to the theatre, which has a time-honoured tradition of male cross-dressing. In 1870, police rounded them up, along with another male friend, and arrested them. They were tried for indecency, but got off because the jury found no evidence of anyone committing sodomy and (rather interestingly to me, as a medievalist who knows medieval laws) no evidence that men cross-dressing was any sort of crime in English law. As a result, the court treated the cross-dressing as a bit of a joke, rather than a serious threat to social decency. The article concludes with a quotation from Chandler, claiming that Park and Boulton:

“really thought their case would change things, they thought a change in the law was coming, but then in two decades we have the Oscar Wilde trial and it takes another two centuries for change to come.”

This sounds wonderfully inspiring.

I admit, I’m not mad keen on the implication that the sort of ‘change’ these two hoped for can be neatly linked up to the changes of, er, 2070 (or even 1967), as if they were displaced members of Stonewall deposited in Victorian London via metaphorical Tardis. We don’t really know what these men hoped or expected, how they would have defined their own attitudes to their clothes or their actions. I’m even less keen on the way that this ignores pre-Victorian history. There’s a certain fashion for acting as if sexuality really began with the Victorians, whom I’ve seen credited variously with inventing the vibrator, lesbians, transvestites, manual orgasm and the empowerfulising (fictional) side of prostitution.  Talking about deviant sex in pre-Victorian England is held to be slightly embarrassing amongst all this fun Victorian stuff: it’s the historical equivalent of teenagers on the bus holding forth loudly about how, like, totally sex positive they are, while forty-something women roll their eyes at each other and someone’s mum mutters you didn’t invent it, you know.

For what it’s worth, people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries before Park and Boulton. For example, in the late fourteenth century, a man called John Rykener was arrested for posing as a woman – Eleanor – and prostituting himself to various men. He attended court in his woman’s clothing, and he admitted he had been married to a man, though he also slept with woman (without eliciting payment) while dressed as a man. Rykener’s story is startlingly similar to that of Park and Boulton, despite a gap of nearly five hundred years. It’s a warning that the neat fiction of those Victorian crossdressers as early gay activists should be taken with a big pinch of salt: an awful lot of history is not a connected narrative of progress and liberation.

But it also tells us something else about attitudes towards gender and sexuality further back in history. As Carolyn Dinshaw points out, Rykener’s evidence at his trial shows that he didn’t simply dress as a woman: he interpreted his behaviour as feminine and passive when he was dressed as a woman, and masculine and active when he was dressed as a man. For the former, he charged substantial sums of money – more, apparently, than women prostitutes could hope to command – whereas the latter he seems to have done for free. To modern readers, this may seem confusing: what did it mean to have sex ‘as a woman’? How did Rykener’s display of gender intersect with his expectation of getting paid? I read Rykner’s trial and wonder about the women he slept with – and the women who were paid less than him – and the women who understood from him that to have sex as a woman was to be passive. That’s not because I’m not interested in Rykener himself. It’s because you can’t take a figure out of history and relate to him alone, without considering the context. If you do that, then you dehumanise everyone else in that historical narrative, relegating them to the background.

And this is what I think is happening here. Fiction isn’t history, and a play can have an emotional power without needing to be weighed down with factual detail. But I find emotional power disturbing when it involves, not a selective reading of the past, but an appropriation and distortion of it.

The Guardian piece quotes quite a long comment from Chandler, which may be edited but reads as if it’s all one thought process, and which I found, frankly, pretty appalling. Explaining how writing the scripts for Taggart got him interested in court records, we’re told cheerfully:

“My favourite is a guy in Ohio who held his wife’s head first in a bucket of rattlesnakes and when that didn’t kill her he lifted her out and put her in a bath and threw in an electric cable and still failed. All around the world there were stories that I injected into Glasgow, not so much the gory ones, more the intriguing ones that tell you a lot about human nature.

Ultimately that’s the same interest that drew me to these two in 1870s London. In a tense atmosphere of homophobia they are young men having fun.”

I’m honestly not sure what to make of that. Yes, Chandler covers himself with a non-committal observation that this anecdote ‘tell[s] you a lot about human nature’, and yes, possibly, if you are a violent misogynist with limited capacity to see women as human beings, you might conclude it’s ‘human nature’ that’s being described here. If you are a violent misogynist, or just amazingly crass, you might juxtapose that anecdote with a reference to ‘young men having fun’. But … why? And how could you forget, even for as long as it took to put together this comment, that the lovely positive language of ‘favourites’ and ‘fun’ is describing several attempts to kill someone?

The violence here, the truly horrible event, clearly doesn’t make a mark on Chandler as he concentrates on what I imagine he fancies as the wider philosophical point, the point about ‘human nature’. And it was that selective viewing of someone else’s life – the packaging of that life into the quick prelude to a heart-warming story of ‘young men having fun’ – that really bothered me. The women in this narrative don’t fit the narrative or progress and liberation – and Chandler (or whoever edited his words in this article) doesn’t even seem to realize that there are parallel narratives of oppression here, intersecting ones even, only one of which is being told. What did Parks and Boulton really feel about their trial? Why were they dressing as women – would they have chosen it, in a different world? Would they even have identified as gay? What about other men (and women) who didn’t skip out of court laughing, supported by their families – and who still don’t? How does it help them to pretend to a continuity of gay rights activism, for which we don’t have the evidence?

There is a drama of sexuality and gender to be written here, but it needs to be one that doesn’t ignore the intersecting oppressions of the past (and present). It needs to be one that doesn’t sacrifice the uncertainties of the past to a story that makes a better soundbite.

Notes

Ruth Karras and David Boyd, ‘”Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London’, Premodern Sexualities (1996): 101-116.

Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999)

Copyright Statement

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.