Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

title.none: Lomperis and Stanbury, edd., Feminist Approaches to the Body

identifier.other: baj9928.9404.006 94.04.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Harvard University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Lomperis, Linda. Stanbury, Sarah, edd. Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pp. 255. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-1364-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.04.06

Lomperis, Linda. Stanbury, Sarah, edd. Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Pp. 255. ISBN: ISBN 0-8122-1364-5.

Reviewed by:

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen
Harvard University

It is perhaps a good reflection on the remarkable recent growth and energy of medieval gender studies that a collection of essays which was first conceived in 1987 and published in 1993 could be, by the time it appeared, already dated.

Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature is, by any measure, an excellent book; I cannot imagine that any serious student of the Middle Ages or of somatic history generally will not find much of great value here. As a whole the collection is coherent yet wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as Petrarchan lyric and national bodies; the paradoxical nature of Mary's body in medieval drama; the psychology of elegy; the connection of medical views of women to expressions of female spirituality. In their explorations of the relationships between gender, the body, culture, psychology, and the process of writing, all the writers remain for the most part accessible, erudite, and provocative. Feminist Approaches to the Body will be an important book for many years to come.

The problem which haunts the collection, not surprisingly, has little to do with the essays that are present, but with what was omitted. The cover of the paperback edition embodies the paradox: a woodcut of a knight in full armor has been sliced into sections, so that the body appears to be disaggregating; the face of the knight has been completely removed, replaced with a very tender feminine visage, perhaps a Virgin. The picture (to my mind at least) asks "What gender is the body?", and suggests as an answer that the body is possibly masculine, possibly feminine, possibly both, and possibly something completely other. Contrast this notion with the idée reçue that in the Middle Ages (to quote one of the book's contributors) "the 'masculinized' claims of the mind work to master, subsume, and away with the 'feminized' claims of the body" (p.22): femininity, in this formulation, becomes physicality, mere matter. We no longer believe, of course, that men have souls and women have bodies. Why, then, is a book of feminist interpretations of the body only about feminine bodies?

A partial (but unsatisfactory) answer to that question might be found in the fact that there are no male contributors to the collection. More importantly, however, the essays seem to have been composed just before the sudden, swift advances in feminist theory of the past few years - advances which have unhooked the persistent, naturalized linkage of gender-sex-body, encouraging recent critics to think through gender without reinscribing the cultural myths that link its construction (insistently but inadequately) to anatomy. Judith Butler has been the most influential of these theorists, and although two of the essays in this collection gesture towards her work (or at least reference Gender Trouble), for the most part she and Teresa de Lauretis are marginal voices; David Halperin and his associated post-Foucauldian constructivist school are not represented in the bibliography at all. Few scholars interested in the problematics of the body would want to separate feminism, gender studies, and queer theory, especially as they align themselves to form what Eagleton has called the New Somatic History; and yet many of the essays in Feminist Approaches to the Body perform that division.

The surprising result of this narrowed vision is that, in many cases, the masculine body disappears from view. Some may rightly wonder, of course, why the male body should be represented at all in a collection of feminist essays; in light of the work in gender theory I've just cited, however, I'm not sure it makes sense to overlook any kind of body - or to take any dualistic gendering as anything but a "problem" rather than a given. By eliding the male body, the feminine becomes a category that can suddenly stand on its own - when it makes more sense to excavate how terms like "masculine" and "feminine" are coincipient, and can be defined only in their relation to each other. For example, I wondered as I read through Peggy McCracken's "The Body Politic and the Queen's Adulterous Body in French Romance" if it made sense to speak of adulterous queens (Guenevere, Isolde) as owning their bodies at all: could it not be that these queens are adulterous because the kings to whom they are conjoined are fundamentally flawed, politically impotent? Perhaps the Body Politic manifests itself not only in "the king's two bodies" and in the queen as social marker (McCracken and I both have Mary Douglas in mind here), but also in the imbrication of monarchal identity with domestic or familial identity - in essence, of king with queen. If gender is relational (if "male" and "female" derive their signification from mutual indebtedness), then power within gender must likewise be contingent, and expressed through contiguous bodies without regard to boundaries that are merely physical.

Chretien's Arthur is a hopelessly weak regent: he sleeps through adventures that Guenevere hears (Le Chevalier au lion), suffers the humiliating abduction of his consort by a foreign power (Le Chevalier de la charrete), and watches helplessly as his goblet is stolen from his table and the contents emptied over the queen (Le Conte du graal). Like most French romances of this period, Chretien's stories side consistently with juvenes over rex, and the sexuality of the queen demonstrates what is wrong with the body of the state, of which she is an extension. Lancelot's adultery is not presented, therefore, as an especially problematic - or even worrisome - act: indeed, it is Guenevere who seems empowered by it as much as her lover. McCracken writes that "once opened, the queen's body is possessed by an other" (58): why is it, then, that it is Lancelot who must repeatedly attempt to regain access to her; that it is Lancelot who has lost possession of his heart and cannot bestow it elsewhere (at a strange kind of metaphorical evisceration); that it is Guenevere who, after 3600 lines of poetry, finally speaks Lancelot's name and thereby announces, for the first time, his true identity; and finally that it is Lancelot who bleeds upon the white sheets at their love making? Whose body has been possessed here? Further, by focusing on the anti-Tristan romance Cliges in her exposition, McCracken avoids many of the difficulties raised by adulterous queen traditions with long literary histories: what to do, for example, with the multiplication of Isoldes or the efficacy of the love potion in the Tristan stories? Lastly, I wondered what McCracken would make of romances in which the adulterous queen is not barren: in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, for example, Guenevere produces offspring for Mordred, and Arthur has these children hurled into the sea.

It is, admittedly, not fair to take pars pro toto here: the collection is quite diverse, and several of the pieces admit a broader focus for contemporary gender and somatic studies. McCracken's essay stands in contrast to Sarah Stanbury's "Feminist Masterplots: The Gaze on the Body of Pearl's Dead Girl." Stanbury takes a challenging body of criticism (psychoanalytic feminism as amplified within film studies) and makes it both accessible and relevant to the study of the Middle Ages. Because this critical school insists upon the constructedness of all identities through techniques like "the gaze," Stanbury is able to modify Lacanianism to illuminate the ways in which gendered bodies exist in unsteady relation to each other, both specularly and as text. The Dreamer and the young girl in Pearl, she argues, challenge "the essentialized male gaze, a construct of a Freudian/Lacanian model of personality development that ... leaves little room for a spectatrix" (105). By insisting on a space for female subjectivity even within texts bounded by an ostensibly masculine visual frame, Stanbury argues for a new trigonometry of vision that allows "shifting incarnations" and women who "dare to stare back."

Lacanian psychoanalysis has a tendency to disembody the body; two of the essays ensure that its materiality is not ignored. Elizabeth Robertson ("Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality") provides a primer on the differently conceived workings of women's bodies in the Middle Ages, demonstrating how humoral theory influenced the language of mystical writing. E. Jane Burns also brings us back to the realm of the signifying physical in her essay, "This Prick Which Is Not One: How Women Talk Back in Old French Fabliaux," where the "multiple, heteronomous nature of female subjectivity" is again recovered. She begins by considering the relationship between mouth, vagina, speech, and authority; she ends by stating, boldly and convincingly, what it is that women want: "more than the monolithic phallus, more than this phallocentric world view." Or at least she states what some women want - some medieval women, some medieval women as represented by men, perhaps even (I must ask) some men?

Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature ends with a very full bibliography on "The Body, Gender, and Sexuality in History and Theory." Although the essays it contains do not represent all the major approaches to the interpretation of the body now in circulation (most notably some of the kinds of approaches currently clustered under queer theory), the collection is the best available starting point to explore this critically important topic. For its diversity, its readability, the excellence of its writing, and the many important insights contained in its pieces, Feminist Approaches should be on every medievalist's list of required reading.