Anthony Bale

title.none: Cuffel, Gendering Disgust (Anthony Bale)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.005 08.11.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anthony Bale, Birkbeck College, University of London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Cuffel, Alexandra. Gendering Disgust in Medieval Polemic. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. 448. ISBN: $45 978-0-268-02367-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.05

Cuffel, Alexandra. Gendering Disgust in Medieval Polemic. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. 448. ISBN: $45 978-0-268-02367-6.

Reviewed by:

Anthony Bale
Birkbeck College, University of London

Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic is a timely and scholarly contribution to the history of how the Middle Ages developed a distinctive "persecuting rhetoric" as well as a persecuting society. Alexandra Cuffel takes as her theme a queasy array of bodily secretions, physical abnormalities and by-products of humanity: menses, spittle, excrement, urine, wombs, effluvia, leprosy, digestion, gangrene, discharges, bad breath, pregnancy, bowels, bladders, corrupted blood, skin ailments, creeping things, poisons, anuses, putrescence, whoring, semen, cannibalism, foul smells, rot, cadavers. According to Cuffel's insightful book, the frequency and prevalence of such imagery does not indicate the dirty, smelly facts of medieval life but, rather, was essential to Christian, Jewish and Muslim debates about self-identity, religious difference, and the relationship between humanity and divinity. In particular, Cuffel's book suggests that such imagery and rhetoric of disgust had a "gendered" element, which repeatedly (if not consistently) described the female body as being further than the male from holiness.

This is not a sensationalist, graphic or "disgusting" book, but one which seeks to understand the polemical background to ideas of disgust: Cuffel states that "the body was the template from which a symbolic language was created" (241), and this language, whilst symbolic, was not pretty. Throughout the book Cuffel returns to some fundamental ideas and problems: How could Christ have been born a man, in the vile womb of a woman? How could mankind be made in God's image and yet stink and putrify? Why does the foul, fallen body assert itself over the soul? What kind of "intelligent design," to use the modern term for the idea that man was created by God, would create a humanity so smelly, so bloodied, so leaky and so polluted? On one hand, Cuffel suggests that the three religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam had a shared way of addressing such questions through the rhetoric of filth, and argues for a common ground of images and ideas of disgust between the three faiths. On the other hand, Cuffel argues that this very rhetoric and imagery formed the basis of aggressive and hostile relations between the three religions, developing a powerful range of insults which were traded through religious polemic. Cuffel's scholarly range is very wide: encompassing Christian, Jewish and Muslim (and pagan and heretical) sources, in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and vernacular languages, throughout Europe, north Africa and the Middle East and with the most capacious understanding of the "medieval," from biblical times to the fourteenth century.

Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic is divided into two parts, both with rather unwieldy titles: Part I, "From Divine Incorporation to Bodily Insult in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages" covers the earlier development of a lexicon of disgust within religious polemics; Part II, "Twelfth-Fourteenth Centuries: Intensification and Collision of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Polemic," considers the increasing hostility and violence encoded in these polemics, "indicative of the deep anxiety and concomitant hostility" each religious group inspired in the other (219). Part I is divided into two chapters ("The Stench of Humanity: Corporeality and the Divine in Late Antique Religious Thought" and "The Seeds of Rotten Fruit: Corporeal Disgust and Impurity as Late Antique and Early Medieval Religious Polemic"), whilst Part II is divided into four chapters ("Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Contexts," "Filthy Womb and Foul Believers: The Incarnation and Holy Spaces in the Jewish- Christian-Muslim Debate," "Impure, Sickly Bodies," and "Signs of the Beast: Animal Metaphors as Maledictions of Resistance and Oppression"). As these headings suggest, Cuffel's prose is often dense and tends to the prolix, and the organisation of the book is not especially clear: we follow a broadly chronological narrative, but through such a wide range of sources and contexts that the book does not have a resolute structure or narrative arc. Cuffel defines her methodology as being indebted to "comparative" scholarship (15), and is influenced not only by religious studies and theology but by historical, literary, art historical, anthropological and psychoanalytical approaches. Cuffel steers clear of the history of medicine, and does not address issues of popular belief: rather, the emphasis, as the book's title suggests, is on polemic, and learned, theologically-inflected debate.

Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic brings together many provocative ideas and a wonderfully rich set of evidence but, even in her definition of "disgust" itself, Cuffel's categories are capacious. Whilst the book sets up a clear case for seeing the womb and menstruation as a distinct rhetorical category, we do not gain much sense of how, for example, spittle might be different from urine, or how gangrenous limbs are different from leprous bodies. Rather, medieval theology becomes a babble of bodily secretions and malodorous spillages. This leads to a major question we must ask of Cuffel's study: do the topics and images under discussion really form a continuum of medieval disgust, or is it just a modern label with which to analyse the Middle Ages? Is it, in fact, the modern reader who is putting disgust into the source? The womb is a good example here: Cuffel's chapter on the "Filthy Womb" rightly identifies Mary as being at the heart of medieval polemics surrounding the purity or pollution inherent in Incarnational theology: "Jewish arguments against the incarnation focused on the abdomen of Mary as a place rendered unclean by menstrual blood, excrement, urine, and semen" whilst "Christians punctuated their 'dialogues' with crass bodily epithets to suggest that Jews were far dirtier than Mary and Jesus could ever be" (117). Cuffel locates and describes an impressively wide range of sources, covering texts, mainly Jewish and Christian, which addressed intricate questions of the Virgin's womb: whether or not Mary had sex with Joseph (120), how Mary might have conceived Christ through the ear and the mouth (122), whether or not Mary's hymen was broken (123), the proximity of the foetal Christ to Mary's bowels (124), whether or not Mary was seduced or raped (129), whether or not the infant Jesus produced excrement (131), the filthy Christian practice of, in Jewish eyes, worshipping God as a cadaver (133), the Islamic representation of the Holy Sepulchre as a polluted (womb-like) vessel (139) and so on. But Cuffel elides the many medieval Christian images which valorise Mary's womb, as hearth or oven where Christ's body was leavened, as Christian imagery put a positive aspect on this particular part of the body with its Eucharistic resonances. Likewise, and particularly but not exclusively in the later period, the very humanity of Christ and Mary became celebrated, rather than denigrated, as the work of scholars like Sarah Beckwith, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Leo Steinberg has so amply demonstrated.

The other major theme of Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic concerns animals, bestiality and the medieval bestiary. Cuffel demonstrates how the rhetoric of disgust often invoked pigs, dogs, worms, hyenas, hares, ravens, owls, asses, even crocodiles, frogs and weasels, inheriting biblical ideas of clean and unclean beasts. The book's final chapter, "Signs of the Beast," is perhaps the strongest because it is most coherent in its materials: "animal metaphors" are decoded, traced through biblical and post-biblical sources, with Cuffel arguing that "linking religious undesirables with foul-smelling animals, animals which fed on corpses, or these creatures' excrement, was profoundly degrading, disgusting, and was a powerfully negative gesture in its own right" (233), before considering some of the "countersymbols" to this imagery. Cuffel has thus prepared the foundations for a post-humanist scholarship which can critique the relationship between humans and "beasts," as a category such as "disgust" usefully allows Cuffel to rethink the religious production of images of the human.

Cuffel concludes with the statement that her book "explores bodily functions of excreting, bleeding, eating, and being eaten in a specific historical milieu, namely, how members of different faiths in late antiquity and the Middle Ages used these organic processes to insult one another" (240). But, by the end of the book, one wishes for more specificity, more historical context: Cuffel in effect argues away the motivations, the rage, envy, intellect and humanity, of the polemicists she is studying, as Christians, Jews and Muslims across time and space exist in a relationship of infinite relativity and "shared" traditions and rhetoric. It is in this way that Cuffel's book is most different from two recent benchmark publications which cover similar ground: Israel Yuval's Two Nations in Your Womb and Lisa Lampert's Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare.[1] The focus of Yuval's study is on specific instances of rhetorical animosity between Christians and Jews, whilst Lampert shows how the diction of Christian supercession of Judaism often feminised Judaism or showed Jews as performing gender incorrectly. What Yuval and Lampert have in common is the coherence of their materials, the clarity of their methodologies and the critical focus they bring to bear. Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic offers a much larger history of the complex inter- relationship of emulation and defamation between three major faiths over almost 1000 years.

Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic opens up a vast array of material, and Cuffel's polyglot interdisciplinarity is impressive. This is a beautifully presented book, often elegantly argued, original and challenging, which amply demonstrates the importance of insults, pollution and bodily margins in the way medieval polemicists negotiated their relationship to God and to each other.

-------- Notes:

1. Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Christians and Jews in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006); Lisa Lampert, Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).