Yvette Kisor

title.none: Hopkins and Rushton, eds., The Erotic in Literature (Yvette Kisor )

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.001 08.05.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Yvette Kisor , Ramapo College of New Jersey,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Hopkins, Amanda and Cory James Rushton, eds. The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. x, 182. $80.00 (hb) 978-1-84384-119-7 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.01

Hopkins, Amanda and Cory James Rushton, eds. The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2007. Pp. x, 182. $80.00 (hb) 978-1-84384-119-7 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Yvette Kisor
Ramapo College of New Jersey

This collection seeks to examine the presence of the erotic in Middle English literature, noting how hitherto concerns with gender and sexuality have tended to be pulled towards issues of power and difference, leaving the domain of erotic desire relatively unexplored. This volume had its inception at the 2002 International Arthurian Congress in Bangor, Wales and this is reflected in the volume's contents: seven out of the thirteen essays concern Arthurian materials at least in part.

In their introduction "The Revel, the Melodye and the Bisynesse of Solas" the volume's editors lay out the background to their project, discussing the reality of Church and state control of sexuality in the Middle Ages, the range of genres in medieval literature (from the fabliau to religious texts) in which the erotic plays a role, the apparent difference between English eroticism and that of continental texts, and the difficulty of applying modern concepts of the erotic to medieval texts. In particular they examine the critical context, which has tended to explore sexuality in terms of power and difference, not sexual pleasure; Rushton and Hopkins wish to draw attention to the link between sex and violence that could be perceived as erotic in medieval literature as well as the attraction of submission and "the pleasure both partners could potentially take in the negotiated exchange of sexual power" (14). The collection consists of thirteen essays following the introduction as well as an index; notes are conveniently located at the bottom of each page.

Many of the essays are wide-ranging, considering a specific aspect of the erotic across a spectrum of texts. Cory Rushton focuses on the figure of Gawain in "The Lady's Man: Gawain as Lover in Middle English Literature." He examines a number of Middle English texts comparing the English Gawain to the French one, noting that the English Gawain tends to have fewer erotic adventures than his French counterpart and those he has are frequently tied to his reputation for courtesy and have a stronger political and familial component, often becoming the locus of contests between men. Corinne Saunders explores the figure of the enchantress, "the actively desiring woman empowered by magic" (40) in "Erotic Magic: The Enchantress in Middle English Romance." She notes the strong association between female magic and desire, exploring the ways the enchantress both contradicts and fulfills gender requirements and moves between positive and negative modes, embodying both the allure and the threat of female power.

Romance is well-represented in this volume. Amanda Hopkins' "'wordy vnthur wede': Clothing, Nakedness and the Erotic in some Romances of Medieval Britain" is a thorough and wide-ranging exploration of the way the interplay of clothing and nakedness creates the erotic. In particular, she finds sensual displays of dress and nakedness to be a means for women to express desire through an interplay of female aggression and submission. She cautions that "clothing and nakedness can be seen to have an ambivalent relationship with the erotic in medieval romance" (69) and that the erotic response to total nudity seems to be a modern phenomenon--though one wonders about Malory's description of Elaine as "naked as a needle"; given the association of complete nudity with vulnerability noted in passing by Hopkins here (61) and the erotic potential of the submissive woman perhaps such a description does have erotic content. Likewise concerned with the erotic display of nudity, Robert Rouse investigates the connection between hot weather and desire in "'Some Like it Hot': The Medieval Eroticism of Heat." Taking the scene of Triamour's undressing in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal as his point of departure, Rouse explores a number of disparate texts from The Book of Margery Kempe to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, Malory's 'Knight of the Cart" episode, and medical texts, in the end concluding that "Chestre's depiction of Triamoure partakes of an established medieval rhetoric of the erotic, drawing upon the negative (depending on one's point of view) sexual stereotypes of both the season of summer and of Triamoure as an excessively choleric woman. Both of these tropes seem to carry a certain erotic force" (80).

Not all works focus on medieval romance. In "The Female 'Jewish' Libido in Medieval Culture" Anthony Bale examines the figure of the Jew's daughter as a site of erotic and transgressive pleasure, at least in part because it enacts the humiliation of the Jewish father. Turning away from published literature, Kristina Hildebrand examines private letters in "Her Desire and His: Letters between Fifteenth- century Lovers." She reads letters between men and women from the Paston, Stonor, and Plumpton families for evidence of erotic discourse, finding an erotic subtext with a marked gender difference tied to levels of formality and expressions of submission, with women as both more formal and submissive. Turning once again to Arthurian legend in "Perverse and Contrary Deeds: The Giant of Mont Saint Michel and the Alliterative Morte Arthure" Thomas Howard Crofts traces the figure of the Giant of Mont Saint Michel through Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon, among others, culminating in the Alliterative Morte Arthure. Crofts focuses on the giant's attack on the Duchess and the way that rape is displaced in part onto the giant's monstrous eating, noting the Alliterative Morte's focus on the body and "the erotics of food and sex" (127). Crofts observes as well the connection between the figure of the giant and Arthur himself in Arthur's imperial claims, extending this link in an epilogue to that between the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and the American invasion of Iraq.

A number of essays focus on a single work. In "'So wel koude he me glose': The Wife of Bath and the Eroticism of Touch" Sue Niebrzydowski reads the Wife of Bath's account of her five marriages as a tale of her progression from erotic dissatisfaction to fulfillment, in part by considering medieval medical texts' consideration of women's pleasure and contrasting the Wife of Bath's experience with that of May in the Merchant's Tale; only Jankyn can "glose" the Wife fully. Margaret Robson explores the question of sexual knowledge in the female adolescent in "How's Your Father? Sex and the Adolescent Girl in Sir Degarr." She examines the movement in the text from the adolescent princess of the first half, victim of rape through her assertion of bodily needs, to the assertive maiden of the second half who avoids threatened rape and chooses her own sexual partner. Michael Cichon extends the concern with the erotic to Wales in "Eros and Error: Gross Sexual Transgression in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi." He considers three instances of transgressive sex in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi--rape, premarital sex, and adultery8 #9572;-noting their links to animal transformation and ultimately the threat they pose to the social order whereby the redactor "uses the erotic potential of his tale to moralize" (115).

The final three essays of the collection interpret the erotic more broadly. Two of these focus on a single work. In "Sex in the Sight of God: Theology and the Erotic in Peter of Blois' 'Grates Ago Veneri'" Simon Meecham-Jones reads the Arundel lyric Grates ago veneri as a response to the twelfth-century debates over the physicality of Christ, particularly in the Eucharist, and ultimately as an assertion of "the playful and paradoxical orthodoxy of its depiction of the primacy of Faith over intellect" (151). Jane Bliss focuses on the Ancrene Wisse in "A Fine and Private Place." This essay ostensibly traces references to lesbian sex or masturbation, some quite veiled, in the Ancrene Wisse, but this is quickly accomplished and the rest of the essay dwells on the relationship between the writer, the reader, and the addressed anchoress. Much of this is interesting but could be better connected to the first part of the essay and the question of how the erotic figures in this relationship between writer, reader, and anchoress. The final essay of the collection, Alex Davis' "Erotic Historiography: Writing the Self and History in Twelfth-century Romance and the Renaissance" explores some of the ways in which eroticism can be "a key trope in our attempts to define what is distinctive about historical periods" (164). He begins by noting how Petrarch's frustrated desire becomes a dividing line between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages and considers as well how other tropes such as historical self-consciousness and the development of the individual function to delineate historical periods, focusing in particular on the genre of romance.

There is much to recommend this collection. The essays are uniformly strong and often enormously interesting, and the stated goal of the collection, to explore the way the erotic is manifested in the literature of medieval Britain and how it differs from modern erotics, is well accomplished. The collection suffers, however, from the problem that seems endemic to the genre--with a single exception the essays seem unaware of each other. Only one author makes any reference to other essays in the volume; that author, not surprisingly, is Hopkins, one of the collection's editors. Her essay "'wordy vnthur wede': Clothing, Nakedness and the Erotic in some Romances of Medieval Britain" refers readers to the essays by Saunders, Niebrzydowski, and Rouse but these cross-references work in only one direction as none of the three refer to Hopkins's essay. This lack of referentiality occurs in spite of the fact that many of the essays return time and again to the same texts and reach similar conclusions. There is a locus of interest around Arthurian texts, unsurprising given the collection's focus and its inception at the International Arthurian Congress, and several essays deal with the interplay of dominance and passivity with the erotic. This preoccupation is hinted at in the introduction (9-10) yet it could be better brought out in the essays themselves. The focus on Arthurian materials and romance leads to a second minor quibble, which concerns the texts less fully covered. Fabliaux, for example, are barely mentioned (only Niebrzydowski does so, and only Chaucer's), and other than Meecham-Jones' consideration of the Arundel lyric Grates Ago Veneri religious writing is not well represented (Rouse mentions the Book of Margery Kempe briefly) and no other lyrics are considered. Yet these are minor complaints. Taken together, the essays of this volume argue successfully for "a deliberate erotics in texts produced in medieval Britain" and explore "the subject of erotic pleasure" (15) through a variety of illuminating approaches.

On the whole the volume is well produced, though I note the following errata: on page 24 read "bigamy" for "digamy" (line 19), on page 32 read "imminent" for "immanent" (line 12), on page 73 read "manages to rise" for "manages rise" (line 20), and on page 117 read "The" for "he" (line 1) and "through" for "though" (line 9).