Diane Watt

title.none: Guynn, Sexual Ethics (Diane Watt)

identifier.other: baj9928.0802.023 08.02.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Diane Watt, Aberystwyth University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Guynn, Noah D. Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xii, 217. ISBN-10: 978-1-4039-7147-0, ISBN-10: 1-4039-7147-1 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.02.23

Guynn, Noah D. Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xii, 217. ISBN-10: 978-1-4039-7147-0, ISBN-10: 1-4039-7147-1 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Diane Watt
Aberystwyth University

What connection exists between the persecution of sodomites in fifteenth-century Europe and Alan of Lille's twelfth-century satirical poem De planctu Naturae or between accounts of the violent abuse of women in late medieval France and the thirteenth- century courtly dream vision Roman de la rose? Is the homophobia and misogyny of society simply reflected in these texts, or do such texts provoke actual acts of hatred and violence? Such questions can seem crude, and may show little understanding of the complex and contradictory workings of ideology and political and social discipline. Nevertheless, they are questions that should not be dismissed too readily. It is important that we recognize the coercive control "literature" can exert on actual bodies, on real lives. Noah D. Guynn's Allegory and Sexual Ethics offers a sophisticated and highly theorized analysis of the relationship between poetry, power, and persecution in the later Middle Ages. Guynn's book examines a series of elite and "canonical" works, including the theology of Augustine and Aquinas, and Le Roman d'Eneas, as well as De planctu Naturae and the Roman de la rose. His stance is described as historical materialist and poststructuralist, and draws heavily on Marxist, feminist, queer, and ethical theory and critical practice. Yet, Guynn's thesis is a straightforward one. The allegorical poems on which he focuses support the dominant ideologies of the Church and the aristocracy, but they are not simply works of propaganda. As previous critics have shown, these apparently moral poems are characterized by playfulness and offer multiple points of view. Yet, while they may appear to contradict and undermine their own ethical systems (especially in relation to sexuality), they are, according to Guynn, neither radical nor subversive. In Guynn's words, these medieval allegories are "exceedingly pernicious ideological fictions" which "internalize difference, deviation, and dissent within figurations of truth, goodness, and belief, and then use the resulting crisis of meaning, knowledge, and belief to legitimate coercive, violent forms of discipline...[and] draw attention to their own incoherence in order to motivate the consolidation of power within ruling classes and institutions, often through brutal forms of eliminationism" (171). The primary victims of these texts are those groups that are so often marginalized by or demonized within them: women and homosexual men. To support his argument, Guynn relies heavily on the work of other scholars, such as Gordon Teskey's Allegory and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996). But Guynn is, necessarily, not afraid to debate with influential critics or to engage in controversy. Thus, in his introduction, Guynn follows Sheila Delaney in arguing that medieval allegorical poetry is profoundly political and that it both is a product of and produces economic reality. At the same time, however, he challenges Delaney's view that allegorical personae and narratives are entirely predictable, fixed and unambivalent. Likewise, in Chapter 4, Guynn takes issue with Simon Gaunt's appropriation of Jean de Meun as a queer writer and his argument that the Roman de la rose is a profoundly homoerotic text. Guynn asks rhetorically, "Does Jean's poem, with its spectacular celebration of authorial lack and internal difference, actually work to neutralize the political effects of the patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic traditions it cites and perhaps also mocks?" (152). His answer is of course in the negative. He goes on to assert: "In my view, scholars ought to reopen the question of Jean de Meun's sexual politics, not merely drawing attention to the various misogynistic and homophobic voices in the Rose, but focusing on the strategies by which the poem seeks to disavow ownership of and responsibility for its content" (153). Guynn certainly has a point, and he offers a necessary counter argument to a marked tendency within queer scholarship naively to recuperate writers and texts that are often blatantly and offensively anti-feminist. Nevertheless, Guynn's summary of Gaunt's article is somewhat reductive, and he fails to acknowledge fully how invigorating and original such perverse re-readings can be. Furthermore, it seems disingenuous to claim that the question of the sexual politics of the Roman de la Rose is in any sense closed. These are, however, fairly minor quibbles. My principal criticism of his scholarly, articulate and intelligent study concerns its treatment of women. An approach that insists that it is impossible to escape ideology--that contends that even when texts appear to contest the dominant ideology they only serve to reinforce it--leaves little or no space for resistance, or for change. Women, in Guynn's readings of these poems, often come across as no more than victims. Certainly the agency they demonstrate is severely circumscribed. Thus, in his reading of Eneas, Lavine's desire may not be entirely "normative" (80) but nor is it ever "entirely her own" (81). Even more significantly, while Christine de Pizan and the Querelle du "Roman de la rose" are given prominence at the end of the final chapter, less than four pages are devoted to this crucial material, which at the very least merits a chapter of its own. Perhaps the brevity with which Guynn treats Christine is illustrative of an unease he feels about her work? Certainly the very existence of her poetry, with its strident defence of women, might seem to undermine the theoretical basis of his argument, or at least to suggest the necessity of some fundamental rethinking. Few would, I think, dispute that Christine's writing is privileged and elitist, but how does she fit into Guynn's model of the relationship between ideology and literature, in which such texts are seen to consolidate the power of the ruling classes? Yet, despite my reservations concerning how women and women writers do or do not fit into Guynn's thesis, one of the most impressive aspects of his book is his insistence on the importance of ethics and politics, and his conviction that only in understanding the "oppressive, violent legacy of premodern ethics and sexual ethics" can we begin to imagine a "radically inclusive" future (174).