Dr. Nicola F. McDonald

title.none: Bullough and Brundage, eds., Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (McDonald)

identifier.other: baj9928.9711.007 97.11.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Nicola F. McDonald, St. John's College, Oxford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1696. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Pp. xviii, 441. $78.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-31287-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.11.07

Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, vol. 1696. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. Pp. xviii, 441. $78.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-31287-3.

Reviewed by:

Dr. Nicola F. McDonald
St. John's College, Oxford

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the lines "When she [is] good/ She [is] very, very good,/ But when she [is] bad she [is] horrid" for his newly born second daughter. The publication of Vern Bullough's and James Brundage's Handbook of Medieval Sexuality gives me an occasion to recall them.

At its best, the Handbook is exactly what it promises to be: a solidly instructive, introductory guide to the study of medieval sexuality, its sources and literature. The volume comprises eighteen essays (grouped in three sections: Sexual Norms, Variance from Norms, and Cultural Issues), by almost as many scholars, on subjects as varied as confession, eunuchism, canon law, and Jewish sexuality. Each essay is a self-contained unit; it introduces the student to the subject matter (for instance, contraception and early abortion), outlines the available source material (the Lorsch manuscript and other medieval medical treatises), assesses the evidence (medieval women had more control over their reproductive lives than is commonly thought), highlights the difficulty of interpreting that evidence (menstrual stimulators and abortifacients are often euphemistically catalogued as cures for stomach ache), and concludes with a full set of notes and a bibliography. Most of the essays are carefully written and rigorously documented; their different emphases and theoretical predilections give the volume a pleasing eclecticism which makes it all the more readable.

Undoubtedly the first two sections are the strongest. The rubric "Sexual Norms" encompasses essays on penitential literature and confession (Pierre Payer), canon law (James Brundage), medicine and natural philosophy (Joan Cadden), gendered sexuality (Joyce Salisbury), chaste marriage (Margaret McGlynn and Richard Moll) and "universal" male sexuality (Jacqueline Murray), while the range of "Variance from Norms" includes homosexuality (Warren Johansson and William Percy), lesbians (Jacqueline Murray), cross dressing (Vern Bullough), prostitution (Ruth Mazo Karras), contraception and early abortion (John Riddle) as well as castration and eunuchism (Matthew Kuefler). Although there is considerable variation in style (Johansson and Percy are the most politicized) and some unevenness in format (Murray uses a modern translation of Chaucer while McGlynn and Moll translate neither Middle English nor French), the essays reveal a remarkable singularity of purpose: to impress upon the student the need for analytic restraint and methodological caution. Ever eager to generate arguments, students (and scholars) need now to reassess their priorities, to generate editions. This, almost univocal, call for back-to-basics traditional scholarship (dating manuscripts, establishing chronologies, editing and translating primary sources) is as surprising as it is necessary.

The volume's third sections, "Cultural Norms", is, however, more of a mixed bag. Two brief notes by Norman Roth point to the paucity of scholarship on medieval Jewish and Muslim sexuality, while Eve Levin offers a preliminary sketch of the "terra incognita" (329) that is the history of sexuality in the Eastern Orthodox nations. Vernacular literature, one of the "richest sources of information about medieval sexual practices" (xvii) is the subject of the final three essays: Laurie Finke on medieval French literature, Jenny Jochens on Old Norse and David Lampe on Old and Middle English. The absence of anything on medieval German, Italian or Spanish literature is regrettable (although, to be fair, it is an absence that the editors themselves acknowledge [xvii]), but it is trivial in comparison with the shoddy scholarship, errors and omissions, which characterize the final essay in this volume: David Lampe's "Sex Roles and the Role of Sex in Medieval English Literature" (401-426).

It is difficult to know where to begin. My initial assumption was that an industrious gremlin had sabotaged the final stages of the volume's publication, randomly altering spelling, changing words, and jumbling references, but a closer look at the essays' peculiarities (their number and kind) convinced me that they were not simply the result of a computer scramble. To start with, I have noted over 150 errors in the quotation and citation of primary sources alone. There are errors in punctuation, spelling and word order; some words as well as whole lines are missed out, while others are mysteriously supplemented; line references are incorrect and sometimes absent; Old and Middle English letter forms are misrepresented or occasionally ignored. Further, there is no consistent policy on translation (the initial Old English quotations appear only in modern English) and the occasional line glosses for Middle English can be wrong ("nebbe to nebbe" [414] is glossed as "body to body" rather than "face to face"). Lampe's prose is also littered with typographical errors as well as an almost total inattention to graphemic precision; Gower's Mirour de l'Omme appears as the Mirroir d'Homme (418), while Chaucer's Emelye is interchangeably "Emile" (412), "Emilie" (412), and "Emilye" (413). A similar kind of sloppiness pervades the footnotes and bibliography: authors' names are misspelled ("Shelia Delaney" [421]) or wrong ("Douglas B. Sands" [422]); manuscripts are cited incorrectly ("Bodleian MS 13679 Rawlinson" [421] refers to Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D 913; its Summary Catalogue number is 13,679); in footnotes 12 and 13, Michael Alexander's Old English Riddles from the Exeter Book is mistaken for his Earliest English Poems [421]; there are errors in the dates of some volumes' publication, while important new editions are not noted (for instance, the revised third edition [1990] of Vinaver's The Works of Sir Thomas Malory [425]). And the list goes on.

There are also other, more important, substantive problems. For example, the Middle English Lay le Freine is not, as Lampe asserts, about the averted danger of the twins' incestuous marriage to each other (415). The twins in question are both girls and the plot revolves around Le Freine's love for and marriage to her unknown twin's betrothed (and, for an instant, husband). Lampe's identification of William Langland as "a London clerk in minor orders" (419) is not supported by historical evidence and his insistence that Mede is a direct allusion to Alice Perrers (misspelled as "Perriers" [419]) needs to be qualified. The value of an introductory survey of sexuality in medieval English literature that includes not a single reference to any feminist study of Chaucer (for instance, the seminal work of Susan Crane, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Jill Mann), or any other Middle English writer, must also be doubted. It is difficult to know where to stop.

Scholarship has come a long way since the days of "burning blushes" (x) when scholars hastened to occlude the sexual in their histories of the Middle Ages or reserved it for informal late night discussion "after generous alcoholic lubrication had dulled inhibitions" (xii). The eagerness with which presses, both commercial and university, "seek out book manuscripts that deal with almost any aspect of the history of sex and gender" (xv) is a testament to the academic excellence and sheer hard work, of a growing group of serious scholars. But that very eagerness (on the part of presses, as well as editorial review boards and tenure committees) is also responsible for a certain uncritical impetuousness. Contributions like the final one in this volume (a volume published by a reputable press and edited by respected senior scholars) can do little more than confirm that age-old truism, sex sells.