Edwin Craun

title.none: Ziolkowski, ed., Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation (Craun)

identifier.other: baj9928.9905.005 99.05.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Edwin Craun, Washington and Lee University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Ziolkowski, Jan, ed. Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages. Medieval and Early Modern Series. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. ix, 359. $121.00. ISBN: 9-004-10928-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.05.05

Ziolkowski, Jan, ed. Obscenity: Social Control and Artistic Creation in the European Middle Ages. Medieval and Early Modern Series. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. ix, 359. $121.00. ISBN: 9-004-10928-5.

Reviewed by:

Edwin Craun
Washington and Lee University

What constitutes the obscene in speech, in gesture, in text, in visual image? More specifically, how can we define what was obscene for medievals, given limited evidence and our own cultural sense of the obscene? The nineteen papers in Jan Ziolkowski's collection, presented at a Harvard conference in 1995, set out to construct the obscene in the terms of medieval cultures, attending to manuscript culture and diglossia, registering the range of ecclesiastical and courtly stances, resisting the American equation of obscenity with legally unprotected speech or what individuals and groups of individuals find objectionable. This collection works at this not unambitious task -- made no easier by theorists and scholars of obscenity assuming that obscenity is the cultural creation of early moderns -- by providing essays from a great range of scholars on an even greater range of evidence: from the Latin rhetors to the only extant lyrics by a medieval Welshwoman, from erasures in manuscripts to Irish stone carvings of women displaying grossly exaggerated genitals, from fifteenth-century German carnival gestures to Byzantine canon law on nocturnal pollution. Following an introduction by Ziolkowski and Leslie Dunton-Downer's "Poetic Language and the Obscene," the papers are grouped into five sections: "The Rhetoric of Obscenity" (five papers), "Visualizing Obscenity" (three), "Performing Obscenity" (two), "Legal Obscenity" (three), and "Courting Obscenity in Old French" (five). Despite the heavy freighting to poetry, such a multidisciplinary collection invites us to consider each section in turn and to attend to theory, method, and evidence. This last may seem to some a retrograde action, but, as Caroline Walker Bynum said recently of the footnote, "[It] is the proof -- not that you've got it right necessarily, but that you got it from somewhere" (Humanities 20, no. 2 [1999]: 47).

Dunton-Downer's paper explores the relation between verbal obscenity and poetic language by way of Roman Jakobson and the thirteenth-century French writer Rutebeuf. While poetic language, in Jakobson's formulation, lies on the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum from highly referential language, insisting on its "thisness," its distinctiveness as signs, obscene language, Dunton-Downer argues, refuses to be located at either end. A word like "tits" both tends to become what it refers to (to utter it is almost performative, in J. L. Austin's sense) but also insists, in its nonstandardness, on its materiality. As such, the obscene word "is particularly well-equipped to reflect on the language system" (25), especially on what is inadequate in a given language. In her chosen case (which is disappointingly curtailed), Rutebeuf's pamphlets are seen to protest against the mendicants abusing language, in part by breaking the correlation between words (humilitas) and meanings (the mendicant's luxurious style of life in Paris) and so rendering words untrustworthy.

None of the papers in "The Rhetoric of Obscenity" follows Dunton-Downer's tack -- as we might expect in a collection of conference papers. Jan Ziolkowski surveys Roman grammarians' and rhetoricians' use of the doctrine of propriety/appropriateness to steer speakers and writers away from "not sufficiently modest" words referring to the body and its functions. To violate such rhetorical discretion, he argues, was to class yourself with the mimes and the illiberales, instead of with the rhetors and liberales. Even more interesting is their practical advice on avoiding double entendres and "innocent" groupings of sounds or words which might be construed as obscene, especially by schoolboys; this section is richly detailed. In a second survey, "The Obscenities of Old Women: Vetularity and Vernacularity," Ziolkowski develops the social activities of old women which made them the habitual users of obscene words in the vernacular -- at least in the view of the learned males writing the Latin patristic and medieval texts which constitute his body of evidence. Dafydd Johnston ("Erotica and Satire in Medieval Welsh Poetry") surveys a much more limited set of texts: the late medieval poems which break the standards of decorum set by bards to the gentry and so are obscene in the sense of self-consciously transgressive. After examining in general how the trademark dyfalu, the string of images for a single object, dehumanizes and insults "owners" when it "describes" their sexual organs or acts, he traces how the only extant Welsh female poet, Gwerful Mechain, uses it in a radically different way and with a radically different effect: to celebrate, very explicitly, the female genitals and thus to counter their omission by male cataloguers of female beauty. Franciso Marquez-Villanueva takes a very different route in exploring Spanish cazurro poetry, the transgressive genre practiced by the lowest group of jongleurs. Since so few examples survive, he patiently explicates the coded language in a single lyric of the archpriest Juan Ruiz, where "innocent" words from religious ritual and theology function to intensify the erotic when read transgressively. This type of cunning punning, playing with both connotation and metaphor, he suggests, may have its roots in Arab adab poetry, and he ends by pleading for comparative work on the topic. In a similar manner, Louise Vasvari reads the Middle English lyric "I have a gentil cok" as a bawdy riddle which draws on the semantic fields of religion and barnyard life to convey the erotic. However, she wishes to read anthropologically, and since so little survives of the tradition of riddling in Middle English, she builds the folklorist's "thick description" through riddles and lyrics in many European languages, usually from several centuries later. Finally, she reasons interestingly that such a riddling lyric is obscene because it involves "concealed display" (like a striptease) and because it speaks the forbidden (134-5).

In "Visualizing Obscenity," two distinguished art historians and a distinguished Celticist are even more concerned than Vasvari to theorize the obscene and to place it in general history of culture, in part because the projects they undertake inherently involve major problems in dating and evidence and thus cannot be argued in historically specific terms.

Michael Camille's "Obscenity Under Erasure" examines a "selective iconoclasm," the blotting out of parts of images -- especially faces and sexual organs -- in illuminated manuscripts. These erasures he sees as "acts of representation" which reject what oversteps "the bounds of what it is permissable to figure" (139-140) and which show what was considered dangerous or powerful: the "evil eye" of demons and idols, genitalia, women's bodies. This reading is richly detailed and persuasive, but Camille enters more risky territory when he asks when such erasures occurred. The physical evidence itself provides no clue to dating nor are there direct textual witnesses. So, he resorts to artists' fifteenth-century practice of obfuscating sexual acts and to Georges Duby's argument that sex was put in the private sphere then, and not only dates the erasures then but interestingly argues that they constituted part of a new "policing of the gaze," of a seeing of obscenity which was not seen before. To the key question of whether or not our reactions as we try to define obscenity "mirror those of medieval audiences," Camille's colleague Madeline Cavaniss begins by invoking, as a transcultural stratum, psychoanalytic theory ("Obscenity and Alterity: Images that Shock and Offend Us/Them, Then/Now"). Obscenity, she reasons, occurs when the viewer is deprived of expected erotic pleasure, and aggressively displayed female genitals evoke the Lacanian ambiguous Other, opening itself either to deliver us into the symbolic order or to re-engulf us. Although psychoanalytic interpretation is a questionable enterprise given doubts about the validity of psychoanalytic paradigms and their anthropological underpinnings expressed recently by psychiatrists and some anthropologists, it yields interesting results here because Cavaniss uses it not to flatten cultural differences, but to highlight them. Especially in the early Middle Ages, she concludes, harsh imaging of the forbidden functioned to reinforce taboos, but that function was threatened later by more "realistic" depictions of the body. Patrick Ford's "The Which on the Wall: Obscenity Exposed in Early Ireland" focuses entirely on one type of image Cavaniss treats: the "sheela-na-gigs," stone carvings of haglike women who display exaggerated genitalia. In considering in what sense these are obscene rather than erotic, he turns to the expression of the obscene in Irish mythic, heroic narrative, reading it in terms also used by Cavaniss: Mary Caputi's Freudian theorizing that the obscene is what allows us to cross cultural boundaries (laws, taboos). He also employs consistently the Freudian notion that women's bodies signify nature in opposition to "masculine" cultural achievement, so that exposed female genitals confront the Irish hero with the loss of differentiated self, with destruction outside civilization. Cavaniss' and Ford's papers might be considered a diptych.

"Performing Obscenity" contains fascinating, amply documented papers which contest the Bakhtinian model of carnival. In "Carnival Obscenities in German Towns," Eckehard Simon draws on a wide array of sources -- town judicial documents, town chronicles, a carnival play, a 1534 account of carnival rooted in Nuremberg's Shrovetide -- to present the lewd words and gestures that occurred during ritual games, body theater, disguises, and cross-dressing. All of these inversions of the normative were policed by town officials to restrain licentious conduct, but, he argues, far from carnival's theatrics embodying Bakhtin's universal folk resistance to authority, they were financed by those very authorities for civic reasons -- and citizens were even coerced into participating. In addition to this aspect of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, his insistence that carnival involves mockery of all social categories is rejected firmly by Alfred Thomas in his study of the Czech-Latin mystery play The Ointment Seller ("Alien Bodies: Exclusion, Obscenity and Social Control"). As he explicates the farce, women and Jews are associated with promiscuity, sorcery and the obscenely scatological, the latter signifying what is eliminated from the body as unwanted. In Miri Rubin's terms, he reads their "trope of inversion" as identifying Jewish and female bodies as other and deviant from the norms of the Czech minor nobility, which probably formed the play's audience. In ethnically mixed Bohemia, he argues, the play functioned to mock outsiders only (including Germans), to "collude in perpetuating ideological conformity" (214). Together, these two detailed studies point up how the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, formulated as a response to Soviet power, cannot be taken unthinkingly as a sure model for medieval social representations.

"Legal Obscenity" is a gallimaufrey within a gallimaufrey. "`Lecherous Songys': Medieval Sexuality in Word and Deed" by Ruth Mazo Karras is the only one of the nineteen essays to consider an extensive and influential body of evidence for medieval constructions of the obscene: pastoral treatises, used to teach the laity through preaching, directing confessions, and admonition. To study how the writers conceptualized the connection between sexually provocative words and sexual deeds, she treats a decent range of texts, largely Middle English, extant in English libraries. While her conclusions are unexceptional (that uttering such words signifies sin in the will, that such words could arouse lust in the hearer, a state of soul which was itself sinful), she limits herself largely to lists of the Sins of the Tongue and to brief passages on speech under luxuria, which she complains do not "have much to say about the sexually suggestive" (242). The other two papers here form a pair on how canon lawyers consider the guilt involved in nocturnal emission. After surveying the types of sexually suggestive entertainment forbidden celibate clerics by Western canon law, James Brundage presents the canonists' opinions that the guilt involved depended on the degree of conscious control in the circumstances leading up to the dream and in the dreamer's lingering response. Similarly, the twelfth-century Byzantine canonist Zonaras argues learnedly that the body is not polluted if there is no mental consent in the fantasies involved, a position which Marie Theres Fogen contextualizes as a secular cleric's rejection of the rigorism of monastic rivals.

This wide-ranging collection ends with a more focused collection-within-a-collection: five brief essays on obscenity in medieval French literature, all by established scholars. First, Charles Muscatine ("The Fabliau, Courtly Culture, and the [Re]invention of Vulgarity") returns to his argument that the fabliau language of sexuality is unself-conscious, normal usage but that new courtly norms for polite speech in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries render it obscene -- that is, transgressive of those norms. To his earlier reasoning in Old French Fabliaux, he adds anthropologists' research pointing to the cultural relativity of what is obscene. R. Howard Bloch's "Modest Maids and Modified Nouns: Obscenity in the Fabliaux" pointedly addresses two questions. To "Where is the erotic charge?" in the fabliaux, given their conventional and brief description of sexual acts, he answers that it lies in the characters' voyeurism, imagined scenarios, and, especially, use of words and metaphors which do not designate bodily parts directly but deflect "proper" designation (e.g., andouille for the male member -- he has marvelous catalogues). Where does the obscene then lie? In these "improper" senses as a product not of things but of language. Resourcefully working from Casagrande and Vecchio's chapters on turpiloquium and scurrilitas as Sins of the Tongue Les Peches de la langue, 1991, he argues persuasively that the fabliaux violate clerical norms for speech by seducing audiences into sexuality via these "improper" deflections and by generating laughter and that the clerics link such deviant speech to court culture. So, courtly speech and obscenity are not antithetical, as Muscatine would have it. The latter stage in this fine argument is flawed only by Bloch's misattributing one key clerical treatise, De lingua, to the Frenchman Guillaume Peyraut, whereas it is anonymous and almost certainly English (see my Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature [18-19] and Casagrande and Vecchio throughout).

The remaining three papers are not as closely linked. Bruno Roy writes a short exercise in detection: by working from the language of fabliaux and riddles, he establishes the identity of the female saint's relic (her genitals) in Le Grant voiage et pelerinage de sainte Caquette. Per Nykrog ("Obscene or Not Obscene") tackles the "Robertsonian" reading of the end of the Roman de la rose (that Genius' sermon on copulation and the rose as vulva are the obscene script of fallen man, of the by now degenerate lover). He takes three interesting paths: that in Jean de Meun's cosmology, there is no Christian fall but only the loss of a golden age that includes unproblematic sexual enjoyment, that Jean Gerson's preaching against the Roman shows that the medievals read it as an invitation to promiscuity, and that the fabliau Le Pescheor de Pont seur Seine shows that thirteenth-century writers could treat genital sexuality as "the foundation of true love and happiness" -- in this case in marriage (330). The last paper is the most theoretically ambitious: Jacques E. Merceron's study of three hagiographical sermones joyeux and of Molinet's Saint Billouart in terms of Roger Caillois' L'Homne et le sacre, in which the sacred as "fluid energy" is manifested in the opposite forms of holiness and pollution, the domains of spirituality and carnality. Whatever the validity of this theoretical model, he explains nicely how the sermones work rhetorically by coupling these opposites and how Molinet adds to this clash the cliches of the courtly tradition of love.

Merceron's exploration of how the semiotics/semantics of the Christian, the bawdy, and the courtly tradition operate in Molinet is as close as we get to a conclusion to this variegated collection -- variegated in its evidence, its arguments, its theory (when any is invoked). Such a collection resists a reviewer's summary. While a general sense of the obscene as what transgresses linguistic norms and social taboos emerges in the collection, how the obscene worked in image and language to affect audiences' responses to the sexual varied greatly in different medieval cultures -- and within them. The interest and pleasure of this collection is in the fascinating details. All medievalists owe Jan Ziolkowski a great deal for organizing this high-powered and multifaceted conference and then disseminating the papers.