Leslie Sconduto

title.none: McCracken, The Romance of Adultery (Sconduto)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.014 00.03.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leslie Sconduto, Armstrong Atlantic State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: McCracken, Peggy. The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 224. $39.95. ISBN: 0-812-23432-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.14

McCracken, Peggy. The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 224. $39.95. ISBN: 0-812-23432-4.

Reviewed by:

Leslie Sconduto
Armstrong Atlantic State University

In her thought-provoking study of the representation of adulterous queens in twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances, Peggy McCracken makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of medieval queenship. According to McCracken, "romance representations of adulterous queens are part of a debate about queenship in medieval culture" (p.20), that is, they reflect or respond to concerns of the time, such as chastity, succession, and the integrity of the queen's body as a symbol of the king's sovereignty. McCracken situates her readings of various romances within their historical context, beginning in 1148 with the rumors surrounding Eleanor of Aquitaine's adulterous relationship with her uncle, Raymond of Antioch, and ending with the charges of adultery leveled against the three daughters-in-law of King Philip IV the Fair in 1314.

"Introduction: Defining Medieval Queenship" begins with an overview of the changing status of the queen from the Merovingian period to the end of the Capetian dynasty, in particular that of the queen's ability to intercede with the king. Since the queen's authority as intercessor derived from her role as the king's sexual partner and mother of his children--her chastity--his sovereignty over her body--and her maternity--her ability to provide a legitimate heir to the throne--were crucial to the maintenance of her influence. A brief review of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century narratives about Iseut and Guenevere is followed by a still briefer review of romances about other adulterous queens who attempt to seduce one of the king's vassals.

Chapter 1, "Royal Succession and the Queen's Two Bodies," discusses how disputes about the integrity of the queen's body, such as accusations of adultery, threaten the king's political authority at court, since "the integrity of the queen's body symbolizes the integrity of the king's sovereignty" (33). McCracken begins by pointing out that most adulterous romance queens are barren and then notes that anxieties concerning disputed paternity are repressed in these romances. Chretien de Troye's romance Cliges, however, not only acknowledges these concerns, but also explicitly links chastity with succession when Fenice declares that she does not want to consummate her marriage and have a child who would disinherit her lover Cliges. She refuses to follow the example of Iseut and states that she would rather have her body mutilated than have it split between two men or separated from her heart. Instead, Fenice uses a magic potion to "double" her body and deceive her husband Alis. Concerned about her reputation, Fenice insists that her adultery is monogamous and that her symbolic, royal body is not dependent on the integrity of her physical body. After her potion-induced death, Fenice's corporeal body is stripped, scrutinized and tortured by the physicians who recall the feigned death of Solomon's wife. Fenice cannot avoid her fate; like Iseut and the wife of Solomon, she becomes a legendary adulteress whose example must be avoided. As McCracken points out, Fenice cannot "escape the system that locates political integrity and legitimacy in the body of the queen. She merely relocates the site of legitimacy from the uncle's fraudulent claim to the nephew's rightful possession of the empress and the throne" (49-50). Fenice does, however, reveal just how illusory this integrity is.

In Chapter 2, "Royal Sovereignty and the Test of the Queen's Body," McCracken examines the two forms of chastity tests that were used to reveal hidden truths about the queen's body in medieval narratives such as Du mantel mautaillie, Le Lai du corn, Le Livre de Caradoc, and the Prose Tristan, as well as the trial by ordeal that we find in the various versions of Tristan. Because the queen's sexual integrity and the king's authority were seen as one, any attempt to weaken his authority usually took the form of accusations of adultery against the queen. Whether it was a nonfictional queen or a romance queen whose chastity was being questioned, her innocence reaffirmed her husband's power whereas her guilt weakened his power. In twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances, the queen is almost always guilty of adultery but usually manages to present herself as an "innocent adulteress," much to the relief of her husband (54). According to McCracken, the king is complicit in her adultery and ambivalent about discovering the truth. He thus willingly participates in the subversion and negation of chastity tests in order to maintain his own political power. The chastity test is actually a contest between men that tests their own reputation or the honor of the court. Moreover, if the queen is proven an adulteress, her own guilt is either diluted by establishing the guilt of all the other women at court or negated by questioning the validity of the test. The trial by ordeal, on the other hand, is a public trial that demonstrates the king's authority rather than the queen's innocence. As we see in Iseut's ambiguous oath, she both denies and confesses her guilt; her deception and her regal display mask her husband's weakness and reestablish his sovereignty.

Chapter 3, "Rumors, Rivalries, and the Queen's Secret Adultery," focuses on how adultery is politicized in romances. The queen becomes the site of a rhetorical rather than a physical conflict as vassals of the king use their knowledge of her adultery against both her and her lover. In so doing, they weaken her influence over the king, discredit her lover, and, more important, reveal the king's actual lack of sovereignty over his wife and corresponding symbolic lack of sovereignty over his realm. McCracken notes that the adultery is an open secret whose status is constantly renegotiated by all participants; with the exception of the king's vassals, it is to everyone's advantage--the king, the queen, and her lover--that the king is not forced into publicly acknowledging the adultery and punishing the adulterers. The tension that exists between episodes of revealing and hiding or refuting the queen's adulterous liaison not only serves as a narrative structure for the romance but also maintains the political stability of the court. The chapter ends with a discussion of the vulnerability of the queen, whose status depends on her identity as the king's wife. In resisting the binary logic according to which she either is wife or mistress but cannot be both, the queen "provides the context for negotiations of power between the king and his vassals and between the king's vassals and his best knight" (p. 117).

Chapter 4, "Adultery, Illegitimacy, and Royal Maternity," examines dynastic concerns and the fear of illegitimacy and how they are variously absent, repressed, or explicitly dealt with in Eracle, La fille du comte de Pontieu and its analogues, and in Le livre de Caradoc. McCracken explains that the lack of succession concerns in Eracle--the emperor is elected and any children the empress might have would not inherit the throne--as well as the fact that the empress is allowed to marry her lover "may reveal a hidden structure in romances about Iseut and Guenevere" (p. 124) and suggests that dynastic concerns are their hidden structure or subtext. The chapter continues with a fascinating discussion of La fille du comte de Pontieu and its analogues from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Since this romance is neither about a queen nor about adultery and its analogues fall outside the defined chronological scope of McCracken's study, however, it is not clear why she included it. Yes, the "retellings of the story of the daughter of the count of Pontieu point to an anxiety about motherhood and the corruption of lineage . . ." and they do show how "the maternal body is figured as a disturbing spectacle in its ability to cross borders of state, religion, and paternity" (p. 131), but what do they really tell us about the representation of queenship in twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances? The chapter concludes with an analysis of Le livre de Caradoc, which, according to McCracken, provides the "one example in twelfth- and thirteenth-century romance of an adulterous queen who conceives an illegitimate son with her lover "(p. 27). Although McCracken notes that in this romance "the 'truth' of the queen's adultery is based solely on Eliavres' [her lover's] claim of paternity" (p. 139), she then states that "the revelation of the queen's adultery is definitive: it cannot be covered up because it has produced a child" (p. 140). The reader could then infer that the queen's maternity has made her vulnerable to accusation. Yet how can giving birth be considered proof of adultery unless the king knows that conception occurred before he and the queen consummated their marriage? Moreover, on the following pages McCracken states that "[t]he royal mother is not vulnerable to accusation in the same way as a childless queen" (p. 141) and that "the central position of the adulterous queen in the feudal court . . . is possible only as long as the queen remains vulnerable to accusations of sexual transgression. The queen's vulnerability to exchange and accusation changes when she has a child" (p. 142). The statements on these three pages appear to contradict one another and leave this reader confused. How does the queen's vulnerability change? Is the adulterous queen who has given birth more or less vulnerable to accusation than the adulterous queen who is barren? Exactly how does her vulnerability change? Is there any moment when she is not vulnerable to accusation? Logic suggests that the queen, whether adulterous or not and whether childless or a mother, is always open to allegations of adultery if any man other than her husband has access to her.

In Chapter 5, "Seduction, Maternity, and Royal Authority," McCracken addresses the issue of the anxiety about women's power that subtends Le Roman des sept sages de Rome, Lanval, and other romances dealing with what she labels as Jezebels or "seductress queens." In contrast with courtly adulterous queens like Iseut who are motivated by love, a seductress queen is a predator who uses her power over one of her husband's vassals to satisfy her own sexual appetite. Rejected by the vassal, the queen then seeks vengeance by accusing him of attempted rape. Regardless of motivation, adultery always threatens the stability of the court and the authority of the king. In the case of the seductress queen, however, royal sovereignty is restored only when her infidelity is discovered and she is punished. As McCracken notes in her discussion of Lanval, "once she states her accusation, the queen loses her place as its subject" (p. 157). The story, which is no longer about the queen but rather about the king's relationship with his vassal, reflects the limited power and marginalization of twelfth-century queens. Throughout this chapter, McCracken points out that although these seductress queens are not mothers, concerns about dynastic succession are nevertheless prominent in the narratives. In order to demonstrate how maternity might affect a seductress queen's accusation, she discusses at length Marguerite de Navarre's sixteenth-century reworking of La chatelaine de Vergi in Heptameron 70. Again, what does a sixteenth-century text really tell us about the representation of queenship in twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances? McCracken ends the chapter with a much too brief mention of the evil queen mother in the thirteenth century romance Roman de la Manekine and the comment that "if maternity represents a potential source of power for medieval royal women, it also dictates the form of attacks against that power: accusations of adultery and illegitimacy" (p. 170).

In her "Conclusion: Gendering Sovereignty in Medieval France," McCracken rightly suggests that adulterous queens disappeared as fictitious subjects of romance in the fourteenth century partially because women were excluded from succession to the French throne after King Philip IV the Fair leveled charges of adultery against his daughters-in-law in 1314. The corrupting power of women was no longer a source of anxiety that needed to be worked out in fiction: "At the same time that discovery of adultery among Philip the Fair's daughters-in-law enacts some of the consequences for royal sovereignty imagined in romance narratives, it also resolves some of the tensions that motivate the representation of the fictional adulterous queen" (p. 176-77). McCracken has indeed done an admirable job of situating these romance narratives within the evolution of medieval queenship as "one of the discourses about women and power available to writers in the twelfth and thirteenth century" (p. 176). This reader, however, is left somewhat disturbed by the questions that McCracken did not ask. What if the accusations against Philip IV's daughters-in-law were unfounded? Were the consequences "enacted" against these women the result of real or imagined adultery? What role, then, might twelfth- and thirteenth-century romances about adulterous queens have played in feeding into and heightening anxiety about the power of women?