contributor.author: Fritz Kemmler

title.none: Scase, et al., eds., New Medieval Literatures, Vol. II (Kemmler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0004.002 00.04.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Fritz Kemmler, University Tuebingen, fritz.kemmler@uni-tuebingen.de

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Scase, Wendy, Rita Copeland and David Lawton. New Medieval Literatures. New Medieval Literatures, Vol II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 282. $82.00. ISBN: 0-198-18476-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.04.02

Scase, Wendy, Rita Copeland and David Lawton. New Medieval Literatures. New Medieval Literatures, Vol II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 282. $82.00. ISBN: 0-198-18476-X.

Reviewed by:

Fritz Kemmler
University Tuebingen
fritz.kemmler@uni-tuebingen.de

The first volume (published in 1997) of this new annual was reviewed for the TMR by Michael A. Calabrese in April 1999. The second volume under review here differs from the first "in its shift to the Continent and in its further exemplification of work on earlier periods" (1). The thematic range of volume 2 is broad indeed, spanning the period of time from the eleventh to the fifteenth century and evaluating major thematic aspects of texts produced in both England and France. As Rita Copeland states in her introductory section "Introduction: Gender, Space, Reading Histories", "This is the last volume of New Medieval Literatures to consist of commissioned essays. Future issues will carry uncommissioned submissions representing all areas of medieval literary studies." (8)

The nine essays contained in volume 2, together with Louise O. Fradenburg's "Analytical Survey 2: We are Not alone: Psychoanalytic Medievalism", are grouped as outlined by Rita Copeland on p. 8: the first three essays deal with early materials on race and gender; the second three offer perspectives on gender and space in late medieval French writings; and the last three look to the 'margins' of British and English cultural history. This broad thematic range poses a special problem for a reviewer professionally concerned with Old and Middle English Language and Literature. Thus, my review will be selective to a certain extent. I shall only comment on and evaluate those essays in the volume treating topics and themes with which I am familiar.

Let me begin with a few observations on the "Analytical Survey" (pp. 249-276). Fradenburg is certainly right to underline the importance of psychoanalysis as a theoretical framework for the evaluation and interpretation of medieval texts. Readers interested in this aspect of "medievalism" will profit indeed from her careful and impressive survey of recent writings on this topic. I can only share her hope expressed in the concluding lines of her survey: that psychoanalytic work will help contemporary medieval studies to richer practices of enjoyment, and to an ethics that does not bind, nor bind itself to the past as dead weight, but lets it loose in the historical signifiers that still trace their way through our passions. (270) Scanning the list of medieval texts mentioned in Fradenburg's survey I noticed the absence of a rich store of texts which should be considered in further studies in this field: the penitential writings (both in Latin and in the vernacular languages), especially the so-called "manuals for confessors/curates", produced from the late twelfth century onwards and used well into the early modern era. It is my opinion that a thorough investigation of this massive corpus with its fascinating insights into, and comments on, the "psychology" of both sin and sinner will reveal both the "modernity" and the lasting importance of an otherwise, at least in literary studies, almost neglected corpus of texts.

Let me now turn to the first "triad" of essays "deal[ing] with early materials on race and gender".

Steven F. Kruger's essay, "The Spectral Jew" (pp. 9-35), explores the treatment of the "spectral Jew" haunting Christians and Jewish converts in some early twelfth-century texts. He demonstrates convincingly that "the Christian literature of Jewishness in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is largely a literature of anxiety--of anxious conjurings away that are also conjurings up, bringing into the present a Judaism consigned to the past, if only to try to reconfirm its pastness" (26) in the days of the Christian era that does not need any more the "old law" in force before the incarnation of Christ: the "historical moment...that rewrites all of history". (9) Given the social intercourse of Christians and Jews in medieval societies it is little wonder that at (historically) critical moments authors worried about the endangered state of Christianity turned their attention to the problem of a "Christian identity" that had inherited so much from the (old) Jewish identity. Kruger also argues that the Jewish "opponent" to "Christian identity" created in some of these texts and addressed in the second person is totally controlled and determined by the author--but so, of course, is his Christian counterpart, the envisioned/implied reader of these texts.

In his essay "Unmanned Men and the Eunuchs of God: Peter Damian's Liber Gomorrhianus and the Sexual Politics of Papal Reform" (pp. 37-64), Larry Scanlon traces the history, use and implications of the terms "sodomy" and "sodomites" in the work of Peter Damian designed, in part, to stabilize the authority and power of the clerical orders. By linking the sodomitic elements in the story of Lot (cf. Genesis 19:1ff.) with Christ's words in John 10:9 (explaining the parable of the good shepherd): "I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture", Peter Damian, Scanlon argues, makes sodomitical desire the literal equivalent to the desire of the original Sodomites to penetrate Lot's door, which he then makes equivalent to a desire to violate the Father and the Son. Adding Christ's declaration 'I am the door' to this string of figurations literally makes Him the door that invites penetration; it necessarily imputes to Christ a desire for the very violation the sodomites want to offer him. (62). Perhaps my 'imagination' ('aroused' by the 'suggestive' nouns "penetration" and "violation") has led me astray in this part of the argument developed by Scanlon. In my opinion the critical cultural and theological issues of the theme presented in this essay are not so much the sometimes confused statements about (unnatural) homosexual practices and 'celibate fatherhood' as the problems created by 'sinful priests' who in celebrating mass and administering the sacrament of penance and the sacrament of the altar endanger both the efficacy of these sacraments for the faithful and their own privileged spiritual and social status depending on these services and functions.

Some of the receptive problems constituted by allegorical writing are taken up by Simon Gaunt in his essay "Bel Acueil and the Improper Allegory of the Romance of the Rose" (pp. 65-93). Focusing on the significance of "gender/sex" attributed to Bel Aceuil in relation to Amant in both the text of the Romance of the Rose and in the miniatures contained in some manuscripts, Gaunt analyses the problem of homosexual and heterosexual relationships inherent in this text. In some of the miniatures Bel Aceuil is a female figure, in others a male. Thus, the illustrators tried to guide the reception and interpretation of the allegory for certain readers. In the closing lines of his argument Gaunt advances a surprising hypothesis: If...illuminators sought to reassure readers looking for a heterosexual love story in the Rose by feminizing Bel Acueil and thereby 'normalizing' the allegory, the text ultimately resists their efforts, leaving such readers with a vision of the sexual act that is neither reassuring (for them) nor heteronormative. Jean de Meun articulates and deconstructs the opposition between heterosexuality and homosexuality by setting the two in relation to each other, and the reproductive heterosexual ideal that the Rose appears to promote becomes an illusive myth, somewhat like 'straight' or 'proper' writing. (92) The essay ends with the bold claim that "If the Rose exemplifies a form of writing that enacts a repudiation of the 'straight', then it may not be anachronistic--however unlikely this may seem--to claim Jean de Meun as a queer writer." (93)

Since I am not familiar with the thematic range of the second "triad" of essays "offer[ing] perspectives on gender and space in late medieval French writings". I will not comment on the quality of the first two papers: Helen Solterer's "States of Siege: Violence, Place, Gender: Paris around 1400" (pp. 95-132) and Jane H. M. Taylor's, "Metonymy, Montage, and Death in Francois Villon's Testament" (pp. 133-158).

In the third paper, "Maytime in Late Medieval Courts" (pp. 159- 179), Susan Crane investigates the social and cultural background of some French and English poems celebrating the coming of May. Crane's main argument is based on the hypothesis that a celebration of May by members of the court is dissociated from the original social and cultural context of agrarian production and labour depending on the seasons: There is a sense of wilful disregard for labour in these scenarios--wilful in that they are so openly mere fantasies of a relation to nature. Leaf and Flower are icons of a mystified, de-economized relation between participants and their own privilege. (175-176) But the texts examined by Crane also reveal an important social function of the Maying ritual: when flowers, in particular the daisy symbolizing the chastity ('restrained sexuality') of women, are adored in some of these poems, this adoration also has concrete social implications--the capital 'sexual control' most valued in and indispensable for 'women on the market'.

Turning to the third "triad", the essays that "look to the 'margins' of British and English cultural history", I am on more familiar ground again.

In his paper, "The Trouble with Harold: The Ideological Context of the Vita Haroldi" (pp. 181-204), Robert M. Stein examines the fate of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, in a number of narrative sources. After a presentation of the differing accounts of Harold's death in the Battle of Hastings and its political aspects and interpretations in the early sources constituting one textual and ideological tradition, Stein then turns to the 'other' history of Harold: Yet, contemporary with these texts there is another, entirely alternative story - namely that Harold did not die at Hastings at all--that circulates in the oral tradition. Indeed the writer of the Waltham chronicle knows of it and is at some pains to refute it, and traces of its existence show up in various ways in at least ten texts in various genres composed in the twelfth century. This alternative version is a species of oppositional narrative: the story of the rightful king, lurking in obscurity, who will return to rally his loyal followers and claim his due. (189) Stein then offers a critical reading of his central text, the Vita Haroldi, composed at Waltham during the early thirteenth century and surviving in a fourteenth century copy, MS Harley 3776. This text, Stein argues, "transforms Harold into a new kind of saint while transforming itself into a romance." (197) And this "new kind of saint", Stein argues, is characterized by passivity, by a lack of exemplarity, and by an absence of miracles. In addition, writing a life is a difficult undertaking indeed when the truth has to be extracted from old, conflicting and unreliable accounts.

A theme typical of the intellectual climate in the late fourteenth century is taken up by Kantik Ghosh in his essay "Eliding the Interpreter: John Wyclif and Scriptural Truth" (pp. 205-224). Based on a critical reading of Wyclif's much contested tract, De veritate sacrae scripturae, Ghosh points out the difficulties and inadequacies of traditional biblical hermeneutics and criticism. No longer content with the traditional 'four senses of the Bible' Wyclif argues that there is only one sense, i.e. the literal sense intended by the author. And further, the meaning of the biblical text can only be grasped by understanding and using the various modes of the logic underlying and controling the scriptures--and not by artificial constructions and methods. This logic, Wyclif argues, will reveal itself to faithful readers of the Bible enlightened by humility. As Ghosh rightly points out, this view has serious political and social implications: the theorizatons of De veritate are ideologically of a piece: they point the way towards a defence of readings not sanctioned by the ecclesiastical establishment. The interpretative authority of the Church and of ecclesiastical traditions can be denied on the basis of a scriptural lectio which is simultaneously academic-rationalist and a mode of life. (223) The political implications of Wyclifs radicalism are considered again in an interesting conclusion advanced on p. 224: De veritate seems to suggest an apparent collapse, in the final decades of the fourteenth century, of the scholastic dialogic model of scriptural interpretation, a model which accomodates the reinvention of scripture through an implicit or explicit foregrounding of the problematic natures of language and interpretation and their interaction with the various local powers and investments of religious and political institutions. Ghosh's thought-provoking essay demonstrates once more that (seemingly) 'academic' and 'intellectual/cognitive' issues are intricately connected with the public sphere and with the issues of both religious and lay power and authority.

Against the background of Habermas' formulation of the conditions necessary for the evolution of a 'modern' public culture--a literate, printed, mass-circulation textual culture with a public and a separate private sphere--Wendy Scase examines and evaluates a hitherto largely neglected corpus of late medieval texts in her paper entitled "'Strange and Wonderful Bills': Bill-Casting and Political Discourse in Late Medieval England" (pp. 225-247). Examining the political and social aspects of bill-casting, Scase argues convincingly that this activity "imagines a realm divided into public and private domains and attempts to restore lost unity through mass publication, even as its very mode of publication reifies the division and loss it seeks to redress." (247) I think that the concluding remarks of Scase's essay deserve special consideration by scholars interested in late medieval political discourse: I would argue that medieval bill-casting can contribute to a new and much richer understanding of medieval political discourse. I would also suggest that from this perspective the theorists' history looks like myth: that their narrative has not a little in common with the story of the realm represented by bill-casting in the streets and market-places of medieval England (247).