Jennifer Neville

title.none: Wilcox and Withers, eds., Naked before God (Jennifer Neville)

identifier.other: baj9928.0406.002 04.06.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jennifer Neville, University of London,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Wilcox, Jonathan, and Benjamin C. Withers, eds. Naked before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Series: Medieval European Studies, vol. 3. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 315. ISBN: $45.00 0-937058-68-8.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.06.02

Wilcox, Jonathan, and Benjamin C. Withers, eds. Naked before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Series: Medieval European Studies, vol. 3. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 315. ISBN: $45.00 0-937058-68-8.

Reviewed by:

Jennifer Neville
University of London

This is a significant book. As with most essay-collections, it is uneven and its unity can appear contrived, but it is a volume whose value is more than the sum of its parts: there was good reason to publish and read these essays together rather than separately in various journals. Its value is further increased by its forty-five black-and-white illustrations. It is unfortunate that careless copy-editing occasionally mars its overall impact.

The volume has a "Forward" and an "Introduction," both of which serve to situate the following essays in larger contexts. Perhaps inevitably, these prefatory chapters contain some overlap, but I am glad to have read them both and cannot choose one that might have been omitted. Benjamin C. Withers' "Forward: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England" provides an overview of the book's contents and usefully looks back at previous Anglo-Saxon scholarship (Frantzen, Lees, O'Keeffe, Lees and Overing, Clark, Nead) and explains that, although the volume as a whole does not possess an overarching structure or chronology, it is structured through its presentation of paired essays addressing similar topics from different angles. Although some of these pairings are evident and useful, I am not convinced that this scheme covers the book as a whole (nor that it is necessary).

Suzanne Lewis' "Introduction: Medieval Bodies Then and Now: Negotiating Problems of Ambivalence and Paradox" sets out these essays' place in a larger context still. Her claims that nakedness is never natural but "assumed" and meaningful in the Christian West and that Anglo-Saxon society was self-conscious and aware of the body's paradoxical nature provide a good rationale for the book as a whole.

Sarah L. Higley's "The Wanton Hand: Reading and Reaching into Grammars and Bodies in Old English Riddle 12" is my favorite essay from the collection, although I am not usually a fan of word studies. She provides an overview of translations of Riddle 12 and then picks through the text's grammatical and lexical ambiguity. For example, she argues that "swifeÁî" already had a sexual meaning in Old English, even though it does not appear in other texts with this meaning until the fourteenth century; with regard to "stician" she asks whether "part of the joke" in the riddle is that "there is an alternative grammar (one that makes use of dialect or vernacular) along with an alternative meaning that can distract." The "innocent" solution she proposes for this "double-entendre" riddle is a woman washing a cauldron with a leather rag. The "obscene" solution, as she convincingly demonstrates, is not so easy to pin down (she suggests use of a dildo or some form of contraception as possibilities), but that ambiguity may be the point: "what should be peripheral (what the woman is doing instead of what the solution to the riddle is) becomes central." The riddle thus shows the "dangers and dead-endness of the body." Normally I am not satisfied to hear that we do not know Old English grammar and diction well enough to know precisely how a text works, but in this case the revelation of our ignorance proves both entertaining and enlightening.

The following essay, Mercedes Salvador's "The Key to the Body: Unlocking Riddles 42-46," is an ambitious attempt to answer the often-asked question of how riddles, and particularly those like Riddle 42, which openly describes sex, came to be copied into the Exeter Book. Her answer is that the "obscene" surface is part of an elaborate allegory extending over five texts. She argues that the reference to a key indicates the need for a highly literate interpretation of the "Cock and Hen," which consequently represent the soul and body, the topic of Riddle 43. Riddle 44 offers another "key" to the sequence, Riddle 45 another "double-entendre" object with allegorical significance ("dough"), and Riddle 46 the Biblical exemplum of Lot and his daughters. Although suggestive, the essay builds much upon some unsubstantiated links. For example, reference is made to conflict between body and soul in the context of Riddle 42, but I can see no evidence of conflict between the cock and hen; similarly, reference is made to the "pair" of dough and oven, but I can see no oven in Riddle 45 itself. My main question, however is: if allegory is necessary to justify the cock and hen, what justifies the onion (Riddle 25)?

Mary P. Richards's essay, "The Body as Text in Early Anglo-Saxon Law," builds upon O'Keeffe's earlier article on later texts. Although Richards raises some interesting points (e.g. that the law codes seem to take into account the possibility that a victim's injury could be confused with a punitive injury), primarily she argues that the dynamic observed in O'Keefe's study cannot be observed in earlier law codes, in which the Church had less influence. As a result, "barbaric elements" prevail, and the "spiritual dimension" of punishing the body is absent.

I was disappointed with John M. Hill's essay, especially since I generally have high expectations for his work. "The Sacrificial Synecdoche of Hands, Heads, and Arms in Anglo-Saxon Heroic Story," however, is neither convincing nor relevant to the topic of the naked body. In fact, the essay admits that it does not address the naked body. Instead, its focus is upon heroic limbs, which represent "bodies dedicated to righteous action." The essay presents an argument growing out of Germanic myth (the "Tyr topos") and a Freudian interpretation of "righteousness," which, despite my best efforts,I have failed to understand.

Karen Rose Mathews' essay, "Nudity on the Margins: The Bayeux Tapestry and its Relationship to Marginal Architectural Sculpture," draws together English needlework and continental, Romanesque sculpture to analyze their exhibition of male and female genitalia. Mathews rejects positive, modern "folkloric" interpretations of such images; although they can be read in multiple ways by their varied audiences, they are meant to present overt sexuality as negative. The links found between these two types of art foreground the Bayeux Tapestry's participation in an international tradition of art.

In "The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes," Susan M. Kim analyzes the concept of the "hybrid" in the context of The Wonders of the East. Both text and illuminations demonstrate the worrying problems posed by hybrids like the Donestre: every attempt to mark off the monster from the human provides opportunities for identification as well as distinction. For example, the emphatic presentation of the Donestre's genitalia in the Cotton Vitellius manuscript marks the monster as both monstrous (human beings cover themselves) and man (different from the woman placed next to the monster, but the same as the reader, whom Kim presumes was male). Thus "these monsters seduce us and tear us apart not because of their terrifying alterity, but because we recognize them" (180).

Catherine E. Karkov's essay, "Exiles from the Kingdom: The Naked and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon Art," is an ambitious attempt to draw together archaeology, literature, art, and law to explain the representation of the damned male body in Junius 11 and elsewhere. The result is not, however, entirely convincing, perhaps because too much was attempted. The carelessness with which Latin text was matched with translation on p. 205 does not inspire confidence. The essay contains unexamined assumptions (e.g. that Anglo-Saxon social order was exclusively male--this may be true, but surely it cannot simply be assumed in an argument about gender), self-contradictions (e.g. Eve has no power except through her children, yet only she can speak), and questionable inclusions (e.g. a long section on law codes and charters that does not seem to offer much to an understanding of nakedness).

"Breasts and Babies: The Maternal Body of Eve in the Junius 11 Genesis" contains some extremely lengthy and thorough (some might say over-bloated) notes, but, while one might not want to read all her supporting documentation, Mary Dockray-Miller issues a strong argument for the need to read the Old English poetic Genesis as a whole that includes Genesis A, Genesis B, and their accompanying drawings. This holistic reading is only possible online; editors and critics generally present the three elements of the narrative separately. Such separate presentation obscures the unresolved tensions between text and illustrations: while the text reinforces the traditional dichotomy of masculine and feminine, the illustrations show transgressions of gender performances. Her suggestion that Junius 11 might have been illustrated by a woman is probably unprovable, but I am convinced by her argument that the drawings show familiarity with holding babies and are accurate rather than merely iconographic.

While other Christian tropes emphasize the need to cleanse and thus uncover the soul, Janet S. Ericksen's essay, "Penitential Nakedness and the Junius 11 Genesis," explores the opposite understanding of nakedness: not a soul devoid of sin, but a soul devoid of grace. Such a soul, like Adam and Eve, requires clothing, which can only come from confession and penance. The narrative of the Old English Genesis "uses literal nakedness to emphasize the need for figurative clothing" and thus confirms and supports ideas expressed in prose penitential literature.

In "Naked in Old English: The Embarrassed and the Shamed," Jonathan Wilcox addresses "the intersection of nudity and embarrassment" and the distinction between shame and embarrassment. Because his lively survey of a wide range of texts includes many familiar from previous essays, his essay provides a serviceable conclusion, despite the disparate approaches taken throughout the volume. At the same time, his survey adduces its own interesting conclusion: that, while shame for transgression against God's laws is the most important meaning of nakedness, a more secular, social but nevertheless deeply felt sense of embarrassment is apparent, too, even if it normally appears as a metaphor for shame.

Overall, this is a book that should be read, not only for one or two of its essays but also for what it offers as a whole: a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary study of a widely relevant topic. It is particularly noteworthy for anyone working on Junius 11. The book may not have changed my life, but it has inspired me to look at familiar texts again, and it should provoke further work on this topic.