contributor.author: Teresa P. Reed

title.none: McCracken, The Curse of Eve (Teresa P. Reed)

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.037 04.01.37

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Teresa P. Reed, Jacksonville State University, treed@jsucc.jsu.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: McCracken, Peggy. The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 178. $39.00 0-8122-3713-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.37

McCracken, Peggy. The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature. Series: The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Pp. xii, 178. $39.00 0-8122-3713-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Teresa P. Reed
Jacksonville State University
treed@jsucc.jsu.edu

Blood as gendered symbol is the impetus motivating Peggy McCracken's new book, part of the venerable Middle Ages Series out of the University of Pennsylvania Press. Another of McCracken's books in the series, The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature (1998), typifies her interest in gender codes and practices as does Constructing Medieval Sexuality, the volume she edited with Karma Lochrie and James A. Schultz (1997). In The Curse of Eve, McCracken has produced a book that builds a persuasive argument about the symbolic engendering of blood as an unstable method of protecting the status quo, an argument firmly grounded in history and texts of the Middle Ages (mostly Old French). Both those who like traditional historical reference and close reading and those who believe the addition of modern critical theory can provide useful insights into even the oldest of texts will find this book readable and thought-provoking.

McCracken uses her first chapter to set the scene for her argument. She calls the chapter "Only Women Bleed," taking the title from a 1975 Alice Cooper song. However, she suggests that men do in fact bleed. In literature, women bleed in private--in menstruation and parturition primarily--whereas men bleed in public or cause public bleeding--in battle and/or sacrifice. McCracken states, "the body that can regularly bleed but not die challenges the heroic nexus of blood, death, and glory promoted in romance narratives about battles undertaken to restore justice, win women, and gain honor" (13). The opposition between women's and men's blood is one manifestation of other oppositional ways of thinking about gender and gendered bodies. For example, the private bleeding of women tends to reinforce ideas about women's unruliness and impurity. The public bleeding of men, in contrast, reinforces traditional gender expectations of men's ordering impulses and purifying abilities. All this McCracken supports with reference to anthropological, psychological, and narratological authorities, including Bruno Bettelheim and Sigmund Freud.

Additionally, McCracken takes a close look at La queste del saint graal to illustrate some of her points more finely. In this work Perceval's sister dies giving her blood to save a leprous woman. Though her giving of blood is life-saving, the actions of Perceval's sister remain firmly in the sphere of the private because her actions are, as McCracken says, "never explicitly explained as part of the struggle between good and evil, as are most events in the story" (9). In other words, the romance woman's blood has no lasting or widespread value, nor is it part of restoring order to society. In fact, blood in a private place is often a sign or cause of disorder as in Le chevalier de la charrete and Roman de Florence de Rome. In both stories blood in a woman's bed brings unrest, which then must be settled by contests between men. Ultimately, McCracken says that women's blood in romances is always linked to women's bodies and not, like men's blood, to order and the transcendent.

In the second chapter, "The Amenorrhea of War," McCracken investigates images of women's blood spilled in public. What she notes is that women who bleed in battle are in some way or another characterized as not really women at all and yet simultaneously still tied to the debilitating reproductive functions of their bodies. The chapter begins with a brief look at the 1997 Ridley Scott movie G. I. Jane. In this movie Demi Moore's character, Jordan O'Neil becomes a Navy Seal. During the training, she stops menstruating but successfully completes the program. In other words, she becomes something besides a woman, in terms of her body as well as her profession. McCracken finds that Scott's is not the first text to represent such women as somehow unnatural. Indeed, many medieval narratives illustrate this point.

McCracken analyzes several types of stories in which women are represented as warriors, including medieval Irish tales, Icelandic sagas, Old French romances, and the story of Joan of Arc, particularly Shakespeare's version of it. Whether the texts identify the women as simply unsuited to combat because of their physiology (as is the case in the Irish tales), unnatural somehow for their actions (as in the Old French works), or describe their martial exploits positively but still reintegrate the women into society via marriage (as in the Icelandic works), each suggests that a woman in battle is a woman involved in an inappropriate undertaking.

The story of Joan of Arc represents a particularly dense example of these patterns. Joan is a cross-dresser who does not menstruate. McCracken writes, "Joan's reputation for not suffering 'the secret illness of women' suggests that blood is also gendered in her story, that gendered cultural values are mapped onto blood, so that blood itself comes to be seen as gendered and thus a 'natural' foundation for gendered cultural values" (32), which Joan tends to interrupt or pressure. Shakespeare writes a particularly unsympathetic version of Joan in Henry VI, Part I because Joan's success in war "is seen to threaten the cultural values promoted by war" (36)--the restoration of order; the protection of women, children, and property; and the promotion of justice. McCracken contends that stories told about Joan are, therefore, particularly important because they illustrate "the instability of the gendering of the blood that supports military heroism" (37).

In "The Gender of Sacrifice," the third chapter of The Curse of Eve, McCracken argues that sacrifice is always gendered male in literature. When women kill intimates, their motivation is revenge. Sacrifice is a ritual that helps promote and reinforce power structures and the status quo; sacrifice symbolizes one's relation with the transcendent. In contrast, revenge offers only local justice or satisfaction, just as women's blood has only local effects (as McCracken argued in the first chapter). The logic that promotes such thinking has to do with blood: the child shares the father's blood, whereas the mother is connected to the child only through the blood shed at childbirth.

McCracken reviews the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Isaac and Jephthah's daughter, among others, and finds that mothers are nearly absent in such stories. This absence amounts to the mother's lack of authority over the life or death of her child. Also under scrutiny in this chapter are the Old French versions of the legend of Amicus and Amelius, friends who sacrifice themselves and their children in order to save the life of the other, and the Old French Philomena. What becomes apparent in all these stories is that a mother's connection with her child is bodily, local; it is a bond with the child, not a right. The rights to dispose of children go to the men.

The question of polluted blood arises next in "Menstruation and Monstrous Birth," chapter four. Focusing on the early fourteenth century Le roman du comte d'Anjou, Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, and Nicholas Trevet's Cronicles as her prime examples, McCracken contends that the literary trope of the monstrous birth is associated with the ostensible impurity of the female body. Old Testament and Jewish sources, as well as medical texts, show that the blood of parturition is polluted and, therefore, not capable of establishing rights and laws as man's blood would be.

In Le roman du comte d'Anjou as in the Man of Law's Tale, the issue of lineage is an important one. The charge of giving birth to a monster is one levied at a woman by her enemies. Typically this woman is considered by her enemies to be an outsider in some way; most often she is of a different religion than those of the community in which she finds herself. The woman is charged with giving birth to a monster--an elf or a litter of puppies, perhaps--and ejected from the community. Even though the woman suffers, her reintegration into society does not occur until her husband completes his quest in search of his offspring. In the end, McCracken suggests that the proliferation of stories about women giving birth to monsters represents the historical anxiety over intermarriage--and the impurity it might suggest.

Chapter five, "The Scene of Parturition" explores the value of the mother's blood. What exactly does a mother pass along to her children? Stories about fairies focus this question in some particular ways, for they illustrate the fear of the woman's unruliness being passed along. This fear is compounded because the scene of childbirth is rarely if ever actually described in literature. McCracken uses the late fourteenth-century fairy story Roman de Melusine as her main example in this chapter. In this story as in many others, the father is kept from the birth itself and often away from the mother for weeks afterwards. When husbands do witness their wives giving birth, most feel shame in the occurrence. The men simply do not want to be there. McCracken suggests that such stories reinforce the taboo of seeing women's blood--whether it be menstrual or parturitive. This taboo, in turn, helps to reinforce the figural, ritual, legal relation of child to father.

In the sixth chapter, "The Grail and Its Hosts," McCracken investigates the relationship between stories about the grail, men's blood sacrifice, and the Eucharist. The keepers of the grail are men who have been wounded, often in the thigh or between the legs. Often, too, their bleeding cannot be stanched. This uncontrollable bleeding parallels menstrual bleeding, though it often exists in an environment of political and economic sterility. The grail keeper bleeds in public but from a private place. Does his wound conflate categories of women's and men's blood? Even here, McCracken finds that the demarcations between women's blood and men's are still in effect. For the grail keeper's wound is purifying, culturally salvific. Indeed, his actions are ultimately like those of the priest who offers the Eucharist to the faithful.

McCracken's main literary text in this chapter is Estoire del saint graal, a thirteenth-century version of the grail story. However, she also includes information from medical texts, Jewish theology, and the history of celibacy in the clergy to provide context for her readings. What she finds in the end is that "the bleeding wound between the thighs may also be seen to trouble gender identity at the same time that it defines gender" (108). Such troubling images, however, do not overturn definitions of gender but instead provide ways of seeing how fragile is the system upon which these definitions are built.

In the conclusion of her book, "Bleeding for Love," McCracken explores the practice of phlebotomy because it so well illustrates her assertion: "Values are assigned to the visible physiological differences between women's bodies and men's bodies (women menstruate and give birth to children, men do not), and those perceived differences between women's bodies and men's bodies also define less visible differences" (111). Aristotelian and Galenic medicine teach that women do not need to be bled because they undergo a regular letting of blood each month when they menstruate. Men need to have blood let only occasionally when they have a build up of excess, corrupt matter, but according to this logic, women menstruate because they have a regular build up of such excess. McCracken provides literary evidence of the importance of phlebotomy in the text of Marie de France's Equitan. In this story, a king uses the excuse of wanting to be bled in private as a way to meet his lover, the wife of his second-in-command. When the king's plan to kill his second-in-command goes awry, the monarch and his lover are killed and order is restored. McCracken argues that "the demands of feudal loyalty oppose the desire of a courtly love" (115), but ultimately the public concerns, the concerns of male society, win out. This tale proves to be a good choice to be the last investigated in The Curse of Eve since it illustrates McCracken's point that literary texts both use and reveal gender systems built on the figuration of blood. She concludes: "The gender of blood . . . is not an essential quality; it is part of a broader system of cultural values . . .. Literature intervenes in this system to recognize the gendered hierarchies that it promotes and, sometimes, to question their legitimacy and the values they produce" (117).

The Curse of Eve succeeds commendably as feat of scholarship and careful presentation of often highly theoretical ideas. McCracken has used extensive sources and documentation, while never overwhelming the reader with too much information lying outside her argument. Such information is put into footnotes along with specific references. The bibliography is nearly exhaustive, one glaring omission being Julia Kristeva's The Powers of Horror: And Essay on Abjection, a work that focuses on the symbolism of blood and its meaning within Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, this book adds immeasurably to conversations about gender and the body in the Middle Ages.