Edna Edith Sayers

title.none: Desmond, Ovid's Art (Edna Edith Sayers)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.015 07.10.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Edna Edith Sayers, Galludet University, Edna.Sayers@Galludet. edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Desmond, Marilynn. Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 206. $52.50 0-8014-4479-2. ISBN: $20.95 0-8014-7317-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.15

Desmond, Marilynn. Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence. Ithaca and New York: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 206. $52.50 0-8014-4479-2. ISBN: $20.95 0-8014-7317-9.

Reviewed by:

Edna Edith Sayers
Galludet University
Edna.Sayers@Galludet. edu

Marilynn Desmond's Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence is somewhat misleadingly entitled. Not a study of erotic violence in general, neither is it centered on the Wife of Bath. Rather, the book is a survey of the gestures and postures of (what is today understood as) sadomasochism in selected texts that derive from the received misreading of Ovid's Ars amatoria, by which medieval readers took seriously the sexual advice intended by Ovid as satire. The selected texts are the letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Roman de la Rose, and the Wife of Bath's Prologue, with a concluding chapter on the objections of Christine de Pizan. Sadomasochism having been taboo in both polite society and Academia since the demise of the last Victorian, it's refreshing to find this survey put out by Cornell UP in its Medieval Gender Studies series--and unembarrassedly dedicated to the author's mother!

Desmond's choice to end this book with Christine is an interesting one. Like any present-day anti-pornography activist, Christine believes that the hundreds of pages of instruction on, and valorization of, rape contained in the Roman de la Rose encourage violence against real women. Further, Christine addresses the "appropriate register for poetic discourse" (161), which does not, in her opinion, include rape scenes. Anyone who, as a young woman, sat through a graduate seminar in which the end of this book was read aloud would likely agree with Christine that "noblewomen would cover their faces and blush to hear it" (161, Desmond's paraphrase).

And Christine would probably say the same thing about Marilynn Desmond's survey, which, apart from the final chapter, can reasonably be regarded as a one-hand book. We linger, for example, over Abelard smacking around his teenaged pupil, Heloise, who " submissive gestures" (64) while doing her Latin homework and getting knocked up. For those more interested in the copious illustrations, there are, for example, eight iconographically identical half-page pictures of Jaloux dragging his wife by her hair while brandishing a club in her face. (Like modern pornography, as Desmond might have noted, these pictures show highly improbable body contortions as Jaloux must drag his wife away from himself in order to get his club in front of her face). If it's true that with S/M "less is more," readers may reach the chapter on Christine feeling as worn out as we do by the time we get to the big party at the end of L'histoire d'O.

Neither the erotic interest of the material, however, nor Christine's--and Andrea-Dworkin-feminists'--views about what it leads to address what we would really like to know: the reason or reasons for the amazing pervasiveness of sadomasochistic gestures and postures in the literature of the High Middle Ages. Desmond begins her examination with a chapter on a popular manuscript miniature, the so-called mounted Aristotle: a woman riding an older man, seated side-saddle, brandishing a whip and holding reins attached to a bit in his mouth, as we see in nine illustrations. Desmond finds that this motif "encodes a misogynist anxiety regarding female sexuality [and] highlights the erotic value of sexual difference in medieval cultures" (28), and likely so. The discussion then segues into an explanation of how marital violence first appears in the Middle Ages after having been absent in the erotica of Antiquity, which focused on the seduction of boys and on the girls of the lower classes.

Desmond's second chapter continues the discussion of marital vs. extramarital erotic violence by taking up Ovid's Ars amatoria, which, like other Roman love poetry, assumes a class of women who are neither slaves nor matrons and thus, while sexually available, are to be had only with some effort: grata est uis ista puellis (1.673-78), such force is pleasing to girls (42). Discussion glances at the S/M homoeroticism of gladiators and shackled prisoners of war, but the discussion stays, with Ovid, on the use of these spectacles to attract girls. Some things, though, haven't changed much in the past two millennia: Ovid's urges men who seek women not to keep themselves too well groomed lest they be mistaken for men seeking men. Certainly an interesting read, this chapter provides little that can't be found in internet study guides or parodies (e.g.,, and serves mainly to establish the terms for the following discussions of medieval texts.

The chapter on the letters of Abelard and Heloise explains that "eros of pedagogy" would have been same-sex in classrooms until recent times and that Abelard's duties with regard to Heloise "enabled him to develop a pedagogy that eroticized sexual difference" (59). Heloise's "narrative of masochism...follows the script articulated for the female lover in Ars amatoria" (62), which book she appears to have known nearly by heart. Desmond points out that Jean de Meun's translation of the Abelard/Heloise letters "represents the power relations between [them] more starkly than does [their own] Latin" (71), which observation bridges us into the next chapter, on Jean's portion of the Roman de la Rose.

Desmond sees the discourse on force and violence in the Rose as patterned on that found in all five of the French translations of the Ars, but where Ovid merely suggests force as effective, Jean sees it as "constitutive of masculine identity" and turns Ovid's irony into "a code of masculine heterosexual conduct" (81). Most interesting is the discussion of the Vielle's distinction between violence that alienates, as when the Jaloux beats his wife, and violence that enthralls because, as with Abelard and Heloise, it is followed by such tender intimacy that the woman is ready to thank her partner for the beating (Rose 14461-77).

Chaucerians won't find anything new in the next and penultimate chapter on the Wife of Bath, but the review of the chain of sources--Chaucer's Wife quotes Jean's Vielle who quotes Ovid's praeceptor--is compelling, and a needed reminder that "at her most personal or authentic, the Wife of Bath is most constructed" (127). Like Heloise and the Vielle, the Wife is enthralled by Jankyn violence, just as she enthralled her first three husbands. Desmond is hard on present-day critics who are convinced that Chaucer's empathy for the Wife is written into the narrative. Some readers will regard as labored Desmond's arguments about the meaning of daungerous (line 514) or that the Wife's "easy mastery of a saddle horse interprets her marital expertise in equestrian terms" (119)--all the pilgrims are on horseback. It's deflating, in any case, to see our beloved Alisoun chopped up into her sources with nothing left over of what most of us regard as her appeal.

Desmond's thesis, then, is that Ovid's satiric Ars amatoria, having been used so widely as a textbook for teaching Latin in a culture that had no means of grasping that it was a joke, instilled in the minds of the schoolboys who would become scholars that women wished to be raped and it was a man's duty to do so, and here we have Heloise, Jean, and Geoffrey Chaucer (but not Christine) explained for us. Desmond's thesis does in fact explain the Rose, and it goes a considerable way toward illuminating the Wife of Bath's Prologue, but one can't help but thinking that these authors are so much more than their sources and influences. Worse--and this is my major disappointment with the book--her thesis does not more widely illuminate sadomasochism in medieval literature. One thinks, first, of that amazing masochist Lancelot, such a predictably tedious doormat to Guinevere that their romances lack any sense of the game. Such play of domination and humiliation without overt violence also, and more successfully, provides the structure of literary gems from the Clerk's Tale to rec et nide, this last arguably the most S/M-erotic text of the Middle Ages and all these on grounds quite different from Ovid's satire and Jean de Meun's knuckle-headed allegory.

Desmond's translations from Latin and Old French are competent and appealing, and they enhance the review of texts. Because the extent to which experts on the Rose or Christine or the Abelard/Heloise letters will spot introduction of new ideas is probably comparable to that of Chaucerians with the Wife of Bath, the scholarly value of Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath therefore must be judged on the value added by bringing these works together for discussion.

To conclude with a curiosity of the book, it's an odd choice for a work covering exclusively hetero S/M to begin it with a conference panel on lesbian sadomasochism. This prompts an interesting question: when exactly did same-sex erotica and praxis get a cultural monopoly on S/M? Desmond's book reminds us that in the Middle Ages, sadomasochism, in literature anyway, was most decidedly a straight thing.