Shannon K. Valenzuela

title.none: Mieszkowksi, Medieval Go-Betweens (Shannon K. Valenzuela)

identifier.other: baj9928.0706.021 07.06.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Shannon K. Valenzuela, University of Dallas,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Mieszkowski, Gretchen. Medieval Go-Betweens and Chaucer's Pandarus. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Pp. xi, 218. $69.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 1-4039-6341-X; ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-6341-3 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.06.21

Mieszkowski, Gretchen. Medieval Go-Betweens and Chaucer's Pandarus. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Pp. xi, 218. $69.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 1-4039-6341-X; ISBN-13: 978-1-4039-6341-3 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Shannon K. Valenzuela
University of Dallas

Gretchen Mieszkowski's study of the medieval traditions of going between is directed at revealing "the web of cross-fertilizing texts that ultimately yield Chaucer's three main characters [in Troilus and Criseyde]: the lover, the lady, and the go-between" (1). By heightening the reader's awareness of the two widely-divergent strands of the medieval go-between tradition--going between for sexual conquest and going between for idealized love--Mieszkowski reveals the uniqueness of Chaucer's Pandarus as "an impossible amalgam of the conflicting conventions" (3), a go-between who fits both and neither of the traditional roles associated with going between in the Middle Ages. The book is accordingly divided into three parts: the first addresses the tradition of going between for sexual conquest, the second presents the tradition of going between for idealized love, and the third offers an analysis of Chaucer's Pandarus in the context of these two traditions.

In the Introduction, Mieszkowski establishes the principal characteristics of each of these traditions, and it becomes clear that the basis for their difference lies in their contradictory visions of the nature of love itself. In the sexual conquest tradition, love is simply a weakness, a flaw that allows the go-between the opportunity to capitalize on the lovers for money; love is simply sex, and degrading and expensive sex at that. In the idealized love tradition, however, love is an ennobling force--a force that inspires men to great heroic deeds and women to suffer heroically--and its fulfillment is intensely joyful for both the man and the woman. The go-betweens in each of these traditions are accordingly designed to reflect these visions of love. The go-between for lust is usually an old woman from the lower-class who supplements her income by arranging sex for pay, and she uses every trick available to help the hiring party achieve the aim of sexual possession of the other person. The go-between for idealized love has unimpeachable motives, uses no tricks and no coercion, and is more often than not an aristocratic figure with a close relationship to one or both of the lovers. Summing up the differences between these two traditions at the beginning of Part III, Mieszkowski argues that "mutual consent" is the essential element that distinguishes going between for love from going between for lust (135).

In Part I, "Choreographing Lust: Go-Betweens for Sexual Conquest," Mieszkowski suggests that narratives of going between for lust lack a moderate vision of women: they present women either as vicious to the point of being "demonized" or as ideal in their "ultrasubmissive" attitudes toward the men involved (10). The go-between for lust is often the "demonized" character: she is usually a sexually repulsive old woman who boasts a past repertoire of sexual exploits and who now uses her cleverness and astute business sense to extort money in exchange for sex (10). The function of this go-between is to orchestrate the violation of an innocent, na?ve, and "ultrasubmissive" young woman, a violation which is often considered in terms of male property rights. Mieszkowski suggests that feminist criticism, with its understanding of the ideological and discursive constructions of gender and body, offers the most profitable approach to analyzing these "highly gendered" and "misogynist" texts (10).

Mieszkowski's sensitivity to the gendered and misogynistic subjects and language of the go-between tradition overarches both Part I and Part II, and it is grounded in her assumption, as she states it in the opening paragraphs of Part I, that "[t]he official culture of the Middle Ages was fundamentally misogynistic" (10). In substantiating this provocative claim, Mieszkowski appeals to arguments about the nature of women found in Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Jerome, Albertus Magnus, Richard de Bury, and Walter Map. This section of the book, which is intended to establish the validity of the feminist critical approach to medieval go-between texts, in fact represents the most unfortunate lapse of scholarship in Mieszkowski's study. Although she presents these various authors as contributors to a general misogynist attitude in the Middle Ages, none of her textual evidence is in fact taken from their original writings; instead, a perusal of the references yields only citations to collections like Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), Gender in Debate from the Early Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2002), and The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (University of Washington Press, 1966). Nowhere in the endnotes to this section are the primary texts cited, and this has the unfortunate effect of rendering her arguments about medieval misogyny weakened at best. Similarly, when she argues that the Church's "hostility to sexual pleasure" was bolstered by classical traditions of misogyny, stemming in particular from Ovid's major works, she offers this characterization of Ovid without any reasons substantiated by reference to the texts themselves. Lapses of this kind color the subsequent summaries and analyses of medieval go-between texts offered in the rest of the book; she has given the reader reason to suspect her practice of textual mediation.

Although the characteristics of the go-between for sexual conquest become fairly consistent, Mieszkowski summarizes a broad range of texts in Part I--from Latin comedies to fabliaux, from Arthurian hero-narratives to the Roman de la Rose and the Confessio Amantis--in order to illuminate the nuances possible in this character. In the Latin comedy Alda (c. 1170), for instance, the Old Woman is never explicitly described, but she violates her role as Alda's nurse and guardian by helping the love-enflamed Pyrrhus substitute himself for his twin sister, Alda's companion, so that he can possess Alda. In another of the Latin comedies, the De nuntio sagaci, the go-between is a man, but he operates in the typical go-between fashion, betraying a young woman's trust and delivering her to his master for what amounts to a rape. The character of La Vieille from the Roman de la Rose is a highly-developed contribution to this tradition, trading sex like any other commodity and advocating women's use of sex as a predatory weapon.

In concluding her summary of the Rose, she argues that the struggle of feminist scholars is to "hear whatever traces of [a woman's voice] might be lodged in male writings," and that the strong voice of La Vieille might tempt women "to claim some part of [her] for their own" (66). The conclusion of Part I subsequently turns away from the characterization of the go-betweens for sexual conquest toward a reiteration of the feminist contribution to the analysis of these kinds of texts. Mieszkowski draws on Anne Laskaya's work on medieval legends of long-suffering women, for example, in order to argue that the "submissive, violated women" in Gower's Confessio Amantis represent masculine ideals of femininity (74), and she bases her analysis of Boccaccio's Decameron and the fifteenth-century Le Roman du comte d'Artois (1453-67) on Adrienne Munich's suggestion that feminist readings should search for women's "implied power in texts that submerge it" (74). The renewed prominence of the feminist critical approach at the conclusion of this first section carries forward into the next section, "Choreographing Love: Idealized Go-Betweens."

Part II presents summaries of various romance texts, but Mieszkowski's analysis of these texts is less concerned with characterizing the go-betweens and more with discovering whether these texts avoid misogyny and "empower female audiences" (82). In analyzing the romance Cligés, Mieszkowski concludes that because Soredamors exhibits timidity and self-effacement in revealing her passions, she "is surely not an empowering voice" (85). When she presents the Prose Lancelot, however, Mieszkowski seems to change her mind about what constitutes an empowering voice. She suggests that Lancelot's "abject suffering" and "weakness" in fact "expresses...his enormous capacity to love," in comparison with which Guinevere becomes merely "an ordinary lover" (94). In a strange reversal, Mieszkowski concludes, Guinevere's ostensible superiority to Lancelot is actually an indication of her inferiority as a lover; the woman who would seem to have an "empowering voice" turns out to be insufficient (94). Only in the romance William of Palerne does Mieszkowski find a woman whose voice is "potentially empowering" (89). The difficulty with her analysis in this section is its apparent subjectivity; because Mieszkowski never gives the reader a sense of what, exactly, an "empowering" female voice might sound like, her search for such a voice seems to be conducted without a definitive set of criteria.

In spite of shifting the presentation and analysis away from the nature of the go-between and toward the search for an "empowering" female voice in the first two sections, Part III, "Choreographing Lust and Love: Chaucer's Pandarus," is useful in highlighting the indebtedness of the character of Pandarus to these two traditions of going between. Indeed, because it "sustains the meanings" of both of the go-between traditions simultaneously, Mieszkowski argues that Troilus and Criseyde is, in fact, without genre (138). Pandarus' involvement in the relationship between Troilus and Criseyde bears striking similarity to that of go-betweens who procure sex for money: he aggressively courts Criseyde for Troilus, orchestrating elaborate deceptions in order to bring their relationship to consummation. At the same time, Pandarus also resembles the idealized love go-between: his close relationship with both Troilus and Criseyde should mean that his interference is motivated out of care and concern for their well-being and happiness. At all the critical moments, however, Chaucer forces these two aspects of his go-between into the same textual space, compelling the reader to acknowledge the ambiguity of his character and his role in the story; for example, Mieszkowski suggests that the consummation scene (and Pandarus' intrusive presence in it) is particularly designed to produce an ambiguity that is irresolvable.

In spite of prefacing her analysis with a refusal to consider the ending of the Troilus or to offer a "comprehensive reading" of the poem (8), Mieszkowski concludes her presentation of Pandarus' going between with a review of scholarship on the nature of the Troilus as a whole in order to argue that the poem's "energies and implications...must be maintained in all their contradictory difference" (182). Mieszkowski does offer a compelling assessment of the way in which Pandarus' participation in the two traditions of going between contributes to the poem's shifting discourses. Nevertheless, because she has refused to consider the ending of the poem--or even the characters and action of the poem to any depth--this assessment seems to serve merely as a gesture toward a possible interpretation, not as a fully developed and substantiated interpretation in itself.

Gretchen Mieszkowski's study, through its quite comprehensive look at the go-between literature that would have been familiar to Chaucer, opens up productive avenues of inquiry into not only the Troilus, but also The Canterbury Tales. Although it indicates these avenues, however, this study leaves most of them unexplored, and the detailed work of tracing out fully the implications of the go-between traditions for both the Troilus and other Chaucerian texts is left for other critics to pursue.