03.01.07, Finucci and Brownlee, eds., Generation and Degeneration

Main Article Content

Linda M. Rouillard

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.007


Finucci, Valeria and Kevin Brownlee, eds.. Generation and Degeneration: Tropes of Reproduction in Literature and History from Antiquity to Early Modern Europe. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 327. ISBN: 0-822-32644-2.

Reviewed by:
Linda M. Rouillard
University of Toledo

This collection of ten essays is a vibrant and vital addition to the growing corpus of research focusing on bodily metaphors, pivotal to discussions of theology, medicine, literature and national myths. Alternating between the literal and creative sense of generation, all the contributors consider gender issues from a variety of perspectives including medical, historical, cultural and translatio traditions. As a whole, the essays are erudite, well-written and provide minute documentation for subsequent scholars to use as resources.

Part I, Theories of Reproduction opens with an essay by Elizabeth Clark, "Generation, Degeneration, Regeneration: Original Sin and the Conception of Jesus in the Polemic between Augustine and Julian of Eclanum." Clark traces the development of the bishop's theory of original sin as a way to reconcile inherent contradictions in christianity. For instance, how does one explain the fact that baptized Christians give birth to children who also require baptism? If baptism saves the parents, why is it not also capable of changing and transforming the eventual offspring? If original sin is transmitted from parent to child, why are not the effects of baptism transmitted likewise? Augustine's solution to this predicament is a biological metaphor: just as the cultivated olive tree produces fruit like that of its uncultivated ancestors, so baptized parents produced offspring similar to their unbaptized ancestors. His debates with Julian allow him to rehabilitate the sacrament of baptism, and to consider the larger questions of human nature and its transmission. Discussions of such a type inevitably lead to issues of creation and conception, giving Augustine the opportunity to consider the effects of the mother's physical environment on her unborn child, using an anecdote from Soranus: in an effort to protect his future offspring from suffering from his physically repulsive appearance, the husband in question made sure his wife looked upon the image of a handsome man during love-making. While this anecdote allows woman a certain amount of influence over the unborn child, current medical theory endowed man's seed with generative properties (and subsequently made him responsible for transmitting original sin), relegating woman to the position of supplier of mere nutritive matter. Augustine used this theory to bolster both his theory of original sin and to explain why Jesus was born without the taint of said sin: since Jesus is believed to have no human father, he is exempt from original sin.

The second essay of this collection is entitled "Maternal Imagination and Monstrous Birth: Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata," by Valeria Finucci, who presents Tasso's story about Clorinda as emblematic of the Renaissance concern and anxiety about the circumstances causing the birth of monsters. Clorinda was a white child born to black parents, and according to Tasso, was classified as a monster because she was so completely unlike her parents. The cause of her whiteness was attributed to an image of St. George saving the white maiden Sabra from the dragon, an image upon which her mother focused during her pregnancy. Clorinda's monstrosity continues in later life when she becomes a knight, quite unlike her helpless feminine visual inspiration. Against this backdrop, Finucci then reviews contemporary beliefs about the supposed dominant role of the father in conception. The birth of monsters occurs when this biological domination is usurped by the mother during conception. While Finucci notes that monstrosity is less often perceived as a sign of divine displeasure, she does point out that in the Renaissance, deformed children were most often believed to be the result of women's bad behavior and even their thoughts. Thus, in order to restrain and control woman's imagination, there developed a trend for hanging images of beautiful people around the woman's bedchamber. A woman should think good and appropriate thoughts and gaze regularly upon images of perfection in order to have a well- formed child. As Finucci points outs, however, the power accorded to the female imagination could be used against the patriarchy: white women who gave birth to black children could argue for the influence of visual images and passing glimpses of black men during pregnancy. Or a woman could attempt to cover her adulterous tracks should she conceive: she need only concentrate on her husband's physical features to stamp them upon the developing bastard fetus. Finucci provides a fascinating look at sixteenth-century medicine and cultural beliefs that she aptly connects to modern-day dilemmas regarding reproduction. Drawing parallels between early modern fears of woman's "abuse" of the fetus and modern anxiety over woman's power to terminate pregnancy, she concludes that woman's "womb is once more a feared tomb."

Dale B. Martin contributes the provocative third essay entitled "Contradictions of Masculinity: Ascetic Inseminators and Menstruating Men in Greco-Roman Culture" at the beginning of Part II, Boundaries of Sex and Gender. He begins by stating the basic contradiction in the early modern definition of maleness: while the ability to impregnate is a sign of virility, that same sexual activity is discouraged because of the the belief that it saps men of their virility. Careful to point out that abstinence was not a concept or virtue invented by the Church, Martin reviews classical authors on the topic, summarizing recipes for aphrodisiacs and antaphrodisiacs, the latter reflecting "the ancient currency of self-control, the masculinization of sexual asceticism and the asceticizing of masculinity." This essay continues to explore the economics of sexuality, its savings and its expenses. Men who abstain build up a wealth of strength to be spent judiciously and in the realm of self-control, males were regarded as superior. Martin reminds us that the relegation of sexual urges to that domain of things to be controlled, participated in a corporeal hierarchy in which the head or intellect dominated the bodily processes, analogous to the social hierarchy. Women's bodily functions were likewise described in contradictory fashion. While woman with her monthly flow was a fearful monster with destructive powers, that same flow could have some beneficial effect: an antidote for garden pests or even epilepsy. With these and other advantages of menstruation, classical and medieval physicians came to develop a theory of beneficial male hemorrhaging, in the form of nosebleeds or even bleeding hemorrhoids. The latter condition was often considered to protect the patient from worse conditions, even madness. Since bloodletting, in general, was considered an effective remedy for many ills, male bodies could, and should, benefit from this palliative process just as much as women, yet another contradiction to the masculine experience that relied so heavily on the horror of anything remotely feminine. Martin then proceeds to the class issues cloaked by "medicalizing the assignation of masculinity," arguing persuasively that these conditions described by physicians were those of patients wealthy enough to engage the services of those professionals, concluding that "this particular class appropriation of the construction of masculinity, however, is the way the contradictions of masculinity rendered masculinity itself an even more precious commodity due precisely to its precarious nature."

Gianna Pomata continues the discussion of this fascinating contradiction in masculinity with her essay "Menstruating Men: Similarity and Difference of the Sexes in Early Modern Medicine." Using the writings of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century physicians, Pomata questions the modern belief that early science took as its ideal the male body and concludes that early modern physicians used female anatomy and function to inform their understanding of the male body as well. These sixteenth-century writers were continuing a tradition that dated back to Pliny and Galen who also believed that some men experienced cyclic, palliative bleeding, usually in the form of nosebleeds or bleeding hemorrhoids. Bloodletting is of course based on this theory of the benefit of periodic cleansing or effusion. What is noteworthy is the positive, even admiring tone to the descriptions of such male menstruation, for these cyclic events were believed to be linked to long life and good health. But, on the other hand, some early modern writers turned this positively-viewed male menstruation into anti-semitic propaganda, declaring that Jewish men who bled periodically often murdered Christian babies to heal themselves of their affliction. Pomata then suggests that one reason for the continued proliferation of these positive descriptions of menstruating men may have been the desire to contradict these anti-semitic views. When did this positive view of a menstrual flow change? Pomata locates the pivotal point in the nineteenth century with the discovery of ovulation. When menstruation was linked to this particularly female event, the flow of blood was no longer reflective of Nature as physician and healer, but was linked exclusively to the female reproductive process. No longer pertinent to the male experience, loss of blood came to be viewed exclusively in a negative light. In addition, parallels were made between "the nervous etiology of menstruation and that of the epileptic crisis, stressing the particular weakness and irritability of the female nervous system."

Valerie Traub contributed "The Psychomorphology of the Clitoris, or, The Reemergence of the Tribade in English Culture" as her response to Laqueur's Making Sex. Traub compares medical descriptions of female genitals to travel narratives with their descriptions of women's physical appearance, clothing and behavior from foreign lands. Texts describing the Middle East, Turkey in particular, and Africa, included numerous references to lesbianism, which was believed to be caused by woman's inherent limitless lust and deception; it was facilitated and even encouraged by such things as architecture designed for seclusion and protection. In contrast to the silence about such behavior among European women in general, foreign women are depicted as especially prone to lesbianism. However, the increase in European medical descriptions of the clitoris, particularly in cases of hypertrophy, added a new twist to the early modern understanding of female sexuality: in these writings, the clitoris is depicted as the menacing cause of tribadism. Traub's study demonstrates that "in the emerging terms of early modern medicine, it is not the tribade's inconstant mind or sinful soul, but her uniquely female yet masculinized morphology that either propels her to engage in, or is itself the effect of, her illicit behavior...Anatomy provides a map of this connection." Traub then has mapped for us the change of location in cause of so-called deviant behavior, from simply woman's nature to woman's anatomy.

"Genealogies in Crisis: MarĂ­a de Zayas in Seventeenth-Century Spain," by Marina Scordilis Brownlee, opens Part III, Female Genealogies. Elevated to the status of sibyl or muse by her contemporaries, Zayas used sexual and gender metaphors to explicate the politics and society of her times, metaphors that culminate in men and women brutalizing and dismembering each other. The complicated narrative voice that leaves the reader wondering exactly on which side she stands on moral issues, such as violence against women or slavery. In Zayas' novellas, women can be victims as well as perpetrators of crime. White women rape black male slaves and black women slaves can even exploit their white mistresses. Zayas also de-centers the heterosexual norm, explaining misogyny as an effort to mask homoeroticism. Brownlee's cogent and well-articulated analysis of Zayas' writing demonstrates a seventeeth-century voice actively engaged in "the articulation of the nonhegemonic voices."

Maureen Quilligan contributed "Incest and Agency: The Case of Elizabeth I," a fascinating account of the young future queen's translation of Marguerite de Navarre's Le Miroir de l'ame pecheresse, which she then offered to Katherine Parr, her stepmother. Quilligan then traces the evolution of Marguerite's incest trope (the soul as sister, daughter, wife and mother of Christ) through five subsequent printed editions of Elizabeth's translation. Using Annette Weiner's theory of "keeping while giving," Quilligan demonstrates that Elizabeth's gift to her stepmother, wrapped in her own embroidery participates in a female economy of circulation of gifts among women, even as women themselves are disqualified as potential marital currency by the qualification of incest. In Elizabeth's case, however, the accusation becomes empowering, allowing Elizabeth to assert her eventual power and authority as a single woman ruler.

Part IV, The Politics of Inheritance, begins with Nancy G. Siraisi's very readable and informative article on the status accorded to Egyptian physicians entitled "In Search of the Origins of Medicine: Egyptian Wisdom and Some Renaissance Physicians." She presents three Paduan physicians of the sixteenth-century, Guilandinus and his student Alpino, who both respected and admired the Egyptian contributions to medicine, an admiration intensified by direct observation, and Mercuriale who dismissed the assertion of any valuable information from the Egyptian tradition. Alpino justified his use of contemporary Egyptian medical practices, such as scarification, by emphasizing classical Egyptian authorities. In contrast, Mercuriale considered the Greeks to be the ultimate and primary sources for medical knowledge. Similarly, the German Conring dismissed Egyptian medical authorities, classifying their practices as based in magic, and demonic magic at that. Of interest to scholars of the Renaissance is the desire of physicians to trace the ancestry of their profession to Egypt rather than to classical Greece, and their willingness to observe for themselves procedures and applications in practice. In addition, physicians such as Alpino, Mercuriale and Conring demonstrate the need to see an unbroken line of authority from classical Greek culture to their own.

Sirasi's study of medical ancestry is logically succeeded by Kevin Brownlee's contribution, "The Conflicted Genealogy of Cultural Authority: Italian Responses to French Cultural Dominance in Il Tesoretto, Il Fiore, and La Commedia." Brownlee first considers the cultural conflicts demonstrated in Brunetto Latini's works, Livres dou tresor and Il Tesoretto, both composed during the author's French exile following the defeat of the Guelphs. In the Livres dou tresor, Brunetto extols the value and quality of the French language and culture, an admiration due in no small part to the Angevin support shown to the Guelph party. Yet, in the second work, Brunetto glosses over the French tradition to re-appropriate the Ovidian source of the Roman de la Rose, garnering for the Italian language the prestige of Ovid. While Il Tesoretto appears on the surface to take its inspiration from the Roman de la Rose and tell its story in imitatio, Brownlee suggests that Brunetto is "correcting" and improving Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun by directly appealing to the more glorious books of Ovid, the Remedia Amores and the Metamorphoses, rather than the Ars amatoria. Brunetto "evokes only in order to bypass the French intermediary."

Likewise, the Il Fiore (anonymous), written about twenty years after Brunetto's works, reflects upon the concept of translatio. Also written in imitation of the Roman de la Rose, Brownlee again posits most convincingly that the goal is to efface rather than highlight the source of literary inspiration. While the translatio tradition mentions by name the auctores, these texts noticebly remain silent when it comes to the Roman de la Rose and its French authors. Instead, Ovid is the most immediate link. Brownlee concludes with a consideration of Dante's Commedia and the manner in which it evokes images and personae from French literature only to dismiss them as unimportant in the translatio of classical authors such as Ovid.

Peter Stallybrass provides the final essay: "Hauntings: The Materiality of Memory on the Renaissance Stage." Here, he considers the role of inheritance of armor and clothing as a means both of memorializing the dead and assuming the identity of the father and even continuing the life of the clan. Taking on a life and individuality of its own, the ownership of armor sometimes passes to a place rather than to an individual heir. And yet, the strength of armour cannot itself last forever. The concrete identity the ghost assumes when wearing armor is obliterated when the spirit enters on-stage clothed in a sheet, or more accurately, a shroud. Tracing the motif of displaced and disintegrating armor from Greek tragedy, Stallybrass demonstrates the dissolution of identity as material objects are appropriated by non-heirs and even enemies.

Each article in this collection stands on its own merit and scholarship, but these essays also read well together as a reconsideration of human and literary generation and kinship, the creation of offspring and identity. While at first glance one might wonder about the connections between the understanding of lesbianism in the sixteenth century, Augustine's theory of original sin and the tradition of translatio, such issues all basically address the process of identification: how do we define ourselves and others? How do we define our culture and foreign cultures? How do we define our relationships to other people and other nations? The editors and authors have done an admirable job of examining these questions in varied settings from diverse perspectives.

Article Details

Author Biography

Linda M. Rouillard

University of Toledo