03.01.13, Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination

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Linda M. Rouillard

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.013


Archibald, Elizabeth. Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 295. ISBN: 0-19-811209-2.

Reviewed by:
Linda M. Rouillard
University of Toledo

Elizabeth Archibald's recent book is most welcome scholarship on a fascinating topic with a long literary history: incest in all its permutations. Archibald's earlier publications, including Apollonius of Tyre (Cambridge, 1991), along with numerous articles, made this title an eagerly awaited work. It does not disappoint. Both senior scholars and graduate students will find in this book a well-documented and well-articulated history of this literary theme from a variety of genres in Old French, Old Norse, Middle English, Medieval Latin, Spanish, Italian, German and Celtic sources.

The Introduction (beginning with a most appropriate quote from Huxley's Brave New World), explains and presents the daunting task of organizing such a long-lived literary theme. Archibald organizes her corpus according to type of incest (mother-son, father-daughter, sibling, etc.), attempted or consummated, and according to repeated storylines. She rightly contrasts our own century's confrontation with incest and that of the Middle Ages, concluding that the essential difference lies in the medieval concern with the salvation of the soul rather than with the state of the family unit.

Chapter I, "Medieval Incest Law, Theory and Practice" begins with a review of anthropological models which clearly demonstrate the relativity and variability of incest definitions across cultures and throughout history. Likewise, Church definitions changed over time, evolving into a complex set of regulations addressing consangineous relationships, ties created by affinity, and spiritual relationships or compaternity. Since medieval canon law, in general, was greatly inspired by Roman law, and medieval incest interdictions were no exception, this chapter includes a useful and informative overview of Roman definitions and regulations in various commentaries, law codes and customaries, as well as in literary sources. In fact, the interdiction of marriage between godchild and godparent dates back to Justinian's Codex.

From Herodotus to Seneca, the accusation of incest was the most classical of insults. (Let us not forget that it is the choicest of epithets in our own times!). In the Greek and Roman political arenas, taunts, slurs and insinuations of incest were strategic weapons aimed against "excessive appetite and abuse of power." In addition, incest was treated as a dividing line between a civilized society and a barbarian one. Early Christians were often subject to the charge of incest, an accusation taken up by Minucius Felix and Tertullian. There was also the sticky issue of the "need" for incest as a consequence to the Genesis account of creation. Additionally, there were other troubling accounts of incest in the Old Testament: the marriage of Abraham to his half-sister Sarah and the story of Tamar who seduces her father-in-law Judah and conceives twins, to name two instances. In his City of God, St. Augustine took it upon himself to to reconcile those problematic tales of incestuous behavior described in Judaic texts with Church dogma. He appeals to logic by stating that in the beginning of creation, humans were simply not numerous enough to procreate without committing incest. But, by his point in time, incest interdictions forced people to create and maintain relationships far afield from the family, a definite asset. St. Augustine is later seconded by St. Thomas Aquinas who both "acknowledged that the supposedly natural and universal law prohibiting incest was in fact socially constructed, and thus open to interpretation and alteration by the Church authorities." And alter they did. Archibald summarizes the increasing complexity in Church definitions of incest until it reached its apogee in the the twelfth century, forbidding marriage between two persons related as far as the seventh degree, in terms of consanguinity or affinity, and between persons related as far as the fourth degree in a spiritual connection. Archibald also reminds us of the earlier change (mid-eighth century) regarding the determination of degrees of relationship. The earlier Roman model counted from one partner up to a shared forbear and then down to the other partner. On the other hand, the Germanic model simply counted up to the common ancestor. According to the Roman system, first cousins were related in the fourth degree. However, those same first cousins would only be related in the second degree as calculated by the Germanic system. Thus, the strictly linear Germanic model greatly reduced the number of potential marriage partners within one's local sphere and made the practice of exogamy more difficult. When one adds to this the constraints imposed by the equally strict regulations regarding relationships by affinity and then compaternity, one wonders that anyone in the Middle Ages was ever able to contract a legal marriage in the eyes of the Church. It is not surprising that the aristocracy manipulated such complexities in order to escape from unsatisfactory marriages. This chapter concludes with a section devoted to documented attempts to supersede incest regulations, including the fifteenth-century Jean, Count of Armagnac, who aspired to marry his sister and who wrote his own papal dispensation.

Chapter 2, "The Classical Legacy," addresses the incest motif in classical literature and mythology. Beginning with incest as traditionally practiced by Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods (Cronus and Rhea; Jupiter and Juno; Osiris and Isis), to incest attempted and accomplished by mortals (Phaedra and Hippolytus; Byblis and Canus; Sisyphus and Tyro; and of course, Oedipus and Jocasta, to name a few), the catalogue is extensive. Archibald notes the innovation of "flight from incest stories" (narratives in which the object of incestuous desire flees in horror and embarks upon a protracted series of adventures) in the late classical period and its popularity in the late Middle Ages. Additionally, allegorizing such stories also made them didactic tools, but not as useful as the moralizing of such tales. For instance, the Ovide Moralise casts Oedipus as a Christ figure. In the same collection of stories, Byblis offers herself to her brother and then to one and all, becoming a curious personification for God's grace offered to everyone. Incest as used by medieval writers becomes a tool for explaining original sin and functions as propaganda for the efficacy of the sacrament of penance: if God can forgive even the perpetrators of such horrors, then there is no sin that he cannot forgive. Archibald notes a second medieval innovation in the use of the incest theme: the "double incest" motif, whereby children of incest go on to commit incest with a parent or sibling, as illustrated in several of the stories discussed in the following chapter.

In Chapter 3, "Mothers and Sons," Archibald locates the twelfth-century's predilection for incest stories in the nexus between changes occuring in the Church's definition of marriage and the increasing emphasis on more frequent participation in the sacrament of penance. Among the narratives of mother-son incest are: Jacobus de Voragine's story of Judas (an oedipal character), Hartmann von Aue's romance of Pope Gregorius (conceived as the result of a sister raped by her brother, Gregorius later unknowingly marries his mother), and then the story of St. Albanus who unknowingly marries his mother, performs penance and then murders his mother and grandfather/father when he discovers them in bed. The two latter stories are included and reworked in the Gesta Romanorum, which moralizes them in a manner similar to the Ovid Moralise. Archibald also points out that in addition to the previous functions of incest stories (the defamation of an enemy or the delineation of boundaries between civilized societies and barbarians, the demonstration of the healing grace of the sacrament of penance), medieval narratives sometimes use this incest theme as "a rite of passage in chivalric narratives." Arthurian cycles eventually use the incest theme in part to explain the demise of the hero king and to explain social disintegration, a topic more fully developed in chapter 5.

This well organized book then proceeds to the next category of literary incest in Chapter 4, "Fathers and Daughters," divided into stories which tell of consummated incestuous desire and stories of non-consummated incestuous desire which revolve around the "Flight from the Incestuous Father." Archibald sees the latter category as an alteration authored by medieval writers and terms it "a searing indictment of patriarchy, which has such unlimited power over women...," though she is careful to point out that that was certainly not the intention of the medieval writers.

This thematic category leads to a discussion of violence: mutilation, self-mutiliation, infanticide, murder or attempted murder. Part of Archibald's style involves making pertinent comparisons with our own society, as she does here, comparing the self-mutilation described in medieval narratives with twenty-first century medical or psychiatric descriptions of incest victims who mutilate themselves. Far from concluding that medieval authors were documenting a grave social crisis, she suggests that the literary pairing of self-harm with incest may have derived from observations of behaviors seen in everyday life which are then chosen to serve as literary symbols. Or as she explained it in the Introduction: "One might have expected that the medieval Church would have avoided telling stories about incest for fear of putting dangerous ideas into people's heads. On the other hand, to be plausible and powerful, cautionary tales must bear a strong resemblance to real-life situations, must be recognizable as within the bounds of possibility. The frequent use of the incest theme by clerical writers shows that incestuous desire was not regarded as a rare and barbaric perversion, but rather as a constant danger for all, rich and poor, powerful and humble, male and female."

The next classification considered is "Siblings and Other Relatives," with a particular concentration on the evolution of the legends of Arthur and of Charlemagne which incorporated the incest theme. Archibald traces the history of Charlemagne's unnameable sin, from the tenth-century Vita Aegidii, to a candid description of brother-sister incest in the Old Norse Karlamagnus Saga, and a reference in the Tristan de Nanteuil. In Arthur's case, the incest development dates from the thirteenth century in the prose Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Graal), specifically the Agravain and the Mort Artu. How can one explain the development of these literary traditions to feature incest as part of "heroic" behavior? In the case of Charlemagne, his "incest, silence, and eventual confession constituted a powerful propaganda weapon for the Church." In the case of Arthur, Archibald rejects the simplistic theory that his incestuous behavior was included merely to establish a literary parallel with the great Christian hero. After all, Charlemagne remains a hero, while Arthur and his kingdom are eventually destroyed by Mordred, revealed to be Arthur's son by his sister or half-sister. In the case of Arthur, incest "provide[s] a moral explanation for the collapse of his world."

The final chapter, "Conclusion: Sex, Sin, and Salvation," focuses on "holy incest," or, more specifically, on terms of family relationships used as mystical metaphors to describe Jesus as Son/Spouse and Mary as both Mother and Daughter. These mystical metaphors become inspirations to individuals such as Margery Kempe who eventually come to seek God in similar terms.

The scholarship demonstrated in this work is exemplary. There are extensive sources and documentation; pertinent citations are always translated. Terms are meticulously defined as, for example, in the introduction which surveys the lexicon used to designate human relationships, and incest in its different "varieties." Archibald takes great care to summarize the range of arguments or stances on different issues before giving her own conclusions, thus giving the reader a history of interpretive stances on the topic at hand. The source texts come from a wide range of genres (romance, hagiography, exemplum, theatre) and a wide range of cultures and languages. Her readings of sometime obscure texts are often related to modern day situations or modern literature without being anachronistic. For instance, in a discussion of the "Flight from Incest" category, Archibald includes some pertinent comparisons with Alice Walker's The Color Purple. The Appendix contains succinct but thorough summaries of incest stories; the bibliography is exhaustive, making this book a substantial research tool and reference for a powerful literary theme. Anyone working on the theme of incest in medieval literature should read this book. Anyone who appreciates excellent scholarship in general will want to read this book for the pure pleasure of it.

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Author Biography

Linda M. Rouillard

University of Toledo