03.12.16, Dangler, Mediating Fictions

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Michael Agnew

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.016


Dangler, Jean. Mediating Fictions: Literature, Women Healers, and the Go-Between in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia. Cranbury, New Jersey: Bucknell University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 210. ISBN: 0-838-75452-x.

Reviewed by:
Michael Agnew
Columbia University

This study, a revised version of Dangler's 1997 dissertation, constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain in a field of growing interest among cultural historians and literary scholars. Dangler approaches three texts--Jaume Roig's Spill (or Llibre de les dones), La (tragi)comedia de Calisto y Melibea (Celestina) and Francisco Delicado's Retrato de la Lozana andaluza--from the perspective of late medieval and early modern medicine and the institutions and ideologies that bolstered its professionalization and regulation while anathematizing forms of popular medicine and their practitioners, especially women healers. She argues that these texts participated in larger trends towards political centralization (municipal and royal) and the development of instruments of social control by the state, contributing to the progressive marginalization of women healers, a collective that seems previously to have enjoyed greater liberty and social prestige. This basic thesis is quite convincing, though some reservations might be made especially regarding Celestina and La Lozana.

Dangler begins her study with a review of the historical record, based mostly on secondary sources and focusing especially on the comparatively well-documented kingdom of Aragon, given the dearth of information on Castile and Leon. She also discusses important medical treatises, and gives some attention to literary texts from the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. After outlining the diverse roles as healers open to medieval women, she describes the marginalization of women healers with the development of university medical studies, the growth of late medieval cities and the creation of municipally operated hospitals, and the institution by cities and the Crown of licensing bodies dominated by (male) doctors of medicine.

Dangler most convincingly applies her thesis to the misogynist Spill, written by a university-trained physician and medical examiner in Valencia, a text she claims sought "to dissuade readers from seeking the services of ordinary women healers" (53). She correctly shows, however, that Roig's target is larger: he rejects women's agency in general as detrimental to the health of society (censuring, significantly, women writers as well). Beyond God-the-Doctor, the Virgin, and the saints, the only suitable worldly healers are men. Comparison between the Virgin and earthly women is entirely precluded, and men, as King Solomon advises in a dream sequence, should seek among female healers only her ministrations. Dangler contrasts Roig's text with earlier devotional works, such as Alfonso X's Cantigas de Santa Maria, which seem to portray a more accessible, human Virgin, thus sustaining, she asserts, women healers' claims to legitimacy. (Attention, however, to Alfonso's misogynistic poems and to the prologue of the Cantigas, in which he rejects all earthly women for the peerless Virgin, would seem to qualify this assertion.)

I find less convincing Dangler's claim that the Virgin is "the generator of anything male and Eve...the birthing dynamo of all female entities" (54). She cites as corroboration the passage identifying Mary as mother of her son and father, extrapolating the idea that therefore "all men derive from...Mary and apparently possess her same unequivocal characteristics" (54). Though Roig frequently refers to women as "daughters of Eve," he identifies Eve unambiguously as forebear to all humanity, which he calls her "genitura" (10454), a gender-neutral term. (He does go on to claim, of course, that men somehow participate less in her original sin.) Dangler concludes that the Spill is "one-dimensional" and "univocal," especially when compared to a text like the Libro de buen amor. There are, however, patent ambiguities in the Spill: its slippery, initially almost "picaresque" first-person narrator; a paradoxical spokesman for misogyny (King Solomon), a famous womanizer the likelihood of whose salvation some of Roig's contemporaries questioned; the contradictory news at the end that Roig's wife Isabel Pellicer was an exception to the rule, etc. Ambiguity is encoded in the title itself. What, after all, is being reflected in this "Mirror"? (Dangler's failure to distinguish the author Roig from his fictional narrator is problematic; the Spill clearly situates the first books in Juan I's reign, before Roig was born, and the unnamed centenarian narrator refers to Roig as another person when in the fourth book he praises Roig's wife.)

Though Celestina deals less explicitly with the theme of medicine than the Spill, there are significant points of contact. Celestina evokes the figure of the popular healer increasingly marginalized in urban contexts. She also conflates healer with procuress, figures in society, Dangler points out, under growing control in the fifteenth century. Though no character's biological mother, Celestina "births" (sic) duplicitous go-betweens like herself (85), i.e., in molding other women after her own image, she is a mother figure for them; by association, "womankind in general becomes whorelike" (91). An important omission in Dangler's analysis, however, is discussion of Celestina's ability to "reproduce" herself ideologically in male characters (who also call her "mother"): duplicity is not exclusively feminine in Celestina.

Dangler presents Celestina as a "palimpsest parody" of the Virgin (91), an idea well-supported by the text. (Readers might be confused, however, when she refers to "Celestina's parodic imitation of the erased Virgin" (126), as if the character were consciously imitating Mary, something the text does not suggest.) Dangler discusses the text's manifest anxiety about Celestina's "mobility" within society and presents her "demonization" as a strategy to discredit traditional women healers. In this light, her effort to dispute the standard notion that Celestina is a witch is surprising. Besides the ample evidence (characters call her "hechicera"; she invokes the Devil and casts spells), the sobriquet of witch in fact lends itself to Dangler's thesis that the text "pathologizes" Celestina (100). (What Dangler means to say, I think, is that Celestina is a distorted portrait of the sort of women who in reality were benevolent, healing members of society.) Thus, rather than calling Celestina an "incompetent healer" (99), it seems more accurate to view her as a malevolent provoker of disease, particularly competent at making her customers (love) sick.

Also, Celestina's satire extends well beyond just women healers to society at large--its patriarchs (Pleberio), its clergy and its diplomats (the French ambassador), corrupt city officials, corrupt servants and their corrupt employers. Celestina does not seem to be a critique of the patriarchy, but while it is true that, by "repairing" broken hymens, Celestina "manipulates women's bodies" so "they signify according to her own desire" (116), it can be just as reasonably asserted that these bodies signify according to the desires of the men who pay for prostitution. More attention to Celestina's complexities might have enriched Dangler's arguments, even regarding mediation itself. The absence of a narrator in the main text makes interpretation highly problematic (a theme the prologue announces), leaving the characters as the sole mediators of meaning. Dangler deals briefly with problems of rhetoric in Celestina, but a fuller exploration of linguistic mediation (in medical practice and in this particular text) might have revealed new facets of Celestina's character and the text.

La Lozana proves even more difficult to pin down. Dangler's thesis in part is that Delicado presents books as the surest form of medicine, keeping readers safe from the infectiousness of women healers; according to Dangler, however, Delicado would have us seek therapy not in La Lozana, but in his other works--one on a cure for syphilis, the other a lost treatise on consoling the sick. Nonetheless, by the time Delicado refers to his other books in his tongue-in-cheek apology, the reader has already learned that he is not to be trusted. Furthermore, the fallibility of books and reading is a fundamental theme of La Lozana (emblematized by "Robusto" the Ass).

Dangler chides critics for having mistakenly found Lozana appealing; in fact responsibility for Lozana's appeal lies with Delicado himself, all the more remarkably, for he makes us forget Lozana's monstrosity despite reminding us insistently of her deformities, both in the text and in the woodcuts. The "Autor" is perhaps the principal medianero of the book, as the manifest parallels between his character and Lozana suggest: he is a literary pimp. Lozana's desirability is suggested by the characters (including the Autor), who keep returning for her services. Delicado "proves" how easy it is to forget Lozana's (and Rampin's) deformities in the protracted sex scene in which we "see" nothing and "hear" only these two characters' exclamations of pleasure: the pornographic interlude is a powerful lesson in the seductions of reading. I do not see what "pain" in the intended reader might be "ironically caused by Lozana and her text" (172).

Dangler takes up the attractive idea that La Lozana is a palimpsest of Celestina, though one might disagree that the Virgin as a result is now "entirely absent" (135). In a certain sense she is more present than in Celestina, if one accepts Da Costa Fonte's theories about Delicado's sacrilegious parodies.

Finally, it seems clear to me that male healers, too, are the object of Delicado's satire. When a group of physicians complain that Lozana steals business, at the same time they seek her advice, one is struck with the parallels between them. Are the doctors not rather whorish? What are they doing in this neighborhood? Dangler sidesteps the issue by claiming that Delicado satirizes the practitioners, not the profession, an idea contradicted by the joke in which every citizen of Ferrara proves to be a physician. Lozana is certainly a threat to the medical profession; Delicado, however, does not seem to defend that profession, but uses Lozana to satirize it. This chapter would benefit from more careful attention to irony and ambiguity and the ways in which La Lozana can "deconstruct" the very structures of authority we would identify as symptomatic of early modern forms of social control. I do not agree, for example, with the notion that the Autor ever "represents the voice of unquestioned authority" (159). No authority--not even the Autor himself--escapes questioning in this text that tenaciously resists interpretation, mocking itself and any attempt to circumscribe it. (One problem in this chapter is Dangler's discussion of De consolatione infirmorum, a text no longer extant if not apocryphal. Dangler posits that Delicado's "evident model" was Boethius's De consolatione Philosophiae (141), and that therefore Delicado must have used a female mediator like Boethius' Philosophia, but this is mere conjecture, as is even the supposition that the treatise was written entirely in Latin, given the linguistic heterogeneity of Delicado's surviving texts.)

Dangler's interesting and challenging ideas might have been presented more strongly with more careful editing. It is unfortunate that the readers and editors at Bucknell UP could not provide better guidance in this aspect of the study, for problems with phraseology and lexicon are a very frequent distraction. Some examples: The Virgin's "feats...cannot be confabulated" (put into words?) (53); Roig is diagnosed as a "carrier of semen insufficiency" (67); "procedures of Valencian social control" (methods of social control in Valencia?) (71); repeated use of "to edify" for "to build" (72, 74, etc.) and an especially odd use of the word referring to the Virgin: "Solomon edifies her presence in book 3" (73); "Celestina's demonization and bewitching [i.e., portrayal as a witch]" (88); "societally pervasive tasks [i.e., pervasive in society]" (110); erotic double-entendres "evoke images of seditious [salacious?] acts" (121); "syphlitic discourse" (discourses on syphilis?); "The pejorative representation of Lozana is thinly guised [disguised]" (134); "the fifteenth-century inventions of the printing press and syphilis" (137); Boethius "invented the Latin quadrivium" (coined the Latin term?) (140); the "prostitutive overtones" of Celestina (155); etc.

Odd usage obscures the meaning of numerous sentences. For example, in the space of a few pages: "The foundations of the city of Valencia, that is, the legal, historical and biblical means that give way to and support everything that Roig and Solomon claim about Eva and Ave" (73); "the separatist independence of the Beguines" (75); on women's tongues as goat's tails, "The goat's tail as a prosthetic device [sic] implies that it can be removed as easily as it was attached. A woman's tongue and speech are unstable and mutable--remove the tail-tongue device, and she will not be able to speak" (77); women "represent an important target of social undesirability...[T]he widespread presence of love-related disease in this period was progressively linked to women's etiologic culpability" (77); Roig "asserts himself as the diseaser, namely, the individual authorized to identify other people as the carriers of the origins of disease" (78); "To affirm women's deaths is synonymous with negating their lives and thus their potential to undermine the social organization laid out by men" (79); "Roig's prescribed, mobile punishment of hanging has exemplary significance for the reader" (79); etc.

Misinterpretations and inaccuracies also frequently distract. For example, in her analysis of the frontispiece of Delicado's treatise on guiacum in which St. James peregrinus appears, Dangler confuses him with St. Sebastian when she refers to "womanized" (sic) portrayals of James, thinking of eroticized images of Sebastian's arrow-pierced body (145, 204n). (She apparently did not see the frontispiece, which would have averted this error.) She misreads Pulgar's letters: a reference to the writer's own flesh as his "enemiga" and "companera" is inaccurately translated as his "female companion," and an allusion is missed to a notorious anti- Semitic riot in Toledo led by an anonymous wine-skin maker (not "drunkard, " as odrero is inexplicably translated) (152); the "satisfaccion" to which Pulgar refers is probably not sex, but a more general satisfaction with one's life at the end of the road (along with contrition for one's errors), and he does not argue in favor of sex in old age but rather repeats the commonplace that moderation is not virtuous when it is infirmity that impedes one's lust. Raguel (spelled the same in the Catalan text), father of Sarah in the story of Tobias, is inexplicably called "Rachel," and it is claimed Roig says she "strangled each one [of her husbands] on their wedding night" (71), but the text simply states they were found dead, strangled by her side, in accordance with the Biblical tale, in which Sarah is persecuted by a demon that kills her husbands. The French physician Bernard de Gordon is referred to as Castilian (108, 123). Celestina is called a "barber" (a misunderstanding of "maestra de hazer afeytes"?) (114). Delicado is said to have "published" Amadis and Celestina, when he was simply the corrector (128). The allegation of a sixteenth-century shift from courtly love poetry to "ludic" texts about "rampant sexual behavior" (132) overlooks the abundant bawdy poetry of earlier courtly traditions and the persistence of courtly love motifs among Renaissance Petrarchans. "Una criatura creada" (i.e., "[God's] created creature") in La Lozana is translated incorrectly as "created baby," misunderstood to refer to the Christ child, a reading that would make Delicado openly heretical, since the eternal Word was presumably not created (159). Besides its thermal springs, that Lipari was a presidio is ignored, when it is suggested that Lozana's decision to exile herself there "would have been read by a premodern [early modern?] reader as a definitive attempt at self-healing" (172).

Finally, translations into English are occasionally problematic. In Chapter 1 she leaves several terms in Catalan without translation in her English version: veguer, advocacions, inquisicions, jurats; la justicia becomes "justiciar," a word about whose applicability to Iberia I am uncertain, and which should probably be "magistrate" (38-39). Some other examples: enviudat, translated as "old age" (refers to the status of a widower) (51); rayms as "branches" (should be "bunches of grapes," which makes clearer sense than "women hung like branches [sic] from trees") (57); beguinatge as "freedom" and beatatge as "wandering ways" (should be something like "[free] life as a Beguine" and "[false or exaggerated] piety") (76); materia venenosa as "injurious seed" (should be "venomous matter") (123); pasion as "passion" (which would be better translated as "suffering", eliminating its apparent "ambiguity" when we understand erotic desire to be a kind of suffering); mis pasiones para consolar as "my desire to console" (should be something like "my most strenuous efforts to console") (142); pintar la naturaleza suavizandola as "painting nature while sharpening it" (should be "softening it") (147); etc.

Given the title of the study, one might expect more attention to the mediation of (albeit male) narrators or author-figures-- or even printers and correctors--in these three works, each of which presents special exegetical problems in this regard. Likewise, though the title refers to Iberia, one is struck by the international flavor of each text: Roig's narrator is a traveler, Valencia is open to the wide Mediterranean, and it appears the one surviving manuscript of the Spill was sent to Rome for Pope Alexander VI; Celestina is clearly inspired in part by Italian (and classical) models; La Lozana takes place in Rome and, published in Venice, it may never have reached Iberia at all. In light of Dangler's allusions to incipient nationalist ideologies it would have been productive to explore the fluidity of boundaries in all three texts. While the ideologies that helped form them and to which they in turn contributed may strike us as repugnant at the turn of this century, these texts' ambiguities and aporias make them inexhaustibly rich for debate. Dangler's contribution to the debate is salutary and engaging, and we can hope her study will inspire further exploration of the intersections between medical and literary discourses in late medieval and early modern Europe.

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Author Biography

Michael Agnew

Columbia University