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13.04.06, Tracy, Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature

13.04.06, Tracy, Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature

On the surface, the thesis of Larissa Tracy's book Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature is relatively simple: "Torture is notorious now, but it was also notorious then" (292). Just as President Obama reassured the world that "The United States does not torture" (2), so medieval and early modern authors revealed their anxiety about excessive violence--judicial or otherwise. Yet this is only half of Tracy's argument. The equally important claim is that a sense of national identity can be based on imagining torture as the practice of the barbarian "Other." Tracy argues this thesis in relation to a broad range of cultural traditions and texts, and the ambitious scope of this project is impressive and laudable.

Each chapter in the book opens with a quotation from Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. In one of these selections, Brother William Baskerville suggests that the inquisition tends to lump together all heretical movements: "if the sectarians of one movement commit a crime, this crime will be attributed to each sectarian of each movement" (243). This difficulty of avoiding a totalizing narrative is something that Tracy struggles with herself (although of course she is not the inquisition!). A brief summary of the chapters reveals the relentless pursuit of the thesis. Chapter one argues that "[i]n the case of English saints' lives, particularly in the South English Legendary (SEL) and Gilte Legende (GiL), torture participates in a discourse of national identity; the enemies of England are portrayed as barbarically as possible, while the exemplarity of the saints is a model for emulation" (32). Chapter two argues that "the Anglo-Norman poet of the [Song of] Roland highlights the flaws of Frankish society" (77) while the Middle Dutch Roman van Walewein reveals Flemish disapproval of torture and brutality. Chapter three examines how thirteenth century Icelandic society founded its identity on excluding such barbaric practices as evisceration and mutilation. Chapter four returns to the English context (Havelok the Dane, the Anglo- Latin Arthur and Gorlagon, Chaucer's Prioress's Tale); Chapter five suggests that both the French fabliaux and Chaucer's Miller's Tale use excessive violence to show (ironically) its unfunny character; and Chapter six confirms that these same strategies for demonizing torture are still present in John Foxe, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe.

There are times when Tracy's insistence on her main point leads to a strained reading of particular texts, even when her excellent research evokes a much greater complexity. Chapter five, for instance, provides a rich cultural context for those fabliaux that involve castration and sexual violence. Tracy examines Abelard's castration (both physically and rhetorically), the legend of Edward II's sodomization with a hot poker in 1327, and the growing social anxiety about the body and sexuality. Yet while Tracy acknowledges that the representations of brutality in the fabliaux "are not mimetic" (191), she tends to read the comic tales as if Abelard wrote them, and sees them as silently criticizing the sadistic enjoyment of pain. Such an argument requires a lot of reading against the grain. For instance, in Gautier le Leu's De Connebert, the description of the priest who is forced to castrate himself or burn in a fire includes plenty of comic understatement: "It suited him to cut himself/ with a very sharp razor of steel,/ but he did it very much against his will,/ for much did he worsen his prick!" (Tracy's translation; 213). Much of the violence in these tales seems based on anti-clericalism and misogyny, something that Tracy acutely recognizes, but perhaps too quickly dismisses. And to say that Absolon's scalding of Nicholas in the Miller's Tale "really is not funny after all" (239) ignores the reactions of countless undergraduate students.

In other words, it is a pity that Tracy follows her thesis so rigorously, as her erudite reading of text and context reveals impressive research. She is right that comedy registers social anxiety, and she is right that it is possible to cross the line from a non-mimetic literary violence to a brutality that is too realistic. But rather than read these tales as inevitably criticizing the perpetrators of violence (a rather didactic project for the fabliaux) it seems more productive to see the fabliaux as a kind of experiment in transgression that remains humorous precisely because of its illicit nature--a possibility Tracy herself briefly mentions: "Perhaps these scenes were considered funny precisely because they crossed a boundary of violence and enacted secret retribution" (241). In short, social identity is not merely established by vilifying the barbarian Other, but also by including at least some element of the Other in one's own entertainment.

Other chapters are better at recognizing the complex uses of violence. Chapter one provides an insightful discussion of the ways in which the "frequency of torture in hagiography may have provided models of resistance and defiance for heterodox sects who saw themselves and their suffering at the hands of Church authorities reflected in the stories of early Christian saints, even though they rejected the adoration of those saints" (32). In the same way, the active resistance of female saints to male authority "presented medieval women with vocal, defiant role models" (56). These fascinating paradoxes return in the final chapter, where Tracy demonstrates how John Foxe rejected the idea of a special sainthood, yet employed "the medieval hagiographic tradition with similar emphasis on the saint's ability to withstand torture without outward signs of pain" (255).

Still, Tracy too often returns to either-or arguments. The section on Walewein concludes that either the audience "revelled in these taut descriptions of torment and brutality" and was "monstrously bloodthirsty" (106) or these are only the actions of "unchivalrous barbarians in a far distant land" (106). [1] Similarly, the "execution of Ganelon is either 'anomalous in its cruelty', a poetic invention to emphasize the heinous nature of Ganelon's crime, or the excessive violence of tyrannous rule" (85). Either Chaucer is anti-Semitic in the Prioress's Tale, or the execution of the Jews lacks any and all legality (189). These stark contrasts might have been avoided through a more sustained and thorough discussion of the legal history of summary justice, private vengeance, and the concept of notoriety. Each chapter is grounded in legal history, but the conclusions often feel more modern, as the enjoyment of extra-judicial justice (certainly at times non-mimetic) is too often ignored.

The same is true for the medieval authors' frequent assertions that justice is served. In Havelok the writer criticizes anyone who would feel sympathy for Godard when he is flayed: "Datheit hwo recke [cursed be the one who cares]; he was fals!" (quoted by Tracy; 146). Yet Tracy argues that Havelok remains too Danish in executing such harsh justice. [2] Similarly, the Roland poet writes, "Ganelon died a traitor's death/A man who betrays another has no right to boast of it" (quoted by Tracy; 90, compare line 3740 in the Oxford Text). It is quite possible that the poet is uncomfortable about Charlemagne's sense of justice (especially the hanging of the hostages), but it seems reductive to call him "a tyrant who exacts bloody vengeance despite a popular desire for a peaceful solution" (86). Charlemagne clearly sees a negotiated settlement and compensation as a cheap way out for Ganelon, and feels that his barons are being cowardly and pragmatic by refusing to stand up to Pinabel. Does that make him a "despot" (88)? Not necessarily.

The result is a book truly impressive in the range of its historical and geographic coverage, yet which too often straight-jackets the material into a narrow argument. By the end, I felt both richly rewarded with the detailed exposition of text, context, and criticism, and left with a host of questions. How can it be that every single text participates in a discourse of dissent? What about the enjoyment of poetic justice or the love of horror and spectacle? Why are we so often told to put aside the non-mimetic aspects of the violence? How do we define judicial brutality (the index neatly separates torture from punishment)? How much importance should we lend to narrative silences (e.g., 168)? Is the distancing mechanic (e.g., placing the brutality in a foreign country or in the past) always one of exclusion and identity-creation or does it also reveal something about secret enjoyment without guilt (or conversely a kind of purging of identity)? How wide can we cast the net of historical analogues (see for example the range references on pages 39 and 161)?

To return to Umberto Eco's reflection on heresy trials, the truth of Tracy's argument would not have been diminished by allowing for some local variation and exceptions. At the same time, I do not want to push the comparison too far, because Tracy should be praised for her willingness to provide a truly comparative approach that, when it forgets the need to make a single point, is not inquisitorial but inquisitive in the best sense.



1. The section on Walewein contains an unusually high number of errors in the transcription of Middle Dutch quotations (although compare also the Old Norse quotation on 121).

2. I found it difficult to follow the argument here, as Tracy appears to condemn Havelok both because "there should be no satisfaction in these executions" (150; compare 145) and because his judgment is "brutal in its dispassionate delivery" (144).