14.04.31, Tracy, ed., Castration and Culture

Main Article Content

Andrew Miller

The Medieval Review 14.04.31

Tracy, Larissa. Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. 365. ISBN: 9781843843511.

Reviewed by:
Andrew Miller
DePaul University

Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages is a collection of fourteen articles, edited and introduced by Larissa Tracy, which unapologetically deals with the "conversational taboo" surrounding castration, a topic which often "elicit[s] a cringe, a grimace, [or] a protective stance" (1). Indeed it does, and it is precisely because "modern responses to castration (or its threat) and all the incumbent implications are not so far removed from those of earlier people" (2) that this coherent body of articles offers so much to a wide variety of scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates alike.

Chronologically, the volume covers the late Roman Republic through the early modern period, with the medieval period being the primary focus. The geographical range of Castration and Culture includes graveyards via archaeology, ancient Rome, Byzantium, England, Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Viking slave routes spanning Iceland to the Islamic world. The final six articles shift focus to the various roles castration played in medieval and early modern literature. Besides rooting their individual studies in a wealth of secondary scholarship, throughout this volume the authors explore an expansive array of sources, including but not limited to: archaeology, annals, chronicles, fabliaux, hagiographies, law codes, letters, legendaries, patristics, penitentials, plays, romances, sagas, and scripture.

One of the book's greatest strengths is Tracy's engaging introduction, which provides a helpful overview of the subject and historiography pertaining to castration. The introduction covers sub-topics such as "Castration, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity," medieval concerns about "Emasculation and Purification," the connection between "Virginity, Castration, Circumcision and the Body of Christ," as well as discussions of Peter "Abelard's Calamitous History" and of course "Castration as Punishment"--topics that several contributing authors make a point to address in the volume. Tracy concludes the introduction by tying the articles together with a brief synopsis of each piece and how they relate to each other and to the overall subject of castration. This interconnectedness is reemphasized throughout the articles themselves, for nearly every author refers to one or more other studies--sometimes numerous times--contained in the book, both in the text and footnotes, which demonstrates that the authors took time to read one another's contributions carefully and to consider how their own work interrelates with the other articles in conjunction with the larger project. Not all edited collections are equal in this regard. Also, this reader appreciated the book's thorough index.

The book strikes a good balance between historical and literary essays and by and large follows a logical progression in presenting the articles. The first chapter in the collection sets out to raise the voices of the dead by examining the archaeology of castration. In it, Kathryn Reusch explores the physical effects of castrating prepubescent boys by examining skeletal remains of exhumed castrates. One of her interesting points, which perhaps helps to explain the Roman fascination with eunuchs discussed in the following piece, is that due to the lack of testosterone in the developing teen body a castrate's figure develops "elongated, normally gracile, long bones" and his "cranio-facial area retains what is described as a small, child-like appearance" (36-37). Reusch provides a useful overview of recent studies in the field, which literally span the globe since castration was practiced in numerous societies for thousands of years. She also surveys a wide variety of historical and gender studies on the practice of castration and the lives of castrates. Reusch concludes with a clarion call for more digging to be done, since further archaeological contributions will expand our knowledge of the daily lives of eunuchs, including their diets, health, treatment, and status.

The second essay, by Shaun Tougher, is a fascinating reassessment of how Roman people viewed and treated eunuchs, from the late Republic until the end of the Empire, when attitudes toward castration shift with the rise of Christianity which, not coincidentally, is the subject of the third article. Tougher challenges recent scholarship, which lumps various types of castrates together and dismisses eunuchs as being perceived in antiquity negatively and in hideous terms. Such assertions, according to the author, "are in fact flawed and misleading" (51). Tougher backs up his indictment by providing a plethora of examples--from panegyrics, poems, histories, and legal and medical texts, among others--which clearly demonstrate that Roman men prized a well-formed eunuch (or better yet, whole "troupes" of eunuchs, as in the case of the emperor Titus, 63), as passive sexual partners, and could even treat them like wives. Nero, for example, flaunted his favorite eunuch, named Sporus, about and dressed him to look like his deceased wife. Sporus even wailed while Nero's servant helped the emperor commit suicide; Sporus soon took his own life instead of suffering the humiliation of being ravished like a maiden in a gladiatorial spectacle planned by the short-lived emperor Vitellius (63-65). At the very least, Tougher makes it clear that it is inaccurate to claim that Romans viewed young castrates in the same (unfavorable) way that they viewed men like the Galli who chose to castrate themselves--as adults--for religious purposes.

Third, Jack Collins helps to bridge the gap from the archaeological and ancient spheres into the world of late antiquity in his exploration into how early Christians appropriated and developed castration as symbol and practice, since Jesus's comment that "there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:11-12) begs interpretation. Comparing Jewish and Christian approaches toward castration imagery, Collins examines the ways in which Christians interpreted castration in scripture in order to help them create a separate identity and to incorporate Jesus for their own purposes while differentiating him and his movement from that of other Jews. This situation was complicated, moreover, because of the Greco-Roman world's conceptions of masculinity and the fear of losing one's manhood even while emulating Jesus by maintaining a celibate lifestyle.

Larissa Tracy's interesting examination of the thirteenth-century South English Legendary inexplicably comes next, for the subsequent three articles (chapters five, six, and seven) all focus on the period between 800 and 1200. Moreover, the hagiographical focus of her study seems more in line with the final six chapters, which concentrate on literary sources. In any case, Tracy's article calls our attention to the glaring absence of castration in the exceptionally violent SEL. She argues convincingly that the author and compilers of the hagiography "deliberately rejected castration as a hagiographical motif in order to distance thirteenth-century England from its ruling class" (92), which was descended largely from the Norman invaders who had imported the gruesome Scandinavian practice of blinding and castration (a topic discussed in detail by Anthony Adams in chapter nine). As such, the SEL aligns itself instead with the island's pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon heritage in its overt rejection of punitive castration.

The next three articles concentrate on castration and other forms of genital mutilation in medieval law codes. Chapter five takes us back to the Carolingian period. In it, Rolf Bremmer analyzes the treatment of castration as punishment in the Lex Frisionum (c. 802), a Latin capitulary issued to the recently conquered Frisians, as well as castration's use in later secular and religious vernacular texts. When castration was discussed in the laws, a distinction was made "between castration as a form of punishment and emasculation as the result of injury" (110). As such, Bremmer divides his attention between legal treatments of punitive castration (which was rarely utilized) and how genital injuries are dealt with in the tariff lists and their relation to an individual's body price. In chapter six, Jay Paul Gates examines the peculiar ordering of Anglo-Saxon laws, which, when discussing the body price of an individual, progress from head to toe but conclude with a veritable laundry list of bodily injuries, including castration. Examining castration in these codes alongside its presence in Anglo-Saxon riddles, Gates concludes that this culture was not particularly concerned with castration, per se, but more with the pragmatic functioning of the individual and how much or little they could contribute to overall society (e.g. by procreation). Chapter seven shifts us slightly to the west, where Charlene Eska explores castration in early Welsh and Irish annal accounts and legal codes which had been imposed upon them by the Norman invaders. Eska argues that while both societies used genital mutilation in similar ways to the Normans (e.g. as "an effective means of eliminating future rivals and avoiding the taint of being a kin-slayer," 151), the practice of punitive castration was likely imported by the Normans.

In chapter eight, Mary Valante reexamines Viking raids on monasteries (c. 800-1000) in order to call attention to the inclusion of young monks among the spoils, who were then sold into slavery. While slavery was practiced in western Europe during this period, "castration was not part of slavery" (178). The east was a different story, however, and the Vikings knew this. Thus, in order to increase their return, the Vikings transported or sold these boys to traders who brought them to Venice, where they were castrated in castration mills and (assuming they survived the procedure) were subsequently sold for a significant profit to Jewish, Byzantine and Islamic traders, who in turn sold them in the Byzantine and Muslim worlds, which treasured young, educated eunuchs to serve in the royal courts.

Chapter nine continues with the Vikings, so to speak, by focusing on the Norse world through the lens of Old Norse and Icelandic literary sources. In it, Anthony Adams examines the violent world of blood feuds in the twelfth/thirteenth-century Sturlunga saga and the prominent role castration plays both in the saga and the hyper-masculine Scandinavian world in which it was composed. While it was considered manly to bear scars earned in battle, it was shameful and emasculating to suffer the indignity of castration, for the loss of one's genitals transformed a man into the effeminate world inhabited by "the sexually deviant, the bestialists, the homosexuals, the priests, the sickly, the beggarly, the unfit, and the old" (190).

Literature is also the focus of the remaining five essays which examine the subject of castration in relation to medieval and early modern fabliaux, romances, poems, plays, and the like. In chapter ten, Mary Leech explores the performance of false castration on a shrewish mother-in-law (by slicing the woman's buttocks and inserting a bull testicle into each cheek and afterwards removing them) in the Old French fabliau The Gelded Lady, arguing that the gender inversion serves to change the purpose of the castration performance and thus "moves the dynamic of the tale from a tale about the proper role of women to a cautionary tale for men and masculine identity" (210). That is, quite literally: either dominate your wife or be a ball-less "man." Jed Chandler, in chapter eleven, examines how Chrétien de Troyes' Knights of the Round Table undertake "metaphorical or literal castration" (231) in order to qualify them for winning the Grail by transforming them into unstained virgins. The Grail cycle therefore reflects the growing emphasis on a celibate clergy stemming from the papal reform movement and "a renewed interest in conceptualizing a 'non-sexual' man" (229). In chapter twelve, Ellen Friedrich focuses on four examples of castration in consecutive versions of the thirteenth-century Romans de la rose and their relation to marginalia depicting a beaver castrating himself with its teeth, analyzing both authors' defense of castrated men such as Abelard as well as the inclusion of homoeroticism in relation to castration in the work's addition. In chapter thirteen, Robert Clark explores the cultural categories of the sterile eunuch in his examination of Jean Le Fèvre's fourteenth-century La Vieille in relation with Fèvre's source, the thirteenth-century Latin poem De Vetula, and especially the clever word play both authors employ (e.g. "whether a eunuch is an iste or an ista" [287]) in order to 'other' the eunuch; the eunuch becomes, in effect, a "monster of grammar" (289). Finally, Karin Sellberg and Lena Wånggren examine the fear of castration and prevalence of gender ambiguity in early modern literature, theater, and medical writings, arguing that these motifs reflect contemporary anxiety regarding the emasculating nature of genital mutilation; "the literal flows of blood on stage result in a figurative release of spirits among the audience" (313).

Overall I highly recommend Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. I look forward to assigning articles from this excellent collection in courses on the Roman Empire and the Viking Age, for example. This volume has much to offer to both the casual reader intrigued by such a provocative subject and especially historians and literary scholars interested in gender, sexuality, and ancient and medieval attitudes toward the body and what it meant to be--or not to be--a real man.

Article Details

Author Biography

Andrew Miller

DePaul University