14.10.17, Moore, Exhanges in Exoticism

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Anne Latowsky

The Medieval Review 14.10.17

Moore, Megan. Exchanges in Exoticism: Cross-Cultural Marriage and the Making of the Mediterranean in Old French Romance . Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. 200. ISBN: 9781442644694 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Anne Latowsky
University of South Florida

The Mediterranean has recently become an attractive backdrop for the study of medieval literature written in French. This broader scope avoids excessive focus on national identities and helps to circumvent such limiting dichotomies as East and West or Christian and Muslim. Yet East still meets West in many ways in medieval European literature, and we still need fruitful ways to discuss these literary cross-cultural encounters. Megan Moore's recent book examines cross-cultural marriage in medieval romances from a gender studies angle, and argues for the existence of women's agency in the formation of noble identities in the medieval Mediterranean from the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Over the course of the crusading movement and as a result of enhanced restrictions against marital consanguinity, exogamous marriages between nobles from around the Mediterranean were ever more common. For Moore, this historical reality is reflected in the literature of the period, a sample of which she offers as a mirror onto the region's ever more hybridized noble class.

Throughout her study, Moore considers the ways in which literature, specifically the genre of romance, depicts exchanges with Byzantium, and she wonders how these encounters might shed light on the formation of noble identities. With examples taken from mostly French (but also Greek) romances, she looks at the construction of identity that occurs when women cross borders, so to speak. Once they form couples, these women use their new relationships to establish new sites of cultural exchange. Instead of focusing on instances of rape and misogyny, she identifies examples of female agency and of illicit desire across cultural borders that served to reframe the boundaries of a patriarchal conception of the West. While aware that she is working with fictions written by men, Moore offers a strategy for seeing the romance genre over time as a source of alternate readings. Chrétien de Troyes talks over his female characters and denies them chances to narrate, but between the lines, she believes that there are women's stories to be read and female agency to be found. In romances containing cross-cultural relationships, Moore identifies ways in which women "rewrite" men's partnerships.

Over the span of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Franco-Byzantine relations changed in radical ways, from competing powers, to conqueror and conquered, to colonizer and colonized, before the final waning of Frankish influence in the region. Moore reads her romances through the lens of these political shifts, although she realizes that literature can only tell us so much about the historical realities that may or may not have coincided with their composition and diffusion. In addition to gender theory, she deploys a variety of approaches from the post-colonial to the psychoanalytic. She also makes interesting use of codicological evidence as a way of identifying potential reading programs for her texts in relation to other thematically related works. While this varied approach makes for some provocative readings, there are times when the self-conscious application of multiple theories becomes onerous.

In carving out her territory, Moore had to contend with the recent appearance of Rima Devereaux's Constantinople and the West in Medieval French Literature: Renewal and Utopia (Boydell & Brewer, 2012), a work which itself had to forge beyond the important work of Krijnie Ciggaar, Western Travellers to Constantinople: The West and Byzantium, 962-1204: Cultural and Political Relations (Brill, 1996). Moore uses a different set of texts than Devereaux does, however, and is careful to highlight her unique concern with the construction of identity within the Mediterranean nobility, rather than focusing just on Byzantium. Moving beyond both Ciggaar and Devereaux, Moore discusses how the typical dynamics of translatio studii, in which men are the transmitters of ideas and narratives, can contain a secondary mechanism by which women, as objects of exchange, effected their own sorts of cultural exchange. Such agency-seeking readings are, of course, not new, but the author brings this mode of reading to a new set of texts and concerns.

Moore examines, for instance, ways in which foreign masculinities are constructed in the romance, and she provides a novel conception of the exotic, not in Orientialist terms, but as part of an economy of the wondrous. The function of gender in these romances is tied up with an economy of cultural exchange in which women play a central role in defining the stakes of cross-cultural noble marriage partnerships. Where women travel westward and seek love, they defy the patriarchal norms that they have left behind and then go on to change the dynamics of the world into which they enter. As an introductory example, Moore looks at Peter Damian's critique of Maria Argyropoulaina, the Byzantine princess turned dogaressa of Venice in 1004, whose marriage to the doge was accompanied by a lavish trousseau and a set of practices that troubled the critical cleric. These included her desire to be washed in fresh dew and to eat with a fork. Damian conveyed a westerner's fear of the changes a Greek woman might bring to the Venetian court, a concern that Moore views as the dogaressa's perceived power to affect her new environment and to have a transformative influence on her husband's masculinity. This is a useful example of western clerics' scorn for the civilizing impulses of the Greeks, but it points to a surprising lacuna in the book. The most famous example of an opulent Byzantine bride's contentious reception in the medieval West is that of Theophano's arrival at the Ottonian court a generation earlier in 972. If there is a locus of memory for western fears of Byzantine cultural imperialism by women coming through a political marriage, it is that of Theophano's marriage to Otto II, a striking omission given the extent to which it might have enhanced the argument for the power of such encounters in the imagination of the medieval West. Attention to Theophano would also have allowed Moore to use secondary works such as Adelbert Davids' The Empress Theophano: Byzantium and the West at the Turn of the First Millennium (Cambridge, 1995), Nolen Andrew Bunker's Why Eastern Women Matter: The Influence of Byzantine Empresses on Western Queenship during the Middle Ages (The Ohio State University, 2006), and Michael Angold's "The Latin Empire of Constantinople, 1204-1261: Marriage Strategies" in Identities and Allegiances in the Eastern Mediterranean After 1204, ed. Judith Herrin and Guillaume Saint-Guillain (Ashgate, 2011). It is too bad that Herrin's Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium (Princeton, 2013) came out too late for consideration. I was also surprised not to find in the bibliography Sylvia Huot's Postcolonial Fictions in the Roman de Perceforest: Cultural Identities and Hybridities (Boydell and Brewer, 2007) and Rebecca Wilcox's "Romancing the East: Greeks and Saracens in Guy of Warwick" in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance, ed. Nicola McDonald (Manchester University Press, 2004). Moore limits herself to the genre of romance, which is an understandable decision, but one that seems to have kept her from considering works such as Galien li Restorés, a work crying out to be analyzed under her particular lens, as it is deeply concerned with cross-cultural encounters, the meaning of marriage and legitimacy (of power and children), the construction of noble masculinity, and the geopolitics of the thirteenth-century Franco-Byzantine world. The Galien is an offshoot of the Voyage of Charlemagne to Jerusalem and Constantinople, a text almost entirely based on the notion of Franco-Byzantine encounters that contains a troubling and fascinating gender component. Charlemagne's baron Oliver's sexual conquest of the Byzantine emperor's daughter, carried out on a sort of dare, leads in the later tradition to the girl's pregnancy with Galien. His birth in Greece inspires her quest for legitimacy as Oliver's wife and Galien's mother, all before Galien (an overtly hybrid Frankish and Byzantine warrior) assumes the throne in Constantinople. Again, it is understandable that Moore limited her study to a certain genre, but the Galien is really almost a romance despite being part of the chanson de geste world, and her book is not so long that it could not have incorporated such a fertile addition to her study.

Throughout the book, the reader hears that marriage, as a site of cross cultural exchange, was deeply dependent on women. The first chapter compares Chrétien's Cligès with the Greek romance Digenis Akritas and draws the conclusion that these romances reveal ways in which the western noble self was dependent on exchange with its Mediterranean neighbors for the construction of its identity. Moore identifies evidence of how romances both stage women's agency and criticize certain eastern masculinities. Chapter two explores the popular romance Floire et Blancheflor, a study that allows her to advance her theory of the economy of the exotic, which includes both objects and women. Despite the more typical reception of this text as a commentary on a mythic Saracen/Muslim East, Moore makes a case for seeing the pagan origins of Floire as Greek (noting the presence of automata) or at least as hailing from the Orthodox Christian East. Here she reiterates her intention to discuss exoticism, nobility, and gender in the Mediterranean, the framework she applies to all of the works in the book. In an interesting point, she notes that in the Greek version of Floire et Blancheflor, the trope of exoticism from the West is the joust!

In Floire et Blancheflor, Moore sees the body as a site of disruption of the relationship between gender and the exotic, contrasting it with Chrétien's romances, in which domination is achieved through contests of physical strength and martial prowess. This romance is marked by gifts and exchange as modes of masculine interaction rather than war and combat, which Moore sees as a new model of masculinity, unlike the dominant model found in the romance narratives. Her characterization seems a bit of a straw-man attack on Chrétien, whose romances are hardly simplistic tales of male feats of strength and victories in war. If we know anything about Chrétien, it is his subtlety, even with regard to his female characters. Moreover, her point about Floire et Blancheflor can be made without oversimplifying the gender dynamics in Chrétien.

Since Floire's conversion allows the couple to become the parents of Charlemagne's grandmother Bigfooted Bertha, Moore raises the issue of genealogy with regard to empire, noting that cross-cultural marriage was a place of empire building, but the subject gains no traction. In fact, the book contains numerous references to "empire building" but no substantive discussion of what those terms mean for her. Moreover, Rome as a concept does not even figure in this study, which is unfortunate given the subject matter. Byzantium was a rival to the Frankish West in literature and historiography in no small part because of the contested legacy of Rome. With regard to the origins of Charlemagne in the marriage of Floire and Blanchflor, Moore is interested in how these romances reflect the importance of producing narratives and shaping masculinity. While she raises some important questions, she does not venture beyond their implications for gender theory: the place of women at the heart of the narrative, the economy of exchange and the exotic, and their relationship to the aforementioned empire building.

Chapter three looks at two romances produced after the 1204 sack of Constantinople. With this limited sample, Moore sees a shift in the romances of the thirteenth century, although women continue to be active in shaping identities. The mythic East has evolved, however, into a less desirable source for building hybrid noble Mediterranean identities. She looks at the popular European folktale of the handless girl who mutilates herself to escape an incestuous marriage with her father. The two versions in question of the handless girl as victim of incest are La Manekine and the La Belle Hélène de Constantinople, both of which describe the daughter's escape to the West to find a husband who does not represent the deviant sexuality of the East. For Moore, the handless girl when taken in its Mediterranean context allows for inquiry that combines the threads of culture, gender, and "empire". Exogamous marriage leads to hybridity, which leads to new models of Mediterranean nobility. Women are fundamental to the construction of this multicultural world, but after 1204, the western men are the "redemptive" partners in a model where women "love westward."

In chapter four, Moore explores the little known Floriant et Florete, an Arthurian romance in which Florian, one of Arthur's knights, ravishes the daughter of the emperor of Constantinople. Staged in a Sicilian context, and often belittled as an impoverished rewriting of Chrétien, the work is, for Moore, a deliberate rewriting that intends to stage encounters with the East. Although Floriant et Florete does not appear with other works and thus lacks codicological context, she locates the tale in the culture of Burgundian politics based on the dialect and the prevalence of Burgundian intermarriage in Sicily in the late thirteenth century. She wonders whether women's desire can be taken as separate from their status as objects of exchange, proposing Floriant et Florete as evidence of a new model of gender and empire in the thirteenth-century romances, one marked by a new emphasis on women's own decisions to "love across the border."

In her conclusion, Moore uses the Chronicle of Morea, a work that describes the establishment of a thirteenth-century crusader state, and was translated into French, perhaps in an Angevin context in Naples, in the fourteenth century. The chronicle depicts a colonial, bilingual world that included hybrid marriages among nobles and thus serves as a crucial piece of evidence for understanding cross-cultural exchange in the crusading era. By ending on this note, Moore is able to reiterate one final time that women had an influence within cross-cultural marriage, an influence that must be sought in the interstices of masculine narratives. Romance as a genre, with its attention to cross-cultural couplings, depended on women's important contributions to the formation of the hybrid cultures that evolved during the crusading era.

This is a useful and interesting approach, but it is founded on a relatively small number of texts, making its significance difficult to gauge. In addition to some better precision concerning the oft-noted concept of empire, the study would also have benefited from at least some discussion of the itinerant and diverse world of medieval aristocratic court culture, especially with regard to evolving literary tastes. Although at times repetitive, Moore's book is engagingly written. In a lively prose, she brings her reader along on her quest to understand intersections of race, gender and ethnicity in an understudied area of French medieval literature. Her book will therefore be a welcome addition to the body of scholarship on what we should perhaps now refer to as the medieval Francophone Mediterranean.

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Author Biography

Anne Latowsky

University of South Florida