Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.09.04 Rouillard, Medieval Considerations of Incest, Marriage, and Penance

21.09.04 Rouillard, Medieval Considerations of Incest, Marriage, and Penance

Outside of the history of canon law circles, not much has been written on incest in the medieval world. Yet, incest has a long and surprisingly prolific history in literature, and its use as a metaphor is beneficial for understanding contemporary reactions to changing ideas about marriage. This is true of medieval Europe--in which writers struggled to articulate their apprehensions with the church's evolving definition of what constitutes a valid marriage and how the institution interacted with the material interests of elite families--but, as Linda Rouillard is eager to assert, it is also true of the twenty-first century, in which a tabloidesque preoccupation with father-daughter incest is mobilized to combat the legalization of same-sex marriage. In studying this phenomenon in the medieval context, Rouillard discovers how representations of incest help us also to learn more about the significance of the central medieval penitential revolution, the growing affinity for relics and a popular distaste for their control by the church, as well as the power of women's words.

At the heart of this book is the thirteenth-century poem, La Manekine, penned by French bailiff Philippe de Rémi, whose role as an administrator for an aristocratic family gave him plenty of opportunity to witness conflict between sacred and secular visions of marriage. Set in Hungary, the poem centers on a rash promise given by the king to his wife on her deathbed. At her prompting, he swears never to remarry unless he can find a bride who resembles his wife exactly. As the king grows older, and the search for his wife's doppelganger remains fruitless, his courtiers begin to panic about what will happen to the kingdom in the absence of an heir. Of course, unspoken among them is the reality that the king does have an heir: his daughter, Joie. Yet rather than imagine the unimaginable (that is, a female ruler), his clerical advisors propose a creative solution to the problem, one that would allow the king to honor his pledge while still granting him the opportunity to produce a legitimate male heir: he should marry his daughter, who had grown into the very image of her mother.

Joie, however, is not as keen on the idea as is her father and his retinue. In the hopes of repelling her father's unwanted sexual advances, she chops off her hand, which is immediately gobbled up by a sturgeon. Her act of self-mutilation has the intended effect: her father sentences her to death, but of course a kindly seneschal instead launches her to sea, and she eventually arrives in Scotland, where she assumes a new identity, Manekine. Scotland's young king falls desperately in love with this ship-wrecked waif, and he marries her, despite her refusal to tell him anything about her life leading up to her arrival in Scotland. During one of the king's absences, Manekine gives birth to a son. Of course, her mother-in-law, who despises Manekine as being an inappropriate match for her high-born, two-handed son, seizes this moment to take revenge: she sends a false missive to her son alleging that Manekine has given birth to a monstrous, hairy beast. She then follows this up by impersonating the king and crafting a command for the executions of both Manekine and her newborn. Once again, Manekine is on the move, saved by an empathetic seneschal, as she wanders the earth for the next seven years, pursued by the lovelorn king of Scotland who wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife.

The final scene resolves in Rome. The haze has finally lifted from the king of Hungary's eyes, and he regrets not only the incestuous proposal, but ordering his daughter's execution. He travels to Rome to seek forgiveness. Manekine is present at the papal court to hear his confession, and it is she who utters his absolution, not the pope. She is not only reunited with her long-lost father, but also unexpectedly with her hand. The hungry sturgeon who consumed it finds himself in the pope's fountain where he regurgitates the perfectly preserved hand. It is discovered by a group of curious clergymen who bear it to the pope, and it is miraculously regrafted. The story ends happily: the newly whole Manekine reunites with her husband, and from her father and mother inherits the thrones of both Hungary and Armenia, which she holds alongside her post as Queen consort of Scotland.

La Manekine and the incestuous proposal that causes so many problemsis the lens through which Rouillard studies marriage and family in the medieval world. It is not clear why the poem did not make it into the title of the book--presumably this was the publisher's decision, and one that might cost the book the readership of critics in this field who fail to connect the title with the poem. However, Rouillard works hard to reveal the poem as a veritable treasure trove for concerns about marriage in the thirteenth century.

Chapter 2 (the introduction is chapter 1) puts the incestuous relationship in La Manekine in context of ideas about incest. This chapter is a broad survey of the intellectual heritage concerning incest, from creation myths to cousin-marriage in the modern US and Pakistan. Since early times, incest has been weaponized as a means of disparaging the other. In Leviticus, the Canaanites and Egyptians are described as incestuous peoples; among the Greeks, non-Greeks were regularly cast in that light. Christianity grows out of this tradition and yet complicates the narrative by dwelling on God's inconsistent stance. Plainly, there are moments in time when God sanctioned incest. How else might the human race have been propagated from the creation of just one man and one woman? Similarly, Lot's daughters had to get their father drunk in order to continue the species after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even in post-Biblical times, incest remains at the center of Christianity through Mary who is the mother of Christ, yet simultaneously also His daughter and His bride. Despite this mixed baggage, medieval Christians came to define themselves as people who do not engage in incest, definitively associating this taboo behavior with primitive societies.

One of the premises of Rouillard's analysis of La Manekine is that incest is everywhere in the medieval literature. In chapter 3, she makes good on this promise by demonstrating just how widespread it was. Most readers will be familiar with incest in the Arthurian and Charlemagne legends; this chapter, however, lists an astounding number of examples. Even the Golden Legendjourneys into tales of incest with the inclusion of the life of Judas, sent away at birth because of a prophetic dream. He eventually returns only to murder his stepbrother and his father, then marry his mother. Incest in these stories functions in set ways; for heroes, incest leads to their fall. For saints, incest either threatens their dedication to God, or gives them a sinful past to overcome. More often than not, incest is associated with barbarians. This fact helps us to understand why La Manekine is set in Hungary--such a liminal space permits the audience to rethink Christian notions of marriage.

The church's long love-hate relationship with marriage takes centerstage in chapter f4. Early Christians' glorification of virginity as well as the eventual disavowal of clerical marriage produces a tension within a church attempting to emphasize the sacramental character of marriage in the twelfth century. Rouillard embraces Georges Duby's two models of marriage, seeing that the church's focus on mutual consent, monogamy, and permanence of marriage is at odds with aristocratic needs in which marriage is primarily a vehicle for the transference of property and the creation of family alliances. La Manekine is a vast reproach to both models. The loving marriage evident between Manekine and the king of Scotland defies all expectations of marriage as simply a monetary transaction. Moreover, the incestuous relationship proposed by the king of Hungary's clerical advisors is a commentary on the church's hypocrisy in granting papal dispensations to waive ecclesiastical rules of incest. As such, incest in the literature "functions as recrimination against the complicity of the Church invalidating relationship it has already redefined and forbidden" (135).

La Manekine also has much to say regarding the sacrament of penance as it was redefined by theologians in the central Middle Ages. Rouillard explores this in chapters 5 and 6. Under Abelard's guiding hand, contrition became the central element required for absolution. The new system of penance also elevated the role of the priest as the central figure doling out God's pardon. La Manekine challenges both positions. When the king of Hungary expresses his sorrow at the papal court in Rome, he does so without any of the wailing and tears described as evidence of contrition in confessors' manuals; further, it is not a member of the clergy who grants him absolution, it is his daughter. La Manekine also questions whether the clergy should be granted such power given their propensity to prioritize political over spiritual concerns, as demonstrated by the sly clergymen who advised the king to marry his own daughter. Restitution and resurrection are the themes of chapter six. The importance of restitution to the penitential process is cemented in La Manekine not only with both the return of her hand, but also her inheritance. The regurgitation of the hand by the sturgeon, in particular, leads the author down a bit of a rabbit hole. Rouillard equates the perfectly preserved hand with a relic, the fish's stomach with a reliquary. Thus, Rémi's insertion of the fishy tale is intended to express lay resistance to the church's control of relics, instead granting that power to the fish.

Chapter 7 takes us in a different direction altogether to examine speech acts in La Manekine and their relationship to gender. Female speech is problematic. When women speak in La Manekine, they jeopardize lives. By extracting a hasty promise from the king of Hungary, Joie's mother endangers not only her daughter's soul, but also the future of the kingdom. When Manekine's mother-in-law speaks, she does so to cast aspersions on Manekine and her new grandson, then to order their execution. Both women create years of turmoil for their kingdoms. By contrast, Manekine, as the paramount of virtue, chooses silence, as a good woman should.

In the final chapter, Rouillard returns to the subject of incest, this time to explore its legacy in books and films of the 20th and 21st centuries. Incest as a motif continues to be a marker of human degeneration, and is usefully deployed in debates about the current state of marriage. For example, Rouillard notes the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, led some to air the concern that legalizing gay marriage was the first step of a "slippery slope to legalizing now-taboo sexual arrangements like polygamy and incest" (285).

Rouillard's excursus into incest in literature demonstrates that this shocking yet ubiquitous motif can provide valuable insight into cultural notions of marriage, family, and women. Indeed, by linking the medieval to the modern over and over again throughout the book, she makes it clear that an analysis of the subject in our own era is much overdue. We still express our anxieties about marriage and the family through metaphors of incest. Rouillard also manages to breathe new life into Georges Duby's two models of marriage by drawing attention to the open conflict in La Manekine between the sacred and material goals of marriage.

The book is not without shortcomings. Admittedly, in a book so closely focused on blood relations, it is somewhat surprising that the subject of lineage did not play a larger role. Greater attention to lineage might well explain some literary forays into incest. Why does the Karlamagnus Sagadescribe Roland as the son of Charlemagne and Charlemagne's sister Gilem? Because then he is descended on both sides from the heroic king of the Franks. As Sara McDougall's work on bastards has demonstrated, medieval society was obsessed with lineage, and they paid just as much attention to descent from one's mother's line as they did from one's father's. [1] This is true even of the savior. It was not enough for Jesus to be the son of God; medieval society imagined an (almost) equally prestigious array of human ancestors through his mother, Mary, displaying the line liberally throughout society in paintings, carvings and stained-glass tributes to the tree of Jesse.

At times, Rouillard relies on somewhat questionable materials for her sociological and historical analyses. For example, in discussing Arab and African marriage patterns in the modern era, she turns to the activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, best known for her memoir, [2] rather than a scholar of the subject. Similarly, when discussing the role of marriage as a means of extending social networks, she cites the popular Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz rather than a medieval historian. [3] Indeed, many of the scholars of medieval marriage that one might expect to find in her bibliography are simply not there. Philip Reynolds' work is in her bibliography, so too is James Brundage's, but absent entirely are Richard Helmholz, Shannon McSheffrey and Michael Sheehan, and David d'Avray and Charles Donahue make only brief appearances. Reading the work of these experts might have changed her perspective on some issues. For example, d'Avray's Papacy, Monarchy and Marriage, 860-1600 argues that the medieval aristocracy deliberately married within forbidden degrees in order to preserve a way out of marriage in the event that it was childless, or a better political alliance opened up. [4] How did the political strategizing of incest impact popular attitudes of the phenomenon?

These concerns aside, Rouillard demonstrated that much more can be said on the subject of incest than one might ever have imagined! She reminds us also that an indulgence in salacious gossip can tell us much about ourselves and our own anxieties.



1. Sara McDougall, Royal Bastards: The Birth of Illegitimacy, 800-1230 (Oxford University Press, 2016).

2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel: My Life (Free Press, 2007).

3. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage (Penguin, 2005).

4. David d'Avray, Papacy, Monarchy and Marriage, 860-1600 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).