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22.05.23 Bain, Dismemberment in the Medieval and Early Modern English Imaginary

22.05.23 Bain, Dismemberment in the Medieval and Early Modern English Imaginary

Frederika Elizabeth Bain discusses a wide variety of dismemberments in medieval and early modern literature and culture, including practices of torture and punishment from beheading to quartering to flaying, religious practices from circumcision to the cult of relics, the gendered dismemberments of rape and castration, and those at the boundaries between human and animal that took place during hunting and butchering. The book brings together literary and historical sources from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, and various genres from legal texts to poetry. It does set a focus on the British Isles and on literary works, however. Some works are examined more extensively than others, most notably Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, different aspects of which are taken up separately in each of the five chapters.

Bain’s project is invested both in bodily metaphors, such as the body politic, and in physical bodies. The “focus on the spectacle and theatricality of representations of execution” in earlier scholarship and foundational theoretical works such as Foucault’s, she claims, “has often obscured...the realization that such executions were performed on the physical bodies of human beings” (6). At the same time however, Bain cautions against equating the dismemberments in historical sources with those “presented as wholly fictional” (7), since “to say it does not matter whether bodies were ‘really’ cut apart verges on the callous” (8). Consequently, she carefully navigates the history-literature divides and uses the term literary-literal in reference to the representations of dismembered bodies in the literary texts she studies.

Inchapter 1, “The Symbolic Body and the Performance of Dismemberment,” Bain tackles somatic metaphors and claims that the critical bias of early body studies towards the conceptual rather than the physical body is based on a similar bias in medieval and early modern texts. She holds against it that “figures of somatic symbolism...can never wholly displace the body’s material significance” (22). One might criticise that she is preaching to the converted, since the material turn reached body studies early, and has even been claimed to have emerged from the field rather than merely influenced it. [1] However, Bain makes a strong claim for the mutual and circular influence of representations of somatic bodies and material bodies. She explores the metaphors of the body as a social organising principle whose health may require the removal of diseased limbs, and of the (specifically female) body as land to be conquered and exploited, a metaphor she further investigates in Titus Andronicus. Body metaphors, she shows, have consequences for physical bodies, in executions, colonial conquest, and sexual violence. Next, Bain introduces the term body performance that she uses throughout the book to denote “meaning enacted through the modification, both textual and physical, of the body” (21). She bases the term on Greenblatt’s self-fashioning, which she seeks to expand “beyond the speech, writing, dress, and movement that are Greenblatt’s focus” (39). I am critical of the term textual body performances she proposes (39). The “Reading and Writing (on) the Body” (the title of this section) doubtlessly connects to performance, but to force the terms together without specifying the connections blurs rather than clarifies the practices involved. This may be the reason, too, that this section’s range of examples is slightly overwhelming: Bain discusses marked, incorruptible, monstrous, and modified bodies as “performances of God’s...grace” (40), occasionally supported by midwifery body modification (45-49).

In chapter 2,“Gendered Dismemberments,” Bain turns to rape, female quarterings, castration, and circumcision. The topics are explored in great breadth. Bain’s discussions of a variety of literary examples from Lucrece to virgin martyrs to Titus Andronicus in the rape section, for example, are embedded in the wider social and historical context and bring together the relevant critical literature on the topic with lesser-known historical and literary examples. As such, this chapter is a goldmine of cross-references and connections between texts of different genres and periods. This occasionally comes at the price of a very clear focus. For example, Bain convincingly shows that dismemberments and mutilations do happen in the context of rape, but spends too much time detailing all the legal and social implications of the deed rather than focusing on the dismemberments connected to it. The sections on castration and circumcision discuss the Roaring Girl, Renegado, the Malleus Maleficarum, the Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich, among others, in a similar manner. There is a wealth of material to discover here, but Bain sometimes remains vague, for example as to how, exactly, circumcision is to be understood as dismemberment.

Chapter 3, “Animals of Dismemberment,” explores the human-animal divide via representations of dismemberments. These happen both to animals and to humans and consequently evoke an anxiety of shifting boundaries. Bain draws our attention to the fact that similar acts of dismemberment, those that happen during hunting and during butchering, and those that happen to animals and to humans, are assigned different valences, depending on the social class they are mostly associated with. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and other romances, as well as in hunting manuals such as Gaston Phoebus’ Livre de Chasse, hunting is construed as noble: a boar becomes a worthy opponent (130), the parte of the fleshe becomes a quasi-sacred rite, and the hunt is likened to war (140). All these elements, Bain argues, serve to reify “human mastery over both human and non-human animals” (130). Butchering, by contrast, blurs the boundaries between human and animal in that the metaphorical butcher kills people in the same way as the literal, meat-producing butcher kills domestic animals (163-165). Bain analyses representations of literal and metaphorical butchers in the Legenda Aurea, 2 Henry VI, Octavian Imperator, the York Mystery cycle, and in More’s Utopia, among others. Occasionally, Bain’s considerations become rather too detailed, for example when she discusses at length the connections between hunting and war in 2 Henry VI, or the workings of butchers’ guilds.

Chapter 4, “The Anguish of the Dismemberer: Executions and Others,” is centrally concerned with literal dismemberments, executed either through religious and ethnic others or the authorities, and the way in which these acts become coded as right or wrong accordingly: “Who performs dismemberment and why determines how it is to be viewed” (187). Because the perpetrators may be lower class characters, as is the case in 2 Henry VI, or demonized “Saracens, Turks, Moors, Persians, Irish, and Vikings” in chronicles, romances, and travel narratives, Bain argues, dismemberments become a site of boundary construction between identities (189). Richard Coer de Lion, Sir Gowther, and the Most Famous History of The Seauen Champions of Christendome are some of the texts in which Bain explores these boundary constructions, to then turn to vengeance in, among others, Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” and Beard’s and Taylor’s Theatre of Gods Judgements. This is one of the moments in the book where one might wish for a more careful connection between texts that are not just of different genres but also have a 250-year gap between them. The final sections of this chapter are about the roles and (mainly negative) perceptions of the headsman. Bain carefully, and once more with a wide variety of examples, establishes “the ambiguous place of violent and dismembering death in the medieval and early modern imaginary” (219).

Chapter 5, “Coda: After Dismemberment” discusses the afterlives of body parts, by which Bain primarily means spatial distribution, in the form of saints’ relics, the public display of criminals’ body parts serving as demonstrations of power, and the distributive burials of nobles. With this combination of topics, she aptly demonstrates, first, that bodies that have turned into objects are easier to control, and second, that the meaning of body parts “is not intrinsic but is made by the way they are deployed, whether textually or physically” (227). The body parts of criminals (one example is the quartering of William Wallace), which she calls “Relics of Infamy” in that section’s heading, work in similar ways as the relics of saints, but are interpreted differently. Between the extremes of saint and criminal lies the custom of distributive burial. The custom potentially increased the number of prayers spoken, in different locations, for the deceased or enabled the fulfilment of promises, for example when James I of Scotland’s heart was taken on pilgrimage (231). Bain then returns to Titus Andronicus to examine how severed body parts continue to signify. She claims here that hands and heads are “carriers of humanity” more than other severed parts of the body (236). This point would certainly have been worth exploring in some more detail. The same is true for the important remarks Bain makes in her concluding section. Here, she discusses practices of re-membering and focuses on concepts of the body’s resurrection. She concludes that “the near-universal insistence that the scattered parts of individuals’ identical physical bodies would again be reunited in and rejoined with their souls may itself have enabled performances of bodily fragmentation to signify in the myriad ways that they did” (243).

Overall, this book presents a wealth of materials concerned with dismemberment in the widest possible sense. Bain is extremely knowledgeable concerning the pertinent sources and examples from a wide variety of texts. This will make the book an invaluable resource for scholars, mostly of literature, in search of references for a specific kind of dismemberment or a specific text. Such a use of the volume will be supported by the extensive 35-pages index. This breadth of materials, however, is also occasionally a weakness: Some sections present rather meandering discussions of only loosely connected examples across all genres and periods. At times, one might have wished for a narrower understanding of dismemberment, simply as the removal and loss of limbs. Despite its rather fragmentary presentation (one specific aspect per chapter) Bain’s work on dismemberment in Titus Andronicus is convincing and original and might therefore also have deserved some more space.



1. Caroline Walker Bynum, “Introduction to the 2017 Edition: What’s New about the Medieval?,” The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (Columbia University Press, 2019), xiii-xxviii, here xiv.