Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Fightin' Binaries? Part II, Briefly, and a look into the classroom

For the interested: a few weeks back, I posed this question:
I'm troubled...because when push comes to shove, the spurned women of medieval romance often resort to accusations of, well, let's not call it sodomy, but they never (?) select a charge from any of the other medieval ways of being or not being sexual. Is there, in other words, a binary at work?"
Yesterday, while teaching "Lanval," I put the same question to my students. Apparently, they had drawn from the same well as JJC (who wrote in the comment thread, "I would wonder a little more about the genre specificity of certain definitions of sexuality"), as this is what they proposed:

  • it's part of the definition of a knight to be of sexual service to someone. If he's refusing a woman, especially the presumptively best woman there is (Guinevere), then he must be serving something else, i.e., well-hung/well-dressed young nobles/servants. This answer could be refined somewhat, as the great polarity in romance is not male-female but noble and (the generally unrepresented) ignoble: so why not accuse the knight of loving a burger's burgher's daughter? (But on this, see the comment on class, below)
  • With that in mind, they arrived at an even better solution: why don't spurned women accuse knights of being secret hermits or monks or otherwise bound to one of the many 12th-13th c. set of sexual codes? Because in a romance or a lai, that would be a compliment. Good answer, and duh (!) for me.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to the question of why the rape accusation (e.g., the Potiphar's wife story) becomes a sodomy accusation (or, as Lanval hears it, a prostitution accusation, that is, an attack on his class rather than an attack on his "sexuality"). But we did determine why Guinevere publicly charges Lanval not with sodomy but with attempting to seduce her and (the worse crime perhaps) dismissing her beauty: most practically, she should go with the charge that's easier to prove; but there's also a sense in which the "Vallez avez bien afeitiez" attacks the homosociality of the Arthurian court itself. The men really do prefer to hang out with other (well-dressed) men: notice the crowds around Gawain and Arthur's irritation when he's compelled to talk to his wife. Thus Lanval isn't the only guilty party here, and it's possible that while the sodomy charge might be privately embarrassing for Lanval, it's not a hanging offense so far as the court itself is concerned. I might have, but didn't, allude to squirrelly way of conservatives with Larry Craig, Jeff Gannon (and his customers), Matt Sanchez (and his customers), or Ted Haggard...

7 comments:

sylvia huot said...

This is all very interesting and I still don't know exactly what I think, but I have a few comments/questions. First, your (or someone's) question of 'why don't spurned women accuse the knight, etc', just wondering, how many cases in medieval lit actually ARE there of spurned women accusing the knight who spurns them of preferring boys? I can't actually think of all that many to be honest, but I may be overlooking something.

Second, if they don't accuse them of being a secret monk or any of the other possible medieval sexualities because those would be a compliment, then it does seem like we've come back around to a VERY powerful binary in the romance genre: all forms of sexuality except one are OK, and then there's the one that isn't OK, which happens to be the one that involves male-male sex. Is this possible? I have my doubts.

thirdly, what you then offer in your wrap-up would seem to contradict that, namely, that male-male sex actually IS OK in the eyes of the court, or at least not all that bad, and certainly not nearly as bad as putting the moves on the queen or bragging that your own girlfriend is more beautiful, and has more beautiful servants, than the queen does. Ultimately an accusation that makes Lanval, to resort to these terms, heterosexual seems more effective than one that makes him homosexual. Is that because the latter would be unspeakable or would be resented by Arthur, hurting the queen's cause? Is it because it wouldn't carry much weight?

In short, I'm in a bit of a muddle here about what the text seems to be telling us about acceptable and unacceptable sexual positionings.

Finally, in terms of being a monk being something good in a romance, what about Melusine, where one of her sons becomes a monk, and another son is so incensed and so worried that he will suffer from the (apparently well-known?) taunt of having a monk for a brother, that he burns the entire monastery to the ground. We may not be expected to share his views, but nonetheless, he has them, in a big way. What do we make of this?

Gotta go....

Karl Steel said...

First, your (or someone's) question of 'why don't spurned women accuse the knight, etc', just wondering, how many cases in medieval lit actually ARE there of spurned women accusing the knight who spurns them of preferring boys?

Burgwinkle's book on Sodomy and Law mentions several. "Lanval" and Eneas are the most famous so far as I know, but there's also L'Histoire de Gilles de Chyn and the Roman de Silence. Perhaps there are more? Burgwinkle points us to the "Sodomy Topos" section in Curtius, but my Curtius is at home, and I'm not.

Second, if they don't accuse them of being a secret monk or any of the other possible medieval sexualities because those would be a compliment, then it does seem like we've come back around to a VERY powerful binary in the romance genre: all forms of sexuality except one are OK, and then there's the one that isn't OK, which happens to be the one that involves male-male sex.

I suspect that might be the case in (at least the dominant discourses of) romance. At the same time, I get the sense that in 'Lanval' at least there's a kind of tacit approval of samesex sexuality between men given that: a) certain aspects of Guinevere's description of Lanval could apply equally well to the other men of the court, who are, in the scene before, hanging out in large crowds together (is it finally time for me to read Sedgwicks' Between Men?); b) here's clearly a market for sodomy with which Lanval is familiar, since his response is not "I'm not a sodomite," but rather that he doesn't engage in that trade: well, clearly someone does, which means they must have customers, customers, I should emphasize, who Lanval does not condemn. He just says he isn't one of them.

My sense, then, is that, in this lay, we have public support for one kind of sexuality--politically convenient male/female marriages (the kind Lanval fails to get when Arthur distributes "femmes e tere" (l. 17)--and a private way of associating that at least looks like samesex sexuality between men or is, perhaps more accurately, a set of activities, perhaps sexual, from which men exclude women. Ultimately, I have to think that there's something more complex than okay/not okay; I think it's configured in various ways in part depending on what the character wants and also in terms of what the character experiences (after all, Lanval "fu ravi" (cf "raptus") by his fairy lover at the lay's end, a point I think I got from Burgwinkle).

I do think, however, that Guinevere's attack is in part Marie's disdain for the court of Arthur and dynastic, monumental history more generally. Maybe.

As for the Melusine story: I didn't know about that part of it! Nor did I know about the taunt of having a monk for a brother! Although, I suppose we could think of William of Orange maybe as differently sexed (despite himself) in some way when he becomes a monk in the Moniage Guillaume?

Thanks for complicating things! I suppose, and this is the best I can do right now, it depends on the work itself.

Karl Steel said...

He just says he isn't one of them.

Or rather, "de cel mestier
ne me sai jeo nient aidier"

"I know nothing about how to help myself through that trade," which is quite a peculiar thing to say if I'm translating this correctly. There's no condemnation; there's no sense in which he doesn't "swing" that way; he just doesn't know how to. If this is a condemnation of samesex sex acts by Lanval, it's (atypically?) gentle (in both senses of the word).

sylvia huot said...

Lanval: is 'mestier' definitely to be translated as 'trade'? could it just mean something like 'activity', something like 'I don't get involved in any of that business' where 'business' doesn't actually have commercial implications?

I agree that the passage overall does imply that the activity Guenevere describes takes place, and even that it is more or less common knowledge, though I don't think we are necessarily expected to think that all the knights do it.

Lanval uses the importance of his relationship with Arthur in his rejection of Guenevere, so he DOES in effect say that his male-male relations are too important to jeopardise them by getting involved with a woman. I wonder if Guenevere is to be seen as voicing a kind of eroticised female fantasy of what those male-male relations consist of. Sort of like the way Lavine's mother eroticises the 'woman as an object of exchange between men' model when she warns her daughter that Eneas will use her as sexual bait to attract young men for 3-way sex. What is the target here? Is it misogyny (typical of a woman to have such lurid fantasies about men), is it homophobic (we all know it happens, but eee-uuu, surely our noble hero wouldn't do something like that), is it just sort of humorous (well, naturally a loose woman who wants all the guys for herself will resent the fact that they can satisfy themselves without her) or what?

Silence is an interesting case too... and would you agree that, in the text, her 'gender trouble' is finally resolved when it becomes clear that she doesn't want to, can't, won't have a sexual relationship with a woman but does want to, can, will with a man (the king, whom she marries). Whatever category of person it is that s/he is able and willing to have sex with, well, s/he is the opposite sex to that.

Melusine: well I didn't know it was supposed to be shameful to have a monkish brother either, and in actual reality an awful lot of medieval knights undoubtedly DID have one or more brothers who were monks or clerics of some kind, but Melusine's son Gioffroy is having none of that, and he acts as if this would be somehow an embarrassment: "si en serez paiez avecques les autres, ne il me sera ja reprouve que j'aye moine a frere". I'm not saying the reader is expected to agree with him, and of course it's when he burns down the monastery that he triggers the crisis that leads to the public denunciation of Melusine, her exposure as a fairy, and her transformation into a dragon--so it's hardly an unproblematic act on his part. I've just always wondered about it, and when someone raised the question of why no one ever accuses a knight of being a monk, it made me think of it. What is Gioffroy imagining that makes him go ballistic at the thought of those "ribaulx moynes" attracting his brother to join their community?

Karl Steel said...

According to the AND, the dominant meanings of "Mestier" are, as you say, service, office, duty, and function, and we don't get to trade or craft until #7 (I'll have to corner Nicola at the staff meeting today, since the first section of his Voice of the Hammer is on the vocab of work).

But ideally I'd like to translate "mestier" as trade and service to preserve the double assault of Guenevere. Doing it just as "activity" or "practice" loses what I see as both a sexual and class insult. She accused him of loving well-dressed/well-hung "vallez" (which can be either servants or nobles in service), and he responds with a word that is itself bivalent. Note that a "femme de mester" is a prostitute (a trade), while "vadlet de mester" is a servingman (a different way of selling one's body).

Ultimately, I'd want to do a search of the lais for Marie's overall use of "mestier/mester."

I don't think we are necessarily expected to think that all the knights do it.

Agreed. Not necessarily.

And I love the idea of Guenevere engaging in some kind of slash fiction with her insult. As for the target: I think G's insult is meant to reflect badly on the both her and the Court of Arthur as a whole. Again, regardless of whether or not we're meant to think the Gawain et al. engage in prostitution (in whatever sense), I'm hung up on the fact that Guenevere's insult accurately describes the men of the court. So, regardless of its being an insult, I'm inclined to think there's some recognition here, however negatively voiced, of samesex something going on with the men of the court.

For Silence: it's been years since I read it, and I've never taught it, so I don't recall it as perfectly as I like. From what I recall, its marriage resolution seems a bit hasty, and Silence really does, finally, shut up. I don't see what happens at the end as according to her will, but rather as an attempt to enclose the threat to the powers-that-be posed by the entire romance. With that in mind, I might read the temptation of Merlin back into civilization (with cooked meat!) as a drawing of the romance itself back out of the ungoverned, unknown, [insert Deleuze and Guattari here if you like] wilderness, as Merlin, when he returns to civilization and its bounds, sets all genders right: the queen's crossdressing lover is revealed (and killed?), Silence is silenced and dressed properly, and I don't remember what else. How do I read the queen's accusation according to this interpretation (which I just came up with: I hope it works)? Don't know yet.

"ribaulx moynes"! All I can think of here is...dang. I can't remember it, but I recall reading an article on an anti-monastic or anti-fraternal satire in which monks (or nuns, depending on the ms) enjoy a kind of land of cockaigne: they float about, eating and having sex, and frolic in a river. Totally off topic, and it's an entirely different genre: but does this ring a bell for anyone?

Anonymous said...

"All I can think of here is...dang. I can't remember it, but I recall reading an article on an anti-monastic or anti-fraternal satire in which monks (or nuns, depending on the ms) enjoy a kind of land of cockaigne: they float about, eating and having sex, and frolic in a river. Totally off topic, and it's an entirely different genre: but does this ring a bell for anyone?"

L'Ordre de Bel Ayse, in Harley MS 2253, I think?

a relevant link:
http://www.fordham.edu/mvst/conference07/multilingualism/a_green.html

Also this kind of tradition feeds into Rabelais' abbey of Thelema.

-BLB

Karl Steel said...

Thanks BLB. That's not it. I think I'm remembering the 13th-c. England Land of Cockaigne, but that memory is obscuring the real memory I want, which is of a work with I think 3 mss, one of which concerns nuns rather than monks or friars. I'll look again when I have time.