Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Nothing to Lose: Medieval Castration, Part II

by KARL STEEL

And here's the sequel to yesterday. Again, I am so struck by the weirdness of medieval texts, which so rarely, when we get down to details, offer up the dreadful homogeneity that the Right imputes to its fantasy of "European origins." Even doctrinal texts enweird, because they take their questions so very seriously. Nothing goes without saying, and no one would ever bat away a limit case as irrelevant.

This is a draft: I'm sharing it with a writing group in...10 minutes or so, and then workshopping it further at CUNY on Feb 10th, and then getting it off my hands, although I have a glimmer of something more ambitious planned for it. Comments are welcome!

Entering Saint Patrick’s Purgatory; BnF fr. 1544, 105r


Circumvention needs to be sought elsewhere, through the path of indifference. It is with this in mind that I turn to two additional stories of genital injury, one of an outlier in relation to the discourse I described, and the other that might be called a non-phallic castration, a version of the injury that disassociates it from the law, sacrifice, and fantasies of bodily wholeness. The first comes from Henry of Saltry’s late twelfth-century Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. It was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages--including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions -- the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential physical journey through a place of torment taken by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before being returned to this world.[1] Though scholars and indeed many of the work’s medieval adapters have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[2] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard in a kind of long con. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[3] Nothing more is said of the girl. The only real surprise here is the praise for auto-castration distributed widely through a culture that officially denounced it.

A few decades after Henry of Saltry wrote his work, Peter of Cornwall produced his Book of Revelations, and with it, a story of genital injury whose moral and narrative incoherence frees it from the overwhelming significance typically granted castration by medieval and modern culture both. The Book of Revelations comprises more than a 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, nearly all drawn from the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. His is a conservative work, with no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, while its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don't, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material. Peter of Cornwall's general introduction has him claim only to want to confound those who believe the world is ruled "a casu" [75; by chance] and to prove that we possess immortal spirits, as a spirit that dies with the body is indistinguishable from that of "iumentorum omniumque brutorum animalium" [82-83; all beasts and the brute animals].

Above all, Peter intends to prove that the afterlife exists. For these among other reasons, his version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory stands out, because it satisfies neither this nor any of his work's stated needs. Though he locates this story in Purgatory, and includes it amid a crowd of pious, cautionary tales, it ultimately refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular, and it likewise ultimately fails to prove anything about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world. The story proper runs as follows: a knight enters a large and beautiful hall, and is shortly thereafter greeted by its master, a certain King Gulinus and his retinue, who enter to wild applause, “as if” returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[4] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. In the bed Gulinus had prepared, she and the knight are about to have sex, when he discovers himself instead embracing a “truncum vetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem” [most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk], and his penis—now become a twig—trapped tight in a knot in what had been her body. A servant compounds his misery by hammering away at the knight’s penis for hours on end, simultaneously shredding it and wedging it further into the knot. The Latin here is richly ambiguous: “uirilem uirgam” can mean penis, or, literally, the “male twig”; “truncam” means either a tree trunk or a torso; and, as its modern editors emphasize, the minister who bangs on the knight does so “uiriliter” [like a man]. Gulinus then asks his servants to bring him his “son-in-law [gener].” Gulinus inquires after his well-being, and, when the knight complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers is no better: there, trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few "emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind."

Elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally. A secular man visits a site in Ireland and physically travels through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinarily pain and suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret"[5] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[6] But there are stark differences even here: unlike Peter's story, Gerald promises that any who undergo this suffering will be relieved from any further infernal punishment. No such reward awaits Peter’s unfortunate knight. Finally, the rocky walls of Purgatory hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy, since an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so "thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now."[7] But the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments: these indispensable elements of nearly any other Patrick’s Purgatory story are all missing.

Most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter, as this is where the usual significance of otherworldly torment and genital injury simply fails to apply. The king and daughter are somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[8] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[9] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[10] But Peter of Cornwall's log lady moves in the opposite direction, from beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and finally to hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[11]

For the purposes of this chapter, I am most interested in what happens to the knight's genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[12] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it in in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval textuality more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight's first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for him, as this castration does not work as castration, culturally speaking, because it has lacks the usual frames of sacrifice or punishment. Since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[13] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. Most tellingly, the genital injury happens first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking precedence, except that one – the final one, which is the game, hurts more than the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory. You can’t swing a human-cow hybrid without hitting yet another medieval story of strange bodily transformations and outrageous suffering.[14] What is rare is this framework that promises meaning -- again, in the context of nearly a thousand other, straightforward otherworld visions -- that then disappoints so radically.

In the context of Peter of Cornwall’s larger project, the story makes even less sense. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Though we might collect still other analogues, it remains difficult to comprehend what we were supposed to take away from this story. In this very material otherworld, all there is pain and the transgression of the limits of the body. It would be far easier to work with were it not called a Purgatory and not meant for a purpose to which it is so poorly suited.


The story likely ended up in Peter’s collection because of the grotesque transformations the knight undergoes, because this is what happens in hell. Bodies in heaven tend to be stable. Though some Christian commentators imagine the souls of the blessed as sparks or perfect glowing spheres,[15] or as transparent, without secrets—as they are in the Old English “Christ III” and Blickling Homily 10, or, later in the Middle Ages, Thomas of Cantimpré’s life of Margaret of Ypres[16]—though they are often imagined as being able to fly, or to communicate without speaking, they all still realize the fantasy of bodily integrity. But the damned tend to preserve only enough of themselves to be recognizable as suffering. Mostly they are treated like meat: run through with forks, boiled in cauldrons, swallowed in the hellmouth. In the Carolingian vision of Fulrad, the damned are:
Nam nunc in uno nunc in alio latere vertebatur, nunc supinus nunc prostratus, nunc erectus nunc contractus, nunc sedes nunc iterum iacens, more columbri potius quam hominis anxiando volvebatur
now turned around on this or that flank, now lying face up or face down, now upright, now compressed, now sitting, now lying down again, in anguish, twisting about one another more in the manner of snakes than humans.[17]
Another of Peter of Cornwall’s unique visions has his own grandfather escape an infernal house by scrambling up a set of earthenware jars, which close over his hands, “like pursestrings,” but which he uses later as shields when a crowd of demons pelt him with wood and fire. Though this episode ends with a claim that the visionary explained “all the things that he had seen,”[18] Peter notably omits that explanation, because the strangeness itself may be the point.

Typical methods of meaning-making fail here. We ought not to push too hard to resolve this problem. Nor should we propose that the meaninglessness itself has some greater meaning, which is to say, we ought to avoid the temptation of apophasis, that mystical method of refusing to pin down the presumptively infinite, ungraspable qualities of God—or a text. This elevates meaninglessness into its own master code, and, in the case of Peter of Cornwall’s story, does so with an account of extraordinary suffering.

The main line of the medieval castration discourse presents it as assault on manhood or familial reproduction and all supposed to go with these qualities. A subset of this discourse offers up the gift of castration as purification, an exchange of the genitals for surer participation in the regime of the phallus. The main line of the Saint Peter’s Purgatory tradition belongs to this tradition, though it oddly deviates even from nearly contemporary canon law in offering up auto-castration as admirable behavior for a cleric.[19] But in Peter of Cornwall’s Purgatory tradition, genital injury is just something that happens, the injury that welcomes him into torment, but which otherwise concludes nothing. Our knight probably should not have slept with Gulinus’s daughter, but that may be all we can take from it. Peter provides this story in a seemingly meaningful framework, among a host typical monastic stories of punishment, reward, and spiritual vision, but this episode, alone among both Peter’s collection and the larger purgatorial tradition, refuses the straightforward sense that is otherwise so typical of these kinds of stories.

This senselessness finally suggests a way to refuse to grant castration the importance that it typically demands, which is to say, a story of suffering without redemption of admonition suggests a way to refuse to treat the penis as a phallus. I offer Anna Kłosowska's analysis of the Mater Dolorosa at the foot of the cross, who experiences "suffering without transcendence," because her pain, unlike her son's, solves nothing, cures nothing, redeems nothing.[20] Kłosowska here prefers the mother to the Christ. Maggie Nelson's Art of Cruelty, which argues against the supposed “relationship between injury and fact, clarity and cruelty,” against the notion that truth, good action, knowledge, and least of all good art require revelation, surprise, horror, or destruction, that they require violence to shock us out of our complacency.[21] Without denying the bizarre hilarity of what the knight undergoes, we can think with Kłoswoska and Nelson to propose that the very meaninglessness of the knight's suffering should be preserved as meaningless, and that the best response to his pain may be to refuse to interpret it, and thereby to refuse it the dignity of a sacrifice. He is exchanging nothing for his body. Since all he gets in return is pain, from a obscene father-in-law who never suggests that what he commands is anything but a mean joke, sympathy rather than honor might be the better mood. Though we might trace more and more possibilities of meaning, through increasingly acute psychoanalytic, folkloric, and doctrinal contextualization and analysis, perhaps we ought not to, or at least ought not to with an eye towards resolution: an explanation can often have the force of a theodicy, an attempt to justify suffering according to some master code.

Of course, we can do no good for the knight himself. This is all imaginary. It would probably be foolish to label what I am proposing here as a kind of ethical relationship to this pain. But I do think that Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory offers a chance to critics to rethink the relationship between, on the one hand, narrative pain and peril, and, on the other, the production of meaning. After all, making meaning can seem to align us with the agents of juridical violence and their attempts to confirm the law, and extrajudicial sovereignty, by writing it on the body. There may be some value in asserting that sometimes a castration is just a castration, without the burden or meanings, and protections, insisted upon by either Freudian or monastic anxiety.


[1] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[2] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[3] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[4] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013), 136–37.

[5] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[6] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[7] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[8] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[9] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[10] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[11] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Murray, “Male Embodiment,” 13–14.

[12] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[13] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

[14] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 73–74.

[15] Carol Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 51.

[16] Jackie A. Stodnick and Renée R. Trilling, “Before and After Theory: Seeing through the Body in Early Medieval England,” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 1, no. 3 (2010): 349–51; Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives, trans. Barbara Newman (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), 205.

[17] Karl Hempe, ed., “Eine ungedruckte Vision aus karolingischer Zeit,” Neues Archiv 22 (1897): 629.

[18] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, 209, 211.

[19] See the discussion of discusses Ivo of Chartres (Decretum, PL 161:523D-524A, and Panormia, PL 161:1143C) in  Murphy, “Problem of Being a Eunuch,” 168.69.

[20] Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 35.

[21] Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 95.

2 comments:

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm on a plane right now so don't have access to my books, but another Marie de France guy without genitals is the priest entrusted to guard the lady who has been locked in her tower by the elderly lover in Guigemar. He is described as having a withered member (can't quite remember the French for that) -- but maybe being so old you are a functional eunuch isn't the same as being a eunuch?

Anyway, these are two great, rich posts. Thanks for sharing them Karl.

Karl Steel said...

Oh yeah! That's an odd one, and I wonder how age-related impotence is covered by canon law??? That'd be a rich vein to mine.

Safe travels!