Monday, March 06, 2006

Blood and medieval identity

Although I reviewed this book quite a while ago, I found myself returning to it in thinking about medieval intermarriage and the disappearance of the mother. When the Trojan exile Brutus marries the Greek princess Ignoge in the History of the Kings of Britain, for example, it doesn't seem to matter that their children will carry an enemy inheritance in their bodies. Much of the time in medieval texts it seems to be only the race or ethnicity of the father that determines the identity of the offspring. I like McCracken's book for many reasons, but most recently for its clear argument of why the mother's blood returns in her children to tell a story that can't be overwritten by the father.

H-France Review Vol. 3 (December 2003), No. 137

Peggy McCracken, The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. xii + 178 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $38.95 U.S. (cl). ISBN 0-8122-3713-7.

Review by Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University.

Any new book in medieval studies that begins by quoting heavy metal from the 1970s (an Alice Cooper song from 1975, no less) is a brave work. Peggy McCracken's The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero is not just daring (examining a variety of blood-related topics which have not been widely investigated by scholars, especially those who specialize in literature); it is also refreshingly original.

McCracken argues that blood is a substance that signifies differently according to the gender of the body from which it issues. Women's blood, especially when associated with menstruation or parturition, tends to be represented as abject, enfeebling, and proper only to private spaces. Men's blood, especially when it flows on the battlefield or in the veins of progeny, is regarded as powerful, identity-giving, and suitable for public celebration. Yet there are deep ambivalences in the social coding of what was to the medieval mind a fundamental biological substance. "The curse of Eve" (as Peter Abelard called menstruation) might produce a cure for leprosy or purge the feminine body of harmful excesses; the bleeding male body could become feminized. Medieval literature, McCracken argues, tends to uphold the valorization of masculine blood over feminine but can also at times undermine dominant gender values.

This short book is composed of a preface, six chapters, and a conclusion. Each explores a different literary representation of blood. Although the texts that McCracken examines largely derive from England and France in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, her comparative method allows her to range widely through space and time. The first chapter, "Only Women Bleed," traces the linking of women's menstrual blood to suffering. In Chrétien de Troyes's Chevalier de la charrete, for example, Lancelot bleeds on Guenevere's bed during their clandestine lovemaking. When the bloody sheets are revealed and the queen is accused of adultery, Guenevere argues that she must have suffered a nocturnal nosebleed. If she is going to lie, McCracken wonders, why does she not claim that she has had her period? The impossibility of asserting such a straightforward explanation leads McCracken to meditate on the absence of menstruation in medieval romance. As it turns out, "in the world organized by battles and the exchange of women between knights, only men bleed" (p. 13)--that is, only men experience a sanguineous efflux that has social consequences, such as the acclamation of heroism in battle.

"The Amenorrhea of War" (chapter two) explores why women are "naturally" excluded from warfare, the goriest of public spaces. A scene from the Ridley Scott film G. I. Jane in which Demi Moore's character "suffers" amenorrhea (loss of a monthly period) as a result of her combat training allows McCracken to remark how biology must be transcended (and femininity abjected) to allow a female body into battle. A similar removal from corporeality and desire attends the representation of most women warriors, especially cross-dressing heroines both fictional (Roman de Silence) and historical (Joan of Arc). From this analysis, McCracken concludes that such representations exist to demonstrate that women are "unsuited to leadership in battle" (p. 26), an incompatibility revealed in the blood of menstruation as well as of parturition.

Why is it that when a father is willing to kill his child the act can be accounted sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jephthah and his daughter), but a mother's infanticide is always murder? "The Gender of Sacrifice" (chapter three) investigates literary depictions of parents murdering children: Philomena in the twelfth-century French poem bearing her name, Abraham in Le Mistére du Viel Testament, the Amicus and Amelius legends, in which a father sacrifices his own children to wash the leprosy from his male friend. Paternal blood, McCracken writes, is shared with the offspring, making a woman's killing of a child an offense directed against that child's father; maternal blood, on the other hand, is imagined to be shed at the scene parturition, a "suppression of the mother's bleeding body" (p. 60).

Monsters tend to arise at social borders, policing what is permitted and what is illicit. Not surprisingly, they were associated with the stigma placed on women's blood. Contrary to the directness of its title ("Menstruation and Monstrous Birth"), chapter four examines not menstrual blood in its relation to monstrosity but "a menstrual logic" that clusters around negative depictions of maternal bloodlines. In works such as Le roman du comte d'Anjou and Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale," worries about a mother's impure (non-noble) blood allow a lie about her having given birth to a monster to be believed. This denigration of maternal inheritance seldom works for long, however, and does implicitly acknowledge the intimate and enduring connection between the bodies of mother and child (even while rendering that intimacy a threat). Post-partum purification rituals, mandating that a mother be blessed at church after a mandatory "lying in" (gesine) of a month, likewise devalue the mother's blood, this time by rendering it a taint that needs ecclesiastical purification.

"The Scene of Parturition" (chapter five) continues this investigation into the dangers imagined to be posed to patriarchal culture by the corporeal bond between mother and child. Here, McCracken reads the construction and subsequent violation of feminine privacy zones, most notably in Le roman de Mélusine. In Jean d'Arras's romance, a fairy-descended mother forbids her husband from ever viewing her at her bath; when he violates the taboo he beholds her as half-woman, half-serpent. McCracken argues that the interdiction that has in fact been violated is against the witnessing of menstruation (another kind of "bodily transformation" [p. 83]). She then turns to an examination of the prohibition of men being present at the scene of birth, especially as a parturition episode is worked out in three versions of the Beves of Hampton story. Because birth scenes underscore "the fragility of the figural values associated with paternity," McCracken concludes, "the scene of birth is always monstrous" (p. 91).

A disharmony between literal and symbolic meanings of blood is often witnessed in representations of childbirth. A similar interpretive knot may be seen in the Grail romances, where a magical chalice is represented as bearing the blood of Christ. This divine substance is also associated with that flowing from the grail's keeper, a wounded (often castrated) king. A close reading of Perlesvaus and the Estoire de saint graal allow McCracken to discern in these narratives an intricate linking of conversion, conquest, and embodiment--seen, for example, when a Saracen woman is cured of a bloody flow upon becoming a Christian. This miracle enables McCracken to invoke a category that has been haunting her analysis all along but had yet to be invoked, race. Male Jews were often thought to experience a menstrual-like bleeding, a fundamental difference in biology that set them bodily apart from Christians, rendering their blood similar to that of women. A closing section returns to the vagina-like wound of the Grail keeper, arguing that this king's efflux ultimately suggests the "occasional inadequacy of gendered categories to describe bodies and blood" (p. 109). A brief conclusion entitled "Bleeding for Love" reiterates the main theses of the book, reads a rich scene of bloodletting in Marie de France's Equitan, and asserts that although blood tends to be gendered in predictable and discouraging ways, literature can sometimes "intervene" in this system of representation to question its "legitimacy" and "values" (p. 117).

The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero is an ambitious work, provocative and wide-ranging. There are times, however, when it is not well served by its own brevity. For example, even though I admire McCracken for her comparative methodology (at least in the early chapters; the second half of the book is rather more circumscribed in discipline and geography), the danger of a comparative method is that there is likely to be more within the field or body of literature to which one alludes than can be covered in a few pages of reference. In chapter two McCracken turns to Old Irish myth to discover all kinds of negative representations of women, war, and bodily function. She focuses mostly on Medb, the warrior queen who proves herself superior to the men of Ulster until during battle she finds herself incapacitated by her period. McCracken connects this episode with the unforgettable scene when the otherworldly woman Macha gives birth to twins during a running contest, an event that causes her to curse the Ulstermen with the recurring labor pangs that came to be their definitive mark. This second episode seems to me rather like the bloody sheets scene from Chrétien, where McCracken focuses so much on Guenevere and menstruation that she nearly neglects the source of the blood, the torn (post-virginal?) body of Lancelot. Macha's curse effects a fundamental bodily transformation of the Ulaid (men of Ulster), making them suffer repeatedly the pain of parturition. This is well-deserved justice for their unfeeling treatment of pregnant Macha and seems to offer an alternative to the denigration of birth scenes McCracken explores elsewhere. Compared to the women in most of the works which McCracken examines, women are quite differently portrayed in the Irish sources, exhibiting a potential for valorized "masculine" behavior that makes them rather similar to the women of Old Norse texts. The great hero Cu Chulainn, for example, is trained in Scotland by the matriarch Scáthach and has his only son with the warrior princess Aífe; these women appear to offer an undemeaned alternative to Demi Moore, Silence, and Joan of Arc. A similar criticism could be advanced for McCracken's treatment of the Jewish choice of taking their lives 'al qiddush ha-Shem rather than be forcefully converted by crusaders at Mainz in 1096. The episode is so tersely narrated that it lacks context, especially because its depictions of women's blood are as highly literary as any found in the texts examined at more length in the book.

As McCracken herself admits, the problem with writing a selective book on a capacious topic is that most readers will find that some favorite scene of flowing blood has been omitted (p. 111). I do not mean to judge her work for what it might have been rather than for what it is, especially because it is such a valuable contribution to gender studies, medieval studies, and corporeal theory. The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature is a fascinating, lively, entertaining book. Built upon solid scholarship and proceeding through nuanced close readings of an impressive range of texts, it is a work that anyone interested in feminism, the history of the body, and the historical complexities of human identity will want to read.


Karl Steel said...

I know it’s probably outside the scope of her (brief) book since it’s not about blood, but does McKracken discuss cannibalism? Would I be right in saying that among Christian infanticides only women kill their own children for cannibalism? Men do kill children for cannibalism (the teenage serial killer in Poggio Bracciolini's tale collection comes to mind), but the cannibal-siege or famine topos of killing one’s own children I believe involves only women.

I think this link between women and cannibalism probably is a response to the anxiety of birth, of new life being created from the woman’s body. Maternal cannibal infanticide, then, is a monstrous reversal or undoing of birth that reveals birth itself as monstrous. I think if I wanted to look at this further, I’d find significance in the fact (?) that this m.c.i. takes place only (?) with unweened children, that is, children that are feeding on their mother's body (depending on how mother's milk was thought about....).

However I don’t know how I’d work this in with Jewish infanticide, but I think we might have another instance of Jews being feminized. We have on the one hand Jewish mass suicide as a kind of cannibalism: From my notes:

"Hebrew chronicles of the first Crusade recount incident after incident of Jews killing their young when the enemy is at the door, and sacrificial imagery is used to describe these infanticides. One account describes a mother's slaughter of her children in terms even more evocative of the haggadah pictures. She 'spread her sleeve to receive the blood; she received the blood in her sleeve instead of in the vessel for blood.' Thus, as early as the martyrologies of the First Crusade, the bowl signified the association of martyrdom with animal sacrifice" David J. Malkiel, "Infanticide in Passover Iconography." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 56 (1993), 93.

Now, the imagery Malkiel discusses is Jewish-produced imagery, but I can imagine how readily Xians would have made use of this imagery for their own antisemitism.

On the other hand, we have Jewish men—and exclusively the men?—involved in quasi-cannibalism with Xian children. But if I’m seeing Christian m.c.i. as a monstrous undoing of birth, I can’t make the connection—which is probably kind of dull, anyhow—between feminized Jewish cannibal infanticides (since these murderous Jews typically kill adolescents, anyhow) and Christian cannibal infanticides.

On Jewish male menstruation, have you seen/do you have an opinion on Willis Johnson, "The Myth of Jewish Male Menses," Journal of Medieval History 24 (1998): 273-95? If I recall correctly, Johnson makes a very convincing case that we have a case of recurrent anal hemorrhaging and not something feminizing. I'd say (or does Johnson say this?), this bleeding still feminizes the male Jew, as it is an efflux that is unwilled, hidden, shameful, and polluting. So, as you said, "menstruation-like bleeding."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Interesting observation -- I'd never really thought of the gender of cannibalism. The only instance I can think of quickly of a man eating kids involves a monster: Geoffrey of Monmouth's giant of Mont Saint Michel, who also happens to be a Saracen. Anyway, McCracken does not -- so far as I remember -- tackle cannibalism, but much of what she writes about maternal blood and birthing anxieties does resonate with the set of equations you've articulated.

Jewish infanticide is, from a Jewish point of view, heroic in these chronicles: the woman you mention (she's called Rebecca in the text -- I think that means she is a type rather than a historical individual) who sacrfices her kids at Mainz is inhuman, but in the same way that Christian saints are: she's meant to be an inspiration. I have quite a bit of bibliography on these Hebrew chronicles and their narratrion of martyrdom if you want it.

A good question, though, is how these sacrifices would have come across to the Christians. My own guess is that they traumatized them ("Who in their right mind would kill themselves and their families rather than convert to the One Religion??"). It has been argued (Yuval) that these martyrdoms may in fact be the seed behind the Christian fantasy of the blood libel.

Finally, on Jewish male bleeding: I know the Willis Johnson piece very well and like it. Did you know that Johnson left the profession of medieval studies towork at Microsoft? He had been working on a new edition of Thomas of Monmouth's Life of Saint William for the Oxford Medieval Latin texts series. I fear that means no new edition will be forthcoming for the foreseeable future.

Karl Steel said...

Perhaps W. Johnson can pass the necessary new edition off onto someone making less money?

On the giant of Mt St Michel, remember, though, when Arthur meets him, the giant's face is smeared with pig blood: go figure. I'm doing a little something with this in Chapter 2, mostly via Heng and (shhh) you.

I'd love to see that bib for use maybe next year, as I elected months ago to save the Jewish stuff for a post-diss project.

Ah, thanks for reminding me of the Yuval: I couldn't remember his name. His stuff is only in Hebrew, right? Strikes me that the Jewish heroic suicides* would have been, certainly, traumatic, even for the Xians, but these Xians could have may hay from this trauma too, spinning the heroic Jewish sacrificial angle by focusing on the scriptural memory that Jewish (animal) sacrifice produces meat.

* Now, the Jews who did this got the idea from Josephus's Masada story, I presume. If the idea came to them from Masada, there's something a bit odd there, since, iirc, archaeological evidence suggests that the narrative of Masada (once popularized in this country in a made-for-TV-movie?) isn't, literally speaking, true: no surprise there for premodern historiography. I suppose we have something akin to the mortificatory excesses of Xians who imitate (wholly fictional accounts of) hagiography. Some kind of...thickness of time thing, or something in which the ritual murder charge follows a logic akin to an après-coup?

Anonymous said...

Hi, JJC and Karl. This is slightly off topic, but, after reading this conversation, i find myself thinking a lot about the implicit "body" theory of the SD law banning abortion. from the text of the law:

"Terms used in this Act mean:
'Pregnant,' the human female reproductive condition, of having a living unborn human being within her body throughout the entire embryonic and fetal ages of the unborn child from fertilization to full gestation and child birth;

'Unborn human being,' an individual living member of the species, homo sapiens, throughout the entire embryonic and fetal ages of the unborn child from fertilization to full gestation and childbirth;

'Fertilization,' that point in time when a male human sperm penetrates the zona pellucida of a female human ovum.

i wonder how such a definition deals with the process of birth? Birth seems less monstrous, an almost mundane collapse of inner/outer boundaries of the mom's or fetus' (or, in their terms, unborn living human) bodies.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That's the amazing thing about "events" like the mass suicides at Masada: even if they never really happened, or never happened in the way they were later imagined to have happened, they have profound and material consequences that include loss of human lives in imitation or as "effect." Crazy!

And speaking of crazy: h.d, I wish I had something articulate to say about your post. I don't. My response can't rise up much past the emotional: I hate to think that my daughter will grow up in a world constricting for women.

Karl Steel said...


No time--and perhaps no brains--to respond to your comment as it deserves, but you're right, birth does end up seeming less monstrous than pregnancy and what the South Dakota law tries to do with it. They've a desire to mark not only the fetus but the just-fertilized ovum as a person that--or is it 'who'?--must be qualified by adding the adjective "unborn."

Their beliefs would seem to make this adjective supererogatory; but it's not, and they know it, and the very clumsiness of this adjective demonstrates that our ethics have no language--or is that 'our language has no ethic'?--to handle the peculiar moral status of the "unborn person." Something that language must but cannot comprehend, something that slides out from under definition, is ipso facto monstrous, yeah?

By the way, if you want to hear a reactionary's head explode...