Saturday, January 16, 2010

Medieval Sex: A Syllabus


"How is it that in a society like ours, sexuality is not simply a means of reproducing the species, the family, the individual? Not simply a means to obtain pleasure and enjoyment? How has sexuality come to be considered the privileged place where our deepest 'truth' is read and expressed? For that is the essential fact: since Christianity, the Western world has never ceased saying, To know who you are, know what your sexuality is. Sex has always been the forum where both the future of our species and our 'truth' as human subjects are decided." (Michel Foucault, 1977 interview)

This semester I am wading into new territory, teaching-wise, with an M.A.-level seminar on sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages. Although I have, for a while now, been doing an awful lot of reading and research in contemporary queer and critical sexuality studies and some reading in critical medieval sexuality studies [primarily, Carolyn Dinshaw, Glenn Burger, Anna Klosowska, Karma Lochrie, James Schultz, Cary Howie, Michael Camille, Jeffrey, Clare Lees, Lara Farina, Tison Pugh], when doing further research for this syllabus, I realized how much scholarship I am not familiar with, and so, this seminar will partly be a crash course in the subject for myself as well as for my students. The syllabus was both fun but also frustrating to put together--for example, why do we not have more scholarship on sex and sexuality in the lais of Marie de France? But then again, what might be missing on my syllabus that I simply don't know about? I've tried to cover different cultural traditions [Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, French, and German] and I've left things out, like Heloise and Abelard, which I am sure many will find strange [but as the Ur-couple of the Middle Ages, they also seem, in my mind, to be "done to death" on syllabi such as these], and also Roman de la rose [partly because I am just not prepared this semester to teach too many texts that would be too new for me]. It was difficult to decide which Chaucer tales to include--the "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "Tale" is the obvious pick, and I did include her, but I have also included the "Man of Law's Tale" as that makes a nice parallel story with the Old English translation of "Apollonius of Tyre," which is where I begin the course. Overall, the the syllabus felt unwieldy to me [and I did a lot of cutting, in the end, that pained me, but I have to be realistic about how much students can read in a week, of course], partly because I am trying to offer "samplings" of four inter-related things, as it were, in this seminar: 1) how sex and sexuality are treated in medieval texts (literary and otherwise), in both "official" and more subversive registers; 2) how sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages are analyzed in contemporary medieval scholarship; 3) how sex and sexuality are historicized in contemporary critical sexuality studies; and 4) how sexuality and sexual identity have been taken up by some contemporary artists [in ways that highlight the complex inter-relations of past and present], such as in the films of Lars von Trier and Pedro Almodovar and also in Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex. I'm likely trying to do too much, but I thought I would share the syllabus here with everyone, and any critical comments you might have for me would be greatly appreciated. Have I overlooked something important or interesting, either primary or secondary text-wise? [Since I'll teach this course again, I'll be more than happy to make major adjustments to the syllabus next time I offer it.] I'm including here, also, a link to the working bibliography for the course, and if there's something I've not included there that you think is important, please let me know and I'll add it.

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Medieval Sex

ENG505 Seminar in Medieval Literature: Working Bibliography


Lara Farina said...

This looks great! I'd love to hear how the students deal with the meshing of the medieval and the contemporary. Can I take this class? :)

Dr. Virago said...

for example, why do we not have more scholarship on sex and sexuality in the lais of Marie de France?

No kidding! I found the same to be true when I was helping undergrads write papers on the topic. Or are we both just not seeing it???

bioephemera said...

Sounds absolutely awesome. I wish I could audit your course! I hope you'll post updates on how it goes.

Eileen Joy said...

LF and Bioephemera: thank for the positive comments; I'll definitely try to blog a bit about the class as it progresses.

Dr. Virago: I have been somewhat amazed by how *little* really interesting scholarship there is out there on issues of gender, embodiment, and sexuality in Marie de France's oeuvre. Given the fabulist and shape-shifting content of much of what goes on in these, this is surprising. As to a glimpse of what that might look like, we have at least Cary Howie's treatment of "Yonec" in his book "Claustrophilia," but it's a slim 7 pages. There was a pretty massive book-length treatment of Marie's oeuvre published in 2003: Howard Bloch's "The Anonymous Marie de France," but I found this wanting in terms of treatment of gender/sexuality themes; then again, Block did also publish the essay, "The Lay and the Law: Sexual/Textual Transgression in the _Lais_ of Marie de France," Stanford French Review 14 (1990): 181-210, but I have not had a chance to read/review that.

theswain said...

As with the other comments, this looks really interesting and I wish I were in it. It's an interesting hole in scholarship though, isn't it?

Nic D'Alessio said...

Hi Eileen, in the middle of dealing with some pretty crazy stuff right now, so will have to write more another time. But check out the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality; it's a special issue on "Desire and Eroticism in Medieval Europe, Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries: Sex Without Sex"

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Let me add to the chorus: this sounds terrific.

When I first came to GW, curricular changes had to be approved via a committee that included a large number of Ancient Farts. My department proposed a graduate seminar on "Topics in Medieval Literature and Culture" and asked me to design a sample syllabus ... which I did, on medieval sexualities. I was hauled in front of the Farts to defend it as belonging in an English Department. No one had advised me -- it struck me as I entered the room --to do a mock syllabus on, say, Medieval Friendship for the approval and then an actual course on Medieval Sexualities once approved. And that's the tack I used, asking them if the former course would be uncontroversial and taking it from there: if friendship fits, why (outside of prudishness or boundary drawing) doesn't sexuality, which is intimate to textuality? Good memories, good memories ...

Though it is later, I have often found Gail Paster's work on the passions and humoral theory immensely helpful in such a course, esp. because she is so literary. Please do post and keep us abreast!

Karl Steel said...

Great story, Jeffrey. Oof.

And great course, Eileen!

I'll echo the wonder that there's so little scholarship on sexuality/sex/desire in Marie. Hell, unless I'm missing it, there's just not a lot written on Marie as compared, say, to Chaucer or Chrétien or Malory or the Pearl poet. Marie's taught just as much as any of these--at least over the last 30 years--or is she? Are English departments still dedicated to teaching only literature written in English?

It's impossible, of course, to get the body of work under control, but I think of some wonderful stuff in, say, Anna Klosowska's Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Yde et Olive, an early 14th-c. work in which two women get married. Any of the versions of Amis and Amilon would be enormously useful, I think. I'm also a fan of the Lai d'Haveloc, as the marriage of Argentille and Haveloc is a wonderful place to complicate students' tendency to contrast political erotics with their own 'authentic' purportedly depoliticized erotic life. Certainly the use of sex to form political unions is one of the peculiarities of medieval sexuality, and perhaps the one most alien to our students!

I think also of the Isle aux Singesses (the Island w/ the Monkey Ladies) in the Roman de Perceforest (discussed by Sylvia Huot, and here, from my notes from her book:

Le Bossu on the Isle aux Singesses. Bossu is a hunchbacked knight in P's court. But he's a good knight. Note that but: how must he overcome it? This episode is like the Jason episode, where he goes to an island, gets reformed into a good knight, and then abandons the woman. His mother gives birth to a hunchback because she's afraid of the court dwarf. Court philosopher convinces his father of this by scientific experiment which, to my mind, crosses animal and human bodies, since he shows that when hen hatches her chicks under the gaze of a hawk, chicks come out colored like the hawk. As a result, all people with bodily defects banished from court! (64). All that is by Le Bossu himself.

Bossu breaks forth in lyric poetry but then remembers that he is a hunchback, and he hates his ugliness. One of the ladies, moved by the song, comes to love him and marries him (65). Bossu then whisked away to a desert island where he is attacked by monkeys. Rescued by a large and very very ugly female monkey, who shows him signs of love. "Le Bossu has thus entered an alien society that offers a farcical parody of chivalric society: the male apes manifest the most extreme violence and aggression, while the female ape is consumed with lustful desire for the foreign knight" (66). "car tant repairay autour de celle singesse que, par la convoitise charnelle qu'elle avoit en ma personne tant seullement, elle engendra ne sçay par quel moien quatre petitz singos dont les deux, aprés ce qu'elle les eut mis sus terre, me ressambloyent assés bien; et amoit trop mieulx ces deux que les autres deux" [for I spent so much time with that female ape that, solely through the carnal lust that she had for my body, she gave birth, I know not how, to four little apes, two of whom, after they were born, resembled me fairly closely; and she liked those two better than the other two] (qtd 66).

Karl Steel said...

Which leads me to a question. You write:
Located at the boundary between the biological and the cultural, human sexuality has been feared for its radical potential to disrupt various structures of human order- and meaning-making, and has been assumed to be a central key to understanding human nature and identity.

And I wonder--w/ Jeffrey's 'thinking w/ animals in the MA' essay in mind--about erotic animals--where certain sexually faithful animals (elephants, e.g.) were deployed in bestiaries to shame humans, and others (hyenas) were 'naturally unnatural' in their sexuality--and also the ways in which thinking about bestiality mutually interacted with thinking about miscegenation.

I wonder what a reading attuned to animal erotics would do with Yvain, for example?

Why did you decide to go w/ the Lars von Trier to start the class? Movies are, of course, a flash point for disagreement, so, really, in the spirit of generosity and fan-gushing (rather than rebuke or scolding!), I offer some of my favorite queer filmic engagements with sex and sexuality from the past century:

1920s The Blue Angel (okay, it was 1930, but close enough)
1930s The Scarlet Empress
1940s Gilda
1950s Written on the Wind
1960s Reflections in a Golden Eye
1970s 3 Women

Karl Steel said...

some runners up

Animal Love
Baby Doll
Duel in the Sun
The Room
Water Drops on Burning Rocks

Karl Steel said...

Here's the likely source (google books link for pdf) for the story of the dwarf and the monkeywife:

"The Emperour was hungry, bicause he had̛ not eten̛ of aƚƚ day; he toke an Iren̛, and smote fire of a stone, and araied̛ hym flessℏ, and Ete, and dranke watir of the floode; and so he lay aƚƚ nyght witℏ the lyon̛. ¶ on the day folowyng he lept on his palfray, and rode aƚƚ day, and coude fynde no goyng out of the forest, wherfore he was hevy and sory. ¶ Efte sones he went to the lyons denne, but he found̛ not the lyon̛; and agayn̛ Even̛ come a female Bere to hym; and whan he sawe her, he was gretely aferd̛. but the Bere made hym chere in her maner, and of the pray that she had̛ goten̛ and take, she layed̛ it before hym. he smote fire, and araied̛ it, and ete; and after that he had̛ eten̛, thei layen̛ bothe to-gedre. and the Emperour knew her flesshly, and she brought fortℏ a sone, like the Emperour. than the Emperour wold̛ have fled̛, but he durst not, for the bere; [leaf 28, back] But efte sones he knew her, and she brought forthe the seconde sone, that also was like the Emperour. ¶ The third̛ tyme he knew her, and she brought forthe a doughtir, that was like the modir, the bere. that sawe the Emperour, and was wondir sory. ¶ It fille on a day, that whan the Bere was ferre gone, for to take her praye, the Emperour toke his .ij. sones, that he had̛ goten̛ of the Bere, witℏ hym, and fledde; and whan he was in fleyng, The lyon̛, that he hadde heled̛ before, come agayn̛ hym, and ledde hym out of the forest. ¶ The Bere come home, and whan she found̛ not the Emperour, she ranne fast witℏ her doughtir. and [whan] she sawe the lyon̛ by hym, she was aferde, and durst not come nere hym; but toke her doughtir, and rent her aƚƚ to peces, and went agayn̛ to her place."

This might be fun to teach with Yvain.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks, everyone, for these further comments and prods to re-thinking this syllabus. I've actually just added "Amis and Amiloun," thanks to the link Karl provided--I had wanted to include that to begin with but couldn't locate the online text, for whatever reason [I should have just gone directly to the TEAMS website, but idiotically didn't think of that].

Thanks, also, Nic, for the tip about the recent issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality--I did not know about that issue and had only browsed the issues available through JSTOR, which has a significant lag time from print to online database. But I also don't see the table of contents for that issue on the journal's own website--is it available somewhere else, such that I could browse it?

Thanks, also, Karl for the movie suggestions. I chose Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves" for several reasons, primarily having to do with my own research relative to the paper I will be presenting at the NCS meeting in Siena in July on Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale" and von Trier's film. First, ever since reading Simon Gaunt's "Love and Death in Medieval French and Occitan Courtly Literature: Martyrs to Love" [Oxford, 2006], I've been very interested in exploring further Gaunt's provocative question, "Do courtly lovers make love . . . into a risky simulacrum of religion?" Further, Gaunt is interested in exploring the relation between death and love in the western tradition, and what might be at stake--ethically, politically, symbolically--in their association. I am particularly interested, as is Gaunt, in the role that sacrifice plays in western European thinking about desire/love, and who it is that actually dies/has to die, also the ways in which certain models of sacrificial desire, held together in language (chiefly poetry), act as a symbolic lure, and how, as Gaunt writes,

"women have an ethical system imposed upon them in the troubadour lyric, one which, in romance, requires them to make the supreme sacrifice for love, while men often merely talk about it. Queer desires, on the other hand, barely seem to register in many courtly texts. But, in dying in inappropriate or troublesome ways, some women and queers may uncover the insidious lure of a symbolic order in which men bleat endlessly about their willingness to die for love while walking all over women." [p. 210]

I chose "Breaking the Waves," because, similar to Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale" and also "The Man of Law's Tale" [which we'll be reading], and also to the hagiographic tradition [specifically, stories of virgin martyrs], the movie tells a narrative that entwines sexuality, sacrificial desire, and sanctification, and in ethically troubling ways. Related to this, the film also helps raise provocative questions, very much related to the medieval materials, about the relations between sex, violence, and self-renunciation. If that makes any sense.

Karl Steel said...

I love the questions you're posing from Gaunt, as they plug in so well with queer theory, as I understand it, so much of which has to do with renegotiating or evading our longstanding cultural belief in the necessary relationship between suffering and virtue, suffering and authenticity, and thus death and love. What does a nonsacrificial love look like? Lord knows, Lars von Trier has no idea. But I think it might look like like Lancelot's love, at least as it appears in Chrétien's Le Chevalier de la Charette [however truncated he left it] rather than in the catastrophic version of the prose romances).

Such love might have to be completely antisocial (which is, again, how I read Lancelot) or it might be one that forms a new community (which might be how I read Yvain and his lion: what's that line from..Duras?...about 2 lovers looking out at the world?). Obviously, I need to read some Muñoz and Snediker.

women have an ethical system imposed upon them in the troubadour lyric, one which, in romance, requires them to make the supreme sacrifice for love, while men often merely talk about it

well, it's not a lyric, but Amis and Amilon is a nice counterexample, since here we have a knight sacrificing his children, his future, for love of a fellow knight.

(by the way, does Gaunt talk about opera?)

Bavardess said...

Your course looks fantastic. It's great to see this kind of in-depth focus on medieval sexualities. I'm currently engaged in some historical research that examines the deployment of discourses of sodomy for political purposes in the 14-15thC. My source materials are mainly 'official' records (parliamentary petitions etc.) rather than literary sources, but I've also been reading many of the same works on queer/gender theory you cite in your bibliography. One article you may want to take a look at - which I've found to be an important supplement (and in some instances corrective) to the discussions of sodomy/homosexuality in Boswell, Jordan, Frantzen & Dinshaw - is Karma Lochrie's "Presumptive sodomy and its exclusions", Textual Practice 13(2), 1999, pp. 295 - 310.

Anonymous said...

EJ, this is a terrific course. Thanks for sharing the outline and the working bibliography.

There is a newish essay by Steven Kruger called "Queer Middle Ages" which appears in the Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory (Ashgate, 2009) edited by Noreen and myself. You might want to take a look at it.


Anonymous said...

I know this is primarily a literature course, but in the spirit of interdisciplinarity I just thought I'd mention an article by Martha Easton: Medieval Erotic Art and its Audiences. The first issue of Different Visions has a number of other articles pertaining to sex and gender in the MA as well.

Eileen Joy said...

Bavardess: thanks for the nod to the Karma Lochrie article, which I did not know about. I have added it to the course's Working Bibliography.

Thanks, also, to anonymous for the tip to the article in "Different Visions"--I *do* want the course to not be contained within literary studies only [hence the inclusion of Michael Camille, for art history, and Myra Hird, for science studies/feminist theory, Bersani & Dutoit for film studies/cultural theory, Joan Cadden for history of medicine, Bynum for history of religion, etc.], so this is a great lead, vis-a-vis the issue of "Different Visions." Also, your mention of the spirit of interdisciplinarity reminds me that there is some excellent work in archaeology on sex & gender in the Middle Ages, and I wish now that I had included something on the syllabus from that field [aargh--maybe next time].

Karl: while I certainly agree with you that Lancelot's love for Guinevere, as written by Chretien, is certainly anti-social, does it really escape the sacrificial scheme? En route to finding Guinevere, he debases himself [by getting into the cart], practically shreds himself to death [on sword bridge], and tears himself up getting into her room, finally. What do you think? In this sense, he is the 'queer' of the text, perhaps, in that he shows some of the ludicrous excesses of the symbolic system by taking things to an extreme. Of course, Jeffrey's essay "Masoch/Lancelotism" is instructive on this point.

Eileen Joy said...

MOR: thanks much for the tip on the Steven Kruger essay which I did not know about! I will also add that to my bibliography for the course [the whole Ashgate book, that is].

Karl Steel said...

does it really escape the sacrificial scheme?
Oh, duh. You're right. I was equating the antisociality w/ the refusal of sacrifice...dunderheadedly. That said, I was thinking of the absence of the Artur-dammerung that more or less concludes Malory. In Chrétien, L&G's love doesn't destroy everyone (maybe just because he and his continuator didn't really finish the story); elsewhere, it does. For what it's worth!

MOR: would love get my hands on that Ashgate Research Companion. Sounds great!

Nic D'Alessio said...

I've already posted this information on Eileen's facebook page, but for everyone else's sake, the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Sexuality I referenced (19.1 [ Jan 2010]) is available through Project Muse. Here's the link to view the table of contents ...

(I haven't had the chance to read through this thread, so I'm sorry if I'm duplicating this information)

Lara Farina said...


Maybe Marie de France could be best framed by a more general discussion of the 12th-century craze for Ovid. Or by Ovid himself. (I pretty much take every opportunity I can to teach The Metamorphoses, so I realize I'm partial.) In this vein, Kristeva's Tales of Love is still very provocative, though it makes students' heads hurt.

Also, Sachi Shimomura's book, Odd Bodies and Visible Ends, has some interesting stuff to say about the body and teleology in Romance, which could be useful in thinking about sex and teleology.

Nic, thanks for the heads up about the journal issue; i wasn't aware of it.


Anonymous said...

There is an essay on troubadour lyrics in my colleague Nichola McDonald's (ed) Medieval Obscenities (Boydell and Brewer)

Paul Halsall said...

Although Abelard and Heloise may have been "done to death" in other syllabuses, I see no reason not to include them.

When you teach your responsibility is to your students, not academic novelty. If your students have encountered the A/H text before hand, then fine, but if they have not, they need to be covered.

The situation seems comparable to a history professor teaching introductory Ancient Greek history and concentrating entirely on the Hellenistic period "because the 4th and 5th centuries have been covered enough." They have not, of course, been covered for any new students, and it is fundamentally inauthentic to avoid the classical topics just to be modish.

I know this is judgemental, but English and literary faculty seem to value modishness over authenticity in what they teach.

Eileen Joy said...

Paul: while I appreciate you pointing out some good reasons why I might have included Heloise and Abelard on the syllabus, please don't accuse me of doing things for the sake of "modishness"--that's incredibly offensive and insulting. As a teacher yourself, you must be fully aware that one can never have 100% comprehensive coverage of any subject, historical or otherwise and certain choices have to be made. Also, if you read my syllabus from top to bottom, you will see many, many texts [primary and critical] that come from very traditional and highly respected sources. Two of the most important critical readings on my syllabus are from Joan Cadden and Ruth Mazo Karras, two highly respected HISTORIANS. We can disagree about methodological and other approaches to our subject matter, but can we at least respect the fact that we are each trying to do our job in the most ethical manner possible [and not for the sake, supposedly, of being "hip" or cool or cutting-edge or whatever--BUT: speaking of which, what's wrong with trying to lead an edge, in ANY field--someone's got to "look ahead," as it were, or knowledge doesn't get anywhere and this sometimes entails certain risks, errors, blunders, etc.]? Also, the idea that historical studies are somehow more "serious" or "rigorous" than literary studies has become such a tiresome, cliched, and overly prejudiced [and just plan wrong] attitude, that I don't know why you keep trotting it out, here and elsewhere.