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Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages

Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages

Edited by Larissa Tracy
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages
    Book Description:

    Castration and castrati have always been facets of western culture, from myth and legend to law and theology, from eunuchs guarding harems to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century castrati singers. Metaphoric castration pervades a number of medieval literary genres, particularly the Old French fabliaux - exchanges of power predicated upon the exchange or absence of sexual desire signified by genitalia - but the plain, literal act of castration and its implications are often overlooked. This collection explores this often taboo subject and its implications for cultural mores and custom in Western Europe, seeking to demystify and demythologize castration. Its subjects include archaeological studies of eunuchs; historical accounts of castration in trials of combat; the mutilation of political rivals in medieval Wales; Anglo-Saxon and Frisian legal and literary examples of castration as punishment; castration as comedy in the Old French fabliaux; the prohibition against genital mutilation in hagiography; and early-modern anxieties about punitive castration enacted on the Elizabethan stage. The introduction reflects on these topics in the context of arguably the most well-known victim of castration in the middle ages, Abelard. Larissa Tracy is Associate Professor of Medieval Literature at Longwood University. Contributors: Larissa Tracy, Kathryn Reusch, Shaun Tougher, Jack Collins, Rolf H. Bremmer Jr, Jay Paul Gates, Charlene M. Eska, Mary A. Valante, Anthony Adams, Mary E. Leech, Jed Chandler, Ellen Lorraine Friedrich, Robert L.A. Clark, Karin Sellberg, Lena Wånggren

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-110-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. List of Contributors
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xi)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  7. INTRODUCTION: A History of Calamities: The Culture of Castration
    (pp. 1-28)
    Larissa Tracy

    The male body is a paradox – at once strong and resilient, yet fragile and vulnerable, arguably even more vulnerable than the female form which has its generative organs safely tucked up inside. Nations have been founded on the virility and power of the male body, but if that virility is lost, empires can be lost with it. Castration is therefore often a conversational taboo; references to it elicit a cringe, a grimace, a protective stance and yet it has been part of the bodily discourse as long as humans have communicated. In the modern age, castration (surgical or chemical)¹...

  8. CHAPTER 1 Raised Voices: The Archaeology of Castration
    (pp. 29-47)
    Kathryn Reusch

    Castration is a topic that both repels and interests, provoking profound feelings of horror and intrigue. Castrates have filled many roles: musician, singer, clergyman, historian, inventor, warrior, general, and advisor. The modern world has been shaped greatly by the influence of castrates, but most people have little to no concept of a castrate’s life, especially when the common belief is that in the modern period all forms of castration have disappeared.² Castrates tend to be the butt of humorous anecdotes, the victims of vicious invective, and the focus of righteous indignation and pity.³ Modern popular depictions of castrates and castration...

  9. CHAPTER 2 The Aesthetics of Castration: The Beauty of Roman Eunuchs
    (pp. 48-72)
    Shaun Tougher

    For Romans, castration was a fact of life. Influenced by the Hellenistic East, the Roman Empire began to consume castrated slaves – eunuchs – from at least the first century bc.¹ A rare account of the operation of castration is provided by a late antique source, the medical encyclopaedia of Paul of Aegina (himself a doctor) composed in the seventh century ad.² In his Epitome of Medicine, Paul describes two methods of castration, one by compression and the other by excision. He writes:

    compression is performed thus: children, still of a tender age, are placed in a vessel of hot...

  10. CHAPTER 3 Appropriation and Development of Castration as Symbol and Practice in Early Christianity
    (pp. 73-86)
    Jack Collins

    When Peter Abelard (1079–1142) was castrated by the order of his wife’s uncle, he turned to the example of Origen of Alexandria, a third-century Church father who purportedly castrated himself in a fit of religious zeal. Abelard argued that his own castration made him a more appropriate teacher for nuns, because it alleviated his sexual tensions and temptations. While scholars continue to debate the accuracy of the traditional account of Origen’s self-castration, Abelard’s understanding of that tradition reflects an ongoing tension within Christianity regarding the role of sexuality in Christian life. This tension is evident in the ways early...

  11. CHAPTER 4 ‘Al defouleden is holie bodi’: Castration, the Sexualization of Torture, and Anxieties of Identity in the South English Legendary
    (pp. 87-107)
    Larissa Tracy

    Castration is a frequent feature of early Christian debates on the purity of the body, but it remained a difficult issue in the pursuit of sanctity, particularly in accounts of male saints and martyrs. As Jacqueline Murray writes, ‘the whole problem of the body was perceived to be located in the male genitals. Once they were removed, it was believed that the problem of lack of control of the flesh would simply disappear.’² As a result of such (well-intentioned) logic, self-castration was practiced among some early Christian theologians, most notably Origen (c. ad 185–254) and Ignatius of Constantinople (ad...

  12. CHAPTER 5 The Children He Never Had; The Husband She Never Served: Castration and Genital Mutilation in Medieval Frisian Law
    (pp. 108-130)
    Rolf H. Bremmer Jr

    For most of the Middle Ages, the Frisians were a people who saw their lives dominated by violence.¹ At least, this is the impression gained by studying their laws. Stretched out along the North Sea coast of present-day Netherlands and Germany, their homeland was threatened by land-hungry powers from without and by feuding from within. The first detailed view of the Frisians’ legal traditions is the result of foreign occupation. In the second half of the eighth century, the Franks had gradually managed to expand their territory to the north at the expense of the Frisians, culminating in their complete...

  13. CHAPTER 6 The Fulmannod Society: Social Valuing of the (Male) Legal Subject
    (pp. 131-148)
    Jay Paul Gates

    A volume of essays taking up the theme of castration invites an exploration of the relationship between the biological and the social, the private and the public. Indeed, the ‘private parts’, those which are kept hidden, are by their very nature not private but social: they can only perform their biological, generative function with another person. A focus not just on the body, but on the male generative organ, raises a number of questions about the human, sexed body and the interpretation of the social role of the biological body: what is its value, how should it be used, who...

  14. CHAPTER 7 ‘Imbrued in their owne bloud’: Castration in Early Welsh and Irish Sources
    (pp. 149-173)
    Charlene M. Eska

    In his 1587 Chronicles, Raphael Holinshed describes the following events surrounding the aftermath of the Battle of Bryn Glas in June of 1402:

    [Y]et neither the crueltie of Tomyris nor yet of Fuluia is comparable to this of the Welshwomen; which is worthie to be recorded to the shame of a sex pretending to the title of weake vessels, and yet raging with such force of fiercenesse and barbarisme. For the dead bodies of the Englishmen, being aboue a thousand lieng vpun the ground imbrued in their owne bloud, was a sight [a man would thinke] greeuous to looke vpon,...

  15. CHAPTER 8 Castrating Monks: Vikings, the Slave Trade, and the Value of Eunuchs
    (pp. 174-187)
    Mary A. Valante

    ‘I asked a group of them about the process of castration, and I learned that the Romaeans castrate their youngsters intended for dedication to the church … When the Muslims raid, they attack the churches and take the youngsters away from them’, says the tenth-century geographer, al-Muqaddasi. He describes Arab raids that deliberately targeted Greek churches and monasteries during his own time, a time when the Greeks castrated some young boys to keep them as singers in the Church, and a time when the Arab world wanted eunuchs.¹ The demand for slaves, including talented and literate non-Muslim eunuchs, was enormous...

  16. CHAPTER 9 ‘He took a stone away’: Castration and Cruelty in the Old Norse Sturlunga saga
    (pp. 188-209)
    Anthony Adams

    Toward the end of Íslendinga saga, the long and bloody narrative that comprises the largest portion of the Old Norse compilation of texts known as Sturlunga saga, Gizurr Þorvaldsson, a man who has been deeply implicated in the ongoing violence, arranges a meeting with Hrafn Oddsson for the purpose of mutilating him. Gizurr (like most of the men and women in the saga) has suffered great personal loss, living on after his wife Gróa is burned alive in their home along with their three sons. The poem he composes after their murder ends with the grim vow that ‘brjótr lifir...

  17. CHAPTER 10 The Castrating of the Shrew: The Performance of Masculinity and Masculine Identity in La dame escolliee
    (pp. 210-228)
    Mary E. Leech

    Seemingly rooted in the shrew-taming tradition, the Old French fabliau La dame escolliee (The Gelded Lady) defies the rules of any genre in which it is placed. As a fabliau, the setting, characters and the disturbingly graphic violence diverge from the usually light-hearted comedy typical of the fabliaux. As a shrew-taming tale, the story breaks several of the genre’s conventions, which generally work to confirm the accepted social order of male dominance and female submission in a marital relationship. In its graphic depiction of a fake castration performed on a woman, La dame escolliee does not restore masculine order and...

  18. CHAPTER 11 Eunuchs of the Grail
    (pp. 229-254)
    Jed Chandler

    The medieval quest for the Holy Grail could only be achieved by a very special man. He should be a virgin, utterly pure, and, according to certain of the early versions of the Grail legend, have a rather unusual gender profile: he may (in short) be castrated. The contextual correspondence between the representations of Perceval’s ‘virgin gender’ in the early Grail cycles and the ‘spiritual eunuchs’ of the early Christian ascetic movement coalesce in sexual wounds. In both of these social contexts, perfect purity is valorized as a transformative grace which renders humans angelic; in both contexts the cultivation of...

  19. CHAPTER 12 Insinuating Indeterminate Gender: A Castration Motif in Guillaume de Lorris’s Romans de la rose
    (pp. 255-279)
    Ellen Lorraine Friedrich

    ‘Castration is a motif running through the Rose’ asserts Sylvia Huot in The Romance of the Rose and Its Medieval Readers.¹ The thirteenth-century Old French Romans de la rose that Huot examines, one of the most popular works of the European Middle Ages, occurs in two parts. The original text, an approximately 4,000-line first-person verse allegory composed by Guillaume de Lorris around 1230, recounts the dream vision quest of the young narrator for the rose he seeks. The continuation, written a generation later by Jean de Meun (c. 1270), amounts to an encyclopedic 17,000-line, often satiric gloss on Guillaume’s Rose...

  20. CHAPTER 13 Culture Loves a Void: Eunuchry in De Vetula and Jean Le Fèvre’s La Vieille
    (pp. 280-294)
    Robert L. A. Clark

    In James Brundage’s compendious Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, there are only two references to eunuchs, although there are considerably more references to the primary way that one becomes a eunuch, that is, castration.¹ In ad 558 Justinian prohibited ‘castration and the making of eunuchs, an oriental practice that had begun to fall into disfavor in the Empire’.² At the opposite end of Christendom and of the medieval period, Brundage reports that on March 9, 1350, an Augsburg judge ruled against nullification of a marriage because the husband, a eunuch (the word used in the text is...

  21. CHAPTER 14 The Dismemberment of Will: Early Modern Fear of Castration
    (pp. 295-313)
    Karin Sellberg and Lena Wånggren

    The works of William Shakespeare often look back from the early modern period upon the sensibilities of the medieval world, illuminating similar anxieties about culture, identity, ethnicity, and gender. In his plays, taboo subjects of medieval literature and history are given centre stage, acted out for an early modern audience coming to grips with its own fraught place in history. Shakespeare’s dramas (Antony and Cleopatra perhaps more explicitly and completely than any other) feature numerous instances of emasculation, yet these are seldom considered in corporeal terms. Recent scholarship on early modern castration shares a number of curious features: the majority...

  22. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 314-344)
  23. Index
    (pp. 345-354)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 355-355)