The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero

The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature

Peggy McCracken
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 200
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    The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero
    Book Description:

    In The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero, Peggy McCracken explores the role of blood symbolism in establishing and maintaining the sex-gender systems of medieval culture. Reading a variety of literary texts in relation to historical, medical, and religious discourses about blood, and in the context of anthropological and religious studies, McCracken offers a provocative examination of the ways gendered cultural values were mapped onto blood in the Middle Ages. As McCracken demonstrates, blood is gendered when that of men is prized in stories about battle and that of women is excluded from the public arena in which social and political hierarchies are contested and defined through chivalric contest. In her examination of the conceptualization of familial relationships, she uncovers the privileges that are grounded in gendered definitions of blood relationships. She shows that in narratives about sacrifice a father's relationship to his son is described as a shared blood, whereas texts about women accused of giving birth to monstrous children define the mother's contribution to conception in terms of corrupted, often menstrual blood. Turning to fictional representations of bloody martyrdom and of eucharistic ritual, McCracken juxtaposes the blood of the wounded guardian of the grail with that of Christ and suggests that the blood from the grail king's wound is characterized in opposition to that of women and Jewish men. Drawing on a range of French and other literary texts, McCracken shows how the dominant ideas about blood in medieval culture point to ways of seeing modern values associated with blood in a new light, and how modern representations in turn suggest new perspectives on medieval perceptions.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0275-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Only Women Bleed
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 1975 Alice Cooper released a song entitled “Only Women Bleed.” It is a song about the emotional and physical abuse of women by the men they love, and it is a song that betrays surprisingly medieval-sounding descriptions of gender relations. Here is the first verse:

    Man’s got his woman / to take his seed

    He’s got the power / oh, she’s got the need

    She spends her life through / pleasing up her man

    She feeds him dinner or / anything she can

    She cries alone at night too often

    He smokes and drinks and don’t come home at...

  5. 2 The Amenorrhea of War
    (pp. 21-40)

    Blood and war would seem to be a natural pair—it is hard to imagine a battlefield without blood, as a whole spate of recent movies about World War II have graphically reminded us. Military heroism seems to demand bloodshed, or at least the possibility of bloodshed. But only one kind of blood is conventionally shed in war: men’s blood. To be sure, women are hurt, killed, raped, and wounded in war, but women’s wounds and women’s deaths are usually classed under the heading of atrocities; they are the result of illegitimate violence that takes place outside the battlefield.¹ Legitimate...

  6. 3 The Gender of Sacrifice
    (pp. 41-60)

    In the twelfth-century Philomena attributed to Chrétien de Troyes, one of the changes the author makes to his Ovidian source is his identification of Procne as the murderer of her son.¹ Whereas Ovid recounts that Procne’s sister, Philomena, cuts off Itys’s head, in Chrétien’s rewriting of the story it is the mother, Procne, who kills her son, and the two women then dismember, cook, and feed him to Tereus, Procne’s husband, in revenge for his rape of Philomena. This change is part of what has been identified as a demonization of the character of Procne in Chrétien’s version of the...

  7. 4 Menstruation and Monstrous Birth
    (pp. 61-76)

    In the preceding chapter I claimed that the exclusion of mothers from sacrificial practice corresponds to a particular way of conceptualizing lineage. That is, the gendering of sacrifice corresponds to the gendered hierarchy promoted in representations of blood ties between children and their parents. A child shares its father’s blood, and paternal blood symbolizes the patriarchal privilege to make covenants and to dispose of children. The blood that a child shares with its mother is the blood of parturition, a polluting blood that cannot mark a covenant. Yet although the blood of parturition, or even parturition itself, as we will...

  8. 5 The Scene of Parturition
    (pp. 77-91)

    That a child shares its mother’s blood is made vividly clear in birth: the umbilical cord offers striking evidence that the maternal relationship is a blood relationship. The blood of parturition further demonstrates a child’s origins in its mother’s blood, though the evidence of birth is often unacknowledged in symbolic representations of blood relationships, as anthropologist Brigitta Hanser-Schäublin emphasizes:

    A flow of blood accompanies the delivery of the baby which is covered with its mother’s fluids. It is followed by the afterbirth which is lifeless. In [modern] Western culture blood group factors give the impression that a child inherits its...

  9. 6 The Grail and Its Hosts
    (pp. 92-109)

    This study has focused primarily on the metaphorical or figural meanings of blood in medieval fictions—on the valorization of men’s public bloodshed in contrast to the private and hidden bloodshed of women in the construction of military heroism, and on the way that parental relationships are described with respect to blood. I have argued that the symbolic meanings of blood depend on a valorization of masculine bloodshed that assumes the inability of women’s blood to signify beyond the body.

    Nowhere in medieval culture do the literal and figural meanings of blood come together in a more potent combination than...

  10. Conclusion: Bleeding for Love
    (pp. 110-118)

    In the preceding chapters, I have identified a number of medieval narratives in which blood plays an important role in defining the gendered values that structure the stories they recount. And I have argued that in these representations blood itself comes to be gendered, and to naturalize gendered cultural values. I have examined a range of texts, but this survey has been rather selective; every reader will surely know of at least one prominent representation of blood that I have neglected to discuss. My goal has not been to offer a comprehensive account of the ways in which medieval literary...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 119-154)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 155-172)
  13. Index
    (pp. 173-176)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 177-178)