Covert Operations

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy

Karma Lochrie
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Covert Operations
    Book Description:

    Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book In Covert Operations, Karma Lochrie brings the categories and cultural meanings of secrecy in the Middle Ages out into the open. Isolating five broad areas-confession, women's gossip, medieval science and medicine, marriage and the law, and sodomitic discourse-Lochrie examines various types of secrecy and the literary texts in which they are played out. She reads texts as central to Middle English studies as the "Parson's Tale," the "Miller's Tale," the Secretum Secretorum, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as a broad range of less familiar works, including a gynecological treatise and a little-known fifteenth-century parody in which gossip and confession become one. As she does so she reveals a great deal about the medieval past-and perhaps just as much about the early development of the concealments that shape the present day.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0719-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction, or Dark Matter
    (pp. 1-11)

    My decision to study secrets and practices of concealment in the Middle Ages did not evolve out of the desire to make modern life mysterious and marvelous, as Basil Hallward would have it. Nor did the subject of my project elicit the delight and enthusiasm that Oscar Wilde attributes to the secret. When I was asked what I was writing at a reception toward the end of my work on the project and I explained that it was about medieval secrets, my interrogator responded, “Oh, is that anything like dark matter?” I did not know at the time what dark...

  4. 1 Tongues Untied: Confession and Its Secrets
    (pp. 12-55)

    From Michel Foucault to Genuflex, the Middle Ages-inspired habit of confessing goes New Age. The truth technology of confession — its requirement of secrecy, interrogation, and concealment — has been complemented by the improved technology of the confessional box. Now secrecy is no longer dependent on fallible human discretion alone; instead, our confessions are physically secured from exposure to the world outside. At the same time, ironically, the new confessional, courtesy of Genuflex, dispenses with the outdated secrecy of the screen separating priest from penitent, with its one-way whisperings, in favor of dialogue. Only the screen to protect both subjects...

  5. 2 Tongues Wagging: Gossip, Women, and Indiscreet Secrets
    (pp. 56-92)

    No one understands and exploits the pleasures of keeping and speaking the secret more than Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. The Prologue to her tale is usually identified generically as a literary confession, defined as “a dramatic monologue in which the speaker explains, and often defends, his or her sinful way of life.”² Yet her Prologue is nothing so much as it is gossip transformed from an oral to a written mode of discourse, from a private, covert utterance to public declaration. The slippage from confession to gossip is also tricky and treacherous, as we saw in Chapter 1. By its...

  6. 3 Men’s Ways of Knowing: The Secret of Secrets and the Secrets of Women
    (pp. 93-134)

    What the tribal elder from Ghana knows and keeps hidden becomes powerful only through his withholding of it and holding it over those who are ignorant. Without revealing what he knows, the Ghanaian elder asserts the currency of his power, that is secrecy itself. The act of secrecy, his bald claim suggests, is a social one that draws boundaries between “those who ought to know but do not” and those who know and distributes power between them. In the words of Michel de Certeau, “the hidden organizes a social network” around the acts of withholding and revealing, as well as...

  7. 4 Covert Women and Their Mysteries
    (pp. 135-176)

    The discourse of confession established a site of privacy in the depths of the Christian subject, and it devoted itself to the refinement of the task of interrogating and publicizing this site. The private sphere so carved out by confessional interrogation and presumption of human sinfulness was also the sphere of the secret, the hidden, the deliberately covert. It was the silence that was obligated through confessional rules and practices to speak, to do so endlessly because the extent of the individual’s private sinfulness was limitless, or rather, it was limited only by the individual’s self-deception and deliberate concealment. While...

  8. 5 Sodomy and Other Female Perversions
    (pp. 177-228)

    In the 1997 film Female Perversions, directed by Susan Streitfeld and based on a book of the same title by Louise J. Kaplan, perversions are everywhere. The central character, whose name is not coincidentally Eve (played by Tilda Swinton), is by day a highly successful lawyer who has just been recommended for a judgeship. By night she engages in a multitude of sexual fantasies, dreams, and activities, including an affair with a female doctor. Her sister, Matty (played by Amy Madigan), is defending her dissertation for a Ph.D. in anthropology on the matriarchal tribe of women wrestlers in between bouts...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 229-272)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-286)
  11. Index
    (pp. 287-290)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 291-292)