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Sexual Culture in the Literature of Medieval Britain

Sexual Culture in the Literature of Medieval Britain

Amanda Hopkins
Robert Allen Rouse
Cory James Rushton
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 200
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    Sexual Culture in the Literature of Medieval Britain
    Book Description:

    It is often said that the past is a foreign country where they do things differently, and perhaps no type of "doing" is more fascinating than sexual desires and behaviours. Our modern view of medieval sexuality is characterised by a polarising dichotomy between the swooning love-struck knights and ladies of romance on one hand, and the darkly imagined and misogyny of an unenlightened "medieval" sexuality on the other. British medieval sexual culture also exhibits such dualities through the influential paradigms of sinner or saint, virgin or whore, and protector or defiler of women. However, such sexual identities are rarely coherent or stable, and it is in the grey areas, the interstices between normative modes of sexuality, that we find the most compelling instances of erotic frisson and sexual expression. This collection of essays brings together a wide-ranging discussion of the sexual possibilities and fantasies of medieval Britain as they manifest themselves in the literature of the period. Taking as their matter texts and authors as diverse as Chaucer, Gower, Dunbar, Malory, alchemical treatises, and romances, the contributions reveal a surprising variety of attitudes, strategies and sexual subject positions. Amanda Hopkins teaches in English and French at the University of Warwick; Robert Allen Rouse is Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; Cory James Rushton is Associate Professor of English at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Contributors: Aisling Byrne, Anna Caughey, Kristina Hildebrand, Amy S. Kaufman, Yvette Kisor, Megan G. Leitch, Cynthea Masson, Hannah Priest, Samantha J. Rayner, Robert Allen Rouse, Cory James Rushton, Amy N. Vines

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-302-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction A Light Thrown upon Darkness: Writing about Medieval British Sexuality
    (pp. 1-12)

    THE hit HBO cable seriesGame of Thrones(2011–14) – the fantasy-medieval saga based on George R. R. Martin’sSong of Ice and Firenovels – has provided more than its fair share of salacious sex scenes. Rape, marital rape, attempted rape, prostitution, group sex, sodomy (of both heterosexual and homosexual forms), incest, sex leading to castration, sex leading to leech-application, and even – occasionally – vanilla consensual sex, have appeared on the screen in the first four seasons of the show. The show, while generally well reviewed, has come under sustained criticism from certain sectors of the media...

  4. 1 ‘Open manslaughter and bold bawdry’: Male Sexuality as a Cause of Disruption in Malory’s Morte Darthur
    (pp. 13-26)

    AS Roger Ascham famously observed, Malory’sMorte Darthuris primarily concerned with ‘open manslaughter, and bold bawdry’.¹ I would not disagree; in fact, I would say that these themes are not only dominant but are inextricably interwoven. Male sexuality, in Malory, is consistently portrayed as potentially violent and disruptive, dangerous not only to individuals but to the whole structure of society, and therefore in need of controlling measures. The medieval world did not, of course, often portray any form of sexuality positively. Sexual desire leads both men and women to sin: both directly in committing fornication, incest and adultery, and...

  5. 2 Erotic (Subject) Positions in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale
    (pp. 27-38)

    SCHOLARLY assessments of Chaucer’s fabliaux seldom acknowledge that these tales are erotic as well as funny; even less frequently do such investigations delve into why fabliaux are a source of pleasure. As Tom Hanks and W. W. Allman note in their article ‘Rough Love: Notes toward an Erotics ofThe Canterbury Tales’, scholars seem ‘to have averted their gaze when Chaucer’s characters leap into bed’.¹ Allman and Hanks, as their title implies, study an erotics of violence, mostly of men doing violence to women, and they focus in particular on theMerchant’s Taleand its ‘erotics of stabbing’.² A more...

  6. 3 Enter the Bedroom: Managing Space for the Erotic in Middle English Romance
    (pp. 39-54)

    IN the late fifteenth-centurySquire of Low Degree, the incompetent protagonist woos a Hungarian princess in a way that seems to subject the romance genre to derivative, almost parodic, excess. This excess, however, offers particular insight into the representation of wooing in Middle English romance more broadly. While many romance heroines assume their suitors will display knightly prowess to win their love, this princess seems so aware of the Squire’s shortcomings that she explains to him precisely what he must do, focusing on the rather boy-scout-like logistics of riding ‘Over hylles and dales, and hye mountaines, / In wethers wete,...

  7. 4 ‘Naked as a nedyll’: The Eroticism of Malory’s Elaine
    (pp. 55-68)

    IN her 2007 essay ‘“Wordy vnthur wede”: Clothing, Nakedness and the Erotic in some Romances of Medieval Britain’, Amanda Hopkins examines the interplay of clothing and nudity in creating erotic moments, noting the connection of eroticism with female aggression on the one hand, and the erotic link between female nudity and passivity on the other.² Lancelot’s encounter with Elaine at Corbyn in Malory’sMorte Darthuris marked by erotic moments featuring female nudity that appear emblematic of the latter. The eroticism of the moment when Lancelot rescues the ‘dolerous lady’ (2.791)³ from the boiling water by taking her by the...

  8. 5 ‘How love and I togedre met’: Gower, Amans and the Lessons of Venus in the Confessio Amantis
    (pp. 69-84)

    GOWER’S poetry has more often been associated with the moral than the erotic, courtesy of Chaucer’s provocative description in Troilus and Criseyde. Studies such as Diane Watt’sAmoral Gowerhave gone some way to counteract this, and open up the range of Gower’s discourses on the political, ethical and erotic issues of his time.¹The Confessio Amantisconnects directly and frankly through the persona of Amans with the tensions age brings to lust and love. Venus may tell Amans that ‘Loves lust and lockes hore / In chamber acorden neveremore’, but the Confessio shows us Gower understood the complexities of...

  9. 6 ‘Bogeysliche as a boye’: Performing Sexuality in William of Palerne
    (pp. 85-98)

    THE Middle English alliterative verseWilliam of Palerne(sometimes known by its early title,William and the Werewolf) is a fourteenth-century translation of the Old FrenchGuillaume de Palerne. Both the English and French narratives tell the interlinked stories of William, a prince of Palerne, who escapes from the plotting of his murderous uncle with the help of a benevolent werewolf, and of Alphons, the Spanish prince who is forced into lycanthropic form by his necromantic stepmother. There are, however, some striking differences between the insular and continental versions of the story (which also appears in later English and French...

  10. 7 Fairy Lovers: Sexuality, Order and Narrative in Medieval Romance
    (pp. 99-110)

    Sir Thopas’s resolution to forsake human women in order to seek out an elf-queen as his lover satirizes one of the most well-known romance motifs: the fairy mistress who offers herself to the human protagonist of the narrative.² It is characteristic of this motif that, with relatively few exceptions, the fairy offers sexual intercourse to the hero without any demand for the commitment of marriage and without stipulating any directly connected negative consequences. The motif’s origins are a good deal earlier than those of romance – it features in several early medieval Irish narratives – but it is with romance...

  11. 8 Text as Stone: Desire, Sex, and the Figurative Hermaphrodite in the Ordinal and Compound of Alchemy
    (pp. 111-126)

    GEORGE Ripley, in his apostrophic preface to God in theCompound of Alchemy, claims to have ‘renounced … fleshly lust’ and asks God to provide him (and, presumably, other worthy alchemists) with His ‘secret treasure’: ‘Shew us thy secrets and to us be bounteous’ (21.4).¹ Throughout theCompound, Ripley guides readers away from worldly pleasures, urging them instead to focus their desires on God-granted alchemical secrets and ‘our stone of great delight’ (37.2). Likewise, Thomas Norton, in his prologue to theOrdinal of Alchemy, warns of avaricious would-be alchemists who ‘in fyre / Of brennyng couetise haue therto desire’ (27...

  12. 9 Animality, Sexuality and the Abject in Three of Dunbar’s Satirical Poems
    (pp. 127-146)

    IN her seminal 1980 essayPouvoirs de l’horreur, Julia Kristeva identifies ‘the abject’ as the human reaction to a breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between the subject and the object, the interior and the exterior, or the self and the Other.¹ Her classic example of a site of abjection is that of the human corpse, which although a continuation of the dead person’s corporeal presence also becomes simultaneously a marker of his or her spiritual absence, and thus must be rejected or repressed, causing the subjective experience of ‘horror’.² Kristeva argues that human rationality necessarily involves...

  13. 10 The Awful Passion of Pandarus
    (pp. 147-160)

    THERE was a time when all good and alert critics, according to E. Talbot Donaldson, were supposed to be in love with the heroine ofTroilus and Criseyde. Gretchen Mieszkowski, writing on Donaldson’s important and compelling criticism, addresses this oddity:

    Is Donaldson’s criticism dated? Surely some of it is. When he writes inChaucer’s Poetrythat Criseyde ‘has almost all the qualities that men might hope to encounter in their first loves’, I, for one, hear the white-picketfences of the 1950s translated into a critical position. This is the Donaldson who told graduate students that no woman could understandTroilus...

  14. 11 Invisible Woman: Rape as a Chivalric Necessity in Medieval Romance
    (pp. 161-180)

    IT has long been a commonplace in criticism of medieval romances that acts of masculine prowess in chivalric situations, such as jousts, tournaments, and battles, are often enacted across the ‘terrain’ of women’s bodies.¹ Whether fighting other men for the rights to a woman’s body (and potentially the dowry and lands that accompany it), or actually performing or threatening acts of violence in the form of rape or abduction, the movement and exchange of women and the male physical aggression that surrounds and often penetrates their bodies are fundamental aspects of the socialization that solidifies individual knightly identity in the...

  15. Notes on the Contributors
    (pp. 181-182)
  16. Index
    (pp. 183-186)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 187-187)