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The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain

The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain

Amanda Hopkins
Cory James Rushton
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 194
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  • Book Info
    The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain
    Book Description:

    This volume examines the erotic in the literature of medieval Britain, primarily in Middle English, but also in Latin, Welsh and Old French. Seeking to discover the nature of the erotic and how it differs from modern erotics, the contributors address topics such as the Wife of Bath's opinions on marital eroticism, the role of clothing and nudity, the tension between eroticism and transgression, the interplay between religion and the erotic, and the hedonistic horrors of the cannibalistic Giant of Mont St Michel. Contributors: ALEX DAVIS, SIMON MEECHAM-JONES, JANE BLISS, SUE NIEBRZYDOWSKI, KRISTINA HILDEBRAND, ANTHONY BALE, CORY JAMES RUSHTON, CORINNE SAUNDERS, AMANDA HOPKINS, ROBERT ROUSE, MARGARET ROBSON, THOMAS H. CROFTS III, MICHAEL CICHON. AMANDA HOPKINS teaches in the department of English and Comparative Literary Studies and the department of French at the University of Warwick. CORY RUSHTON is in the Department of English at St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-540-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Contributors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xii)
    A. C. Grand

    Having been present at the inception of this project, it is a particular pleasure to see it realised. It arose, as all Arthurian projects should, at a round table, in good company: in this case, in the bar, at the 2002 International Arthurian Congress, in Bangor, Wales. The group assembled, with the exception of the present writer, could all be termed ‘Young Arthurians’ and they mooted the idea of a collection of essays, with a working title not fit to print in a scholarly work, which this volume exemplifies. It is a tribute to all the contributors, and not least...

  6. Introduction: The Revel, the Melodye and the Bisynesse of Solas
    (pp. 1-17)

    AN INDIVIDUAL’S sexual behaviour in the Middle Ages was not a personal matter. The twin powers of state and Church attempted to control every aspect of people’s lives, and sexual behaviour was no exception: as Ruth Mazo Karras observes, ‘One’s choice of sexual partner affected one’s family and the inheritance of property. One’s choice of sexual act affected the social order and therefore was of concern to the entire community’.² The Church promoted chastity,³ and considered virginity to be the superior sexual state for men and women.⁴ Women were considered a disruptive influence and sexually predatory by both Church and...

  7. ‘So wel koude he me glose’: The Wife of Bath and the Eroticism of Touch
    (pp. 18-26)

    NO DISCUSSION of eroticism in late medieval literature would be complete without consideration of the Wife of Bath, who readily embraces the subject of sex. Her comparison of sex with her first three husbands with that with her fifth, Jankyn, in which she identifies a difference not just in the quantity but in the quality, is especially memorable. Although he demanded payment of the marital debt less frequently than his predecessors, Jankyn is the one of whom the Wife of Bath admits, ‘I loved hym best’.¹ Her discussion of her sex life reverberates in a culture in which the pursuit...

  8. The Lady’s Man: Gawain as Lover in Middle English Literature
    (pp. 27-37)

    EROTICISM and the heroic go hand in hand for today’s audiences: the male hero is often only as good as his ability to bed attractive women, a trait that allows the male reader or viewer to identify with the hero’s serial love affairs. An integral part of the James Bond myth is that Bond can have any woman he wants, despite (or perhaps because of) his misogynistic attitudes:

    With most women his manner was a mixture of taciturnity and passion. The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement. He found something...

  9. Erotic Magic: The Enchantress in Middle English Romance
    (pp. 38-52)

    THE POWER of romantic desire is one of the great leitmotifs of literature, and it is in romance writing most of all that this motif is played out. We need only think of the haunting narratives of Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere to be reminded of the compelling quality of desire both within the fictions of romance and for readers and listeners. One aspect of such desire is, of course, the erotic – or more exactly, the pursuit of the erotic. The erotic gestures towards, but is not synonymous with, the sexual, and romance does not treat all...

  10. ‘wordy vnthur wede’: Clothing, Nakedness and the Erotic in some Romances of Medieval Britain
    (pp. 53-70)

    CLOTHING plays a vital role in many Middle English romances. Dress can identify the social rank of the wearer, as it does in various ways in the Middle English redactions of Marie de France’s Lanval, or be a public demonstration of social condition, like Criseyde’s widow’s weeds.¹ It can even aid personal recognition, as when Orfeo discovers his queen in the Otherworld: ‘Be hyr clothys he hyr knew’.² As recent scholarship has demonstrated, it is clothing rather than anatomy that is the ‘prime indicator of gender identity’ in medieval texts.³ It can be a valuable gift, like the cloth studded...

  11. ‘Some Like it Hot’: The Medieval Eroticism of Heat
    (pp. 71-81)

    THE LATE fourteenth-century romance Sir Launfal narrates the financial, martial and erotic adventures of one of the lesser-known knights of the Arthurian court. In Thomas Chestre’s popularised version of Marie de France’s Breton Lai (Lanval), our hero’s woes begin when he is excluded from the Arthurian court’s largesse after he refuses the predatory Guinevere’s sexual advances.¹ Shamed by his resulting poverty, which is only amplified by the financial demands of his role as Arthur’s royal steward, Launfal takes his leave of the court and departs for Caerleon, where he vainly seeks succour at the hands of the city’s mayor, who...

  12. How’s Your Father? Sex and the Adolescent Girl in Sir Degarré
    (pp. 82-93)

    MY FOCUS IN THIS ESSAY is ignorance and its converse, knowledge: most particularly I want to look at adolescent knowledge about sex and the body. In this essay I shall be focussing on the development of women. There is an important distinction to be made, however, between what is privately known and what can be articulated publicly: society dictates not what can be done (sexual practices remain largely the same, the results remain the same), but what may be said to be done. This is particularly problematic for the adolescent; how is the developing awareness of sexual identity, sexual desire,...

  13. The Female ‘Jewish’ Libido in Medieval Culture
    (pp. 94-104)

    IT IS ALMOST a commonplace that in its stereotypes a society articulates its deeply held desires; through strategies of symbolic violence medieval English people could express precious, secret and fragile thoughts.¹ In identifying these desires there is necessarily a degree of speculation, a filling-in of the gaps in what is said and unsaid: what did people, from whom we are now distant, desire? How was this desire mediated? How do texts speak for the desires of their authors and audiences?

    In answering these questions contemporary criticism has perceived sexual desire to be latent in medieval Christian portrayals of Jews. Jacob...

  14. Eros and Error: Gross Sexual Transgression in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi
    (pp. 105-115)

    ELEMENTS of the erotic appear in much medieval Welsh literature, such as the romantic heroic exploits depicted in the three Welsh Arthurian Romances and more playfully shocking themes, as evidenced by Dafydd ap Gwilym’s complaint to his penis and Gwerfel Mechain’s response in praise of her genitals.¹ The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi is no exception to this penchant for the passionate, replete with its references to sexual encounters that both spark the erotic imagination and serve an instructive social purpose. Recounting erotic situations in and of themselves is not the redactor’s primary objective: he uses the erotic potential of...

  15. Perverse and Contrary Deeds: The Giant of Mont Saint Michel and the Alliterative Morte Arthure
    (pp. 116-131)

    BY WAY OF introduction, I would like to look again at one of the most well-known words in the alliterative Morte Arthure. In the proem, just when the poet turns from the Almighty to his earthly listeners, he gives this indication of his subject matter:

    3e that liste has to lyth or luffes for to here

    Off elders of alde tym and of theire awke dedys,

    How they were lele in theire lawe, and louede God Almyghty.¹

    In apposition to the ‘elders’ are their deeds, which the poet calls ‘awke’, in Edmund Brock’s gloss ‘perverse and contrary’,² in Krishna’s ‘strange,...

  16. Her Desire and His: Letters between Fifteenth-century Lovers
    (pp. 132-141)

    THE FIFTEENTH century contains many examples of expressions of erotic desire, in genres ranging from romances to hagiographies. Whether the texts aim at sexual arousal or pious horror in the reader, these genres were intended for publication. Even the most explicit depiction of private life in the fifteenth century available to us, Margery Kempe’s Life, was intended for the public. However, this is not the case with the private letters in collections such as the Paston, Stonor and Plumpton papers.¹ In these letters, we encounter men and women expressing erotic desire in what they perceived as private communications – as...

  17. Sex in the Sight of God: Theology and the Erotic in Peter of Blois’ ‘Grates ago veneri’
    (pp. 142-154)

    THROUGHOUT the Middle Ages, theologians had drawn on the strictures of St Paul to bolster and reanimate the Church’s veneration of virginity as an ideal state of human life.³ In the twelfth century, the Church’s full acceptance of the centrality of this theology of virginity was witnessed by the imposition of the rule of clerical celibacy at the Second Lateran Council of 1139. It is the more surprising then that the twelfth century should also have produced a rich crop of lyrics written in Latin that are notable for a level of sexual explicitness that renders them as provocative to...

  18. A Fine and Private Place
    (pp. 155-163)

    LESBIAN practice is recognised, proscribed and then euphemised almost to invisibility in the Ancrene Wisse.² Almost, but not quite: the writer is caught in the dilemma of a confessor who, fearing to put ideas into his penitent’s head, yet needs to drag forth and deal with every conceivable sin.³ After all, it is no use telling her she must not have sex with men if she therefore thinks it is all right to have sex with women – her fellow anchoresses – or even by herself, and still keep her virginity. And so he drops several hints into his text,...

  19. Erotic Historiography: Writing the Self and History in Twelfth-century Romance and the Renaissance
    (pp. 164-176)

    THIS VOLUME investigates the presence of the erotic in a certain historical period, the Middle Ages. But eroticism is also a key trope in our attempts to define what is distinctive about historical periods. That is, it is not only an object of study, but also functions in terms of mapping the boundaries of the field of study: it has historiographic value. As an example of the almost gravitational attraction that the erotic can possess for those seeking to draw period distinctions, we might begin with a piece by Hugo Estenssoro that appeared in The Times Literary Supplement on the...

  20. Index
    (pp. 177-182)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 183-183)