Abstract for paper given at the 49th International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo - May, 2014
"Fasting and Eucharistic Desire in the Old French Ovidian Lais and the Lais of Marie de France"
The consumption of food in the Middle Ages is central to social and religious behavior, and food is freighted with meanings linked to its role in ceremony and its uncertain availability. As women are more closely associated than men to the preparation of quotidian food, as well as to miraculous Eucharistic experiences, medieval literature focuses special attention on female excesses of fast or feast. Women experiencing sacred love for Christ fast to exhaustion or feast ecstatically on the Eucharist, while women in the thrall of a fleshly love fast to deny their desire or anticipate romance, or prepare food for and feast with the object of their erotic desire. Yet rather than opposing flesh and spirit, food and fast – like the lover’s or devotee’s body – form part of a process of incorporation that creates a continuity of flesh, hunger, and food, of lack and amplitude, engendering a circulation among bodies. The event of incarnation encoded in the Eucharist, Christ’s becoming consumable flesh, transforms and complicates the dyad fast/feast.
By analyzing alimentary behaviors in the Ovidian lais “Pyrame et Thisbé” and “Philomena,” Marie de France’s lais “Yonec” and “Equitan,” and a selection of hagiographies, particularly the vitae of Marie d’Oignies, I will argue that late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century literary and hagiographic tropes of love-fasting and love-feasting mutually inflect one another, especially by means of Eucharistic themes. These tropes produce narratives wherein women use food to prepare for and fuse with the lover, whether sacred or profane. Language describing desire, absence, feast, and fast circulates among sacred and profane texts, allowing the construction of loves that invite transgression of women’s typical social boundaries. Through comparison of literary and hagiographic representations of fast and feast, I will demonstrate the importance of Eucharistic concepts, even in quotidian alimentation, to representations of licit and illicit love.
Abstract for paper given at the New College Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Studies, March, 2014
"Milk or Blood?: Food Hierarchies and Gender in Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval ou le Conte du graal"
In Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, or The Story of the Grail, the eponymous hero fails to inquire as to the contents of the grail, that foundational quest object, because he lacks the normative socialization required of knights, and his imperfect socialization is linked in the story to food and its control by women. Food seems secondary in Chrétien’s romance, yet the grail is presented as a special serving vessel, probably for food or drink, and is not described as holy. Women also seem accessory, but are responsible for civilizing men, often through the aesthetics and distribution of food. Perceval is hindered in his development in part because of his mother’s coddling, which the story explicitly relates to breastfeeding and milk. His progress to the level of ultimate, pious knight is slowed by his corruption through milk.
This paper demonstrates that food forms a code representing levels of socialization, knightliness, and courtliness, and that while Chrétien’s female characters are less capable of perfection than male ones, they hold powerful positions as keepers of food. Yet this role is ambivalent, as it makes them responsible for male failures. I will show that the objects of alimentation in the romance lack concrete materiality, as food is abstracted from fleshy meat and earthy vegetable, as well as from the peasants and farmers who produce it, precisely because of its role in coding social and gender relations among nobles.
Abstract for paper given at the 50th International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo - May, 2015
"Counterfeiting Monstrosity: Knowledge and Ignorance in the “Lai of Graelent” and the fabliau 'La Sorisete des estopes'"
The female monsters and fairies of Old French literature are often marked by the mystery of their bodies: the half-serpent Mélusine, the fée Melior of Partonopeus de Blois, the fairy women of Breton lais. Their menace and seductiveness are linked with male ignorance of their “true” nature and physical form. In my paper, I propose to explore how stories classified as fabliaux, or short comedic tales, subvert such fantastic narratives of female monstrosity and otherness by representing women who willingly counterfeit an “unnatural” body in order to gain dominance over their husbands and lovers, men that would dominate them socially and sexually.
By comparing the anonymous “Lai of Graelent” with the fabliaux “La Sorisete des Estopes” (“The Rag Mouse”) and “Bérengier au long cul” (“Bérengier of the Long Ass”), I will show how the women in these stories use their voices to narrate, define, and protect – or fail to protect – their bodies and their agency. While bathing, the fairy woman in “Graelent” is approached by a knight who steals her clothes and forces her to emerge naked from the water. Despite her seemingly non-human otherness, she is exposed and opened to male knowing. In “La Sorisete,” the female character diverts her brutal husband’s desire for knowledge of her body by representing it as strange and modular. She claims a displacement of her vagina, which “escapes,” forcing her husband to give chase. After losing his prey, he returns penitent, prepared to treat his wife’s body with respect, without gaining knowledge of it. Similarly, in “Bérengier,” the undesired husband is more confounded by his wife’s body at the end of the tale than he is at the beginning.
The female protagonist in each of these fabliaux uses speech to change the boundaries of her own body, even down to its gender and spatial locus, in order to gain power. The fabliaux’ parodying of male ignorance and fear of the female body suggests a productive way to read stories about female monsters, fairies, and other non-humans: as staging the fantasies surrounding woman’s difference and lack, and her unknown and unknowable body. Parody also suggests that such fantasies were questioned even within the medieval literary landscape. However, while ridiculing fears of physical difference and unknowability, these fabliaux impute fearful powers to the female voice, implying that the boundaries of the female body are less subject to material realities than to speech, story, and knowledge, thus perhaps only reinforcing, in less fantastic terms, the anxieties that they seem to dispute.
Introduction to a paper given at the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) Conference - October, 2014
"The Monster Within: Gender, Conquest, and Cooption of Non-Christian Identity in Aliscans"
The epic Aliscans, part of the Guillaume d’Orange cycle of chansons de geste, relates (and retells) the series of battles immediately following William’s conquest of Orange, as recounted in the Prise d’Orange. The story follows a number of points of view, first that of William’s nephew Vivien, who dies immediately following the opening battle, then that of William himself, and, for much of the epic, that of Rainouart, an incredibly powerful but often bumbling and comic protagonist. William and his allies fight to keep Orange from falling back into the hands of the Saracen enemy, and Rainouart – himself a Saracen, although he desires conversion – is the key player in their eventual triumph.
The question I hope to address today is this: in a story where the Saracens are often represented as demonic and monstrous – and even Rainouart himself is of gigantic size, wielding a club made of a tree, his tinel – how does the continual cooption of their identity function to strengthen William and his forces and guarantee their victory? And further, what kind of lasting effects, if any, does this cooption have on the Christians? The chanson deploys a dual strategy of feminization and Saracen-ization: that is to say, weakness in the Christian army is represented as feminine, but also as Saracen. At the same time, the remedy to this weakness seems to be to inoculate the Christian army with hyper-masculine Saracen presence in the form of Rainouart, creating a hybrid male warrior. I will make two related arguments: the first is that identity transformation for Saracen-to-Christian converts of both genders is governed by struggle for control of the lands that they occupy, and that the characteristic of signal importance, which creates a persistent feminization of the male convert, is the porosity of those lands. However, my counterpoint to this argument is that difference in the text is often, in fact, a disguised sameness. The fantastic and specular nature of Saracen difference is likewise revealed in how characters relate to contested lands.
Abstract for paper given at the 51st International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo - May, 2016
“The Location of Desire: Refractions of Objecthood in Aucassin and Nicolette.”
In the opening scenes of the Old French chantefable “Aucassin and Nicolette,” Aucassin’s father imprisons him to keep him away from Nicolette and orders her adoptive guardian to lock her away as well. Nicolette refuses to stay imprisoned, seeking out the object of her affection, Aucassin, who seems incapable of conjuring the motivation necessary to free himself. When he asks to be formed by her desire, Nicolette refuses to define him. In response, Aucassin suggests that woman’s love is unnatural, located “in her eye, in the nipple of her breast and in her big toe, whereas men hold their love deep in their heart.” This description conjures a gendered vision of men’s love as central and permanent, sited at the body’s core, while women’s love is peripheral and itinerant. The tale disassembles this structure, offering multiple variant possibilities for reciprocal love. The typically gendered roles of subject and object of desire are passed back and forth between the two eponymous characters as the text interrogates the location and nature of romantic love.
I will argue that the tale contrasts images of specifically located desire, within the body and within urban and domestic space, with itinerant sites of desire. The “microspaces” of the body are mapped onto larger spaces of the home, the city, and the forest. The tale further multiplies the contrasts between closed and open spaces through images of heaven and hell, West and East, the courtly world and the fantastic otherworld of Torelore. However, true opposition between these binaries, like the binary of gender, are consistently refused.