Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?

Going to hell in a bobsled cause it's faster than a basketThere must be a special hell for anyone who gives a lecture titled ‘Erec et Enide II: Rape, and structuralist theory’. And it is to this hell that I am going, in my specially designed handbasket.

Some time ago, I had a conversation in a comment thread somewhere with Magistra about how one might handle problematic and potentially triggering material in a classroom setting. I’ve also had long conversations with people in my LJ, and a couple of conversations with my boss, and I’ve read with care the ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ chapter in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, and a similar chapter in a book of essays on history pedagogy.

Background: I have participated in feminist internet spaces for long enough that it is now second nature to me to provide trigger warnings before recommending material to people. I sometimes miss things, but still, if I lend you my Sara Douglass books I will give them to you with profuse recommendations and a cautionary note for graphic rape and general misogyny on the part of the characters (but not, I believe, the author). Even if I don’t think that will bother you in particular.

The Geek Feminism wiki explain it better than I can:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

They tend to look like this: Trigger warning for: academic discussion of rape in literary texts. (You may now consider yourselves warned for this post. You should probably consider yourselves warned for my blog at large and also any conversation you get into with me in a pub.)

There is often a lot of debate and wank about precisely how much warning is necessary, in what formats, and so on. I think we can skip over that, but one common point of contention to which the debate keeps coming back is the conflict between the desire of the creator of, say, a fanvid, to educate the audience about something (say, violence against women in TV shows), and the need of some audience members to protect themselves from just that material. Fear of censorship also runs pretty strongly there.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to work or learn in an institution where one wasn’t allowed to discuss problematic material. I would also be skeptical of any attempt to make broad policies on warnings in educational context, since it seems likely to me to swiftly become more about policing the curriculum and Thinking of The Children than extending courtesy to adults who just happen to be our students. I also see a significant difference between texts one reads for educational purposes and texts or blogs or whatever that one reads for fun. But it’s still a problem – how do you frame sexual violence in a literary classroom?

  • Do I have a responsibility to teach my students about sex and violence in 12th century literature? That’s not actually a straight forward question. They didn’t enrol in ‘Violence in Italy’ (one hopes students of Violence in Italy are prepared for, well, violence). They enrolled in a general medieval studies course.
  • Do I have a responsibility to discuss sex and violence in Erec et Enide, given that I didn’t chose the text (perhaps I would have chosen a less rape-tastic text… or perhaps not)? I’m pretty sure my boss got through last year’s lectures on same without talking for half an hour about rape. Am I banging my personal drum and potentially harming others in so doing?
  • But conversely, would it be negligent to leave out an intellectually challenging, infinitely fascinating area of study which I know a couple of students are particularly interested in, because it’s too problematic?
  • Would giving trigger warnings imply that one doesn’t need to read a text to pass the course/learn the content? And if one doesn’t need to, then shouldn’t a teacher use that class time on something more accessible and more valuable?
  • Would I handle this question differently if it were another issue, equally problematic but with less personal relevance to me? Would I handle a violently racist text differently? Would I discuss genocide differently?
  • One problem we don’t have in Chrétien studies, but I’m told we do have in other areas, especially the study of Sir Degarré, is how does one deal with secondary material which is itself problematic (a friend of mine has run into ‘but it wasn’t real rape’ type commentaries in Sir Degarré). Thus far, everyone I’ve found either handles the sexual violence in E&E fairly well, or doesn’t touch it at all: but it’s a point of pedagogical concern worth keeping in mind.

I am not speaking from a point of patronising concern here, either. The week I first read Cligés, I could do nothing and think of nothing else. My first reading of Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens also chewed up a lot of my mental and emotional energy, in a way that, say, Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity never does (it saps my will to live with its dense prose, but isn’t actually traumatic). Now, I dealt with that by giving a paper on sex and submission in Cligés, but I’m an odd case and I don’t expect that your average undergrad deals with upsetting material by turning it into exciting academic work.

That raises another concern – I worry about my own vulnerability. I worry about acknowledging that this material is upsetting as well as academically challenging; I worry about what that says to students about me. Conversely, I worry about being seen as callous or perverse because I’m interested in rape as a literary trope. I worry that these perceptions might detract from the academic content of my work; I worry that students might find them too self-revealing, or threatening in some way.

This post is getting long, so I shall cut it here, and tomorrow talk about the judgement calls I make as a tutor with regard to set texts, and with regard to my lecture content, which did, in the end, talk about rape rather a lot.


Not google penance, but google-warning

Dear everyone who’s googling for information on the supernatural in the Song of Roland:

I recognise that essay question. Anything you find in this blog has already been submitted, two years ago, in the same class you’re taking. Your lecturer is my current supervisor.* Do not even think of plagiarising, it will only end badly. Feel free to mine my footnotes though!

*Ed: apparently she’s not taking the course this year. Point still stands.

Tonight: Storytime with Highly!

In the course of my evening’s procrastination1 I started fishing through the backlog in my RSS feed, and discovered that Jon Jarrett carried through on his promise to tell a story about a woman not named Adelaide. Riquilda is a pretty spiffy name, and also it’s not Adelaide. Not that I have anything against women named Adelaide (never met any) or cities by that name (nice place. Inexplicable statues of pigs rooting in fake garbage bins).

I have not promised to tell anyone any stories, but I feel like doing so anyway. Let me tell you the story of


AKA: My favourite part of that obnoxious book, the Conte du Graal, and probably not one I’ll get to talk about very much in the course of my thesis.

(With no pictures, because photobucket and WordPress both hate me)

SO! Sir Gawain is hanging about in the town of Tintagel, where there’s a tournament going on. Sir Meliant de Liz has the hots for the eldest daughter of Sir Tiebaut of Tintagel, and since she has declared that she won’t love him unless he defeats her father in combat, Sir Meliant de Liz (who hasn’t figured out that this is not the way to ingratiate oneself with one’s prospective in-laws) has brought all his friends and challenged Sir Tiebaut to a melée.

Gawain, who is staying with Sir Tiebaut, is nominally on Sir Tiebaut’s side here: but since he’s only passing through Tintagel on his way to face trial-by combat for a murder he may or may not have committed,2 he’s lurking around at the edge of the tourney field, trying to look inconspicuous. Sir Gawain is not very good at inconspicuous: he’s got several horses with him, and two shields, and there he is at the edge of the field, looking like a baggage train unto himself.

Up on the top of the tower, Meliant de Liz’s girlfriend has gathered with her ladies to watch the proceedings. With them is her sister, Sir Tiebaut’s younger daughter, known as the Maiden with the Small Sleeves.  All the ladies are quite excited by the tourney, although rather disappointed to find that all Gawain’s armour belongs to only one knight – they’d hoped for twice the eye-candy. Sensible women. Not the Elder Sister, though – she doesn’t give two hoots about Sir Gawain, at this point. As far as she’s concerned, Meliant de Liz is the best thing before sliced bread, and this is a perfect opportunity for everyone else to observe the magnificence of her boyfriend.

‘Look, girls,’ she says, ‘isn’t he the hottest thing ever to don armour?’

Yes indeed, all the ladies agree. Meliant de Liz is pretty damn spectacular. And they all settle down for a good perving session.

But wait! There’s dissent in the ranks. ‘There’s a knight more attractive than Meliant de Liz,’ declares the Maiden with the Small Sleeves. Elder Sister takes this pronouncement about as well as you’d expect a teenage girl to take dissent from her little sister: she up and slaps the Maiden with the Small Sleeves, and all the other ladies have to physically restrain her from further violence.

Just when everyone’s settled back down to check out Meliant de Liz again, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves pipes up again: ‘I can see a more handsome and better knight,’ she insists.

Elder Sister rounds on her sister again: ‘How dare you insult someone whom I have praised!’ (Anyone who’s had a sibling can tell you that the fact that Elder Sister has praised him is the best reason for insulting anyone, but clearly Elder Sister hasn’t figured that out yet.) And she slaps the Maiden with the Small Sleeves again, and the ladies have to pull her away.

Perhaps the ladies are getting sick of the sisters’ quarrel, because they move on to safer topics: Sir Gawain. Who is he? What’s he doing down there, and why isn’t he joining in the tourney? Various answers are proposed: he’s a coward. He’s sworn not to participate. He’s a merchant or a money-changer in disguise.

‘How can you say such things?’ cries the maiden with small sleeves. ‘He seems more like a champion than a money-changer: he’s a knight, and he looks the part.’

The ladies, who are all older and wiser, roll their eyes. ‘Don’t be silly,’ they say. ‘He’s disguised as a knight, and trying to avoid taxes and customs duties. He’ll be arrested for his deception, just wait!’

Come evening, Gawain retires to his lodgings. Meanwhile, at Tiebaut’s court, the talk is of the unknown knight who refused to enter the tourney. The Maiden with the Small Sleeves continues to insist that he is a true knight, and, indeed, a better knight than Sir Meliant de Liz. Her older sister decides that she’s had enough of this, and goes to her father.

‘Daddy dear,’ she says, ‘did you know there’s a merchant in the town, posing as a knight? He’s taken lodgings with one of your retainers. If you go there now, you can arrest him at once.’ So Sir Tiebaut orders his horse to be readied, and announces that he’s off to arrest this merchant.

The Maiden with the Small Sleeves is not going to stand for this, oh no! She sneaks off through a back door and hurries to the house where Gawain is staying: Gawain’s host, Sir Garin, has two young daughters, with whom she is friends. Her friends let her into the house; meanwhile, her father has arrived in the main hall. He tells Sir Garin that he is here to arrest Sir Garin’s guest. Sir Garin, as a good host should, vouches for Gawain’s honour, and invites Tiebaut in to meet him. Tiebaut accosts Gawain and demands to know if he is a true knight, and why he won’t enter the tourney.

Gawain agrees that his behavior is shameful: but, he explains, he has no choice. He’s due to face trial-by-combat, and if he should be injured or delayed in Tintagel, even greater shame would fall upon his family.

This is fair enough, Sir Tiebaut agrees, and refrains from arresting Sir Gawain. He offers him an escort and provisions for the road, but Gawain declines: he has plenty of money to buy provisions and lodgings. Just as Sir Tiebaut is turning to leave, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves runs into the hall.

‘Good my lord,’ she cries, running up to Gawain and wrapping her arms around his leg. ‘Grant me a favour! I come to you to lay claim against my sister: uphold my rights, please!’

Gawain, who is more used to being propositioned by grown women than small girls, is a little startled. And, knowing nothing of the girl, he’s not sure what to say here: so he pats her on the head and hopes for the best. The Maiden with the Small Sleeves grabs his hand and says to him: ‘I lay claim before you against my sister, who bears me no love or affection, because today she has caused me great shame on your account’.

Gawain is slightly charmed. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asks. At this point, Sir Tiebaut cuts in: ‘Don’t listen to my daughter – she is a silly, foolish child.’ And he looks like he’s going to hustle his daughter away.

‘Indeed,’ says Gawain. ‘Then it would be dishonourable of me not to do as she wishes. Tell me at once, my sweet and noble child, what I can do for you?’

‘Can you bear arms in the tourney tomorrow, for love of me?’ she asks him. Gawain looks down at her, and asks if she’s ever asked such a thing of a knight before.

‘No, my lord.’

‘Don’t listen to her,’ Tiebaut tells him, again. ‘Don’t worry about her foolishness.’

‘On the contrary,’ Gawain tells him, ‘she has spoken well for such a little girl: I will be her knight tomorrow.’ And the Maiden with the Small Sleeves is delighted, and bows low at his feet.

Sir Tiebaut scoops up his daughter, and rides with her back to the castle. Along the way, he asks her what the cause of all this is, and she explains the situation. Sir Tiebaut is perhaps exasperated when he hears that Elder Sister won’t shut up about Meliant de Liz (after all, the fellow’s busily defeating Sir Tiebaut in combat); or maybe he sighs a big sigh of “oh dear, here comes the inevitable”; regardless, he gives his youngest daughter permission to send Sir Gawain a favour tomorrow.

‘Oh, no,’ cries the Maiden with Small Sleeves. ‘My sleeves are too small – no knight would want my sleeves as a favour.’ And so, when they get home, he does two things: first of all he gives Elder Sister a sound telling-off for hitting the Maiden with Small Sleeves; and secondly, he goes upstairs and finds a big piece of red samite, and orders a new sleeve to me made from it, so that the Maiden with Small Sleeves will have a favour to give to Sir Gawain.

The next day, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves runs out to Sir Gawain before the tourney, and presents him with the red sleeve to wear ‘as a token of my love’. And Gawain accepts it and thanks her very solemnly; then he heads out onto the field and proceeds to bash other knights left right and centre.  The first thing he does is go after Sir Meliant de Liz, and tip him out of the saddle and into the mud. He captures Meliant’s horse, and sends it to the Maiden with the Small Sleeves as a gift.

The Maiden with the Small Sleeves cannot resist rubbing it in: ‘Look, sister – look at your fabulous boyfriend lying there in the mud! Now everyone can see that there’s a better knight; I’m right, I’m right, NYAH NYAH NYAH NYAH.’ And her sister slaps her again, and the ladies have to pull them apart again.

At the end of the day, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves goes out to meet Sir Gawain outside her father’s castle.  She takes hold of the stirrup of his horse, and then perhaps she’s overcome with shyness, because all she can think of to say is “a thousand thanks, good sir”.

But Gawain knows exactly what she means, and he promises that he will never fail in her service, not until he’s old and grey: and if she is ever in need, then she can send for him and nothing will prevent him coming to her aid.

Sir Tiebaut appears and (finally) asks Gawain for his name: Gawain gives it, but he cannot be convinced to stay. Just as he’s about to ride off, the Maiden with the Small Sleeves takes hold of his stirrup again and kisses his foot. Gawain thinks this is a bit odd (but kind of adorable) and asks her why she did that. She answers that she did so because she wanted him to remember her.

And Sir Gawain promises that he will never forget her, and takes his leave of the court.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes the tale of Sir Gawain and the Adorable Small Girl. (Incidentally, I’ve filched and paraphrased from the Penguin translation, not the OF original, because today I am lazy.) It’s fascinating to me for a couple of reasons: one, because it’s a rare depiction of childhood/adolescence in medieval lit – it’s clear that the Maiden with the Small Sleeves is young, but just old enough to start emulating adults in court society. Two, because it’s a hilarious depiction of sibling rivalry (much more entertaining than the feuding sisters in Yvain, who are older and more serious), one of those little slice-of-life stories which remind you that people just don’t change. Particularly not when the people in question are teen(ish) sisters.

And three, because I’m fascinated by the clear delineation between heterosocial and heteroromantic relationships here: there’s absolutely no question that Gawain’s interest in the Maiden is non-sexual, but their relationship conforms to the general pattern which we expect of courtly romantic relationships. Indeed, their friendship deliberately parralels that of Elder Sister and Meliant, and the difference is not in the form (each knight represents and honours his lady; each lady’s standing rests on her knight’s performance) but in the intent (one romantic, one friendly) and the consequences: Elder Sister’s romantic relationship causes conflict and divison in her family; the Maiden’s social relationship with Gawain brings father and daughter closer and upholds her father’s honour.


1. Seriously, folks, conjugating the verb rapio in the passive in all its tenses and moods is… disconcerting, if you’ve been reading a whole lot of books and articles on rape and abduction and so on. Incidentally, Katherine Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens is a fascinating read, if you feel like wading through a whole book about rape.
2. We don’t know, because Chrétien never finished the story. Some people think he died before he got to finishing it. Personally, I think he got bored, or perhaps just gave up in despair. I for one have no idea where this narrative is going and I have a feeling Chrétien didn’t either.

Some books are a pleasure to read

Some books are a real pleasure to read. Hopefully most fiction is a pleasure to someone; but all too often, it seems like “readability” is not so much the second priority for academic work, but a long way down the list, after “contains enough made-up words to make me sound smart”.

Today, I am a very happy little Vegemite, because my own personal copy of Simon Gaunt’s Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature arrived by parcel post! Firstly, it’s PRETTY – the original cover is lovely, much more appealing than the beat-up orange cover the library have on their copy. Secondly, I obtained it for $20 AUS from a second-handbookshop who obviously didn’t realise that places like Amazon sell it for fifty-something US secondhand.

Thirdly, it’s a VERY USEFUL BOOK for my  scholarly purposes. And many others! I have now added “monologic masculinity” to my list of bewildering terms to pull out in pop-culture analysis. I have determined, just for example, that in Star Trek (XI), the opposition between Kirk and Spock could be considered a “monologic of masculinity” – defining or representing masculine behavior by creating an opposition between two fundamentally similar characters; this opposition will eventually be overcome and the audience will understand the character’s common purpose and identity. Granted, the opposition between Kirk and Spock is rather more pronounced than that between, say, Olivier and Roland, and they don’t start from a position of friendship and loyalty – but the parallel childhood scenes at the beginning of the movie establish common traits of aggression, isolation, and Serious Freudian Issues. As Gaunt argues w/r/t to the Chanson de Geste, women *exist* in Star Trek (XI). The female characters are even pretty interesting! But neither Kirk nor Spock’s masculinity is developed in relation to Uhura, or even their omipresent Mummy Issues. It’s all about the m/m conflict, its eventual resolution and the discovery of basic commonality.

Conversely, I would say Whip It was interesting in that it attempted to create a monologic of femininity,  or perhaps womanhood. This was not really a possibility raised by Simon Gaunt (so far – I’m only up to the hagiography chapter), and given that the function of femininity in medieval narrative is usually (as Gaunt argues) to complement and define masculinity, that’s not surprising. It’s quite surprising that so few narratives today construct female characters primarily in relation to other female characters, but that is an essay for another day! Point is, Simon Gaunt is useful like that. If you ever wanted to compare Star Trek to the Chanson de Roland, that’s where I suggest you start!

Fourthly, this is a beautifully written book. Gaunt’s prose is smooth, he juggles complex theory without resorting to jargon, and you don’t find yourself sitting back and scratching your head thinking “what on earth? How did this relate to anything?” I would read this book for fun (and then apply it to Star Trek, as you can tell)! I consider myself rather lucky that I get to read it for Serious Purposes.

Another thing making me happy this week is that I’m reunited with an old friend, Geoffrey Barraclough’s The Medieval Papacy. I know this book is horribly out-of-date, but it’s still one of my favourites. I’m also very fond of Barraclough’s history of the early medieval Europe. Big, sweeping histories like that could be incredibly dull, but Barraclough manages to recount facts simply and tell stories well: so he’s the first place I turn when I need to know something obscure (in this case, 12th century marriage law) but have forgotten all the surrounding context as well.

The third thing that’s making me happy is that I own this t-shirt in a lovely shade of red. I was going to take a photo of it and my copy of Gender and Genre, and show off my incredibly geeky materialism. But, since the t-shirt is a man’s shirt (either all the women’s shirts were sold out, or Geoffrey Chaucer foolishly thought that women wouldn’t buy a t-shirt saying “I’m impossible to date… like Beowulf”), the writing is positioned in a really unfortunate latitude, and there’s no way to take webcam photos that actually show all the text.

So: tell me about your favourite academic authors who also write pleasurable prose? Or, possibly, help me decide which Chaucer blogger shirt I need next (John/Eleanor Rykener, or No I Do Not Know the Truth About King Arthur?)


*Possibly because of the memorable occasion in first year, upon which I was book-hunting at 9.30 pm in the evening, having taken a nine-floor drop in an antiquated elevator and accordingly lost all my balance, and security found me staggering about on the first floor of Fisher, bumping into shelves in a zig-zag pattern and clutching my good friend Barraclough. I’m fairly sure they weren’t thinking “sleep-deprived and lift-sick”, but they did leave me alone to stagger my way back up to the loans desk.

The objectification of Sir Lancelot

I cannot stand Lancelot. There, I said it. And, knowing my luck, my supervisor will stumble across this and it will put a terrible gulf between us (her devotion to Sir Lancelot rivals my adoration of Sir Gawain). But the fact remains: Lancelot is a moron! And Guinevere is a wet blanket and they deserve each other.

To make matters worse, I read my way through the whole of the Chevalier de la Charette and it had very little in it which is of any use to my thesis whatsoever. But I did notice something! And although it has nothing to do with my thesis and, for all I know, many eminent people may have noticed it before me, I am nevertheless going to blog about it.

Lancelot’s milkshake brings all the girls to the (court)yard. He knows it; and he’s completely OK with exploiting this to his own ends.

Which is to say, in serious terms, that Chrétien’s narrative systematically objectifies Lancelot, and that Lancelot manipulates his status as an object of desire to get what he wants. Including implicitly and explicitly bargaining sex for material aid. That’s – that’s fascinating, especially since the Charette is playing complicated games with sexual ethics already.

The two main aspects of sexual ethics, as discussed openly in the Charette‘s plotline (either by the characters or by narrator’s commentary) are: firstly, men’s power/right to sex and/or marriage by conquest; and secondly, sexual fidelity. It’s mostly Guinevere’s marital fidelity which is in question, and needs to be preserved both against rape-by-capture and potentially consensual adultery, although we are also given the  impression that maidens wishing to go on journeys seek strong knightly protectors in order to avoid the likelihood of capture and rape. (Funny, that.)

Interestingly, Lancelot’s fidelity also features. We establish very early on, when he does his level best to get out of sleeping with a woman who offered him hospitality (being a knight he has the power to do so; having defeated her protectors he has the right to do so; and she consents, which would appear to give him some moral justification for doing so) that he’s in love with Guinevere, and only Guinevere, and won’t have a bar of anyone else.

The introductory parts of the adventure objectify Lancelot in two ways: they establish him as one hot piece of knight-flesh – apparently so hot that random ladies he meets on the road are willing to construct elaborate deceptions so that they get to sleep with him. But moreover, they establish him as an object of humour, both for his fellow characters (who get to point and laugh at him for riding in the cart) and for the audience, who are privy to hilarious scenes like “In Which Lancelot Nearly Falls Out Of A Window Trying To Catch A Glimpse of Guinevere” and “In Which Our Manly Manly Knight Does His Best To Avoid This Girl Who’s Throwing Herself At Him”. Lancelot is a moron, and it’s quite possibly meant to be ridiculous, the way everyone he meets falls all over him.

And so on we go, until Guinevere is found, slept with, rescued, and sent home to Camelot. At this point, Lancelot is locked up in a manor somewhere, and things start to get really weird. We, like Guinevere, are really curious to find out what Lancelot won’t do for the sake of his ladyfriend. The first thing we knew about him is that he’d give up the chance to sleep with other women (which might be shameful – compare to the Chevalier a l’épee, where Gauvain is terribly worried about what it’d do to his reputation if he’s known to have slept in a woman’s company and not shagged her; or it might earn Lancelot brownie points in the consent-over-capture value system Chrétien’s promoting); then we find out that he’ll embarrass himself in combat if Guinevere wants him to. What lengths will he go to to get out of prison (twice)?

Well, apparently, what he’s willing to do to get out of prison (twice) is to promise his affections and his body to whatever woman’s in a position to get him out. First the lady of the manor in which he’s being held captive – and she’s not silly, she knows his love is already taken, but she makes him promise it to her anyway (whether she ever claims it, we do not find out, but the implication, since Lancelot’s emotional love is all taken up with Guinevere, is surely that he’s promised her a good roll between the sheets instead). Then he promises his love and, explicitly, his body, to the pickaxe-wielding princess who gets him out of the tower.*

Do we have a problem with this? Are we going to get any kind of commentary on the fact that our hero, who was heroically faithful a couple of thousand lines ago, is now willing to seduce and bargain his way out of prison? That he is, in fact, doing exactly what Guinevere was accused of doing: selling his body to anyone who asks?

No, apparently we’re not. Instead we find out more about how awesome Lancelot is, how all the women at the tournament want him and all the men want to be him – until, at Guinevere’s bidding, he decides to play the incompetent for a while and ruin his reputation, at which point all the women still want him and all the men want to laugh at him. Meanwhile, Melagaunt wants Lancelot in order to prove his own manliness, but is quite willing to take Gauvain as a substitute.

The whole situation is ridiculous (and Lancelot, as I said, is a moron). But the upshot of the whole anonymity device, coupled with Lancelot’s apparently thoughtless abandonment of his fidelity, is that his character is undermined. The desire which defined his character for the first half of the story (his desire to find, and ultimately shag, Guinevere) is achieved, and instead, he becomes a sort of placeholder. An object, something everybody wants for one reason or another – the cause of much fuss and no substance.


* Incidentally, The Princess With The Pickaxe is my new favourite character. Running around demanding the severed heads of people who piss her off, and rescuing knights from towers with her trusty pickaxe. HOW OFTEN IS IT YOU MEET A PRINCESS RESCUING KNIGHTS FROM TOWERS, I ask you?

Medieval eating disorders, anyone?

Do any of you know if any work has been done on eating disorders in the middle ages, or even the early modern period? (Quick JStor searches for “eating disorder middle ages” brings me a fair bit about middle-aged modern persons suffering from eating disorders, and not much else.)

Now, I know that the simple answer to that question is “they didn’t exist”. If you’re of the ilk of Keith Windshuttle, they wouldn’t exist because we have no documentary evidence of their existence.1 If you were of a more theoretical bent, you might say that the concept “eating disorder”, like the concept “homosexuality”, did not exist before some point in the fairly recent past, and I’d pay that. I understand that there are a unique set of social factors in first-world society from, say, the mid-twentieth century which contribute to both the *occurrence* of disordered eating and to our construction of “eating disorders” as medical and psychological conditions.

Of course, food in the middle ages was scarce (duh), and thus thin-ness wasn’t the be-all and end all of attractiveness for women. Chaucer’s Duchess was “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”, which warms the cockles of your heart right until you remember that probably very few people met the appropriate standard of “fattish, and fleshy, but not greet therewith”.

So I’m not so much interested in finding out if people (probably but not necessarily women) restricted their food intake to be attractive in the middle ages. Presumably those who were “greet therewith” might have tried a bit of dieting; those who felt themselves too thin could likewise have tried to gain weight. That’s… not so interesting to me.

I’m wondering about the relationship between food and control, food and sin, food and autonomy – things which are unlikely to be the same as they are for eating disorder sufferers today (or for the rest of the population today); concepts and behaviors which may not map neatly onto our ideas of eating disorders at all; but which might be worth exploring nevertheless. I think I’m thinking of the sort of thing which Greg Carrier used to do with disability studies (whatever happened to Greg, anyway?). Work in this field, if it exists, might have a fair bit in common with some sub-branches of queer theory, and probably also with a particularly excellent article I read the other day, ‘The Language of Rape in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Law: Views from the Anglo-Saxon(ist)s”, by Shari Horner. The sort of things which recognise that the past doesn’t share our own conceptual framework, but also that the people of the past may share common experiences with us, and then tries to look at how those people thought about their experience.

This hypothetical field – which I seriously hope exists because I do not have the skills, psychological knowledge, or emotional fortitude, to start it – ought to look at archaeological evidence (what could you tell from preserved remains? Eating disorders certainly screw around with your body, including the skeleton – but could you distinguish these effects from malnourishment from other causes, like famine or disease?). Someone in this field would have to look at existing work on beauty and the body, and think about what factors in the medieval context might lead to a disordered relationship with food.2 Someone could go down all kinds of interesting (and precarious) routes by looking at various aesthetic religious groups and practices (extreme fasting? St Patrick and his happy habit of standing in freezing cold rivers all night to teach his body not to get uppity? Flagellation, obviously) and asking how these practices overlap with self-harming practices, and if the contemporary doctrines provided a channel for impulses or drives which we now bundle together as psychological disorders. Someone else could go through charters and wills and local records and look at causes of death, perhaps? It would be guesswork at that stage, but it might produce some pieces of the puzzle. Once the field got going a bit, I expect that there would be grounds for some lit scholars to come through and start talking about things like characters who refuse food, and consider the grounds on which they do so, and the judgments which authors come to about the choice to refuse food.

So please, O Internet: tell me that someone’s started work on this?

Otherwise, every time I read that, just for example, Fenice refused food and drink in order to become “pale and livid” (yeah, that’s the penguin translation, I’m reading ahead in the English so I know what’s coming) and fake her own death and escape her marriage, I’m going to start wondering if Chrétien’s just pulling that out of a hat, or if he knew any women who did starve themselves until they were “pale and livid”, or if he didn’t know any but he considered it a reasonably plausible response to her situation, or, or, or…

And that is why someone else had better have started this field. Because I have nothing better to go on than some literary tropes, and I have more cheerful things to think about when it comes to Chrétien anyway.


1. For those who are not Australian, Keith Windshuttle doesn’t believe in things that don’t have extensive documentary evidence. Because, y’know, there’s never been any category of things which might be *less likely to be documented*, or any of that. I’m afraid I don’t understand The History Wars nearly as well as I should. Should get on to that.
2. By the extremely scientific method of “guessing” and “brainstorming this with the friend who asked me if there were eating disorders in the middle ages” (she has more personal experience with eating disorders than I), I suggest that, if plump were a beauty ideal, one might strive for thin-ness if one felt threatened by male attention; it’s *possible* that one might strive for under-nourishment in order not to fall pregnant, although I’m not sure how common that would be; one could have all kinds of guilt about food, coming either from the Seven Deadlies or perhaps resulting from having lived through a famine; one might deprive one’s body of food after a traumatic event (rape, assault, abandonment, grief) which resulted in a low investment in one’s health or continued survival; over-exposure to some of the more unpleasant doctrines about the body and sin might lead one to deprive one’s body of food… and on and on we go.

In which Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general

One of the things I’ve been doing with my brain in my spare time / while entering things into the government record-keeping system is madly analysing random bits of pop culture from gendered perspectives. I’ve learnt about things like the Bechdel Test; read about your chances of death in the BBC Merlin according to race and gender, and… well, pretty much anything else LJ has decided to teach me.

While archiving a bunch of correspondence the other day, it occurred to me to wonder: why do we so rarely see, in modern fantasy, protagonist groupings where friendships between women are given as much screen-time and weight in plot/character development as are friendships between men or between men and women?

I can think of a lot of modern fantasy, both good and bad, which has strong female characters. However, the most common plot set-ups that I can think of involve:

* A strapping young lad and his best (male) friend(s) or older male mentor(s). Random example: Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy.

* A brave young woman kicking arse and taking names in a male setting. Random example: Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet.

* A lone girl or woman and boy or man on a Dangerous Quest. (There will be Bad Fantasy Sex.) Random example: JV Jones’ Sword of Shadows trilogy (note that I haven’t finished reading yet, and I think when I stopped the characters had parted ways).

* A mixed group of men and women, in which there are usually fewer women than men. There will be a high level of character development through m/f relationships, not all involving sex (there will be lots of Contrasting Gender Roles happening). If the protagonist is male or the book has mixed POV, a substantial amount of plot and character development will occur within homosocial relationships: if the dominant POV is female, it is more common to develop character in the context of heterosocial and heterosexual relationships. Random example: David Eddings’ Belgariad.

* Two or more strong or supposed-to-be-strong female characters who are set up in opposition to each other. Their relationship, or the comparisons the reader draws between them, will be very important to the plot and character development, but they’re not friends or allies; each exists primarily in her own sphere. Random example: Morgan and Guinevere in Mists of Avalon.

Where are the books about girls working together? Why, in a mixed bag of protagonists, are female homosocial relationships always the last thing we hear about? I did a quick and unscientific scan of my brain, and came up with a few books that score highly in this regard: Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic quartet; The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian (granted that the reason Susan and Lucy’s relationship stands out as distinct is that Lewis organises the children’s roles in the adventure by gender); Sara Douglass’ Troy Game series…

and Chretien de Troyes Chevalier au Lion. Ok, Yvain’s our protagonist, and his character development swings on his attempts to balance his homosocial relationship with Gawain against his heterosexual and heterosocial relationships with various women (and his relationship with a lion. WTF IS THAT LION DOING, anyway?). I could go on about this at length. I did go on about this at length and got rather pleasant marks for it, too. But even while sticking almost exclusively with Yvain’s POV, Chretien still manages to pwn most 20th and 21st century fantasy when it comes to strong female homosocial relationships.

We have:

* Lunette/Laudine. We’re left in no doubt that Lunette is the biggest influence on Laudine’s life – and Laudine appears to be the only strong claim on Lunette’s affections. There’s that gorgeous inversion of the courtly blind promise trope, and has anyone pointed out that Lunette’s negotiation of Yvain’s marriage to Laudine is a genderswapped version of the m/f/m triangle, with the man as the token between women?

* The Dame de Norison and her maid – a small-scale reproduction of Lunette/Laudine, delicious triangle dynamics and all.

* The tag-team of Questing Maidens on behalf of the Disinherited Sister.  I can never remember how many of them there were, exactly. They don’t have names and they don’t have direct dialogue, but they’re there and they’re a major plot device. A bunch of women (or was it just two? SOME WOMEN, anyway) recognising that another woman is in trouble, and setting out to fix it. That the only way, within Chretien’s social construct, for them to do so involves going and fetching a man, shouldn’t undermine the fact that they’re a bunch of women actively collaborating in the interests of one of their fellows and putting themselves at considerable physical risk to do so.

And in case we thought that everything was all happiness and roses in female homosocial-land, Chretien goes and adds tensions and misunderstandings to the female homosocial relationships he’s set up: Laudine blames Lunette for her betrayal and throws her out; the Feuding Sisters bicker their way across the narrative climax; and even at Norison (which, for a bunch of reasons I shan’t go into here, I think is meant to function as an example of good and harmonious social relationships, as opposed to Yvain’s unbalanced home situation), the Lady gets temporarily cranky with her maid.

What’s more, female homosocial relationships contribute to the narrative not just as plot devices but as character development. There have been reams of paper spent on the question of Laudine’s motives in first marrying and then re-marrying Yvain – does she love him? Is she manipulated? Does she really care? No matter what the conclusion is, no one can attack this question without examining the relationship between Laudine and Lunette, and the changes in their public and personal relations as evidence for Laudine’s feelings and choices.

But wait, it gets better! Or I think it does. I have a rather hazy thought that I swear I will chase up one day, to the effect that the female homosocial relationships in Le Chevalier au Lion also contribute to male character development. I think we’re supposed to read Lunette/Laudine in particular, but also the women of Norison and the tag-team of Questing Damsels, in contrast to Yvain/Gawain. Which homosocial relationships work to preserve a balanced social order? Which are compatible with balanced and mutually beneficial heterosexual relationships? And which homosocial relationship causes constant discord and demands preference above all other loyalties? I’m not sure if Yvain learns anything from the women around him, but I’m fairly sure the reader is supposed to use the examples of the women in the story to evaluate Yvain’s choices and character development.

In short: Chretien de Troyes > modern fantasy in general. But I’m sure we all knew that already ;).