Monday, 1 March 2010

The Repressed Goes Forth...

OK, so since I hadn't posted anything for a little while, and with the intense worry that this 'blog would become stale and atrophied (shock horror), I decided to post the potential (possible-ha!) ideas for a paper I'm writing for a Middle English Romance class this term, just since I find this sort of thing interesting, and in the vain hope that people will critique it and tell me how WRONG I might be!

Watch out for any thrilling post ben might write in the near future, as I continually bombard him with requests to post...

The paper will later conclude that the most difficult body (if we had to choose!) to deal with in ME romance is the very body of the text itself - its disturbing generative capacity and meta/inter-textuality. Well, that's the plan anyway...

Anyway, read, comment, (perhaps, enjoy) and tell me that I'm WRONG.

The Repressed Goes Forth : Dealing with Difficult bodies in Middle English romance

When we first encounter the decrepit centenarian Sir Garcy in Le Bone Florence of Rome, we are presented with a difficult body that is a possible resolution of every Middle English romance. ‘As the Romans trewly tolde, / He was a hudurd yerys olde, / And some boke seyth mare’[1] and this reminds us not only of Garcy’s advanced age, but also that his story is the subject of another ‘boke’, another romance. This body itself, meanwhile, bears the very marks of a life so led: ‘For he was bresyd and all tobrokyn / Ferre trauelde in harness and of warre wrokyn’ (lines 103-4). Garcy’s body is literally inscribed with the marks of adventures undertaken: the wounds of battles fought (and won) and a body broken by a life in the saddle. Garcy’s body is difficult to incorporate into a schema that privileges juvenescence and beauty. However, Garcy embodies the somatic mutability that we are forced to encounter in a genre that is regularly doing complex things with its presentation of bodies.

The romance body (both the body of the text, and the body in the text) is one which is mutable and in constant flux. Important work has already been undertaken to re-imagine the definitions of such a body (if, indeed, it can be defined) or, at least, to invite an understanding of the medieval body which acknowledges its indefiniteness.[2] That the discursive somatic boundaries which regulate bodily interaction might be both unstable and transmutable or, to put it another way, that the romance body (the body of romance) is not restricted by the boundaries of separated texts or by the separation of musculature, should not be particularly surprising. This paper will invoke Deleuze and Guattari’s notions both of the Body without Organs (BwO) and of the machinic assemblage, to work towards an understanding not only of what the difficult bodies of romance are, but rather, what it is they actually do.

Garcy’s body is difficult because it forces us to examine the consequences of the life of a romance hero who doesn’t get the girl, whose desire is queered away from the carnal and into the pastoral. Garcy’s love for Florence is not based on his desire to sleep with her; indeed, nothing could be further from his mind.

He had more mystyr of a gode fyre,
Of bright brondys brennyng schyre,
To beyke his boones by,
A softe bath a warme bedd,
Than any maydyn for to wedd
(lines 97 -101)

Further to this, we can read Garcy’s intentions towards Florence specifically, in all their sinister tactility:

When ye haue þe maydyn broght,
That ys so feyre and worthely wroght,
She schall lygg be my side,
And taste my flankys with hur honde,
That ys so feyre Y vnderstonde,
Yn bedde be me to byde.
Sche schall me boþe hodue and happe,
And in hur luely armes me lappe,
Both euyn and mornetyde;
(lines 106 – 114)

Yet this alone would not be all that troubling: it is hardly surprising that Garcy, a figure whose longevity has led him to ‘the passive dreams of old age’,[3] should want the sort of passive non-sexual relationship he envisages here. However, what is troubling about Sir Garcy is that he seems to be in a state of transition, on the verge of moving between the knight whose honour in battle we cannot deny and the knight whose lack of sexual prowess we cannot ignore. For not only is Garcy’s description, quoted above, a reminder of his former battle-prowess, but his continued insistence that violence will result from the Emperor of Rome’s refusal to relinquish his daughter functions similarly; a threat which is later borne out: ‘Byd hur fadur sende hur to me, / Or Y schall dystroye hym and hys cyte, / And þorow hy remes ryde.’ (lines 115-118).

So there you go, all done, and my contribution/burden released until Ben's post (shortly, I'm sure, forthcoming!

Much love,

Mikey. x

[1] C.F. Heffernan, ed., Le Bone Florence of Rome, ed. C.F. Hefferana (Manchester: University Press, 1976). pg. 55. All references to Florence are from this edition, with line references in the body of the text.

[2] See, for example, Jeffrey Cohen, Medieval Idenitity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[3] Felicity Riddy, “Temporary virginity and the everyday body: 'Le Bone Florence of Rome' and bourgeois self-making,” in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England, ed. Nicola McDonald, 197-216 (Manchester: University Press, 2004). pg. 207.


  1. Ah, good. I can check 'interesting' and 'cool' at the same time (or can I?). Good stuff, and not a romance I know. My only suggestions at this point: you draw together textual, warrior, and old man's corpus: I'd find the metaphor more convincing if you could at least gesture towards a medieval use of the word body as textual body. 9bd here helps. Anglo-Norman Dictionary s.v. "cors" has "cors des leis, (law) corpus of laws, body of legal texts: le surement [sic] que jeo fray a ma congisone que j’eie parleu corps des leys" Just curious about how far back the textual body metaphor goes?

    I also wonder about the old man's swerving queer desire: I tend to think of all desire as queer. That said, Sir Garcy's lack of sexual passion is, pace the Reeve, totally of a piece with his senescence: old men are supposed to lack sexual desire; their "proper" sins are supposed to be backbiting, envy, and greed. On the other hand, his desire to be touched, aimed as it is at itself (more touching) and not at reproduction, while proper to senescence is terrifically queer because of its goallessness. This is also part of what makes a common romance figure (the brave knight indifferent to sex) so fascinating in this case.

  2. That's really interesting, Karl - thanks. I will certainly have a look at ME uses of bodies in their textual sense.

    I'm hoping to attend a lecture by Sarah Kay in London on 18th March entitled 'Legible Skins. Animals, Ethics and Reading in the Middle Ages' which might be totally irrelevant, but also might help me negotiate the difficult question of marking texts literally onto skin (something I've always wondered about). So, in that sense, I guess 'Florence' is, literally, a body.......though this may need better/more/other analysis.

    I guess what I meant by the 'queerness' of Garcy's desire (and it's a term I've probably used too loosely and might well remove since I wont have space, in 4000 words, to use it properly) is that the strange way that Garcy inhabits characteristics of both the young- and old-knight forces us to make a category error on one side or the other. Either, as Felicity Riddy argues in her excellent piece, Garcy is an old man whose actions towards Florence are appropriate, in which case his pugnaciousness is hard to incorporate; or, the opposite is true. I guess I need to articulate my point better, but it is definitely a work in progress!

    I don't know whether I agree that the ME romances have the common figure of 'the brave knight indifferent to sex', though I'm sure it's true in the wider romance tradition: rather, sex becomes both instrumental to the success of a knight (since it allows him to procreate - generating both legacy and, importantly, more romances) and, also, becomes a great thing to be doing whilst the audience/narration/heroine is elsewhere.

    Re-reading the last point of your comment, though, I like the idea that Garcy's 'terrific' goallessness is what makes his desire queer... the idea of a romance knight whose goals don't quite fit is a compelling one. for thought! :)

    Mike x

  3. The comments remind me of discussion after a paper I gave a while back about charters as both metaphorical and physical incorporations of bourgois identity (bits now published in the Medieval Domesticity vol ed Kowaleski, last few pages of my piece about writing producing bourgeois presence in the city).

    Actually i do not think that is relevant to you but the discussion (from lit folk in the audience) afterwards went on to discussion of a poetic (?) genre in which christ's body on the cross is likened to a parchment charter with the text inscribed on its/his skin. Jocelyn would know the refs for sure. (and sounds a bit like Sarah Kay's approach, perhaps).

  4. This jives quite interestingly with my own reading of Florence, which in the context of my work on fatherhood is that the major problem with Garcy's body is its impotence/infertility... Too tired right now to get into it, but feel free to hit me up if you're curious. Or get my PhD out of the library. ;)

  5. Of course it could also be noted that the senscent body is hypersexualized (amorous in a bestial way) but incapable of production. Unless miserable young wives in fabliaux = the product. Cf. Chaucer's January, and that creepy bedroom scene with May. Re: difficult bodies, in my own work -- and this is the last time I'll talk about my own work here -- they have tended to be interstitial bodies, such as those possessed by those between races. I write quite a bit about the subject in a quietly theoretical way in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity.