Thursday, November 20, 2014

Scars of the Pardoner: the Physician's Surgery (4/5)

"Is ther no grace, 
is ther no remedye?"

The Physician's Tale
Geoffrey Chaucer


While progressive narratives are useful to provide forward thrust to medieval tales of the past, numerous figures challenge the surgical approach to the body and to history. Persisting only through fragments, Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales presents the tensions between periodizing change and finding continuity through personal and social violence. Chaucer posed such a challenge in the exchange between the Physician and Pardoner when in Fragment VI, the two speakers enter into a dialectical exchange on surgical violence and the ethics of partitioning lives so that others may progress into the future. By attending to how the progressive surgical thesis of the Physician is countered by the Pardoner’s recollection of divided bodies, taking responsibility for our genealogically ties to medieval surgical approaches to the body and stand in solidarity with the scars of those who persist today as fragments, inextricable from the operations of sharp machines.

The Physician’s proceeds by providing a Tale from the classical authorities from which he derives his medical knowledge and thesis: if you have a problem, cut it out. “The Physician’s tale” concerns the management of gender divides in society and the laying on of hands on women’s bodies in order to alter and/or protect its wholesomeness. It is a tale of the life of Virginia, the only child and heir to a Greek knight, Virginus, is expected to be sold into marriage and to reproduce future heirs for her father’s line. Suddenly, Virginia’s body is threatened with rape, enslavement, and losing its virginity, all of which in the medieval imagination is tantamount to a sex-change operation due to the associated shifts in physical and social status. Tensions violently resolve as Virginus takes a blade to his daughter’s neck, demonstrating that if the integrity of a woman’s body or a patriarch’s ownership of it is disturbed, one solution is to cut it to pieces.



Virginia, defined by her quintessentially pre-sex status, evidences the ongoing securitization of a lord’s possession of men and women’s genetic lines, a system chastity and eunuchs enforced, allowing lords like Virginus to not have to “think about gender.” The Physician’s Tale goes on at length describing the form of Virginia’s body, “lilie whit” “reed” as “a rose” without the stain of sex or surgery, to contrast the violent penetrations of her body to come.[i] At this moment, Virginia’s body does not need correction because of her chastity she is already effectively fixed. “In hire,” tells the Physician, “ne lakked no condicioun.”[ii] The Physician’s language regularly evidences the intermeshing of medical and religious terminology for sterility, emphasizing that she was whole both in body and in spirit, “As wel in goost as body chast was she, / For which she floured in virginitee / With alle humylitee and abstinence.”[iii] Virginia’s virginity neither challenges the integrity of her body nor the gender politics in her community.

Once Virginia’s pre-sex state has been established, the introduction of gender politics signals the beginning of the division of her physically and socially whole body. Apius claims he can “make hire with hir body synne,” with or without consent, signaling that as soon as his scheme is introduced, Virginia’s body begins to break from Virginus.[iv] By becoming sexualized, Virginia disturbs the naturalized borders of her virginity, an operative that at any point might turn to or be taken to Apius. “For whoso dooth, a traitour is,” warns the Physician of sex, establishing sexually active woman as a betrayal against the physical and social body, “Of alle tresons sovereyn pestilence.”[v] Drawing on medical and legal language, uncontrolled sex is a disease and damnation because it is a “sovereign” crime; the legal consequence of infidelity by and with a sovereign being held as treason against a King’s lordship, the consequence for which was dismemberment.


If the pre-op virgin state is not secure and sexual operations must be considered, then the solution of patriarchs, like the Physician, is to divide the body once and for all into a post-op state where it can no longer threaten the naturalized order of gender. The escalation of Apius from a potential rapist to enslaver propels operations of laying hands on women, resonating the slippage between the violence securing a virgin “doghter” or a castrated “thral,” by demonstrating the possibility that any body may be taken by force.[vi] “Youre is the charge of al hir surveiaunce,” instructs the Physician on managing gender politics, warning that “by youre necligence in chastisynge, / That they ne perisse.”[vii] If sexuality introduces a disease that may already end in division and death, then extreme operation, such as the surgical construction of eunuchs or the murder of a daughter, to secure health and the surveillance of gender barriers in an estate may be pardoned.

Once the legal dispossession of his daughter (and her pre-sex body) is immanent, Virginus works to secure her soul by dividing it from her flesh. Confessing that such surgery should only be performed in dire circumstances, Virginus coerces Virginia to accept his decision to foreclosing of her future. “O gemme of chastitee, in pacience / Take thou thy deeth, for this is my sentence,” he entreats her, “dyen with a swerd or with a knyf.”[viii] At first, Virginia responds as she would to a doctor, begging “Is ther no grace, is ther no remedye?”[ix] Accepting his judgment, she internalizes her division between father and master, virgin and sex slave, operator and operated, in a state “constituting something less than agency.” Virginia is only able to affect surgical access to her body with a prayer, “his swerd he wolde smyte softe.”[x] Making herself an fragmented body for the sake of her kingdom, the last we see of Virginia is her severed head in the hands of her father as he return to the courts, “to the juge he gan it to presente.”[xi]


Becoming a part rather than a whole, the narrative contest over Virginia body might be said to end with the haunting image of her severed head, but a trans-operative approach to the story follows the continuing affects of her fragments on other bodies. Witnessing the still bleeding wounds of Virginia’s cut up flesh, the crowds turn against the other operatives in the disruptive Tale: they lay hands on Apius, the would be rapist, “caste hym in a prisoun right anon, / Ther as he slow himself;” while Apius’s servant, Claudius, “was demed for to hange upon a tree;” and Virginius for his role in the violence was severed from the community and exiled.[xii] While the dismemberment of Virginia evidently causes the cutting off of further lives, it must be stressed that bodies were already divided by the barriers that governed sex that segregated bodies from Tale’s start. In other words, when the operations of gender are so inscribed in the divisions of society, the scars of violence are not absolved simply by removing the technology of the knife.

A proponent of a surgical approach to bodies and history, the Physician’s Tale supposes that the flurry of operations its end cuts off any loose ends of the story, yet leaves readers in the ruins of division, questioning, what we do with unresolved remains. When the Physician concluded, the Host begins to swear like a mad man, "Harrow!" quod he, “by nayles and by blood! / This was a fals cherl and a fals justise.”[xiii] Calling out the names of bodily fragments, the Host turns to the Pardoner and the assorted body parts her carries to help wash away the stain of the Physician’s bloody Tale. Scholars have noted that the Pardoner’s reply, “It shal be doon…by Seint Ronyon!” plays on a pun for testicles. This references the Pardoner’s supposed status as a “gelding,” and signals that far from giving comic relief to pardon the violence of division, his recollection of broken bodies will not let the scars of any part of such operations be readily forgotten. [xiv]

Part 3: The Trans-Operative
Part 5: The Pardoner's Scars

[i] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 32-33.

[ii] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 41.

[iii] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 45.

[iv] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 138.

[v] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 91.

[vi] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 187-189.

[vii] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 198-199.

[viii] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 217.

[ix] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 236.

[x] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 252.

[xi] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 256.

[xii] Chaucer, “The Physician’s Tale,” 267-273.

[xiii] Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue,” 288-289.

[xiv] Chaucer, “The General Prologue,” 691.


No comments:

Post a Comment