Monday, February 9, 2015

Virgins and Eunuchs in Abelard's Historia Calamitatum

"In truth that which had happened to me 
so completely removes all suspicion of this iniquity among all men that those who wish to have their women kept under close guard employ eunuchs for that purpose"

Peter Abelard
Historia Calamitatum

In 2014, I composed a series of mini-essays entitled
Scars of the Pardoner on Fragment VI of the Canterbury Tales
discussing the issue of surgery and the biopolitics of sex.
Here I return to the matter with some new insights.
Eunuchs and the Post-Sexual

A medieval genealogy of castrate operations can be traced through the scar tissue on the skin, showing that the violence of laying hands on another is systematic to the cultural work of sharp machines.[i] Since Classical medicine, surgery operated by coding certain bodies as “parts” (that which is discarded), while coding others as “wholes” (that which is preserved).[ii] By the 14th century, the post-op castrate body had collected a range of cultural practices and meanings that owe much to Peter Abelard's Historia Calamitatum.[iii] In the Historia, Abelard considers his castration by political opponents who laid hands on him on the grounds of punishing a criminal.[iv] In Roman and Byzantine empires, eunuchs were constructed mostly of a slave class.[v] While castrates slaves did not form an evident part of French and English culture, records show castration as a punishment for a host of crimes.[vi] This punitive act sustained associations with those subject to another's will, whose liberties and body are curtailed. [vii]

In regards to sexual and reproductive freedoms, the enslaved or criminal eunuch was regarded as a post-op, post-sexual body. In his Historia, Abelard considers his castration as just such an end to a certain kind of sexual and social agency. "What path lay open to me thereafter?” asks Abelard, “How could I ever again hold up my head among men, when every finger should be pointed at me in scorn, every tongue speak my blistering shame, and when I should be a monstrous spectacle to all eyes?"[viii] Abelard struggles to see how he will productively operate in society at all after his castration. The shift into becoming post-sexual is in a very real sense an end to his life as a normative male. Physically and socially made "eunuchus qui castratus est," Abelard is exempted from key masculine activities, marked by the scars on his skin as an exemplary body. [ix]

Eunuchs and the Trans-Sexual

The physical and social effect of sharp-machines as readable on the skin cannot be underestimated. Abelard's new life fits in associations for a post-sexual life.[x] To be a post-sexual castrate was in a sense to no longer exist within the commerce of community life. You become a non-entity. Abelard considers the implications of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for eunuchs, "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord."[xi] The life of a castrate is supposed to be sexually, spiritually and socially over, even while he still lives. 

While it begins as a site of negativity and lack, Abelard uses the operations of his body and words to reclaim the fragments of his post-op life as distinctly productive. "Scarcely had I recovered from my wound,” recollects Abelard, "when clerics sought me … They bade me care diligently for the talent which God had committed to my keeping, since surely He would demand it back from me with interest."[xii] The proposition at hand became that castration was not an end to life, but an entrance into "eunuchus non Dei," providing unique "talents" and social value to castrates co-operating with the mechanisms that formed them. Rather than surrender his body as a passive object of social discourse, Abelard claims power over tools that touch and enfold him. "Therein above all,” writes Abelard, “should I perceive how it was the hand of God that had touched me, when I should devote my life to the study of letters in freedom from the snares of the flesh."[xiii] Identifying with the liminal operations of skin, Abelard turns the exit from a life supposedly fixed in nature into an entrance to an exemplary spirituality.[xiv] He pushes back against the snares of knife and flesh that made him operate in a trans-sexual position between genders, flesh and spirit, part and whole. The machine that lays hands on him is no longer the violent arm of justice but the empowering touch of Christus Medicus.

Eunuchs and the Pre-Sexual

The double-bind of social expectations may be considered the double-edge blade that at once carves out lives and demands that they grab the blade in order to replicate those divides as a tool of the system. Upon further reflection on the power and position afforded to him by his castration, Abelard begins to assert himself as a medium for controlling the sexual formation of others. Abelard writes, "In truth, that which had happened to me so completely removes all suspicion of this iniquity [lust] among all men that those who wish to have their women kept under close guard employ eunuchs for that purpose.” [xv] Abelard plays upon an etymological as well as social genealogy of "the eunuch" as guardians of women and marriage bed. “[E]unuch derives from the ancient Greek,” writes Gary Taylor in his Abbreviated History of Castration, from words “meaning ‘bed,’ especially ‘marriage bed’” and “to hold, keep, guard.”[xvi]

In medieval as well as modern contexts, the decision to co-operate with sharp-machines are not made with unfettered free will, but represent a form of contingent personal resistance to a system from which a body cannot extricate itself. Voiced in the description of Reimer and Abelard lives, the post-sexual castrate and pre-sexual girls and boys often find themselves sharing the same spaces physically and socially. Abelard writes, "Such men, in truth, are enabled to have far more importance and intimacy among modest and upright women by the fact that they are free from any suspicion of lust."[xvii] This opens up a point of empathy and co-operation between sexually managed lives. Embracing the power of operations that are nonetheless forced on participants represents a point of resistance for these supposedly secured bodies, allowing them to potentially reclaim socially erased pleasures and agency over bodies repeatedly stolen from them by sharp-machines of diverse forms: medical studies, laws, knives, and each other’s genitals. 


[i] “Emasculated men, usually described incorrectly as eunuchs, can now be found among transvestites, transsexuals, and other members of various sects … Some who consider themselves transsexuals in the West, although they have actually become castrati, extol this operation as a liberation.” Piotr O. Scholz. Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History. John A Broadwin and Shelley L Frisch trans. (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999). 3, 234.

[ii] Taylor, Gary. Castration: an Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. (New York: Routledge, 2000). 56. Kuefler. “Castration and Eunuchism,” 286. Also cited in Tracy, Larissa. “A History of Calamities: the Culture of Castration.” Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. 5.

[iii] For Latin see: Abelard, Peter. "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. Ed. T. McLaughlin. By J. T. Muckle. Vol. XVIII. N.p.: n.p., 1956. N. pag. Print. For English translation see: Abelard, Peter. "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Henry A. Bellows. Fordham University, Jan. 1999. Web.

[iv] Because older laws dictated that rape, infidelity, or sodomy could be punishable by death, the alternative of castration was seen as a merciful development. Numerous scholars discuss both the use and resistance to the punitive use of castration in European law. See: Kuefler, “Castration and Eunuchism,” 287-289; Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 19-28; Irvine, “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body,” 96-99; Bremmer Jr, Rolf H. “The Children He Never Had; the Husband She Never Served: Castration and Genital Mutilation in Medieval Frisian Law.” Castration and Culture in the Middle Ages. 108-130; Taylor, Gary. Castration,52-55.

[v] Adopting by Byzantium from the Greco-Romance, when various Muslim states claimed the region, the practice of utilizing eunuch servants were adopted and spread throughout conquests in Asia and Eastern Europe. See: Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati,198. Tougher, Shaun. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. (N.Y.: Routledge, 2008). 60-65, 119.

[vi] Peter Abelard’s castration has been the topic of numerous articles and chapters. Irvine, Martin. “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity, and Remasculinization.” 87-106; Wheeler, Bonnie. “Origenary Fantasies: Abelard’s Castration and Confession.” 107-128; Ferroul, Yves. “Abelard’s Blissful Castration.” 129-150. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler ed. (N.Y.: Gardland Publishing, Inc., 2000); Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 9-19; Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society, 11; Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 246-255; Kuefler, “Castration and Eunuchism,” 289-290.

[vii] The job of enslaving and surgically producing eunuch servants, however, largely fell to Christians, particularly in monasteries, who collected, castrated, and sold eunuchs. See: Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati,198-199. Kuefler. “Castration and Eunuchism,” 284-290.

[viii] “Qua mihi ulterius via pateret! qua fronte in publicum prodirem, omnium digitis demonstrandus, omnium linguis corrodendus, omnibus monstruosum spectaculum futurus.” For Latin see: Abelard, Peter. "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. Ed. T. McLaughlin. By J. T. Muckle. Vol. XVIII. N.p.: n.p., 1956. N. pag. Print. For English translation see: Abelard, Peter. "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Henry A. Bellows. Fordham University, Jan. 1999.

[ix] The work of these operations on and through these slaves moved around the Mediterranean encouraging the spread not only physical surgery but social practices aimed to erase old sexual, national, and religious identities. See: Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 203-214, 232. Kuefler. “Castration and Eunuchism,” 280; Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society, 60-67, 119.

[x] Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 160-164. Kuefler. “Castration and Eunuchism,” 282-286. Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 12-13.

[xi] “Non intrabit eunuchus, atritis vel amputatis testiculis, et absciso veretro ecclesiam Dei." For Latin see: Abelard, "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. For English translation see: Abelard, "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Bellows.

[xii] “Vix autem de vulnere adhuc convalue, cum ad me eonfluentes clerici tam ab abbate nostro quam a me... attendens quod mihi fuerat a Domino talentum commissum, ab ipso esse cum usuris exigendum.” For Latin see: Abelard, "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. For English translation see: Abelard, "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Bellows.

[xiii] “ob hoc maxime dominica manu me nunc tactum esse cognoscerem, quo liberius a carnalibus illecebris” For Latin see: Abelard, "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. For English translation see: Abelard, "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Bellows.

[xiv] Irvine, “Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body,” 87-106; Wheeler, “Origenary Fantasies,” 107-128; Ferroul, “Abelard’s Blissful Castration,” 129-150; Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 9-19; Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society, 11; Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 246-255; Kuefler, “Castration and Eunuchism,” 289-290.

[xv] “Adeo namque res ista omnem huius turpitudinis suspitionem apud omnes removet, ut quicunque mulieres observare diligentius student, eis eunuchos adhibeant.” For Latin see: Abelard, "Historia Calamitatum and Letters 1-7." Medieval Studies. For English translation see: Abelard, "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Bellows. Note: Eunuchs became, as Abelard writes, supposed safe-keepers that bordered off women and wealth of the lords possessions, managing servants, the estate, armies and Churches.. See: Tougher, The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society, 54-82. Taylor, Castration, 32-39. Kuefler. “Castration and Eunuchism,” 282-292. Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 4-9. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 200-209.

[xvi] Taylor, Gary. Castration, 33; Tracy, “A History of Calamities,” 6. Scholz, Eunuchs and Castrati, 232.

[xvii] “Tales quippe semper apud verecundas et honestas feminas tanto amplius dignitatis et familiaritatis adepti sunt quanto longius ab hac absistebant suspitione.” For English translation see: Abelard, "Peter Abelard: Historia Calamitatum." Medieval Sourcebook. Trans. Bellows.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Gender in the Meadhall: Beowulf & Anglo-Saxon Elegy

Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex

“The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me...
like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house 
wherein you sit at supper in winter, 
with your ealdormen and thegns, 
while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, 
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad." 

The Parable of the Sparrow
the Venerable Bede


Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre 

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.


Life in the Mead-Hall
(Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England)

The course began with an orientation to the theme of the genealogy of gender and genre. Together we will ask the question: how does genre generate certain modes of gender and how is gender defined according to different genres? The students (many of whom are not English majors) were very excited to have these sorts of discussions and learn about these texts and context In our first section we focused on Anglo-Saxon elegiac literature. The class reflected on the social environment of masculine beer/war-oriented friendship in the Venerable Bede's "Parable of the Sparrow" and "Caedmon's Hymn." Bede compares the mead-hall with "the present state of man on earth," suggesting that we read closely to descriptions of the Hall across the period in order to develop a sense of what material lives and cultural values are allowed to occupy that space. Our list was expansive but included: fire, drink, song, martial friendship, gold, and glory. We asked the question (which will be a mantra for the course) "for who?" is this structure sustained and what happens when you are left outside or cut-off from this cultural norm.

In the story of Caedmon, Bede describes a man with only partial access to the life of the mead-hall because of his inability to participate in all the central activities - namely song. This failure to fulfill the normative labor of Anglo-Saxon masculinity constituted a significant enough disability that night after night when the harp is passed around, Caedmon goes home early. Caedmon's isolation from the community continues until one night, while he is sleeping, an angel visits him. "Sing me frumsceaft," (sing to me of the first Creation) commands the angel. Despite his hesitancy, Caedmon miraculously finds himself composing and singing what is often regarded as one of the first recorded Anglo-Saxon poems. Here we see a context, problem, and resolution suggesting that a central ministry of Christianity is to seek out the marginalized and bring them back into communion with society. What do we make, however, over the insistence that solutions occur on the personal rather than social level? Why "fix" Caedmon by making him like everyone else rather than making room for those without singing talents or inclinations in the mead-hall? What about those who cannot be so easily changed, are they sentenced to perpetuate exile and wandering?

Beowulf Grendel medieval Anglo-Saxon mead hall Herot
Paths on the Margins
(The Wanderer and Deor)

The next week, we examined alternative models of masculinity in the Wanderer and Deor. Together, the elegies complicated the previously established norm of an Anglo-Saxon masculinity centered around mead-halls, warmth, fellowship, gold-giving, drink and song by looking at alternative modes of life offered by the solitary ("anhaga"), sorrowful hearted ("modcearig
"), wandering earth-steppers ("eardstapa"). He is not a singer ("scop"), but keeps his thoughts to himself, in his spirit-chest ("ferðlocan") or mental treasure hoard ("hordcofan"). He does not sit in the warmth of friend and fire, but is a friendless one ("freondleasne") who navigates the ice-cold sea("hrimcealde sæ"). He is not a creature of the firelight, but contemplates those buried in the darkness of the earth ("hrusan heolstre biwrah"). 

Indeed, we learned tactics of expression and argument, as well as learned a great deal about cultural values, from considering both the positive and negative logic of elegy.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? --- Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? --- Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? --- Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas? --- Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune! --- Alas for the bright cup! 
Eala byrnwiga! --- Alas for the mailed warrior! 
Eala þeodnes þrym! --- Alas for the splendour of the prince!

Rather than stand firm in the walls of the mead-hall against the ebb and flow of chance, the wanderer is a creature of the seasons, he feels emotions (sorrow and care) pass over him again and again like the waves of the sea ("Cearo bið geniwad" and "Sorg bið geniwad"). This same repetition of care and grief is also present in Deor. As in this list of lost treasures (informing our sense of norm and their alternatives), Deor presents a series of scenes of loss. Each scene ends with the assertion, "that passed away, so may this" or "that was overcome, so may this be" ("Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg"). The Wanderer and Deor may be contrarians, defining themselves by loss or alienation, but exhibit a flexibility that allows them to persevere through tragedy. The Mead-Hall may pass away, like the verse of a hymn, but if one learns to ride the waves of the sea and of song, care and grief may pass or be overcome in turn.

Beowulf Grendel medieval Anglo-Saxon mead hall Herot
Battles at the Threshold

While the Mead-Hall and the Wanderer seem to occupy different physical and cultural spaces, these antithetical forms of embodiment come into contact and conflict in the monster battles of Beowulf. Not surprisingly, these encounters occur at the thresholds ("recedes múþan") or cross the thresholds of competing social spaces. We saw the narrative synthesis of these alternatives play out in the battles between Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel's Mother. In the first instance, Grender (a semi-solitary marsh-stepper, "mearcstapa," walking the line between earth and sea) crosses into the Mead-Hall to devour the community life that exists there. We learn that Grendel attacks because he cannot abide the drunken singing of the Hall. Then suddenly Grendel meets his match. Another man, who, while fighting on the side of his comrades, the hall, weapons and armor, uses none of them in this fight. Instead, the super-human grip ("mundgripe máran"of one solitary wanderer is grappled by another solitary warrior. These two monstrously powerful figures wrestle each other, at once opposing each other and reflecting each other with uncanny likeness until Grendel is expelled, broken, to die along the margins.

How does genre and gender demand and embody these cultural contacts/conflicts? The tradition of elegy among those living on the margins or in the ruins produces alternative modes of life that embody loss. After Grendel's death, vengeance is sought by his mother. Thus sorrow is renewed in the Meadhall as a result of this cultural contact. This time, in an attempt to eliminate the alternative world, Beowulf becomes the monster at the threshold by crossing into the underwater cave of Grendel's mother ("sé þe wæteregesan"). Contrasting with the maids of the hall, Grendel's mother is a warrior woman full of the violence ("wíggryre wífes") that characterizes Beowulf's masculinity. While Beowulf succeeds in slaughtering Grendel's mother and ending this alternative power-structure from the land around the Mead-Hall, he does so by immersing himself in more solitude, sorrow, and liquid genders. 

While the medieval manuscript offers a variety of ways to read these cultural contacts, in modern versions of these battles, Grendel and Grendel's mother have been adapted to cultural contexts that demand distinct resolutions from the narrative - variously drawing upon associations of disability, racial otherness, queerness, and trans masculinity. Recently,  when Beowulf was adapted into an animated feature, Grendel's monstrosity was psychologized as the abandonment of a disabled bastard son and the mother's powerful physicality was transformed into slender, snake-like seduction when a naked Angelina Jolie was cast in the role. How does the gender of Grendel's mother and the genre of Anglo-Saxon elegy change when Jolie enters into the mix? How does this cross cultural values from a subversive warrior prowess to a dangerous female sexuality? How does Jolie's portrayal of a shape-shifting monster reflect the transformations of gender and genre being enacted within and between manifestations of Beowulf? In important ways, each of these transformations of the text synthesize the conflict between mead-hall and Wanderer in new ways that speak to the cultural anxieties of the audience.

 Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex
Stay tuned for more on gender and genre 
from Introduction to English Lit I
Beowulf Grendel's Mother Angelina Jolie Naked Sword Sex