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The Pardoner’s (Over-)Sexed Body

  • Robert S. Sturges
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Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)

Abstract

Of all the bodies and behaviors so meticulously described in The Can-terbury Tales, and especially in the General Prologue, it is perhaps the Pardoner’s that have aroused the most critical controversy, especially con-cerning the nature of his genitals, as in the line “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare” (I, 691), and in the context of the other elements of his physi-cal and behavioral description throughout the Tales. In a sense, most crit-ics over the years seem to have wished, like Harry Bailly, that they could grasp the Pardoner’s body, could hold his “coillons” in their hands. In this context, Glenn Burger’s points about the Pardoner’s conceptual instability are particularly helpful: rejecting the choice between EugeneVance’s “masculinist” and H. Marshall Leicester’s and Carolyn Dinshaw’s “feminist” hermeneutical models,1 Burger uses the work of Jonathan Dollimore to reveal some of the ways in which “the Pardoner’s destabilizing presence can provoke the kind of social and discursive dislocation that Dollimore calls ‘discoherence.’”2 Here is Dollimore’s own definition:

To borrow a now-obsolete seventeenth-century word, the dislocation which the critique aims for is not so much an incoherence as a discoher-ence—an incongruity verging on a meaningful contradiction. In the process of being made to discohere, meanings are returned to circulation, thereby becoming the more vulnerable to appropriation, transformation, and rein-corporation in new configurations. Such in part are the processes by which the social is unmade and remade, disarticulated and rearticulated.

The critique whose objective is discoherence further seeks to reveal and maybe to reactivate the contrvate the contradictions which are feeaced by ideology as an aspect of the control of meaning.3

Keywords

Gender Theory Sexed Body Feminist Scientist Linguistic Construction Canterbury Tale 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Glenn Burger,“Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107 (1992), p. 1145. Burger is responding specifically to the followingCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Eugene Vance,“Chaucer’s Par-doner: Relics, Discourse, and Frames of Propriety,” New Literary History 20 (1988–89): 723–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., The Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), especially pp. 161–94Google Scholar
  4. Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 156–86.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 4.
    Walter Clyde Curry, Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences, 2nd ed. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1960), pp. 54–70. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gelding” as “a gelded person or eunuch” and “a gelded or castrated ani-mal, esp. a horse,” illustrating it with a quotation from Wyclif contempo-rary with Chaucer (s.v. “gelding”). The Middle English Dictionary is somewhat more equivocal, defining “gelding” as both “a castrated man, a eunuch” and as “a naturally impotent man” (s.v. “gelding”); “gelded” itself is invariably defined as “castrated.”Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See, for instance, David E Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 293: Only incidentally do these clerical passages deplore homosexuality; their deepest preoccupation is with men dressing and acting like women. Sexual stratification in the feudal aristocracy had been sharp.... The new styles of clothing and boclily appearance culti-vated by the men of the post-Conquest Norman aristocracy were incompatible with their traditional pastimes (hunting, fighting); gender conservatives interpreted them as involving the imitation of women, who had been traditionally been subordinate to men. The clergy found this voluntary adoption of the life-style of a subordi-nate sex repugnant, perhaps incompatible with the expectations of a ruling class. See also pp. 292–98 generally. On the association of effeminacy with male-male desireGoogle Scholar
  8. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homo-sexuality: Gay People in Western Europe _from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 229–35. On the Pardoner’s “normality,”Google Scholar
  9. Richard Firth Green, “The Sexual Normality of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Mediaevalia 8 (1982): 351–58, discussed below.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Si vero plus de muliebri spermate in dextra parte collocetur, femina vi-rago generatur. Si plus in sinistram quam in dextram, et si plus sit de vir-ili semine quam muliebri, vir effeminatus nascitur.“ [If more of the womanly sperm is set in the right part {of the womb}, a manly woman {femina virago} will be generated. If more in the left than the right, and there is more of the manly seed than the womanly, an effeminate man {vir effeminatus} will be born.] The Prose Salernitan Questions Edited from a Bodleian Manuscript (Auct. E3.10), ed. Brian Lawn, Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi 5 (London: British Academy at Oxford University Press, 1979), B.193, p. 103, quoted in Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge, Eng Cam-bridge University Press, 1993), p. 201, n. 116; trans. Cadden, p. 201. Cad-den’s entire chapter on ”Feminine and Masculine Types,“ pp. 169–227, is useful in this context.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Mathew Kuefler cites satyriasis, elephantiasis, hernias, leprosy, gout, and epilepsy, among others, as diseases treatable by castration: see his “Castra-tion and Eunuchism in the Middle Ages,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexual-ity, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 279–306; the references to castration as cure and as legal punishment occur at p. 289 and pp. 288–89. See also Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p. 288, and James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 472–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    That is, those who, according to the Glossa ordinaria, “deceptively put on the guise of religion, but in reality are not chaste: the wolves in sheeps’ clothing. ‘Inter hos computantur etiam hic qui specie religions simulant castitastem.”’ [Among those are also reckoned those who simulate chastity under the guise of religion.] Robert P. Miller, “Chaucer’s Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner’s Tale,” in Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Richard Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960), p. 226, quoting the Glossa ordinaria to Matthew 19:12 (PL 94, col. 148); trans. Miller, p. 242, n. 6. And cf.Google Scholar
  13. G. G. Sedgewick, “The Progress of Chaucer’s Pardoner, 1880–1940,” Modern Language Quarterly 1 (1940): 431–58, repr. in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 126–58. Miller’s essay is a revision of an earlier (1955) version, but despite its age Miller’s article remains influential among recent critics concerned with medieval gender theory, for instance Carolyn Dinshaw, who cites Miller approvingly in her chapter on the Pardoner in her Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, pp. 159 and 164.Google Scholar
  14. For another example, see Gregory W. Gross, “Trade Secrets: Chaucer, the Pardoner, the Critics,” Modern Language Studies 25.4 (1995), pp. 11–13. Gross usefully surveys Curry’s influence on readings of the Pardoner, pp. 9–15.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    Monica McAlpine, “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters:’ PMLA 95 (1980), pp. 10–11; and see the MED and OED, both s.v.”mare.“CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 15.
    Beryl Rowland, “Animal Imagery and the Pardoner’s Abnormality,” Neophilologus 48 (1964), p. 58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 16.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, “Chaucer’s Queer Touches/A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7 (1995), p. 80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    See Rowland, “Chaucer’s Idea of the Pardoner,” Chaucer Review 14 (1979), pp. 149–50: According to late medieval writers the hermaphrodite’s dual nature represented a duplicity, a doubleness of character. The word is used in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to convey the idea of biplicitas, duplicitas, deceitfulness, lack of sincerity, unreliability, complexity, and it is this sense which the hermaphrodite epitomizes. To the bestiarist of the thirteenth century the hare, because it is a hermaphrodite, exemplifies the double-minded man. Wycliffe, when discussing temporal and spiritual interests, observes that no man can serve two masters: “us thinkith that hermafrodita or ambidexter where a god name to sich maner of men of duble astate.”… When the Pardoner, with his confession and sermon behind him, tries once more to play his shamanistic role, to serve God and Mammon simultaneously, his conduct is wholly credible because Chaucer has carefully prepared for it by presenting a disastrous physical ambivalence as both coun-terpart and cause.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    C. David Benson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner: His Sexuality and Modern Crit-ics,” Mediaevalia 8 (1982), p. 344.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Richard Firth Green, “The Sexual Normality of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Me-diaevalia 8 (1982): 351–58; on the “Canterbury Interlude,” see p. 353.Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind,” in her The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 29.Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    See the discussion of Alan of Lille in chapter 1 and the critical works cited in that chapter’s note 16. See also Alexandre Leupin, “The Hermaphrodite: Alan of Lille’s De planctu Naturae,” in his Barbarolexis: Medieval Writing and Sexuality, trans. Kate M. Cooper (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 59–78. Rita Copeland more generally surveys the classical and medieval association of the dangers of undisciplined rhetoric with bodily perversions, and reads the Pardoner’s ambiguous body as a figure for the dangerous “disciplinary autonomy of rhetoric,” in “The Pardoner’s Body and the Disciplining of Rhetoric,” in Framing Medieval Bodies, ed. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), p. 149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 32.
    See, for instance, Luce Irigaray, Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. Alison Mardn (New York: Routledge, 1993): “In any case, our need first and foremost is for a right to human dignity for everyone. That means we need laws that valorize difference.... That’s particularly true for the sexes,” p. 22. And cf. her Thinking the Difference: For a Peaceful Revolution, trans. Karin Montin (NewYork: Routledge, 1994). For an instructive con-sideration, and partial deconstruction, of these differences between Irigaray and WittigGoogle Scholar
  24. Diana J. Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Dif-ference (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 39–72.Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    Michel Foucault, “The Ethic of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in The Final Foucault, ed. James Bernauer and David Rasmussen (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 12Google Scholar
  26. John Champagne, The Ethics of Marginality: A New Approach to Gay Studies (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press), 1995, p. 5. See also Foucault’s discussion of power and bodies in “Body/Power,” in his Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980): once power produces a disciplinary effect on the body, “there inevitably emerge the responding claims and affirmations, those of one’s own body against power…. Power, after investing itself in the body, finds itself exposed to a counterattack in that same body,” p. 56.Google Scholar
  27. Michel Foucault, “Introduction” to Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall (New York: Pantheon, 1980), pp. vii-viii. And cf.Google Scholar
  28. John W. Baldwin, The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France Around 1200 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 44–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 36.
    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 96.Google Scholar
  30. 38.
    Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference, p. 203. Incisive recent studies that implicitly critique Foucault’s understanding of the premodern categories of sex include, for Chaucer’s own culture, Ruth Mazo Karras and David Lorenzo Boyd, “‘Ut cum muliere’: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,” in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York: Routledge: 1996), pp. 101–116: gender transgression, rather than sodomy or prostitution, is at issue in the legal proceedings against the man in question, one John Rykener, who, despite his male anatomy, had to be categorized as a woman in order to allay the anxieties about the sex/gender system that his unique case raised. See also, in the same volume, Lorraine Daston and ‘Catharine Park, “The Her-maphrodite and the Orders of Nature: Sexual Ambiguity in Early Modern France,” pp. 117–36. For more explicit critiques, see the “Introduction” to Constructing Medieval Sexuality, ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, Medieval Cultures 11 (Minneapolis: University of Min-nesota Press, 1997), pp. ix-xviiiGoogle Scholar
  31. Allen J. Frantzen, Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 7–13.Google Scholar
  32. 41.
    Judith Buder, Bodies ‘That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Roudedge, 1993), p. 4.Google Scholar
  33. 42.
    Caroline Walker Bynum, “Women Mystics and Eucharistic Devotion in the Thirteenth Century,” in her Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Urzone, 1992), pp. 146–47.Google Scholar
  34. 43.
    Donna J. Haraway, “In the Beginning was the Word:The Genesis of Bio-logical Theory,” in her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:The Reinvention of Na-ture (New York: Roudedge, 1991), p. 77. On biology as politics, see also Haraway’s “FemaleManc_Meets_OncoMouseTm: Mice into Wormholes:A Technoscience Fugue in Two Parts” in her Modest Witness@Second Mille-nium FemaleMan © _Meets_OncoMousen4 (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 49–118.Google Scholar
  35. 44.
    Jacqueline Urla and Jennifer Terry, “Introduction: Mapping Embodied De-viance,” in Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Pop-ular Culture, ed. Jacqueline Urla and Jennifer Terry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 16.Google Scholar

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© Robert S. Sturges 2000

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