• Suzannah Biernoff
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


A s idea and as substance, medieval flesh was by definition elusive. After all, a ‘shadow’ or ‘fog’—to use Alan of Lille’s words—could hardly be brought to light for observation, or circumscribed by precise definition. In order to work towards an understanding of the flesh—however partial or contingent that may be—I will use the idea of the body as a kind of foil. By pinpointing instances in which flesh and body do not coincide, where one exceeds or disrupts the other, I hope to elucidate their differences.


Bodily Shame Passive Body Mortal Element Opening Quote Corporeal Matter 
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    Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, for example, refers to a ‘platonized patristic anthropology that defined the human being as a soul imprisoned in the materiality of the flesh’. McLaughlin,’Equality of Souls, Inequality of Sexes: Woman in Medieval Theology’, Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions ed. R. R. Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 216. Janet Coleman gives a more detailed (and more measured) account of medieval dualism in her Ancient and Medieval Memories: Studies in the Reconstruction of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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    Further examples are listed in A. C. Thiselton, ‘Flesh’, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology ed. C. Brown, 3 vols (Exeter: Paternoster, 1975), 1: 672. On the relation between flesh, fallenness and redemption in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, see also D. Welton, ‘Biblical Bodies’, Body and Flesh: a Philosophical Reader , ed. D. Welton (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 243–55.Google Scholar
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    See, for example: J. Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993); H. Cixous,’Sorties’, New French Feminisms: an Anthology , ed. E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (New York: Schocken, 1981), 90–8; P. Deutscher, ‘The Evanescence of Masculinity: Deferral in Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Some Thoughts on its Bearing on the Sex/Gender Debate’, Australian Feminist Studies 15 (Autumn 1992): 41–56; L. Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman in particular ‘How to Conceive (of) a Girl’ and ‘Une Mère de Glace’, trans. G. C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), 168–79; G. Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy (London: Methuen, 1984).Google Scholar
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    St Augustine, The City of God trans. G G. Walsh and D. J. Honan, Fathers of the Church 8 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954), 483 (22.24).Google Scholar
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    Aristotle, Generation of Animals 2.4.738b. Unless otherwise indicated, I have quoted from The Complete Works of Aristotle: the Revised Oxford Translation ed. J. Barnes, Bollingen Series, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). On the union of female matter and male form see also: Generation of Animals 1.20.729a ff. The metaphor is discussed in Lloyd, Polarity and Analogy 264, 369. For Aristotle’s influence on medieval theories of sexuality and human physiology, see: Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and D. Jacquart and C. Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages trans. M. Adamson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
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    On the passivity of the body in relation to the soul, see Augustine, De musica , 6.5.8: ‘Nullo modo igitur anima fabricatori corpori est subjecta materies’. Quoted in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Disintegration of Scholasticism 1100–1600 , ed. N. Kretzmann et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 443 n.11. See also Augustine, Literal Meaning of Genesis 2: 200 (12.16.33).Google Scholar
  29. 95.
    St Augustine, Confessions trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 344 (13.32). Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent quotations are from this translation. For additional commentary on this passage, see: Børresen, Subordination and Equivalence 30–4; Deutscher, ‘Evanescence of Masculinity’, 45–7; and Lloyd, Man of Reason 29–33. One could also trace the idea of a gendered soul through John Scotus Eriugena’s Periphyseon (The Division of Nature) , written in c. 865. In Book 2, the Irish philosopher and theologian writes:’the spiritual sexes are understood to exist in the soul—for nous that is intellect, is a kind of male in the soul, while aisthesis that is sense, is a kind of female’. Quoted in Bynum, Resurrection of the Body 145.Google Scholar
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    Isidore of Seville, quoted in Jacquart and Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine 14. The popular twelfth-century text, De secretis mulierum attributed women’s appetite for sex to the heat generated by the accumulation of menstrual blood. Women’s Secrets: a Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries , trans. H. R. Lemay (New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), 122 (ch. 7).Google Scholar
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    J. W. Baldwin, The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 134. Baldwin’s source is the Dragmaticon of Guillaume de Conches, written in 1146–9. See also Jacquart and Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine 81–2.Google Scholar
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    As Jean Leclercq notes, this ‘ability to interpret everything symbolically was greatly developed in the monastic milieux of the high middle ages, and doubtless also among the clerics, and, though probably to a lesser extent, among the laymen’. Monks and Love in Twelfth-Century France: Psycho-Historical Essays (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 34.Google Scholar
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    Joseph Goering,’The De Dotibus of Robert Grosseteste’, Mediaeval Studies , 44 (1982): 83–109. An edition of the text is appended to Goering’s article, and the date of the treatise is discussed on pages 94–5.Google Scholar
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    Robert Grosseteste, Hexaemeron , quoted in R. W. Southern, Robert Grosseteste: the Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), 219.Google Scholar
  35. 126.
    Although light exists in the order of corporeal things, it has ‘greater similarity than all bodies to the forms that exist apart from matter, namely, the intelligences’. Grosseteste, On Light trans. C. C. Riedl (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1978), 10.Google Scholar
  36. 127.
    Otto of Freising, Chronica sive historia de duabus civitatibus , quoted in Bynum, Resurrection of the Body 182. Otto studied in Paris before joining the Cistercians in 1133. The work quoted from here was begun in the 1140s.Google Scholar
  37. 128.
    This definition of impassibilitas is from J. F. Niermeyer, Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 513. See also Bynum’s discussion of the dowering of the body in Resurrection of the Body 121 ff (especially 135–6).Google Scholar
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    Peter [the] Lombard, Sentences 4.49.4 (1157–8). Peter is borrowing from Augustine, Literal Meaning of Genesis 12.35, quoted in Bynum, Resurrection of the Body 132.Google Scholar

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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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