The Eye of the Flesh

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


I n the last chapter I began to map the elusive contours of medieval flesh in contrast to the ideal of an orderly, passive and useful body. My argument here is that carnal vision extends the appetite and attributes of the flesh beyond the boundaries of individual bodies. Sight lends the flesh an intersubjective dimension; it literally carries carnality outside the viewer’s corporeal envelope and into the world: even into other bodies. As evidence for this claim I will consider the discursive relationship between the flesh and the eye of the flesh, beginning with the increasingly prominent role of sight in medieval commentaries on the temptation and fall. The second half of the chapter will focus on the sexualised nature of carnal vision in moral theology and amatory literature. In both discourses of desire the eye is eroticised as an organ of penetration and a penetrated orifice, closely resembling the flesh in its permeability and libidinal activity. For anyone familiar with psychoanalytic theory, these figures of sight will seem familiar. Yet carnal vision cannot adequately be explained by current notions of the gaze. In the sources discussed here there is no paradigmatic masculine gaze which might be denied to, or appropriated by female viewers.3 Rather, looking with the flesh is a means of sensory and sensual intercorporation: erotic, but also potentially threatening; and if anything, feminised by virtue of its grounding in carnality.


Thirteenth Century Sensual Appetite Ocular Penetration Moral Theology Courtly Love 
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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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