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The Eye of the Flesh

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

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Thirteenth Century Sensual Appetite Ocular Penetration Moral Theology Courtly Love 
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.
    St Augustine, Confessions trans. V.J. Bourke, Fathers of the Church, 21 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953), 60 (3.6).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology in Pseudo-Dionysius: the Complete Works trans. C. Luibheid, Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist, 1987), 138 (2.1025a).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    I am using the term ‘gaze’ here in its broadest sense, not as Lacan defines it: as something prior to and outside viewing subjects, and thus quite distinct from ordinary sight. J. Lacan, ‘The Split Between the Eye and the Gaze’, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis , ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 67–78.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    For biographical and contextual information on Peter the Chanter (d. 1197), see J. W. Baldwin, Masters, Princes, and Merchants: the Social Views of Peter the Chanter and His Circle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), vol. 1: 3–16.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    The Ancrene Wisse enjoyed a large lay readership in the fourteenth century, and has been the subject of a number of recent studies, including: L. Georgianna, The Solitary Self: Individuality in the Ancrene Wisse (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); J. Grayson, Structure and Imagery in the Ancrene Wisse (Hanover: published for the University of New Hampshire by the University Press of New England, 1974); and E. Robertson, ‘Medieval Medical Views of Women and Female Spirituality in the Ancrene Wisse and Julian of Norwich’s Showings’, Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature , ed. L. Lomperis and S. Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). I have used the translation of The Ancrene Riwle (The Corpus MS: Ancrene Wisse) by Salu for quotations.Google Scholar
  6. 24.
    Peter Abelard, Ethics , quoted in M. Lapidge, ‘The Stoic Inheritance’, A History of Twelfth-Century Western Philosophy , ed. P. Dronke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 98. D. E. Luscombe remarks that sin, for Abelard, ‘lies neither in being tempted to do nor in doing what is wrong; it lies between these two moments, in consenting to the initial temptation’. ‘Peter Abelard’, in the same volume, 305.Google Scholar
  7. 43.
    In keeping with classical Greek tradition, Plato’s lovers are both male. Plato, Phaedrus in Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters trans. W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 57–8 (250–1). For a more detailed treatment of Platonic love and its relation to philosophy, see: G. R. F. Ferrari, ‘Platonic Love’, in The Cambridge Companion to Plato ed. R. Kraut (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 248–76.Google Scholar
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    L. K. Donaldson-Evans, Love ’s Fatal Glance: a study of Eye Imagery in the Poets of the Ecole Lyonnaise (Mississippi: Romance Monographs, 1980), 11–14.Google Scholar
  9. 49.
    Cline lists the extraordinary range of ocular feats and associated weaponry found in the Arabian Nights: the weapon may be ‘cast by the eye (1: 177; 2: 1020; 5: 3025), or by the lid (1: 541), or by the lashes (2: 773), or by the eyebrows acting as a bow (4: 2628), and it pierces the bosom (4: 2628; 5: 3025), or heart (1: 568; 2: 782, 1081; 4: 2499, 2628), or core (2: 773, 782), or soul (1:177), or brain (5: 3025). The eye is powerful, sending the ‘dreadful sword-lunge of her look’ (2: 864), and has the sharpness of a Yamáni sword (1: 568), or of a thin-ground sword (2: 773), or a keen-edged scymitar (2: 1111; 3: 1615), and it pierces deeper than swords (2: 764). This weapon, however, produces not so much a wound as sickness or death (1: 177, 541; 2: 1135). The vitals are set afire (1: 121; 3: 1615) and the body is weakened (2: 773–6).’ Cline, ‘Heart and Eyes’, 282. All references are to R. F. Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (New York: Heritage, 1962).Google Scholar
  10. 52.
    An introduction to the treatise is provided by D. L. Clark in ‘Optics for Preachers: the De Oculo Morali by Peter of Limoges’, The Michigan Academician (Winter 1977). Richard Newhauser discusses its provenance as well as Peter’s methods and influences in:’Nature’s Moral Eye: Peter of Limoges’ Tractatus Moralis de Oculo’ in Man and Nature in the Middle Ages , ed. S. J. Ridyard and R. G. Benson (Sewanee,TN: University of the South Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  11. 53.
    The basilisk is featured in medieval bestiaries. See, for example, The Book of Beasts ed. White, 168–9. The creature also makes an appearance in the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) and in the twelfth-century Prose Salernitan Questions (B 05–B 08) The earliest known mention of the basilisk is in Pliny’s Natural History (8.33 and 29.19). Jacquart and Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine 211 n.81.Google Scholar
  12. 60.
    In On Dreams (459b) Aristotle claims that ‘when women during their menstrual periods look into the mirror, the surface of the mirror becomes a sort of bloodshot cloud…The cause is…that the eye is not only affected by the air but also has an effect upon it and moves it…’ Michael Camille reproduces several thirteenth-century illustrations of this phenomenon in ‘The Eye in the Text:Vision in the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Latin Aristotle’, Micrologus VI: La Visione e lo Sguardo nel Medio Evo (Sismel, Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998), 133, 142. In De Secretis Mulierum the infected (menstrual) eye leaves ‘a red mark like a vein’ on the mirror. Women’s Secrets 131.Google Scholar
  13. 78.
    Jocelyn Wogan-Browne remarks that ‘the body as figurative edifice [was] an image newly intense and prevalent in late twelfth- and early thirteenth-century culture’. ‘Chaste Bodies: Frames and Experiences’, Framing Medieval Bodies , ed. S. Kay and M. Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 28. For a detailed account of this motif, see R. D. Cornelius, The Figurative Castle: a study in the Medieval Allegory of the Edifice with Special Reference to Religious Writings (Pennsylvania: Bryn Mawr, 1930).Google Scholar
  14. 79.
    The text was written in Anglo-French and subsequently translated into Middle English. For a synopsis of the Chateau d’amour , see: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050–1500 ed. A. E. Hartung (New Haven: Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1986), 2338–9.Google Scholar
  15. 81.
    The Roman de la Rose was begun around 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris and completed some fifty years later by Jean de Meun. I have used the translation by F. Horgan: The Romance of the Rose (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  16. 92.
    I have taken these details from the ‘General Introduction’ to the Ancrene Riwle: Introduction and Part I , ed. and trans. R. W Ackerman and R. Dahood (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984), 16.Google Scholar
  17. 99.
    E. A. Kaplan, ‘Is the Gaze Male?’ in Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Routledge, 1983), quoted in Stanbury ‘Voyeur and the Private Life’, 148. Stanbury’s understanding of the ‘gaze’ is informed by the work of a number of feminist film theorists including (in addition to Kaplan): M. A. Doane, L. Mulvey and K. Silverman.Google Scholar
  18. 100.
    In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the identification of the penis (or clitoris) with the phallus is illusory: one is an organ; the other a signifier. See ‘The Meaning of the Phallus’ in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne , ed. J. Mitchell and J. Rose, trans. J. Rose (New York: Norton, 1982), in particular 79–80. There has, however, been some debate (and not a little confusion) over the supposed arbitrariness of the penis-phallus relationship in recent feminist theory. For two contrasting responses to this question, see: E. Grosz, Jacques Lacan: a Feminist Introduction (London: Routledge, 1990), 122–6; and E. Ragland-Sullivan,’Jacques Lacan: Feminism and the Problem of Gender Identity’, Sub-Stance 36 (1982): 6–20.Google Scholar
  19. 101.
    S. Stanbury’Feminist Film Theory: Seeing Chrétien’s Enide’, Literature and Psychology 36.4 (1990): 52.Google Scholar
  20. 104.
    S. Stanbury, ‘The Virgin’s Gaze: Spectacle and Transgression in Middle English Lyrics of the Passion’, PMLA 106.5 (Oct. 1991), 1084.Google Scholar

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© Suzannah Biernoff 2002

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  • Suzannah Biernoff

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