Body politics: otherness and the representation of bodies in late medieval writings


Body politics: otherness and the representation of bodies in late medieval writings

By Martin Blum Fuller

PhD Dissertation, University of British Columbia, 1997

Abstract: This thesis examines the use and function of the human body as a surface that is inscribed with a number of socially significant meanings and how these inscriptions operate in the specific late medieval cultural production. Drawing on Jauss’s notion of the social and political significance of medieval narrative, I seek to determine how specific texts contribute to a regulatory practice by thematizing bodies that are perceived as “other,” that resist or defy an imagined social norm or stereotype. Each of the dissertation’s four chapters treats a different set of notions about the human body. The first one examines Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale and The King of Tars as representations of ethnographic difference. I argue that the late Middle Ages did not have the notion of “race” as a signifier of ethnic difference: instead there is a highly unstable system of positions that place an individual in relation to Christian Salvation History. Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid is at the centre of chapter two that examines the moral issues surrounding leprosy as a stigmatized disease. Reading the text as a piece of medical historiography, I argue that one of the purposes of the narrative is to establish the link between Cresseid’s sexual behaviour and her disease. A discussion of the homosocial underpinnings of late medieval feudal society, particularly in light of Duby’s notion of “les jeunes,” forms the basis of the final two chapters. Chapter three discusses Chaucer’s Legend ofLucrece and the narrative function of rape as a pedagogical instrument with the aim to ensure the availability of untouched female bodies for a “traffic in women” between noblemen. Chapter four examines transgressive sexual acts as the objects of jokes in fabliaux, such as Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. By using shame and ridicule as their main strategy, these texts, I argue, fulfil an exemplary function and act as a warning to young noblemen to maintain an erotic discipline as future heads of feudal houses and as an upcoming political elite.

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Sharan Newman