Abelard's narratives of emasculation and remasculinization participate in a large body of discourse and genres that represent bodily mutilation and stories of castration anxieties generally, and the cultural meaning of the events narrated in Abelard's letters must be sought in the larger social system of values and identities within which they were produced. I can only point out a few exmples here, but they can serve as compass points on a larger map.
Narratives of emasculating mutilation abound in accounts of the crusades, local wars, and revenge in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For example, Guibert of Nogent relates castration anxiety nightmares in his autobiographical memoirs (De vita sua), and tells war stories with graphic descriptions of genital mutilation, such as the account of Thomas of Coucy, who often hung his enemies up by their testicles and penises until the organs were ripped from their bodies (3.11). Guibert also relates the story of a young man who, on a pilgrimage to repent from a non-marital sexual union, was commanded by the devil to cut off his offending sexual organ and then use the same knife to slit his throat (3.19).
There are similar revenge narratives where men are castrated by other men offended by discovered sexual intercourse, usually consensual, with a kinswoman. Castration was a recognized punishment for adultery in some regions, though the courts sought to control the application of the penalty. Canon law also prescribed castration for a Christian European found guilty of adultery with a Saracen woman.
Other castration stories indicate that genital mutilation was often used against clerics and monks for sexual crimes. In the twelfth century, a nun at Watton, a monastery of the Order of St. Gilbert, disliked the cloistered life, fell in love with a young canon, and she became pregnant. When the disgrace became known to the sisters, the canon fled but was then caught by the sisters and brought back to Watton. The guilty nun, in the presence of her sisters, was forced to castrate her own lover and then return to her cell.
Hugh of Lincoln (d.1200), from the knightly class in Burgundy, a Carthusian monk and bishop of Lincoln soon canonized after his death, was relieved of his intense sexual desire by a miraculous castration: one night a saint came down from heaven and castrated him, giving him only calm from that moment on.
The fabliau Prestre crucifié dramatizes social anxieties about middle class adultery with clergy in the portrayal of a priest who is castrated by a sculptor of crucifixes who surprises his wife in bed with a priest. When the sculptor returns home, suspecting what his wife was up to, the priest jumps out of bed and decides to hide by mounting a newly carved cross and playing the body of Christ. Considering the body on the cross, the sculptor decides that the prick and balls are not right so he cuts them off, leaving the mutilated priest to flee into the street.
These are only a few examples of numerous accounts and representations of physical emasculation, both fictional and historical, and Abelard's narrative is significant for its attempt to play down the importance of the physical violence, repressing the full psychic and social trauma in the construction of a moral and spiritual drama.
We do not have only Abelard's self-dramatization to recover the social valence of his castration. In around 1120, Roscelin of Compiegne, a teacher of dialectic and enemy of Abelard, wrote a vicious attack against Abelard in response to Abelard's criticism of Roscelin's teachings. Roscelin's open letter against Abelard was written soon after Abelard's relationship with Heloise, his castration, and his entry into monastic life had become widely known (1117-18). Roscelin concludes his letter with a spiteful commentary on Abelard's identity. Abelard has no identity in Roscelin's view: he is neither monk nor cleric or layman, and he has no name, not even Petrus, since a masculine proper name loses its signification once its subject changes gender:
But, to be sure, you are lying that you can be called "Petrus" from conventional usage. I'm certain that a noun (nomen) of masculine gender, if it falls away from its own gender, will refuse to signify its usual thing (rem). For proper nouns usually lose their signification when the things signified fall back from their own completion. A house is not called a house but an imperfect house when its walls and roof are removed. Therefore since the part that makes a man has been removed, you are to be called not "Petrus" but "imperfect Petrus". It is relevant to this heap of human disgrace because in the seal by which you seal your stinking letters you form an image having two heads, one a man and the other a woman... I have decided to say many true and obvious things against your attack, but since I am writing against an imperfect man, I will leave the work that I began incomplete.
According to this argument, Abelard cannot even be represented in language, since his own name is meaningless, a masculine proper noun without a referent. The body's social image in language could hardly be clearer.
Fulco (Fulk) of Deuil, in his parody of a consolation epistle addressed to Abelard around 1118, turns the public response to Abelard's castration into mock-heroic satire with close affinities to fabliau. After accusing Abelard of whoring his money away, he describes in malicious detail how useful the mutilation of certain body parts has been to Abelard (invenires quantum tibi afferat utilitatis particularum ista mutilatio) since he is now relieved from disturbing passions and the heat of lust and sexual pleasure (ardor libidinis et luxuriae). Fulco then mockingly enumerates the benefits of castration for Abelard. Lacking the physical signs and body parts to perform manhood, he will be relieved of the burden of the social performance of masculinity: husbands won't fear that he'll violate their wives and he'll be able to pass through a crowd of married women with utmost decorum. A band of virgins in the flour of youth can revive the libido of old men, Fulco taunts, but they will no have no effect on Abelard. Furthermore, he'll never have to fear the temptations of homosexual society, the need to masturbate after erotic dreams, or the pleasures of bodily contact with a wife. Abelard will be able to imitate the exemplary self-castrator, Origen, and other saints and martyrs who rejoiced to be without genitals (gaudent genitalibus caruisse): "blessed are they who have castrated themselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Fulco concludes the letter with a sarcastic hope that Abelard will persevere in his holy life, so that Christ will restore whatever Abelard has lost in his future body of the blessed.
A window has been opened here: in this body-logic, Abelard's lack is a sign of emasculated desire, both hetero- and homosexual. It is important to note how easily Fulco slips in the possibility of homoerotic experience, "the secret retreats of the sodomites" (sodomitarum secretos recessus), in the catalogue of pleasures denied the eunuch. The implication is that Abelard must now avoid homosexual society (consortia) too, since he can only occupy the feminized position of the one penetrated. For Fulco it is not simply the fact of castration that unmans Abelard: the lack of genitals is a sign of a deeper lack, a deficiency or erasure of virtus, which alone allows the true performance of masculinity. And it was this that Abelard sought to perform through his books, a claim to this inner virtus, a fantasized phallus-substitute, a re-identification with symbolic power.
About twelve years after Roscelin's letter, at the end of his disastrous stint as abbot of the monastery of St. Gildas de Rhuys in Britanny, Abelard turned to a narrative of his own life in the form of a letter of consolation to an unnamed friend, now known as the Historia calamitatum (c.1132). This letter, the first of the collected letters of Abelard and Heloise and the first major statement from Abelard since his condemnation at the Council of Soisson in 1121, is arguably the first work in a project of remasculinization that Abelard undertook in the 1130s. The letter of consolation to a friend is a rhetorical performance of the highest order, woven from several discourses and genres, and a performance that discloses deep gender anxieties and the intense but repressed desire to be reunited to the social body that has rejected him.
Many commentators have noted that Abelard represents himself at the opening of the letter as a knight of dialectic, exchanging the soldier's life for the "weapons of dialectical argument" (dialectarum rationum armaturam). But Abelard shifts his rhetorical posture and subject position several times in the narrative, moving from representation of self as the controlling agent of conquest (in the schools and with Heloise) to one brought low by pride and lusts of the flesh (glory in his own position as magister scholarum and his love of Heloise), to one repeatedly emasculated, victimized, and feminized by enemies who worked to remove his masculine identity as magister and philosophus.
Abelard thus constructs the narrative as a sequence of gendered episodes, moving from his siege of Paris as the leading soldier of dialectic to his two primary emasculations and feminization at the hands of his enemies--his physical castration and his trial at the Council of Soisson--to the hope of another identity as father of the Paraclete community, which Abelard founded and later installed Heloise as abbess. The letter paradoxically draws much of its power from Abelard's gender switching, and here rhetoric and gender combine forces: Abelard deploys the conventions of the ethical appeal in rhetoric--the technique of seizing the benevolence and sympathy of the audience by constructing an appropriate image of character (ethos)--with the conventions of gender, representing himself occupying, quite "unnaturally," the feminine position before the authority of other men.
A pivotal point in the letter is the shift in narrative form when relating the story of his fall in Paris. At this turn, the representation of self becomes a story of feminized victimization, much like the classic female martyr-saints, even though the story is framed as a deserved fall through pride and lust. Although abject from his sense that he had betrayed his host, Fulbert, canon of Notre Dame and Heloise's uncle, he portrays himself as castrated and raped by Fulbert's lackeys and subject to the power and authority of the institution whose power he once eagerly identified with. His subjectivity and identity become a site of heightened conflict: the magister is no longer a full masculine subject but experiences himself more as subject of higher authorities and power, an identity formed by other (masculine) discourses and legal definitions, rather than by forming himself, speaking himself, as possessor of that power.
Let's attend closely to the rhetoric of Abelard's account of his two emasculations. The first act was performed by Fulbert and his kinsmen and relatives (consanguinei seu affines):
They plotted against me with fierce indignation, and on a certain night while I was at rest and sleeping in a private room in my lodgings, they bribed one of my servants with money, and then took the cruelest and most shameful revenge, which the whole world heard about with the greatest wonder; they cut off those parts of my body by which I committed what they complained about.
This is also the language of rape: the invasion of an inner, hidden place (in secreta hospicii mei camera) while he was helplessly asleep. Castration was often used as a punishment for crimes against the orderly traffic in women, where specific configurations of patriarchal culture are maintained by men controlling other men's access to women by strict adherence to class and rank. Fulbert would have assumed the rights of ownership over Heloise's body, and thus the castration of Abelard would have been an act of power over Abelard for violating the traffic laws.
The narrative of his second emasculation, his condemnation and book burning at the Council of Soissons in 1121, is even more revealing. Abelard's political enemies staged a deceptive hearing on his book, On the Unity and Trinity of God, which turned into an illegal trial on his beliefs. It's clear that this council had only one purpose--stripping Abelard of his authority and reputation, a social emasculation. At the end of the lengthy narrative of the conflicts and events at this council--the story takes up two large sections in the letter--Abelard concludes with a rhetorical crescendo in which he not only employs the language of rape and castration, but chooses a female exemplum to identify with. First, he was forced to perform what he describes as a self-emasculation: "without any questioning or discussion they compelled me to throw my book into the fire with my own hands (propria manu)". Abelard's libidinal investment in his book clearly marks it as an extension of his own body as well as his inner masculine virtus. Then Abelard deploys the counter-discourse of the feminine, which uses the victimization to unmask an injustice parading as self-evident authority. At the moment in the narrative when Abelard could have chosen any exemplum, Samson perhaps, he represents himself as identifying with Susanna, an exemplum of an innocent woman facing male accusers. This silencing and book-burning is finally described more like a rape than a castration: "I wept much more for the harm done to my reputation (fame) than to my body... this open violence had come upon me only because of the purity of my intentions and love of our faith which had compelled me to write."
This event is the turning point in the letter for self-representation. Although Abelard appropriates the subject position of the feminine elsewhere in the letter, after the narrative of his humiliation at the Council of Soissons he shifts to an identification with a different masculine image, Origen and Jerome, who became, in medieval cultural symbolization, paternal and almost asexual authorities who directed communities of women and retained phallic power while denying the sexual use of the penis (chastity and self-castration). Abelard's ego-ideal at the close of the letter is that of father, the paternal provider of a community of daughters, Heloise's convent of the Paraclete.
But Abelard's letter was only the beginning of an eight-year campaign to reinvent himself and demonstrate his inner masculinity. I'd like to conclude by advancing a hypothesis that Abelard, stung by the satire and personal attacks of enemies like Fulco and Roscelin and resisting the subject position constructed for him by those in power, sought to defend himself by an apology for the masculine intellect in his Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian. This work can be read as part of a second siege on Paris and it marks a revoking of the victimized feminine position. In this work Abelard represents himself as an arbiter of all philosophical and religious arguments, a supreme Christian philosophus. The Dialogue was probably written between 1136-1139, a time of great literary activity for Abelard and a moment of renewed intellectual influence before his final political emasculation by Bernard of Clairvaux at the infamous Council of Sens (1140). During these years Abelard had returned to teaching in Paris and was also writing to Heloise, collaborating on the building of the Paraclete community, and reinventing his identity as an authoritative teacher. Written shortly after his Theologia Christiana and shortly before his Ethica, the Dialogue can be read as part of an intellectual and moral defense addressed to the academic community centered at Paris.
The dialogue is framed by an attempt to reconcile natural law and Christian ethics, and the greater part of the work is devoted to a synthesis of classical and Christian approaches to the human virtues. But the first part of the dialogue is a discussion of the Jewish law and the meaning of circumcision. Since so much of the Philosopher's dialogue with the Jew is concerned with circumcision, we can read here an anxiety about genital privation and emasculation refracted onto a debate about law, the sign of circumcision, and the hierarchy of mind and soul over body.
Abelard represents the Jew defending the Law based on its difficulty: "Who would not abhor or fear to receive the very sacrament of our circumcision on account of both the shame and the pain? What part of the human body is as tender as the one on which the Law inflicts its wound and also on small infants themselves?" Answering the Philosopher's attack on the irrationality of circumcision, the Jew defends circumcision as a signum, God's indelible mark on the body of his people: the sign of circumcision is so abhorrent to the gentiles that if Jews tried to win over their women, none of the women would give their consent, believing that the truncating of this member is the height of foulness. Circumcision is a signum, a mark or sign inscribed on the body; once done it cannot be undone (aboleri iam non potest). Jews are sanctified to the Lord through the member and instrument of generation, and removing the front part of this member symbolizes an internal cutting off from the beliefs and practices of the Chaldeans. Abelard here stresses the inner, spiritual and mental state, which he argues is more important than the wholeness of the body.
In the second part of the dialogue, the Philosopher defends a philosophical voluptas, not the enjoyment of carnal enticements but a certain inner peace of the soul (quadam interiorem animae tranquillitatem). Since the Philosopher functions as Abelard's persona, this affirmation of inner peace as the goal of philosophy is nothing less than Abelard's attempt to transcend external and bodily deprivations. Inner peace of the soul comes from control of the flesh (domandae carnis exercitium) and the removal of suffering (ab omni passione immunis). The Philosopher is thus Abelard's other ego-ideal, an imagined wholeness, self-absorbed in philosophical voluptas.
Abelard's dialogue can thus be read as an explicit statement of his ongoing project of remasculinization. The attacks by the likes of Roscelin and Fulco are rendered impotent in the face of Abelard's superior intellect and force of argument. For Abelard, the male body is only a shell for the masculine intellect, and the wholeness of one's mind and soul transcend the physical state of the body. Abelard spent nearly two decades fashioning new images of wholeness, new substitutes for the social body he was never invited to rejoin. But throughout his career, Abelard clearly advanced a performative model of masculinity: a man is he who acts like a man, using superior intellect and discourse as the ultimate tools of penetration.
1. The name of Abelard's letter to a friend used twice by Heloise in her first letter to Abelard is ad amicum pro consolatione epistola. References to this letter and to Heloise's first letter are from the edition by Jacques Monfrin, Historia calamitatum (Paris: Vrin, 1962). I will also supply page references to the widely used Penguin translation by Betty Radice, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (London and New York: Penguin, 1974). For Heloise's references to what we call the Historia calamitatum, see Monfrin, p. 111, 4-5 and p. 114, 153. Abelard and Heloise encode their letters with the genre conventions of twelfth-century culture. For background, see my forthcoming article, "Heloise and the Gendering of the Literate Subject," in Rita Copeland, ed., Criticism and Dissent in Medieval Literature (Cambridge UP, 1995).
2. But see R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983), Chap. 4, "Poetry, Philosophy, and Desire, 128-58.
3. See John W. Baldwin, The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994) and Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon, 1978). See also Sarah Kay, "Women's Body of Knowledge: Epistemology and Misogyny in the Romance of the Rose," in Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin, eds. Framing Medieval Bodies (Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1994), 211-35.
4. On Guibert, see George Duby, The Knight, The Lady, and The Priest, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Pantheon), 1983, 139-159, and John F. Benton, ed., Self and Society in Medieval France: The Memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
5. See the references in James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987), General Index, s.v. "castration."
6. See Giles Constable, "Aelred of Rievaulx and the Nun of Watton," in Derek Baker, ed., Medieval Women (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 205-26.
7. See Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, ed. A History of Women in the West, II. Silences of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992), 204, 225.
8. A major compilation of fabliaux containing this text has been conveniently edited with an English translation by Raymond Eichman and John Duval, The French Fabliau B.N. MS. 837, 2 vols. (New York: Garland, 1985); vol. 2, 62-67. On castration in the French fabliau, see R. Howard Bloch, The Scandal of the Fabliau (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986), 59-100.
9. PL 178:357-372. For a modern critical edition of Roscelin's letter, see J. Reiners, Der Nominalismus in der Frühscholastik (Beiträge zur Geschichte der Philosophie und der Theologie des Mittelalters, 8) (Münster, 1910), 63-80. Translations throughout are my own.
10. PL 178:371-372.
11. Fulco's letter, which was included in some later manuscripts of the collected letters of Abelard and Heloise, is printed as Epistola XVI in PL 178:371-76. On the satire in the letter, see Peter Dronke, Abelard and Heloise in Medieval Testimonies (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1976), 26-27.
12. PL 178:373-74.
13. PL 178:367B.
14. Dripping with irony: Sodomitarum secretos recessus, quos detestatur super omnes turpissimos divinae iustitiae veritas, et eorum turpia et maligna consortia, quae quidem semper odisti, de caetero to sine intermissione vitare verum est. PL 178:373.
15. See Monfrin, pp. 71-75; Radice, 66-70.
16. Monfrin, p.79, 581-87; Radice, 75.
17. Monfrin, pp. 82-90; Radice, 78-86. Radice did not retain the section headings that appear in most of the manuscripts of the letter, but they are in Monfrin's edition. I believe these headings were used in the scriptorium of Heloise's convent, which preserved the letters.
18. Monfrin, p. 88; Radice, 83.
19. Monfrin, p. 89, 923-27; Radice, 84-5.
20. Ed. Rudolf Thomas, Petrus Abelardus, Dialogus inter Philosophum, Iudaeum et Christianum. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: F. Frommann, 1970. An inferior edition can also be found in PL 178:1609-1684. For a translation, see Pierre J. Payer, Peter Abelard, A Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1979).
21. Earlier scholars tried to associate the dialogue with Peter Abelard's final years when he was given refuge at Cluny by Peter the Venerable. See Rudolf Thomas, "Die Persönlichkeit Peter Abelards im 'Dialogus inter Philosophum, Iudaeum et Christianum' und in den Epistulae des Petrus Venerabilis," in René Louis and Jean Jolivet, eds., Pierre Abélard--Pierre le Vénérable: Les Courants philosophiques, littéraires et artistiques en Occident au milieu du XIIe siècle. Paris: CNRS, 1975, 255-69, and the studies cited there. For the historical context of the dialogue, see David E. Luscombe, Peter Abelard's Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, xxvi-xxvii.
22. See Luscombe, Peter Abelard's Ethics, xxiv-xxx.
23. Quis non ipsum circumcisionis nostrae sacramentum, cum ex erubescentia tum ex poena, suscipere non abhorreat aut trepidet? Quae tam tenera humani corporis portio, quam illa, cui hanc plagam in ipsis quoque infantulis lex infligit? PL 178:1618D.
24. PL 178:1623D.
25. et a praecedente sua Chaldeorum in fidelium origine, ita moribus se amputent, sicut primam illius membri partem a se removerunt (PL 178:1624B).
26. PL 178:1642A; cf. 1644C-D.
27. PL 178:1642D.
28. PL 178:1643A.