From: "Daniel F. Melia" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To provide another oblique take inspired by the very lucid posting on what might be called social metaphors in Malory, I raise the example of the narrative use of the _geis_ [pron. 'gesh'; nom. pl. _gessa_, 'gessa'] in Irish heroic narrative (and continuing into modern legend and maerchen). A geis is a kind of congenital or magically acquired injunction to do or avoid doing something which is possessed by high nobility in medieval Irish tradition. It is often translated "taboo", though I think that this may mislead. Some gessa are sensible (CuChulainn, the "hound of Culann" has a geis to avoid eating dog meat) and some appear random (not to settle a quarrel among three brothers, for instance). They only appear in narrative, however, as a McGuffin of a particular kind: the ONLY way a hero can meet his death in this tradition is to get into a situation in which he must systematically violate his gessa. [See my article, "The Death Tales of the Ulster Heroes," in _Studia Hibernica_ 16/17 for an extended discussion.] The way in which these violations virtually always take place is that the hero is placed in the cleft stick of violating his (private) geis or appearing "unmanly" in public by being inhospitable or discourteous. Cuchulainn, for instance, pretends to accept dogmeat from his old nurse who has greeted his refusal of it with a complaint that he has got too "uppity" to eat with an old servant. He holds it in his left hand and hids it under his left thigh, both of which become weakened in a subsequent battle, leading to his death.
The seriously overdetermined metaphor here, reminiscent of Achilles, of course, is that one cannot uphold one's public obligations and private necessities at the same time and live. Women do not have gessa in this tradition, though they may impart them (Deirdre, for instance), which supports the contention made about Malory's knights that men are represented as "paying the price" for social order by having their internal behavior _fatally_ constrained.
An interesting feature of the death tales of the Ulster heroes is that a woman is directly involved in setting off the fatal chain of events in each case, though the reasons offered are quite varied. There is, I think, an underlying argument in these stories that the combination of gessa and women is fatal no matter how you try to duck it. Power kills, absolute power kills absolutely.
Some recent reading I've been engaged with has reminded me of an interesting post made early in the discussion by Bruce Holsinger, who wrote that we should "keep in mind that some of the most compelling and powerful images of masculinity in the Middle Ages didn't have much at all to do with the penis"; the humors, for example, "may be just as if not more important than genital arrangement in the determination of gender identity." (2 Nov).
I agree wholeheartedly with Bruce. At the same time, I have been struck by the anxiety over the loss of one's penis/testicles/phallus that haunts the writings of Liudprand of Cremona, especially the _Antapodosis_ and _De Legatione Constantinopolitana_. Eunuchs appear in almost every chapter; castration is the universal punishment for crimes against authority of any kind. Sometimes these scenes are merely humorous (not in Bruce's sense!), as when Liudprand describes Willa's boy-toy priest: "Those who turned the priest into a eunuch declared there was good reason for the love his mistress bore him: his tool, they discovered, was worthy of Priapus himself" (In this case the penis has little to do with the man, everything with the errant woman); sometimes they are puzzling, as when Liudprand presents a delighted Constantine with "four carzimasia, that being the Greek name for eunuchs who have had their testicles and penis removed;" sometimes castration is a rhetorical device that allows Liudprand to reduce his enemy to a feminized position (all the Greek bishops become, by a *lapsus linguae* which delights him, "capones"); but most often these vignettes are tense, and provoke what might be called gender-anxiety, as when the bishop doesn't know how to describe a Greek eunuch appointed leader of an army: "As general of this force...[the emperor] has appointed a man of sorts - I say of sorts because the fellow has ceased to be a male and has not been able to become a female... [He is] a gentleman of neither gender."
Castration is also a popular punishment, transforming a man not only out of his potential heroism, but out of his "proper" gender altogether. Performed upon the most private of parts, the punishment is the most public of rebukes. The eunuch is one marginal case that helps us to read heroism/masculinity from another angle; are there others?
In this brief post I should like to draw attention to a lesser known text and body of texts that provide the framework for a condensed and minimalist realization of the heroic, far from the expansive and emotionally explorative monologue and dialogue of Arthurian heroes who have been so profitably discussed in recent days. My concern is heroic understatement and heroic self-disparagement which, I shall argue, is actually the most reduced form of its antithesis. In the culminating battle scene of The Sagas of the Sons of Droplaug (Droplaugarsona saga), an Icelandic work from the thirteenth century, the venturesome but not particularly endearing Helgi Droplaugarson is fighting outnumbered.
Helgi's shield was much hacked about; he saw that it wouldn't be much more use to him as it was. Then he showed his fighting skill by flinging his sword and shield into the air and, catching his sword in his left hand, he struck at Hjarrandi and hit him on the thigh; the sword didn't bite but glanced off it down to the hollow of the knee, and that wound put him out of action. Just at that moment Hjarrandi struck at Helgi, but he warded off the blow with his shield, and Hjarrandi's sword jerked into his face, striking his teeth, and cutting his lower lip. Then Helgi said, `I was never good-looking, and this hasn't improved me much.' Then he grasped his beard in his hand, thrust it into his mouth and bit on it; Hjarrandi lurched into the snowdrift and sat down. People say that their encounter would not have lasted so long if Helgi had had his own sword, and had not had to face so many, yet Hjarrandi was a very brave man (Ch. 10, trans. Eleanor Haworth and Jean Young).
The Icelandic sagas offer repeated examples of close-mouthed heroes dying with a mocking and often self-mocking quip on their lips. This strain of heroism, the strong and silent type, is still with us in the Western movie or in the adventure pulp. Now we psychologize the hero and invent an early trauma to account for this reticence. The antiemotional stance of the earlier hero seems intended to leave no chink open to the enemy. Nothing moves him in his implacable heroism and commitment to aggressive or vengeful action. But the paradox is that deeds are mute and have no internal means of record. For heroism to be more than ephemeral, the hero's action must be commuted into community record. One of the best ways of ensuring this, the taciturn heroes seems to have understood, is not to be completely silent, but to select carefully the words you will be remembered for. Here we have the whole spectrum of heroic action boiled down to a performed maxim, a grim but, through rhetorical compression, often surprisingly graceful exit in a self-deprecating one-liner that is meant to have just the opposite effect on the hero's future reputation. His final supremacy in the heroic life, even when defeated by enemies, was that he could leave it so lightly.
Will Sayers email@example.com
Date: Wed, 24 Nov 1993 11:39:49 PST
Who needs heroes? Anthropologists have pointed to common socioeconomic conditions and societal organizations that require, encourage or permit the emergence of warrior elites--heroic societies, from which the medieval western European cultures most of us study had far evolved. What does the arrival or revelation of the hero tell us about the society to whose rescue he comes? Arrivals are in the nature of a type scene and successive thresholds must be crossed: doorkeeper, royal counsellor, initial dialogue with the king himself. A considerable range of prior conditions is found in European literature. The need may be for internal policing against enemies that are human, monstrous or supernatural. Here, each work, it seems, tells us something rather different. External enemies perhaps require less in the way of symbolic interpretation. Or there may be no apparent need, unless it be to find suitable defusing occupation for warrior energy, as in the romance where the quest may be spiritual or simply the acquisition of glory and treasure in distant lands.
The hero may come already equipped with all his society's skills, as does the Irish Lug in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, but a more persistent pattern is of the youthful hero as a kind of cultural blank who must first be given society's stamp and then assigned to its problems. The Bildungsroman has a similar dynamic, although postRomantic attention is focused more on the individual than society. The proto-hero may be of the coal-biter type, to use the Icelandic nomenclature, someone who is slow to develop and lies around the fire. Or, the young hero may be precocious, but untrained or not yet acculturated. One example that I find amusing to recall is in Chretien's Perceval where the hero's mother takes away some of his light javelins lest he appear too Welsh, a clear recognition on the part of the French writer of differences between Anglo-Norman and Welsh military technology and tactics, just as he perceived and utilized the difference between French and Celtic story material. That the historical Arthur may have been no less British than Perceval is, of course, not a matter of concern. The young hero may not be recognized for his true worth at court and may be asked to come again the next day (Culhwch and Olwen) or may disrupt the court, redefining its semiotic system until a compromise is worked out (Boyhood Deeds of Cu Chulainn).
In all of this, the young hero and the masculine is associated with the dynamic, change and the need for change, leaving stasis and continuity as the more restricted feminine field of action.
Will Sayers firstname.lastname@example.org
Date: Fri, 26 Nov 93 14:51:16 CDT
Before the month runs out, I'd like to add a word, necessarily brief, to the discussion of Heroes and their Friends. If only for the sake of the record, I must mention one of the most unjustly and inexplicably overlooked pairs in medieval literature, Lancelot and Galehaut. Galehaut, who is a principal character in the early-13th-century Lancelot en Prose, is better known, alas, as Galeotto--thanks to the fifth canto of Dante's Inferno--little more than the pander who brings Lancelot and Guenevere together in the book that Paolo and Francesca are reading.
In the French romance, however, Galehaut, the unusually tall son of the Fair Giantess, lord of the Distant Isles, is one of the most upstanding knights in the world, a very model of chivalric masculinity, a valorous, magnanimous feudal lord rich and powerful enough to envisage conquering the Arthurian kingdom. At about the age of forty, he encounters Lancelot, a new knight at Arthur's court and half his age, and falls in love with him. The two become inseparable friends, and it is because of this affection that Galehaut renounces all attempts to defeat Arthur--attempts which we are led to believe would have been successful--and self-denyingly helps Lancelot to become the Queen's lover. Galehaut devotes himself to the promotion of Lancelot's interests, and this means, among other things, to the protection of Guenevere when the False Guenevere denounces her as an impostor. The romance analyzes at length and in fine detail the relationship of Galehaut and Lancelot and, in particular, describes most movingly how lovesick Galehaut is for the younger man. In the end, Galehaut dies of heartbreak upon hearing a (false) report of Lancelot's death; years later, when Lancelot himself dies, he is buried next to Galehaut.
It is customary to see in the Lancelot a love triangle with Lancelot, Arthur, and Guenevere at the three corners. THat triangle, though, to be fair, needs to be seen as interlocking with another, formed by Galehaut, Guenevere, and Lancelot. Or, to put it another way, just as Lancelot and Arthur have competing claims on the Queen, the Queen and Galehaut are in competition for the love of Lancelot.
More later, I hope.
Another pair, incidentally, that have not been mentioned but are surely worth looking at in the context of November's postings are the epic friends Ami and Amile.
Samuel N. Rosenberg Indiana University
As expected, last week yielded a rather low number of posts on Medieval Masculinities; most American academics were enjoying an extended holiday, and (after a weekend of indigestion caused by too much turkey and family) are just now getting back to their computers. Rather than issue a Week in Review, then, I've decided to say a few words about how the discussion might proceed from here.
Only a few weeks remain in which to examine the set of topics that "masculinities" has brought: December 15 will be the last day of discussion. I realize that we are about to enter one of the busiest times of the academic year, when those of us who teach are inundated by papers, finals, and end of the year administravia. If this discussion is to come to a successful close, its participants must stay committed to its continuity. If we've all learned anything from Masculinities so far, it's that we're engaged in exploring something of great importance to medieval studies; let's not give up on it so near the end.
Let me also implore those of you who have been lurking but not posting to do so now. We don't want our colloquium - our gathering of colleagues run by a few, vocal members alone: this discussion is a forum where all should participate. Those who conceive of Interscripta as a lecture hall instead of a conversation are depriving everyone of their thoughts, reactions, work. We are all students here as well as teachers; our role as the latter tells us how important a free interchange of ideas is to the overcoming of silence, to public progress in knowledge. Through private e-mail I've heard much anxiety about whether posts need to be situated in contemporary gender theory (they do not), part of a work in progress (no), or longer than a paragraph or two (any well thought-out post will be distributed). If we all waited until we had the time to do this, no one would ever post to Interscripta!
So that we can circle back a little and perhaps tie up some threads tha have become rather loose, I am reposting the discussion summaries from all the previous weeks. Please read them over carefully, and feel free to follow up on anything they contain. Or post on a related topic of your own choosing: all of us participating in this virtual colloquium look forward to hearing from you.