Kiss My Relics Hermaphroditic Fictions of the Middle Ages
by David Rollo
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-72461-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-72460-7
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

Conservative thinkers of the early Middle Ages conceived of sensual gratification as a demonic snare contrived to debase the higher faculties of humanity, and they identified pagan writing as one of the primary conduits of decadence. Two aspects of the pagan legacy were treated with particular distrust: fiction, conceived as a devious contrivance that falsified God’s order; and rhetorical opulence, viewed as a vain extravagance. Writing that offered these dangerous allurements came to be known as “hermaphroditic” and, by the later Middle Ages, to be equated with homosexuality.
 
At the margins of these developments, however, some authors began to validate fiction as a medium for truth and a source of legitimate enjoyment, while others began to explore and defend the pleasures of opulent rhetoric. Here David Rollo examines two such texts—Alain de Lille’s De planctu Naturae and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose—arguing that their authors, in acknowledging the liberating potential of their irregular written orientations, brought about a nuanced reappraisal of homosexuality. Rollo concludes with a consideration of the influence of the latter on Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

David Rollo is associate professor of English, with a joint appointment in the Department of French and Italian, at the University of Southern California. He is the author of two books, most recently of Glamorous Sorcery: Magic and Literacy in the High Middle Ages.

REVIEWS

“There is no book now available that makes the arguments that Rollo is advancing with anything near the force of Kiss My Relics. Through it, one is introduced to complex but rewarding arguments about language theory and representation and the interplay between Latin and the vernacular, England and the continent, and religious and pagan literary traditions. I would make Kiss My Relics compulsory reading for students and scholars of medieval intellectual history as well as those in French, English, and Medieval Latin literature.”

— William Burgwinkle, King’s College, University of Cambridge

“David Rollo’s Kiss My Relics stages an important intervention into the study of medieval sexuality and of the Latin and vernacular literary traditions that place sexual material at their center. Beginning with Martianus Capella’s difficult and understudied but highly influential De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, Rollo traces a line of ‘hermaphroditic’ writing that leads (via Remigius of Auxerre and William of Malmesbury) to Alain de Lille’s De planctu Naturae, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Considering the ways in which hermaphroditism is reconfigured as male homosexuality, particularly by Alain and Jean, Rollo argues persuasively that these writers deploy male same-sex eroticism not simply in (expected) homophobic ways but with sympathy; in Jean, male homoeroticism even comes to function as a sign of creative freedom. Kiss My Relics makes us rethink much of what we thought we knew about the history of sexuality, and it will be required reading for the next generation of scholars in this field.”
— Steven F. Kruger, Queens College and Graduate Center, City University of New York

Kiss My Relics pulls off the rather unusual feat of being at one and the same time profoundly learned and yet absolutely hilarious. David Rollo blows the dust off the question of the Romance of the Rose’s relation to its Latin sources to show just how deeply invested medieval culture had from the outset been in a theory of poetic language that allied it with perverse sexual practices, bodily pleasure, and indeterminacy. Kiss My Relics foregrounds the wicked humor and sophisticated playfulness of the Romance of the Rose and its legacy, but it is also a witty and compelling demonstration of just how subversive and playful medieval literary culture could be.”

— Simon Gaunt, King’s College London

“Rollo’s close reading of the sexualized and decadent rhetorical strategies found in De planctu is a joy; it represents the work of a seasoned scholar who knows and appreciates de Lille’s work. Highly recommended.”
— A. L. Kaufman, Choice

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0001
[patron deity, literary studies, Venus, Roman de la Rose, Neo-Platonic, classical past]
This chapter introduces the writings of several figures, each of whom used Venus as the patron deity of pleasures that devolved from reading, writing, or interpreting. Only one of the works addressed, the Roman de la Rose, is central to the modern canon. However, though for long unduly ignored, Alain de Lille's De planctu Naturae, is now on the point of achieving the recognition it deserves, both for its engagement with contemporary concerns over sex, sin, and representation and for the influence it went on to bear on later authors such as Chaucer and Spencer. The chapter considers the other three texts peripheral to literary studies—the early fifth-century Neo-Platonic De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii by Martianus Capella, Remigius of Auxerre's ninth-century commentary on Martianus' work, and William's Gesta regum Anglorum. A wider critical acknowledgment of the first in particular is a matter of some urgency. (pages 1 - 12)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part 1: Martianus Capella, Remigius of Auxerre, William of Malmesbury

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0002
[Martianus Capella, Mercury, intellectual desires, learning, Philology, linguistic codes]
Martianus has set himself the impossible task of writing a treatise on the unwritable. The difficulties of his undertaking are perhaps already obvious. First and foremost, by positing Mercury, the god of higher mediation, as the apposite partner for the intellectual desires of mankind, Martianus is inevitably providing a diffident commentary on the viability of any human or contingent language. He makes this diffidence clear in describing the first stage of Philology's apotheosis, which resolves into a complex ritual of dressing and undressing. The sum of knowledge that Philology yields is not an abstract principle; it is a veritable library of books, material artifacts bound to linguistic codes and to a graphemic intelligibility. Only when voided of this textualized learning can Philology drink the draught of immortality. The textual sum of human learning, therefore, must be jettisoned before apotheosis can be achieved. (pages 15 - 31)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0003
[De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, Philology, Mercury, Olympian gods, physical union, Remigius of Auxerre]
This chapter focuses, in large part, on a medieval commentary on the De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. It analyzes Martianus' work as an ascensional allegory in which the intellect (Philology) strives to join with a transcendent language (Mercury) that would enable humanity to articulate the workings of the divine mind (Pallas). The final result of this endeavor would be represented by the physical union of the first two of these personified categories, whose wedding is celebrated by the Olympian gods and accompanied by lengthy treatises on mortal learning in the allegorical figures of the seven liberal arts. The De nuptiis came to achieve its canonical status in the aftermath of the Carolingian renaissance, and its importance to the era is evinced by the glosses of Johannes Scotus Eriugena, Martin of Loan, and Remigius of Auxerre. Such growth in interest can primarily be explained in pedagogical terms. The chapter also turns to the glosses of Remigius of Auxerre, the most ambitious to have been produced during the ninth century. (pages 32 - 50)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0004
[The Statue and the Ring, English kings, goddess of love, pagan culture, classical past, ancient Rome]
This chapter focuses on one twelfth-century writer's meditations on his own allegedly sinful dalliance with fable and his efforts—eventually triumphant—to negotiate his rebellion against the trends of confining Augustinianism. “The Statue and the Ring” is not only an entertaining interlude in a work explicitly intended as a history of the English kings. It is an entertainment that dramatizes the bedroom influence of Venus, the pagan goddess of physical love and sexual pleasure, carnal appetites that had come to be as rigorously proscribed to men of monastic vocation as pagan belief itself. The very themes of the story go some way to anticipating this type of negative response, creating something of a warning against the revival of pagan culture. “The Statue and the Ring” is, after all, a tale in which the modern Christian inadvertently empowers an aspect of the classical past and does so with deleterious consequences. (pages 51 - 74)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part 2: Alain de Lille: 'De planctu Naturae'

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0005
[Philology, Mercury, Psyche, human soul, voluptas, illecebra, carnal sin]
Early in the De nuptiis, Martianus states that Mercury selects Philology as bride only after discovering that a number of other young women are unavailable. One of them is Psyche, held in adamantine chains in the lair of Cupid. Mention of this allegorical figure for the human soul is accompanied by an account of the gifts she received from the gods at birth. Pallas gave her a cloak of wisdom, Apollo a wand of prophecy, Vulcan flames to light her way, and Remigius reads this reference to Venus bequeathing sexual desire to humanity in lapsarian terms, interpreting the goddess's gifts of voluptas and illecebra as the predisposition to carnal sin that was occasioned by the Fall. (pages 77 - 97)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0006
[humanity, self-vilification, falsigraphus, nature, whorehouses, figurations, harlotry]
Nature habitually resides among the hieratic mysteries of the divine, inaccessible to men and women and accordingly beyond their ken. In the view of Nature, to condescend to humanity, as she presently must, is an act of self-vilification. But it is inevitable, a consequence of the necessity of making herself accessible to the very category she denounces, and that is the falsigraphus, who, as she indicates, already inhabits the context of harlotry she is now forced to enter. In order to be understood, Nature must join the falsigraphus in the whorehouses of the earth and employ the discourse of humanity. This entails recourse to the homoerotic couplings of the language she must now speak and to the displacing figurations she once tried to preclude. But it also entails recourse to something of even greater import. (pages 98 - 123)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0007
[venereal discourse, Nature, post-lapsarian world, whorehouse, sexual metaphor, falsigraphia]
The necessary recourse to falsigraphia brings pleasures of its own. These, obviously, differ from the joys Nature professes to have attempted to institute when God created her as his amanuensis. But whatever such delights may have been is now unknown and unknowable, and full reconciliation with the post-lapsarian world entails a willingness to find beauty in the vulgar whorehouse inhabited by man. Here, Nature is a participant in activities she claims to abhor, yet in this case her grammar of revulsion is contradicted by a rhetorical opulence of unmatched virtuosity. Nature must, in short, permit herself to be read, with all of the resonances of prostitution such permission entails. To emphasize the whoredom from which she speaks, Nature uses a sexual metaphor to explain the criterion she will employ when choosing her words. (pages 124 - 142)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part 3: Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun: 'Le Roman de la Rose'

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0008
[romance, desire, allegorical figures, the rose, love, Le Roman de la Rose]
While critics have in the past concurred in recognizing the incontrovertible fact that the romance is a narrative of desire, few have devoted detailed analysis to the equally incontrovertible ambiguity of that desire's object. Sylvia Huot has aptly indicated that “the woman pursued by the Lover of the Rose is so deeply hidden and fortified behind multiple obstacles, so obscured beneath a proliferation of allegorical figures, that it is difficult to be certain that there even is a woman there at all.” And Sarah Kay has justifiably remarked: “The 21,000 lines of the Roman de la Rose recount the desire of the lover for union with the mysterious ‘rose,’ and the story ends when he gets it. But what is it that he has ‘got’?” In an effort—diffident, at this early stage—to answer Kay's question, this chapter considers the circumstances in which the lover first encounters the rose with which he falls in love. (pages 145 - 167)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0009
[euphemism, romance, Reason, love and friendship, carnal desire, Le Roman de la Rose]
The debate on the desirability of euphemism has become one of the most highly scrutinized parts of the romance, particularly with regard to the role of Reason. John V. Fleming has adopted the most critically eccentric view, arguing that Reason's defense of Augustinian caritas over all other forms of love and friendship (including the carnal desire that impels Amant) reflects Jean's espousal of a reasoned altruism as the ideal foundation for human negotiations. The position of his explicit antagonist in this debate, Thomas D. Hill, has proven, nonetheless, to be far more influential. Reason, Hill contends, is herself constrained by Jean's irony and periodically betrays the inadequacies of the category she personifies. (pages 168 - 190)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0010
[pedagogy, Amant, Reason, fable, charitable love, semiotics]
Reason identifies Amant's shortcomings as an error of interpretation, and, through her references to pedagogy and literacy, Jean invites his own readers to interpret the sense underlying the “fable occure” of Saturn that he has made her recount. As observed previously, Reason introduces the fable as an aside to her discussion of justice and its merits relative to charitable love, and, in this, its primary context, it hardly seems obscure in significance. However, it is indeed relevant to the debate on words and things, since, like the remarks Amant and Reason make on God's implication in semiotics, it addresses the transition from one era to another and complements the wider concern with the proper way to signify in the wake of the Fall. (pages 191 - 214)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- David Rollo
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226724607.003.0011
[Pardoner, figurative sodomy, personal greed, Chaucer, absolution, sexual metaphor, sexual pleasure]
In the very act of administering his absolution, the Pardoner is prepared to engage in figurative sodomy. His relics are, of course, fake, and his pardon, even if genuinely a sign of empowerment bestowed by the pope, has been perverted to the satisfaction of personal greed. Chaucer, therefore, does not explicitly condemn the purchase of absolution. Rather, he warns of the extent to which it can be corrupted by the unscrupulous. And this is the sense of the sexual metaphors he uses to render the devices through which the Pardoner plies his trade. Figuratively offered as objects of sexual pleasure, relics and pardon are comparably obscene signs of moral deviance, venal perversions of a covenant between pope and people that bespeak the very adage the Pardoner uses as he preaches, “radix malorum est cupiditas.” (pages 215 - 234)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Bibliography

Index