Middle English Word of the Moment

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Redefining masculinity: Pierre Abelard

To continue with the theme of men losing their bits!

I'm opening the discussion in our seminar today, which is on male bodies and defining masculinity, specifically the body of Pierre Abelard and his attempts to rewrite himself in his Historia Calamitatum after he was castrated by a rampaging mob of respectable uncles[1]. So here are my rough notes for the occasion!

For those who might not know, Abelard was a 12th century philosopher/scholar/theologian, one of the most brilliant men of the age. While attending university, he earned his keep by teaching Heloise, a young woman who was possibly more brilliant than he was. They had a passionate affair, until they were unfortunately found out, the uncle got rather annoyed and Abelard married her to placate him (though interestingly, Heloise didn't seem too pleased with that course of action). Unfortunately, it didn't work. After the spot of mob violence, he packed his wife off to a convent and (later) became a monk himself, while continuing his rather obnoxiously intellectual career and making many enemies. His Historia is actually a letter to a friend, written many years later, telling the story of his life to date in the vein of "stop whining, mate, see how much worse off I'VE got it".

The other two readings are "Separating the Men from the Beasts: Medieval Universities and Masculine Formation", by Ruth Mazo Karras in her From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002; and Martin Irvine's "Abelard and (Re)Writing the Male Body: Castration, Identity and Remasculinization" in Bonnie Wheeler and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, eds, Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

I shall work on the daring assumption that everyone has (mostly) read the readings and therefore not summarise them: instead, I'll explain and pose three questions which I at least think are interesting and hope might lead to discussion!

- Was marriage also a type of castration for Abelard?
Irvine talks of two 'castrations' in Abelard's life - the physical one, and the intellectual one later at his trial for heresy. But was there a third, before all this?
- Karras talks about the effect of young men being brought up in what she calls "the university model of masculinity", and the necessity to prove yourself within it. Abelard seems to have begun his formal schooling, if not his university life, very young, and explicitly says that he renounced the school of Mars - the traditional field of masculine proof and endeavour - for that of Minerva. He's undeniably a very competitive and proud man, and presumably not going to look well on anything which got in the way of his advancement as a man in the world of intellectuals. Marriage wasn't really compatible with a career in holy orders or the university - and Abelard tells us that eunuchs can't have a position in the church either.
- Karras discusses how women were considered to fit into university life - only as a vehicle for sexual release, not for marriage or emotional involvement. "Courtly ideas of love played little role" (Karras 227) - but much of Abelard's early poetry to Heloise uses courtly language. Was it perhaps easier for both of them to pretend it wasn't happening if she was characterised as a prostitute? Later in her first letter, Heloise says she'd prefer the name of whore to wife.
- But how much of this is Abelard reconstructing his past from a distance, with the instinctive Pavlovian response to getting castrated after marriage that says "God smote me for this, IT WAS BAD we must not think any good of it at all"?

- Why did Abelard's enemies take such savage advantage of his castration to deny him even grammatical masculinity?
- It's tempting to take Abelard's story as an exaggeration here and there, with his emphasis on his own cleverness and everyone's adulation of him, and also the degree of persecution from his enemies. But see Irvine's quoting of the letters of his enemies to him (92-93), containing jibes like Roscelin's "a noun of masculine gender, if it falls away from its own gender, would refuse to signify its usual thing... since the part that makes a man has been removed, you are to be called not "Petrus" [a masculine noun] but "imperfectus Petrus"".
- Consider the metaphors of fencing within the elaborate scholarly disputatio. Fencing or jousting is a traditional way of physically proving oneself against one's (masculine) opponents, but is usually meant to be in game rather than earnest. But of course, sometimes, people would cross the line, or take something too seriously, or just see red, and it would pass into anger and people really getting hurt. Is this sort of vicious professional rivalry a reflection of that? the need to seriously injure your opponent before he could come back at you with a stronger attack?
... or was he just that unpleasant a man to have to argue with that people really did hate him?

- Did the existence of comparable social roles, like "eunuch" and (to a lesser extent) "Jew" have an effect on how Abelard could define his masculinity?
- We'd tend to understand him today as a man who'd had an unfortunate accident, suffered a loss to his symbolic masculinity perhaps, but still a man. But they had a third social 'gender', which we don't have anymore: eunuchs. Not terribly prevalent, but here and there, usually outside society, with specific roles. Similarly, the partial eunuch, the circumcised Jew (see Irvine 100), very much a social pariah. "Truncating this member is the height of foulness" and "no woman would give her consent" to be had by such a man.
- Both historians mention eunuchs, in passing, but neither of them really discusses their possible effect on Abelard's understanding of his own social position. Abelard tells us that eunuchs can't take up a position in the Church, and is repulsed by the idea of St Origen's self-castration. The use of castration as a punishment can't have helped this negative view of eunuchs. (Admittedly, as a punishment it's usually as part of execution, see Hugh Despenser!)
- Perhaps the existence of these social groups who weren't properly a part of ordinary society increased the stigma or shame of being castrated?

[1] Alright, one respectable uncle. But he brought his friends along!

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