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Blogging Kalamazoo Session 333: Mastering Humiliation in Medieval Literature

Saturday, May 11, 2019 - 06:55

Saturday 8:30 (Plenary Session)

Bonnie Wheeler, Southern Methodist Univ.

[This is going to be very stream of consciousness.]

Begins with an overview of her experiences with the medieval congress and recognizing how it has changed and continued to work on inclusivity. The need for change and open minds. Kalamazoo as a community and enjoyable experience. Moving on to the paper topic...

A look at how men deal with harmful words and humiliation. In modern culture, we often deal with this only in connection with other cultures. (Political references from current events.) Medieval scholars often posit a contrast between honor and shame, but she suggests that honor is dependent on the experience of shame and humiliation. Overcoming and mastering humiliation is essential for creating literature about masculine power. Chivalric literature is rife with anxiety about masculine humiliation. Understanding masculine humiliation--and how it can be erased--is essential for understanding medieval literary themes.  (A moment to recognize the work of many historians on the topic of emotion and affect in medieval texts.)

These historic literatures were adopted in the 19th century as “national literatures” that were considered to reflect essential character. The focus will be on Arthurian literature, esp. Mallory. “Humiliation” is the public face of shame, the way of experiencing the opposite of worship. But these experiences--honor and shame--exist outside a strict binary. Emotions are themselves culturally constructed experiences, but this position is not uncontested, with the other pole being that emotions are abstract bodily experiences that have objective meaning and reality.

She focuses on the management of humiliation in literary contexts. Example: the unwanted dinner invitation in Norse literature and how cultures are maintained across time by characteristic experiences of envy, shame, etc. Example: gifts create debts, a gift can be seen as an attack. in an honor-based system. In Egil’s saga, Egil wants to manage his own reputation without reliance on external factors such as what others say or do with regard to you. Examples given of creative insults within Old Norse society and how they constructed standards of masculinity. Such taunts and insults require response--in the sagas, this will be violent. Although not all scholars have recognized it overtly, shame is almost always about gender. About the loss of masculinity and feminization. But how do you recuperate from this type of shame/humiliation in literature?

Example: Peter Abelard - Abelard’s social power was largely through eloquent language. The social consequences of his persuasion of Heloise was castration, the ultimate masculine humiliation. How does Abelard recover his reputation from this? In his autobiography, he claims to ahve mastered desire and pride via his castration, thus that his alleged humiliation made him a “better man” by enabling him to resist temptation and sin. He uses rhetorical strategies to side-step the overt meaning of castration and reframe it as positive.

Imaginative literature creates a context for imagining a variety of scenarios of male humiliation and thus to provide a context for examining recuperative strategies. Examples from the Iliad. Humiliation is responded to by prowess--either in deeds or words--but prowess is not a stable feature. Comparison of Roland in the Charlemagne epic with Achilles in the Iliad - both are doomed young heroes whose lives revolve around the maintenance of masculine honor. Example: El Cid, how does a shamed vassal recuperate his reputation? The audience is, throughout aligned to El Cid as the sympathetic character. His accomplishments are enumerated in a way that the reader/listener can recognize. Even though his lord is unworthy, El Cid’s honor is redeemed apart from the worthiness of the one he acts to redeem it from. He gathers lands, goods, allies, and power. Through ritualized acts of public submission, he regains his lord’s approval. Self-abasement is a hyper-masculine weapon against undeserved humiliation. Comparison to the trials of Job. The lesson is how to be “good servants” of power, regardless if power deserves our service.

Example: Yvaine’s failure to keep his vow to this lady must be redeemed by repeated acts of prowess, but his male comrades never participates in voicing his shame, the struggle is internal, balancing the external masculine honor with the internal gender-reversed structures of the chivalric lover. Fear of humiliation drives chivalric valor.  Success for one requires failure for another.

Example: Sir Palomedes who functions as the foil to  the “winners” who have been chosen to be the heroes. Palomedes is good, but his abilities exist to be the loser so others may win, and this is shown to be a humiliation for him. He represents male fear of loss and lack.

Example: 14th c English legal case, plaintiff defends himself by saying he never did anything only said something. Loss was intangible. Earliest know case of defamation. What is “loss of a good name”? How can it be redressed? Is it even a crime? The history of slander law gives us a history of how words were understood as causing harm. Reputation is public property, not a personal attribute. One can lose fame not only by one’s own actions, but on what others say about one. In chivalric culture, the ultimate shame is to be feminized and have it stand uncontested.  Lists of “best knights” contributed to the reputation of the characters. Identity and reputation must be unitary, reciprocal, and public. See e.g., how Lancelot is the constant subject of gossip and rumor. If you’re already the best, how do you maintain that reputation? Lancelot can only address slander by prowess in battle. But his success in battle is not capable of stopping further gossip, and is therefore inadequate to maintain or recover reputation.

The era of the rise of chivalric literature also sees the decline of legal “proof by ordeal”. At the same time, the details of slander law show the instability of licit vs illicit speech.  Church law supports excommunication for slanderers (though a defense was that the subject of the speech was a person of ill fame). Under defamation law, the harm to a person’s reputation might be considered more important than the harm of the actions described by the speech. This could be true even if the slander was true. The intent of the speech was itself a crime. This legal principle was not shifted until after the medieval period.

How do characters like Gawain and Lancelot manage their humiliation? Lancelot’s reputation requires that he be talked about (well) but that same speech is what he is most vulnerable to. Speech and physical prowess are in conflict. He is the best of knights but that is insufficient to counter speech.  Only by speech can speech be countered.

Example of Arthur as a nexus of humiliation and recuperation.

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