Logsex in Hell: An Anecdote

The opening to a forthcoming essay, “Nothing to Lose: Logsex and Genital Injury in Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations.”

[content note: sexual coercion and abuse]


The single manuscript of Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations (c. 1200) comprises more than 1000 accounts of visions of and visits to heaven, hell, and less certainly identifiable places, assembled, as Peter explains, to prove that our souls are immortal and that the afterlife exists.[1] The work is chiefly remarkable for its size. It makes no attempt to respond to newly developing concept of purgatory, nor to look much further for its material than the desert fathers, a handful of saints’ lives, writings by Bede and Gregory the Great, and other timeworn, doctrinally tested texts. Even its few unique visions—typically neat accounts of monks or canons who either stay in their cloister or don’t, and who are either rewarded, or aren’t—tend to be narratively indistinguishable from the work’s older material.

This would seem to suit the work for a study of prevailing monastic mentalités, were it not for one story in particular, Peter’s version of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which appears here and nowhere else in medieval storytelling. Uniquely for Peter’s collection, this story says nothing definite about the afterlife or the sensible governance of this or any other world and refuses the easy moralization otherwise common to this genre as a whole and to this compilation in particular. More than that, it’s an astonishing story, outstanding even among the enthusiasm for British clerics of this period (Gerald of Wales, Gervase of Tilbury, Ralph of Coggeshall, inter alia) for assembling collections of wonders and oddities.

It goes as follows: on a small island in Ireland, north of Galway, a knight enters a well-appointed hall, followed soon thereafter by a certain King Gulinus and retinue, who are met with wild applause, as if returning from a hunt. Gulinus chats briefly with the knight, who, on spotting the king’s beautiful daughter, at once “exarsit” [blazes up] with love for her.[2] Gulinus asks the knight if he would like to “uti amplexibus” [use the embraces] of his daughter, and the knight says yes. Then this happens:

And [Gulinus] ordered a servant to prepare a bed for them in a chamber. And this was done. And, lo, when the knight believed he was about to consummate marriage with this girl, his eyes were opened and he saw a most ancient, arid, and misshapen trunk lying between his arms, and his male member was squeezed into a certain hole made in that trunk, which a servant deputed to the task by Gulinus shredded and weakened by striking a nail with a hammer vigorously and very frequently, confining his virile member in that hole, so that the knight desired a hundred times to incur death, if it were possible, rather than sustain such agony even for a brief while. When the foresaid servant had very frequently repeated the blows on the nail with the hammer, and, more narrowing compressing the knight’s penis, had dashed, smashed, battered, and pounded it, and when this knight had suffered these dire straits of tortures and cried out and wailed for the great part of the day, and was exhausted to death, Gulinus said to his ministers, “How’s that knight, our son-in-law, getting on?”

[Et precepit ministro, ut pararet illis in camera straum. Quod et factum est. Et ecce cum crederet se miles uti connubio illius puelle, aperti sunt oculi eius et uidet truncum uetustissimum et aridissimum et deformem iacere inter amplexus eius, et uirilem ipsius uirgam in quodam foramine facto in illo trunco coartatam, quam minister ad hoc deputatus a Gulino contriuit et eneruauit percutiendo uiriliter et sepissime maleo clauum stringens in illo foramine uirilem uiram illius, ut miles desideraret centies si fieri posset incurrere mortem magi squam talem cruciatum uel ad modicum horam sustinere. Cumque predictus minister sepissime claui cum malleo percussiones iteraret, et uirilem ipsius uirgam arctius stringendo collideret, confringeret, quassaret, et contereret, et miles ille per multum diei tempus inter has angustias crutiatuum laboraret, clamaret, eiularet, et usque ad mortem fatigatus esset, ait Gulinus ministris suis, ‘Quomodo se habet miles ille gener noster?’]

When the knight understandably complains, Gulinus offers him a warm bath. Plunged into it, he is boiled and liquefied like wax, then transfixed with icy spikes in the next one. The relaxing game Gulinus offers next is no better for the knight: trussed from the rafters in a “domum ludi” [play house] studded with spiky stones, he is batted about by Gulinus’s ministers “usque ad effusionem cerebri” [until his brains pour out]. This, the knight says, was the worst torment. At length, dawn comes, and he finds himself whole again at the entrance to Purgatory. Peter concludes by scoffing at the reluctance of other men to visit this place, though he admits few “emerge from there without debility or even some loss of mind.”

Peter’s story was one of several accounts of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory that sprang up in the later twelfth century. The most influential appeared around 1170, in Henry of Saltry’s Tractatus de purgatorio Sancti Patrici. Unlike the Book of Revelations, Henry’s work was enormously popular: surviving in some 150 Latin manuscripts, and 300 additional manuscripts of translations and adaptations into nearly all European languages–including, for example, no fewer than seven independent French versions — the Tractatus largely concerns a terrifying penitential journey through a place of torment taken physically (that is, not as a spiritual vision) by an Irish knight, Owein, who then enjoys a brief respite in paradise before returning to this world.[3] Like many of the work’s medieval adapters, modern scholars have tended to concentrate on Owein’s adventure, but Henry ends his treatise not with the knight and his decision to become a monk, but with a series of narrative vignettes in which clerics conquer their desire.[4] The last one concerns a priest who finds an infant girl, left by demons for him in a graveyard. For years, he raises her charitably until the demons tempt him to rape her. He flees her bedchamber, and, outside, as Marie de France’s translation has it, he “ses genitailles trencha / hors les geta de meintenant” [2272-73; cuts off his genitals / and cast them away from him].[5] Nothing more is said of the girl. Not every version or adaptation of Henry’s Tractatus ends with the vignettes; many end with Owein’s return from Purgatory; but Marie’s translation, produced not long after Henry wrote his work, suggests that purgatorial travel, the dangers of sexual desire, and castration or at least genital injury traveled together in the early decades of this tradition, as they do in Peter of Cornwall’s story as well.

Henry’s castration story makes straightforward sense: the priest is tempted, and he removes from himself the target of temptation. Peter of Cornwall’s story of genital injury is far stranger, because it cures nothing, and because it isn’t even the central injury of the story: the knight wants to die when his penis is shredded, but he proclaims the loss of his brains still worse. As expected, my chapter will engage with Peter of Cornwall’s purgatory story, but perhaps less expectedly, will make an argument about its ultimate resistance to interpretation. In particular, I will concentrate on how poorly this story fits within the medieval, largely clerical traditions of castration that would be the expected discourse to which Peter’s story belongs. As I will ultimately argue, Peter of Cornwall’s story features what might be called a non-phallic castration, without admonition or redemption, disassociated from medieval and modern narrative and legal traditions that so often mark it as the injury of injuries.

Getting to this point, however, requires first exhausting the paths of meaningfulness. Although the genital injury will be my major concern, nothing in the story can quite be wrangled into easy sense. Several elements of the story can be classified with pieces of the purgatorial traditional and medieval folklore more generally, just enough to demonstrate that this is indeed a purgatorial story, but also just enough to disappoint the straightforward meaning-making the genre typically invites. Peter has a secular man visit a site in Ireland and then physically travel through a portal to a place where he undergoes extraordinary suffering, in particular, a succession of hot and cold waters, common to many accounts of otherworldly torment. That’s all usual. That he arrives there accidentally is uncommon, but also not entirely unheard of. Though Vincent of Beauvais’s entry on Patrick’s Purgatory in his thirteenth-century historical encyclopedia, for example, explains that the site is guarded by walls and iron doors, “ne quis eam temere et sine licentia ingredi praesumeret”[6] [lest anyone should rashly and without permission presume to undertake it], in Gerald of Wales’s own, roughly contemporary version of the Purgatory, from his History and Topography of Ireland, people arrive at it “forte” [by chance] and there undergo “gravibus penis” [heavy punishments].[7] Even the rocky walls of the Purgatorial playroom hint that Peter really may have got the story, as he claims, from Irish clergy: an eighteenth-century skeptic visited Station Island and marveled at tunnels so “thick set with small pointed Stones, [so] that the greatest Saint in the Church of Rome could not bear it now.”[8] But what is missing is just as striking: the perilous bridge, the demonic invitation to despair and to remain in torment, particular sins – lust, apostasy, and so on – all receiving their appropriate, meaningful torments, and especially the promise to the purgatorial traveler, key to Gerald and especially Henry of Saltry, that he will be relieved of any future otherworldly punishment. All this material, indispensable to other Patrick’s Purgatory stories, is missing.

Of course, what is most striking is what happens between the knight and Gulinus’s daughter. The king and daughter are themselves somewhat familiar: the Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature offers a crowded listing for what it calls “sex hospitality,”[9] and a much larger entry, from Irish storytelling and elsewhere, could be assembled of visitors who find themselves trapped or worse by tasting of the favors of the otherworld. The king’s daughter, unnamed and silent, become a hideous log, recalls fairies from German and Scandinavian folklore, like the skogsrå of Sweden, who appeared as beautiful women from the front, but as a tree or even a hollowed-out log from behind.[10] She might also be connected with the so-called “Sovranty hag” of medieval and, presumably, pre-medieval Irish tales, perhaps most famously reutilized in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale, a repulsive older woman, generally found in a forest, who demands that a hero sleep with her: when he does, sometimes only after his siblings demur, he is rewarded with sovereignty, an answer he needs, and sometimes a now beautiful lover.[11] But Peter of Cornwall’s log lady doesn’t just lack of voice or any indication of independent volition; she is more of an “anti-Sovranty hag,” as she begins in beauty and sovereignty — which we might assume from her connection to her father—and ends in hideousness and the devastation of the knight’s hopes. In becoming not only a log, but an ugly log, she obviously is made to enact a standard, gendered clerical revelation of the disgusting truth underlying all sexual desire, particularly of men for women.[12] Still more might be said about her hardness and dryness, suggestive, among other things, of a masculine transformation away from the proverbial wetness and softness (so that mulier and mollis were linked) often imputed to women in clerical writing.

My main concern here, however, is what happens to the knight’s genitals. Transformed into a twig, and pounded away at with hammers and nails, his penis suffers in a way that looks like punishment directed against the offending member.[13] Technically speaking, this is of course a temporary genital injury, catastrophic though it may be, rather than a castration. This is not unexpected. Although genital punishment is common in the classical, Jewish, and Christian infernal traditions, with women hung on hooks by their breasts and their hair (surely understood, as it is in 1 Corinthians 11:6, as a secondary sexual characteristic) and with men suspended from their penises, actual castration is rare. Coded castration is also a feature of medieval narrative more generally, most famously, in the Parsifal legend, in which the wound to the Fisher King’s thigh blights the surrounding land with infertility. Peter’s monastic audience probably understood the knight’s first injury, then, as castration, and given its purgatorial framing, probably understood it as mortification, expiation, or a warning.

Or they tried to. Without quite accusing these hypothetical monks of misreading, I suggest that they still would have had to struggle to make this text work for them, because the story as a whole neither suits Peter’s stated program for the collection nor makes much sense as record of specifically Purgatorial punishments. Whatever his claims to want to prove the immortality and the real existence of the otherworld, the knight travels in his own body, not his spirit, and encounters no one who ever shared an existence in his own world: no spirits of the dead, no references to the living, none of the privileged knowledge of the present or future to which the dead had access. Furthermore, since this knight neither fasts, prays, nor confesses before entering, his visit to Gulinus and desire for his daughter is far less a penitential motif than one from conte d’aventure.[14] He will learn nothing from his injury, because he has not been seeking knowledge, and because no one has anything to teach him. His tormentors are not obviously demonic, and, unlike Owein, the knight never saves himself by calling out to Christ. No one in the vision, in fact, invokes this name or even acknowledges any divinity, let alone any spirituality. He never sees paradise, and, also unlike Owein, he emerges from the purgatory without a desire to become a monk. He is only weakened, not chastened. None of this would present such a puzzle for signification had Peter of Cornwall not called this a Purgatory, and not included it among so many other, straightforward otherworld visions.

What may be strangest of all is a story of injury to a man’s genitals that just takes it as one among many injuries—a bad one, to be sure, but not the one. The knight suffers the genital injury first; afterwards, he is boiled and frozen, thrashed about, his whole body hideously damaged, but with no sense of order or purpose, without any hint that he gradually learns anything. Juridically and morally speaking, this is parataxic punishment, without the subordination of one injury to another, because things just happen, and then more things happen, horribly, but without any one injury taking absolute precedence over the others. Then he’s expelled and everything stops. If the knight’s injury is technically castration—or at least a stranger version of how otherworldly traditions represent castration—it is not culturally meaningful as castration, neither in its negative valences, nor, especially, in the positive representations of this injury sometimes found in texts praising medieval clerical celibacy. My next section will describe this peculiar feature of medieval culture at length, before I return, in my conclusion, to what the meaningless “castration” of Peter of Cornwall’s account might mean both for our reading of this story of the knight, Gulinus, and the log lady, and for our cultural understanding of castration more generally.

[1] Peter of Cornwall, Book of Revelations, ed. and trans. Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013).

[2] All quotations from this story are from the Book of Revelations, 136-37. Translation is Easting and Sharpe’s, barring “uti connubio,” which they render as “enjoy sex.” Bede’s Ecclesiastical History IX.19 has “uti connubio” in the context of an attempt to convince a holy queen to consummate a marriage, and that seems to be its use here too, given Gulinus’s later reference to the knight as a his “gener.”

[3] The history of the development of the story has been told often. For a brief and thorough account, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 469–70; for an extended treatment, see Michael Haren and Yolande de Pontfarcy, eds., The Medieval Pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory: Lough Derg and the European Tradition (Enniskillen: Clogher Historical Society, 1988).

[4] For a rare exception in modern scholarship, see Peggy McCracken and Sharon Kinoshita, Marie de France: A Critical Companion (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2012), 167–68. For representative medieval witnesses to the Patrick’s Purgatory tradition that end with Owein’s return from Purgatory, see Matthew of Paris, Chronica Majora, ed. Henry Richard Luard (London: Longman & Co., 1874), 203; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 192–94; Roger of Wendover, Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Octavius Coxe, vol. 2 (London: English Historical Society, 1841), 271, Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 1624 ed. (Reprint, Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1964-65), XX.23, 789 (brief and skeptical), and the Middle English versions in Robert Easting, ed., Saint Patrick’s Purgatory (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1991).

[5] Marie de France, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: A Poem, ed. and trans. Michael J Curley (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).

[6] Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum historiale, XX.23, 789.

[7] Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, trans. John Joseph O’Meara, Revised (London: Penguin, 1982), 61, translation slightly modified. Gerald continued adding to the work throughout his life. For the Latin of the first recension, cited above, Gerald of Wales, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension,” ed. John J. O’Meara, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52 (1949): 137. The second recension extends its discussion by naming the site (“Purgatorium Patricii”) and admits the utility of lurid stories of infernal punishment for taming the hard necks of the Irish; Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica, et Expugnatio Hibernica, ed. James Francis Dimock (London: Longman, 1867), 82–83.

[8] John Richardson, The Great Folly, Superstition, and Idolatry of Pilgrimages in Ireland (Dublin: J. Hyde, 1727), 9.

[9] Tom Peete Cross, Motif-Index of Early Irish Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1952), 488.

[10] John Lindow, Swedish Legends and Folktales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 105–7; H. R. Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess (New York: Routledge, 1998), 26; Reimund Kvideland and Henning K Sehmsdorf, eds., Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 217. Most of these records have been collected by modern folklorists since the nineteenth century. For similar Estonian and Russian accounts, see Torsten Martin Gustaf Löfstedt, “Russian Legends about Forest Spirits in the Context of Northern European Mythology” (University of California, Berkeley, 1993), 162–65.

[11] For detailed treatments of this figure, Susan Carter, “Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies Behind Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale,” The Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329–45, and Amy C. Eichhorn-Mulligan, “The Anatomy of Power and the Miracle of Kingship: The Female Body of Sovereignty in a Medieval Irish Kingship Tale,” Speculum 81, no. 4 (2006): 1014–54.

[12] Consider, for example, the story of Gerald of Aurillac’s temptation for a beautiful girl, cured only when the girl miraculously appears “deformed” to Gerald’s sight; cited in Jacqueline Murray, “‘The Law of Sin That Is in My Members’: The Problem of Male Embodiment,” in Gender and Holiness: Men, Women, and Saints in Late Medieval Europe, ed. Samantha J. E. Riches and Sarah Salih (New York: Routledge, 2005), 13–14.

[13] See the table of hanging punishments in Martha Himmelfarb, Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 87.

[14] For a description of the pilgrimage features of the main line of the tradition, Carol G. Zaleski, “St. Patrick’s Purgatory: Pilgrimage Motifs in a Medieval Otherworld Vision,” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 467–85; for the requisite cleansing before entering the purgatory, see G. Waterhouse, “Another Early German Account of St. Patrick’s Purgatory,” Hermathena 23, no. 48 (1933): 115, which ends, unlike the main line of the tradition, with a short exemplum in which a rich man is demonically immolated in life for refusing to believe in Purgatory.

Advertisements