The Disavowed Pleasures of Gowther

2078767855_54748512c6It’s the end of the semester: classes to conclude! meetings to attend! papers to grade! exams to compose! deadlines to miss! All of us academics are nearing exhaustion. Agreed! Agreed! And articles to proof! And write! And grants to write! But lord knows it’s not as bad as adjuncting. Lord knows it’s not bad at all. Yesterday one of my students observed that “everyone thinks everyone in the Middle Ages was dirty and stupid, but you make it seem like they were just like us.” My response: “Yeah…stupid.” Thankfully she got the (perhaps ill-advised) joke, and I hope she gets what drove it: another attempt to drive out any sense of temporal superiority or, for that matter, nostalgia. Strangely enough, her comment came after a class on Sir Gowther, in which I went after the familiar strange mixture of titillation and sanctimoniousness in its opening stanzas. It starts:

God, that art of myghtis most, Fader and Sone and Holy Gost, That bought man on Rode so dere, Shilde us from the fowle fende, That is about mannys sowle to shende All tymes of the yere!

I observed that the lines looks like any of the usual invocations for a Middle English narrative (cf The Avowyng of Arthur and Emar√©), but they’re not in fact, at least not yet, calling down a blessing on its audience. Rather they throw up a barrier against demonic forces, whose ability to “shende” the human soul is in fact a direct result of the infernal thoughts this very poem inspires. See Neil Cartlidge, at 136, which observes that the opening stanzas problematize

the whole business of tale-telling by implicitly raising the question of discursive responsibility: for if it is accepted that describing the Devil’s activities in any sense invites them [a point Cartlidge had already established], then the author’s decision to tell the story of Sir Gowther has to be morally questionable.

Not only morally questionable, then, but also an invitation to bodily injury or erotic sin: for the primary demonic threat in Gowther is not to the soul: “Sumtyme the fende hadde postee / For to dele with ladies free” or, as it explains later on, demons “sarvyd never of odyr thyng / But for to tempe wemen yon.” By casting its protective net over the readers, the prayer implicitly interpellates them, and its orator, the collective “us,” as women-about-to-have-sex-with-(or -be-raped-by-) demons. This is, after all, what demons do, at least within the confines of this poem. The flirtation of these newly hailed women with–or their perilous proximity to (so much depends on how we understand the demonic sex!)–infernal forces occurs simply because of the telling, and the desire for, this poem, which, according to the poem’s own self-promotion, is a “ferly” or “selcowgh” thing to hear. What have we, the listeners, gotten ourselves into? Something–what, I don’t quite know yet–much more than the “schame” from which the narrative voice hopes to be shielded. Something terrifying, wonderful, strange, uncanny, monstrous, something in which cupidity and fear and disavowed desire, surely the seed of shame, are inextricably intermingled. In the most straightforward reading, that shame (“As Cryst fro schame me schyld”) is the shame of relating the particular details of how demons, despite lacking bodies of their own, impregnate women. The shame here may also be the shame of lacking a proper explanation for the events of the poem: according to a scholarly consensus (see Aquinas (reply obj 6), who agrees with Augustine), demons do not impregnate women themselves, but rather artificially inseminate women with stolen semen, and thus “the person born is not the child of a demon, but of a man.” Because the demonchild Gowther, in other words, should not actually be a demonchild, the shame here is in part the shame of getting the doctrine wrong and then cheekily ascribing the (willfully mistaken!) notion to the misunderstood scholars (“Therof seyus clerkus, y wotte how”). Mostly, however, I think the shame is the shame of wanting to hear this story, despite or indeed because of its dangers, a story of women suffering macerated breasts, friars thrown off cliffs, parsons hung on hooks, nuns (at least in one of the manuscripts) raped and burned to death in their own convent, a story, that is, crowded with the grand guignol of hagiography.

Jesu Cryst, that barne blythe, Gyff hom joy, that lovus to lythe Of ferlys that befell.

And that’s the beginning of the introduction’s final stanza. Give us joy indeed, and give us, but not too much, protection from the shame of our own joy. Although Robert Mills’ Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture is only on my shelf, not yet read, I felt certain enough to wind things up by linking the desire for Gowther and the hagiographic pendulation between imitatio and admiratio with the purportedly pious obsession in hagiography with mutilated erogenous zones: faces, breasts, skin, genitals, the beautiful naked bodies of men and women, boys and girls, virgins mostly, made to live out, and die for, fantasies badly veiled by sanctimoniousness. It’s this reading that led to the student remarking on the medievals being just like us. Of course I’ve just committed a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to believe that my student, and by extension all my students, found themselves implicated, caught up, in Gowther‘s pious titillation of torture. Gowther Recommended Bibliography

Blamires, Alcuin, “The twin demons of aristocratic society in Sir Gowther” Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance. Ed. Nicola McDonald. Manchester UP. (2004), 45-62


Cartlidge, Neil. “‘Therof Seyus Clerkus’: Slander, Rape and Sir Gowther”, in Corinne Saunders, ed., Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England. D. S. Brewer, 2005, 135-47


(our own) Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, “The Body Hybrid: Giants, Dog-Men, and Becoming Inhuman,” in Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minnesota UP, 1999, 119-141.


Gilbert, Jane, “Unnatural mothers and monstrous children in The King of Tars and Sir Gowther.” Medieval Women: Texts and Contexts in Late Medieval Britain. Essays for Felicity Riddy. Ed. Jocelyn Wogan Browne, et al. Brepols, 2000, 329-344


McGregor, Francine, “The Paternal Function in Sir Gowther.” Essays in Medieval Studies 16 (1999):67-78


Saunders, Corinne J., “Symtyme the fende”. Questions of rape in Sir Gowther.Studies in English Language and Literature: “Doubt wisely”. Papers in honour of E.G. Stanley. Ed. M.J. Toswell and E.M. Tyler. Routledge, 1996, 286-303


Uebel, Michael. “The Foreigner Within: The Subject of Abjection in Sir Gowther.” Meeting the Foreigner in the Middle Ages. Ed. Albrecht Classen. Routledge, 2002, 96-118.