- Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West
Lynda Coon says that her purpose in this book is to "reconstruct the gender ideology of clerical masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body"(p. 2). She has chosen for her subject the work of Hrabanus Maurus (780-856), a monk of Fulda who was one of the most prolific and influential Carolingian authors. The text of Hrabanus that is her main focus is the remarkable In Honor of the Holy Cross.
Beyond the writings of Hrabanus, Coon also analyzes some other Carolingian remains—namely, the Westwerk of Corbey, the Michael Rotunda of Fulda, and the Plan of St. Gall. In all these productions, Coon stresses the element of bricolage—that is, the collecting of items from another culture to make a point. Coon claims that the Carolingians liked to display materials from Roman times to emphasize their role as the guardians of the frontier against the barbarian east.
Overall, Coon's analysis of these monuments is interesting and insightful. However, the acrostic poem on the Holy Cross is so complex and esoteric that it leaves the reader gasping. The author admits that even Hrabanus did not fully understand what he was doing. But Coon proposes to read this material [End Page 764] through gender theory—a method that poses problems, given that medieval monasticism is heavily patriarchal, and it can be misleading to view any institution through a single analytical lens. Coon applies the theory to the Carolingians and states that, for them, the great thing was proper speech. Whoever could speak proper Latin could lead; he was a "mouth person." Whoever could not was a "body person," fit only to listen and be led. In the monastery, illiterates and boys were obviously in the second category. But through the rubric of gender theory, that means they are "feminine," which means passive, heavy, subordinate.
When Coon applies this theory to the Rule of St. Benedict, she says that the abbot is the quintessential "mouth man." He does most of the talking in the monastery; he is the main teacher. He also is the main disciplinarian, who must sometimes physically beat dull or recalcitrant disciples (RB 28.3). Coon adds: "In terms of the Benedictine gender pyramid, being able to beat others (the abbot's ultimate charge [emphasis added]) . . . is a key marker of status." A few sentences later we learn that the rod for beating (virga) is "capable of inflicting blows from sexual penetration" (p. 87). Thus a view of abbot as pederast is presented.
In case the reader doubts that Coon is serious about this view of medieval monasticism, read what she says about the dormitory: "Whereas the refectory is a space devoted to the ascetic gullet, the dormitory is, symbolically speaking, a zone for the anus, itself a metaphor for illicit entry into the ascetic community" (p. 196).Apparently the Benedictine monastery is really just a male brothel.
Despite this dubious representation of a respected institution, the reader can learn a great deal from this book in terms of seeing things from a different angle. The author is extremely learned and a good writer. But casting the Rule of St. Benedict as a "queer" document seems unfounded.