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Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (review)
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Lynda L. Coon’s application of gender theory in her most recent monograph examines the new theoretical vogue: the body. Coon has written her book “to reconstruct the gender ideology of clerical masculinity through an investigation of early medieval readings of the body” (2). She adopts an intersectional view of identity formation, noting that “the book approaches gender as a lifelong negotiation, shaped by (modern) contingencies of age, class, sexual identity, nationality, imperialism, ethnicity, and even the physical location of the body in its environment ... gender is never a free-floating category that can be deployed in isolation from other vectors, especially class, age, and ethnicity” (9). There is much useful in this book, and its conclusions are the result of learned and erudite consideration of often-intransigent source materials, but her monograph might represent a step too far from an analysis of the gender paradigms of the medieval period, and might instead be a move toward the imposition of modern gender sensibilities onto the medieval past. Coon investigates the intersection of monastic physical bodies and monastic theories about embodiment in the creation of a monastic masculinity during the Carolingian era. She argues that references and allusions to the body tell us how notions of gender were created in the process of ascetic practice. Coon’s thesis maintains that bodily ideals, the products of these theoretical negotiations, were encoded into the construction of buildings and the layouts of monastic communities. The core of Coon’s argument about monastic bodies rests on a collective reading of the Rule of St. Benedict and the Plan of the Monastery of St. Gall as gendered documents, the latter of which metonymically stands for the former. Coon believes her period was a “dark age” insofar as monastic practitioners viewed their enterprise as the preservation of a classical and classicizing culture teetering on the edge of barbarity. Her intervention, then, responds to a number of historiographical fields, such as “the revival of classicism in the empire, clerical reform movements, and church-state relations” (4). To these may be added monasticism, masculinities, and architectural history. “The seven chapters of the book are organized around three recurring subjects: body, building, and practice” (4), each of which, according to Coon, were expressions of the gender paradigms of monastic masculinity.

The bodies with which Coon deals are masculine, and this masculinity is the process of a gendered negotiation. “The gender paradigms explored in this book,” writes Coon, “are idiosyncratic to the all-male cloister. They are not models of gender readily transferable into other social contexts, such as the royal hunt, the monarchical court, domestic spaces of the secular aristocracy, female ascetic communities, or even the palaces of bishops” (4). These masculinities are hierarchical, and it is by means of this hierarchy that we can view the differential relationships of power within the cloister. Monks allowed to speak in public—honestiores (which Coon terms masculine “mouth men”) (94)—were the superiors of the hearing monks—humiliores (which Coon terms feminine “body men”) (95, 169). This point is fair enough. The honestiores are the “penetrating” party, whose words enter the ears of their hearers in an overtly sexualized manner. Yet, some of Coon’s readings are more uncertain, and still others are outright impositions. If I am reading Coon correctly, then differential power relationships—gendered as they are—are also sexualized, and necessarily so. Using a sexualized anthropological semiology, Coon delivers much of her analysis of these relationships by means of double entendre. Some of Coon’s more imaginative moments come in her dealing with the various symbolisms of embodiment and bodily legibility: younger monks were more feminine (10); rods used for beatings are grotesque dildos (87); genitals and noses break the boundaries of internal and external by means of effluvia, while eyes and ears break this boundary in the opposite direction—and anuses can go both ways (89); mouths are labile vaginas “capable of gulping down a penis” (89).

Coon believes this gender ideology was manifested in the built environment as well. Buildings and architectural plans replicated the monastic vision of embodiment in surprising (and ironic) ways. Both the architecture of Fulda and the Plan of St Gall “employ[ed...

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