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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000) 1-4
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Ann Marie Rasmussen
A secret is a social event. Knowledge of a secret can create community; ignorance of it can cast out the uninitiate. As a means of exchange between individuals, secrets create networks--social (gossip), religious (confession), political (diplomacy), intellectual (magic, medicine, natural philosophy). A secret is an ethical event. To possess it can create obligation, antagonism, and conflict. The transfer of secrets--whether voluntary or coerced--can make visible conflicting definitions of secrecy, as well as individual, community, and institutional beliefs about the nature, value, and power of that which is held secret, whether by oneself or by others. A secret is a psychological event. Foucault argued--in part ahistorically and nostalgically, as Karma Lochrie shows in her recent study of the medieval uses of secrecy--that the medieval practice of confession was formative of Western notions of sexuality, creating notions of secrecy and desire that together sculpted the contours for that quality of inner life which we in the West call subjectivity. Confession is said to have created, in Lochrie's terms, "a site of privacy in the depths of the Christian subject." 1 Much of the modern world continues to believe that the verbalization of secrets is therapeutic; a belief in the power of the undisclosed secret to fester and do harm is but the inverse of the belief that the verbalization of secrets can heal. Yet a secret can also be a mortal event. In northern Europe the early modern witch panics were complicated, uneven, and often deadly struggles between juridical, clerical, and community belief systems about the nature and effects of hidden knowledge. The struggle to own, to control, the representational force of the secret was a matter, literally, of life and death.
For scholars who engage the distant past, exploring medieval and early modern notions of secrecy is also a historical event. Etymological evidence suggests that medieval and early modern notions of secrecy differed [End Page 1] from our own. In early medieval terminology, the Latin secretum was "that which is set apart or hidden." In medical literature it defined a physical state, referring primarily to the internal organs, which cannot be seen and are physically inaccessible. The Old French adjectives privi, privance, and priveti meant "familiar" as well as "clandestine." The Middle English term privete "designated both the condition of being private and concealment, or secrecy." 2 The most common Middle High German term, heimlich, is only imperfectly translated as "private," "personal," or "secret"; its field of meaning connotes primarily that which is familiar, intimate, protected, and sheltered. The referential overlap between notions of domesticity and protection on the one hand with notions of privacy and concealment on the other suggests that scholarship can profit from looking again at the social aspects of secrecy, at the notions of authority demarcated by means of different representations of secrecy, and above all, at the ways in which notions of gender are fundamentally implicated in that which is concealed, hidden, effaced, or silenced.
The essays in this special issue of JMEMS explore the operations of gender in the construction of social, intellectual, linguistic, sexual, and literary modes of inclusion and exclusion in the medieval and the early modern eras. Monica Green's essay looks at medical manuscripts to trace medieval uses of gynecological texts. From the thirteenth century onward, writings on gynecology were assimilated into the tradition of speculative natural philosophy, where they were used to buttress writings on human generation and reproduction. These new combinations of texts divorce medical lore on the diseases of women from its curative contexts; indeed a number of compilers prune pragmatic material from their gynecological sources. A new kind of natural-philosophical compilation came into being, one concerned with women's role in generation, reproduction, and sexuality. Entitled the "Secrets of Women," a label unknown before the mid-thirteenth century, these widely transmitted texts align women, women's bodies, and women's sexuality more closely with the natural world, making them objects of natural-philosophical speculation. Predating the Secreta...