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  • Figuring the Feminine: The Rhetoric of Female Embodiment in Medieval Hispanic Literature
  • Ivan Cañadas
Ross, Jill, Figuring the Feminine: The Rhetoric of Female Embodiment in Medieval Hispanic Literature, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008; cloth; pp. 305; R.R.P. US$75.00; ISBN 9780802090980.

Commencing with a discussion of perspectives and figurations of the female body in classical and medieval philosophy and in the work of early Christian theologians, this study examines ‘the implications of the conjoining of body and language’ in medieval Iberian literature, ‘especially when the body is figured as feminine’ (p. 8). Distancing her own work from ‘postmodern’ formulations ‘of the fusion of language and body’, Jill Ross stresses ‘the centrality of the body in historically determined and contextualized processes of literary production and interpretation’. Individual chapters aim to explore ‘how male authors manipulate a text embodied as feminine, and what the implications of this gendered textuality are for the processes of writing and reading constructed from it’ (pp. 11, 13).

Chapter 1: ‘Carnal Knowledge: Metaphor, Allegory, and the Embodiment of Truth’, identifies classically-educated Nietzsche as a link between (post-/) modern textual gendering, foreshadowed by ‘[t]he ambivalence in the Nietzschean figuring of truth as a woman’, and ‘classical and medieval theoretical writing about language’ (p. 18). In these terms, the Platonic perspective of rhetoric as ‘effeminate sensuality’ (p. 19) is shown to lead to the writings of St Augustine, St Ambrose and St Isidore of Seville. Though the Patristic writers shared considerable common ground – leading to medieval ‘warnings about’ the seductive danger posed by ‘whorish texts’ (p. 41) – Ross distinguishes between the Augustinian vision of ‘fallen, carnal language … detached from the soul of truth’ (p. 32) and St Isidore’s positive view of rhetoric’s function as ‘metaphorical veils’, both ‘protect(ing) … the truth’, and ‘inciting the reader to more sophisticated interpretation’ (p. 35). [End Page 196]

Other material discussed includes the Peristephanon, a collection of poems in honour of female martyrs by the fifth-century, Hispano-Roman poet Prudentius; Gonzalo de Berceo’s hagiographic Milagros de Nuestra Señora (thirteenth century); the conflict, played out in gendered violence, between oral and textual cultures in the Poema de mio Cid (c. 1140); the ludic, cultivated ambivalence of the Archpriest of Hita’s Libro de buen amor (fourteenth century); and a key work by one of the latter’s contemporaries, Shem Tov of Carrión, known for his controversial writings in both Castilian and Hebrew, which many contemporaries – both Jewish and Christian – found disturbing for their grafting of disparate traditions and ideas: the Battle Between the Pen and the Scissors, a ‘maqama’, or ‘Hebrew debate poem’, which incorporates ‘metaphors for writing and interpretation … rooted in the Latin/Romance poetic tradition’ (pp. 182–83).

Chapter 3: ‘Macho Words: Writing, Violence, and Gender in the Poema de mio Cid’ is arguably the study’s cornerstone, fleshing out its primary themes, but also exemplifying some of its shortcomings. Focusing on an episode in which the hero’s daughters are beaten and left for dead by their husbands, as a wrongheaded and paradoxical means of avenging their loss of masculine honour, Ross makes a compelling argument about the episode’s crucial importance to an understanding of the entire Poema, and demonstrates its historical grounding in the transition from oral to written culture (pp. 82–83). As Ross outlines, ‘Pauline and Augustinian preoccupations with the letter that kills’ are embodied in the ‘violent marking of the bodies of Elvira and Sol’, as ‘an act of writing’ envisaged by the aggressors as a means to have the last word (p. 84). The poem, however, temporarily empowers the women who speak poignantly and with dignity. Patriarchal containment – albeit distinguished from the savagery of the men who beat them speechless (pp. 90–93) – nevertheless follows, as the sisters, too, are silenced by their own father – a physically defined speaker, whose gestures embody his sincerity – when he appropriates their cause (pp. 95ff.).

Perceptively noting that the affront unfolds in the Forest of ‘Corpes’ (which suggests the Latin ‘Corpus’) Ross underlines its sexualized nature (pp. 91–2). The Infantes’ effeminacy – manifested in their cowardice both in the ‘outrage’ and elsewhere – combines their...


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pp. 196-198
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