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  • Figuring the Feminine: The Rhetoric of Female Embodiment in Medieval Hispanic Literature
  • Núria Silleras-Fernández
Ross, Jill . Figuring the Feminine: The Rhetoric of Female Embodiment in Medieval Hispanic Literature. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008. 305 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9098-0

Figuring the Feminine uses five medieval Iberian literary texts to examine "the implications of the conjoining of body and language especially when the body is figured as feminine" (8). The author situates the feminine body at the center of medieval hermeneutics and writing, searching "to contribute to the ongoing exploration of a medieval poetics that uses the body as the primary vehicle for 'thinking through' questions of critical cultural importance" (9). Ross's selection of texts for "figuring the feminine" is particularly interesting. Three of the works analyzed are among the most canonical of Castilian literature: the Poema de mio Cid, Gonzalo de Berceo's Milagros de Nuestra Señora and Juan Ruiz's Libro de buen amor. But the other two are less conventional; they frame the canonical readings chronologically, giving an interesting and comparative twist to the project. They situate the book in a more complex, multicultural and exciting medieval Iberian space, with its rich diversity [End Page 212] of language and ethno-religious traditions and interactions. The inclusion of the Peristephanon by Aurelius Prudentius, a late antique Hispano-Roman poet (c. 348-413) from the Tarraconensis, pushes the chronological limits of what is traditionally considered medieval. The other noncanonical author included is Rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel of Carrión, better known in Spanish as "Santob." He was a contemporary of Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita, and was, like him, from northern Castile. Thus, the book covers a selection of Iberian texts written in Latin, Castilian/Spanish and Hebrew that span ten centuries, from the end of the fourth to the mid-fourteenth century — an exercise of reading in the longue durée. Readers will appreciate that Ross provides translations into English alongside excerpts given in the original languages.

Together, the introduction and ch. 1, "Carnal Knowledge: Metaphor, Allegory, and the Embodiment of Truth", provide a theoretical framework for the study. Ross acknowledges her debt to Carolyn Dinshaw's Chaucer's Sexual Poetics and E. Jane Burns's Bodytalk among others works that have explored the possibilities of an embodied medieval poetics, and builds her argument through a discussion of key figures, including Plato, Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida, as well as feminists scholars such as Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Toril Moi, Carolyn Dinshaw, and Jane Burns. She discusses male writers' attitudes toward the female body and uses the concept of kairos, "the 'right or opportune moment' that governs all human communicative situations and informs the production of belief" (11), to break the binary associated with Plato's epistemology as employed by the fifth-century sophist, Gorgias of Leontini. Ross aims through a series of close readings of the texts, or episodes within them, to bring out this kairos in order to contribute to our understanding of how male authors manipulate a text embodied as feminine, and to reflect on the implications that this gendered textuality entails regarding the processes of both writing and reading. Each of the remaining chapters center on a specific work; these are treated in chronological progression.

Ch. 2, "Dynamic Writing and Martyrs' Bodies in Prudentius's Peristephanon", studies this early-fifth-century collection of fourteen poems about Spanish and Roman martyrs (six from Hispania), regarded as the founding work of Hispanic hagiography. Ross analyzes the metaphor of the text as body and the connection between martyrdom and writing. She sees Prudentius's poems as transforming tortured bodies into salvational texts with the aim of earning the author "a hearing with the holy martyrs who then will plead his case with Christ" (77). These poems resonate in the following two chapters. [End Page 213]

The third chapter, "Macho Words: Writing, Violence, and Gender in the Poema de mio Cid", examines a concrete episode of the anonymous epic poem: the so-called Afrenta de Corpes in which Dona Elvira and Doña Sol, the daughters of the Castilian hero par excellence, the Cid, are...


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