- Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature by Nicole Nolan Sidhu
In this excellent book, Nicole Sidhu offers the first systematic study of what she terms "obscene comedy" in late medieval literature. According to Sidhu, obscene comedy (unlike scatological comedy, a distinction the author is careful to make) was a public discourse not confined to a specific genre in the Middle Ages. This literary mode included fabliaux, romances, religious autobiographies, and dramatic pieces; it was a cultural phenomenon common to both secular and religious writing. Indecent Exposure examines Middle English literary texts against an impressively well researched background of Old French fabliaux, Latin comedies, and northern European tales. Sidhu finds that obscene discourse generally focused on heterosexual relationships and was deployed in a wide variety of literature to critique domestic and especially political power dynamics during the late Middle Ages. Like the elaborate narrative structure Chaucer uses in his Canterbury Tales, obscene discourse offered authors a safe way to critique the established religious and cultural authorities during a time of great political upheaval and social censorship. Indeed, the political potency of obscene comedy is one of the most surprising and effectively argued aspects of Sidhu's book. Clichés about the fact that sex sells make it all too easy for readers and scholars to become mired in the more puerile aspects of many of the fabliaux and bawdy tales Sidhu examines. Yet this study ably keeps the reader's eye on the larger picture, skillfully penetrating the flashier plotlines and incidents with close attention to the rhetorical and political maneuvers that lie beneath.
There were several surprising texts included in this study, and Sidhu's opening chapter focused on one of them. As the author admits from the outset, William Langland's Piers Plowman is not a work most readily associated with the concept of obscene comedy, yet the moments when Langland does employ this discourse—even in a less conventional form—are compelling. Rather than incorporating full narratives of obscenity into his allegory, [End Page 183] Sidhu suggests, Langland uses "fragments" of the discourse in order to rebuke fourteenth-century religious authorities for their "failure to embody Christian doctrine regarding just rulership and care of the poor" (17). In her examination of the brief moments of obscene discourse she discovers in Langland's text, Sidhu introduces James Scott's theory of "hidden transcripts" to elucidate how indirect or covert engagements with a literary mode can still yield impressive results in terms of political commentary.1
Moving into more familiar territory with regard to the obscene, Sidhu turns to the first fragment of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for most of the book's second chapter. While this chapter demonstrates an impressive comparative study of Chaucer's own work and source material—including The Legend of Good Women and Statius's Thebaid—Sidhu's reading of "The Reeve's Tale" offers the most powerful example of how obscene discourse can be used to offer social critique. As a fabliau—the genre perhaps most readily associated with obscenity in the Middle Ages—"The Reeve's Tale" is often interpreted in modern scholarship as a bawdier and more problematic response to the gender politics of "The Miller's Tale." Far from attempting to provide a corrective for those critics who read the uncomfortable scenes of rape and violence against women in the tale more traditionally, Sidhu's reading offers a supplemental interpretation of the violence as a critical response to the valorization of chivalric aggression between men in "The Knight's Tale."
The last three chapters of Sidhu's book turn to fifteenth-century inheritors of Langland's and Chaucer's obscene discourse. These chapters also describe a transition in the representation of women in this discourse from sexually to rhetorically excessive. Similar to Langland a century earlier, John Lydgate avoids overt and wholesale incorporation of obscene comedy in his Mumming at Hertford, preferring to engage with fragments of the discourse during the politically...