- The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature, 1000–1400 by Victoria Blud
The first thing I must specify in order to properly assess this book is that the punctuation of the title is crucial. This is not a book about gender and sexuality that has been titled 'The Unspeakable'. Rather, it is a book that follows connections between distinct but interrelated conceptual domains: the study of that which [End Page 198] cannot be articulated meeting the domains of gender and sexuality studies. The 'Unspeakable', as Victoria Blud defines it, is not limited to the obscene—indeed, perhaps I am not her target audience, because in introducing the concept she writes as if the reader will be more likely to associate unspeakability with the ineffable divine than with the history of sexuality. Blud also draws on psychoanalytic theory for perspectives on speaking and unspeaking, naming and namelessness. A key common understanding shared by all the fields from which Blud draws is that things that cannot be spoken of tend to generate 'an abundance of discourse' (p. 1), and it is the unspeakable as productive matrix to which the analyses offered in this book attend.
The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Europe is presented in four chapters, each of which addresses and links major texts from disparate periods and/or languages, and offers readings of them in dialogue with both contemporary theory and philosophy. All offer novel perspectives through their intertextual readings, but the most striking are the first chapter's juxtaposition of the Old English life of Mary of Egypt with the early Middle English anchoritic manual Ancrene Wisse, and the third chapter's reading of Bisclavret against Wulf and Eadwacer to draw out shared resonances related to gender, exile, and the relationship between the outcast and the social order that casts him or her out. Only one chapter addresses texts from a single narrative tradition: Chapter 4, which is the only chapter to draw its two key texts from the same language, reads Chaucer's and Gower's respective treatments of the Philomela narrative in relation to their Latin and French sources. This chapter offers the book's most straightforward argument, contending that in Gower's version in particular, the creative, 'multiple, mutable, inventive, inscriptive' (p. 172) voice of Philomela—embroiderer and singing nightingale—displaces the monovocal authority of Tereus.
If the book's first strength is its creation of fruitful intertextual readings between texts not often placed in conversation with each other, the second is its opening up of lines of communication between medieval literatures and continental philosophy and theory. Blud's reading of Philomela, for instance, uses the feminist writings of Hélène Cixous, particularly her conceptions of écriture féminine, to frame Philomela's glossectomy and her subsequent claiming of powerful forms of wordless speech. Chapter 3 approaches gender and exile in both Bisclavret and Wulf and Eadwacer through the figure of the wolf and the links in early medieval Germanic cultures between a wolf's head and a condemned exile. Here Blud draws on both Giorgio Agamben's studies on exile in Homo Sacer (Stanford University Press, 1998), engaging with Bisclavret as werewolf and outlaw, and on the work of Julia Kristeva, whose theoretical writing has been used by feminist Anglo-Saxonists to read the enigmatic text of Wulf and Eadwacer. Blud applies to Bisclavret a Kristevan reading in conversation with existing work on Wulf and Eadwacer, and to Wulf and Eadwacer a reading steeped in Agamben's analyses of exile and outlawry. The end result is a striking intertextual argument for the links between womanhood and exile—the woman and the exile, and above [End Page 199] all the woman exile, are both placed outside of the dominant structures of power and yet subject to them, but are depended on by the system itself to cooperate with their exclusion.
Blud synthesizes her theoretical tools in straightforward prose, making clear her methodologies as she proceeds. The Unspeakable...