Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy


Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Book

In Covert Operations, Karma Lochrie brings the categories and cultural meanings of secrecy in the Middle Ages out into the open. Isolating five broad areas--confession, women's gossip, medieval science and medicine, marriage and the law, and sodomitic discourse--Lochrie examines various types of secrecy and the literary texts in which they are played out. She reads texts as central to Middle English studies as the "Parson's Tale," the "Miller's Tale," the Secretum Secretorum, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as well as a broad range of less familiar works, including a gynecological treatise and a little-known fifteenth-century parody in which gossip and confession become one. As she does so she reveals a great deal about the medieval past--and perhaps just as much about the early development of the concealments that shape the present day.


I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life
mysterious or marvellous to us. the commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it.

— Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

My decision to study secrets and practices of concealment in the Middle Ages did not evolve out of the desire to make modern life mysterious and marvelous, as Basil Hallward would have it. Nor did the subject of my project elicit the delight and enthusiasm that Oscar Wilde attributes to the secret. When I was asked what I was writing at a reception toward the end of my work on the project and I explained that it was about medieval secrets, my interrogator responded, “Oh, is that anything like dark matter?” I did not know at the time what dark matter in physics was, but I knew somehow that the metaphor was appropriate. Secrets and secrecy in any culture, medieval or modern, inhabit the realm between what is said or seen and what is not, just as dark matter in physics designates that realm of matter that seems most un-matter-like, that occupies the invisible realm of physical properties, like the spaces between stars. To try to talk about secrets is something like trying to describe the spaces between stars, at least for the physics-challenged person such as myself.

Michel Foucault, D. A. Miller, Sissela Bok, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick are among the contemporary theoreticians of secrecy, and they, too, refer to the paradoxical property of secrecy, that it implies its own revelation, that it limns the explicit statement and the body of knowledge, that it structures identity and subjectivity. Foucault traces the history of sexuality to practices of secrecy in medieval confession, which he describes as a silence that “functions alongside the things said. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.” Like dark matter, secrecy functions within discourses, such as the most verbose of them all in Foucault’s judgment, confession. But secrecy and the secrets it keeps also mark boundaries of knowledge, such as the secrets of nature, life, and death that used to constitute, according to Sissela Bok, “what human beings care most to protect and to probe: the exalted . . .

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