Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Flaming Words: Verbal Violence and Gender in Premodern Paris

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Flaming Words: Verbal Violence and Gender in Premodern Paris

Article excerpt

Imagine words such as hate and territory and the like -- unbanished still as they always would be -- wait and are waiting under beautiful speech. To strike.

Eavan Boland In a Time of Violence

Accuser, blamer, soupconner, maudire, railler, condamner, voila ce qu'il y a au bout

George Sand

Histoire de ma vie

During France's first literary polemic, Christine de Pizan attacked a fictional text for its misogynistic representations with the following claim: the Roman de la rose "would better be engulfed in fire than crowned with the laurel" (mieulx lui affiert ensevelissment de feu que couronne de lorier).(1) Such a claim conjures up a scene of book-burning. It suggests a milieu where an absolutist control of language reigned, where any speech or writing deemed contrary to the norms was not tolerated. With such a statement, Christine appears to advocate a form of censorship commonly associated with the premodern world. Her fierce critique of Jean de Meun's misogynistic Rose seems to lead toward flames. Read referentially, it consigns the book to a bonfire -- the fate of other texts in early fifteenth-century Paris.(2)

In a polemical context, this fiery scene reads differently. While Christine's claim may indeed refer to book-burning, it also constitutes an act of language. It entails a particular type of performative language that can be labelled negatively as insult, or worse still, as outright condemnation. Rather than represent the physical act of destroying the Rose, Christine's words enact the severest judgment of it through a figure of speech. In terms of the primordial trope of fire, they are meant to burn.(3) Her polemics perform what we call now flaming.(4)

However censorious Christine's language may appear, it did not come unprovoked. The controversy over the Roman de la rose was her response to an existing pattern of figuring women in degrading ways based exclusively on their sexual identity. She initiated this controversy in order to confront what she considered a harmful convention of literary composition. "In what manner could it [the Rose] be valuable and directed toward a good end," Christine charged, "that which accuses and blames women so excessively, impetuously and so untruthfully, which defames them by several enormous vices and finds their behavior full of all manner of perversity?" (En quel maniere puet estre vallable et a bonne fin ce que tant et si excessivement, impettueusement et tres nonveritablement il accuse, blasme et diffame femmes de pluseurs tres grans vices et leurs meurs tesmoingne estre plains de toute perversite, Hicks 16). As I have argued elsewhere, Christine's polemic raised the problem of verbal injury.(5) It focused on the impact of various misogynistic representations in the Rose and identified them as injurious to women's names. Even if such figures could be linked to physical abuse, in Christine's estimation, they do damage because they harm the reputation of women. By levying this charge publicly, Christine's flaming words reacted in kind to a damaging language practice already in existence. The Querelle du roman de la rose locked two instances of inflammatory language in an indefinite struggle where Christine challenged jean de Meun's text and its defenders word for word.

The exercise of such aggressive, incendiary language in the Querelle gives us a telling case of speech act theory. For it highlights the use to which words are put.(6) It is the activating potential of language that is exploited by such polemics. However accustomed we are to concentrate on the representational capacities of language -- what words say -- linguistic theories in the wake of J.L. Austin have directed our attention to the importance of its performative ones -- what those same words do. More than a provocation to action, words can be events. They are deeds. To approach language-as-action in this manner is not to argue that a verbal act is absolutely identical and equal to a physical act. …

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