Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200

Article excerpt

John W. Baldwin, The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1994). xxviii + 331 pp. ISBN 0-226-03613-8. £29.95.

The five voices are those of theologian Peter the Chanter, the compiler of the medical treatise Prose Salerniian Questions, Andreas Capellanus in the De amore, romancer Jean Renart, and Jean Bodel as an author of fabliaux. All pronounce distinctive views on sex in France at the time when the débâcle between Philip Augustus and Ingeborg of Denmark made the subject one of national concern. Each is supported by a chorus of antecedents and imitators, so that it forms part of what John W. Baldwin loosely calls a 'discourse'. Thus Peter the Chanter is seen in the context of the Augustinian tradition mediated by Gratian and Peter Lombard, and some of his views are reconstructed in the light of his pupils' writings. The various different strands of medical thought are unravelled in order to clarify the position of the treatises under discussion. Andreas is seen as part of a neo-Ovidian tradition, Jean Renart in the context of other romances (especially the Tristan poems), and Bodel as contributing to the nascent genre of the fabliaux. This book's erudition is therefore wide-ranging. Baldwin confines himself to expounding the literal meaning of his texts, a practice which he is aware may excite resistance in literary scholars, and which he defends by contending that plurality or indeterminacy of meaning does not exclude the literal level of meaning but, rather, adds other levels alongside it (pp. xxiii-xxvii). Not every critic will agree with this; an ironic reading, for example, might be thought by definition to undermine or even contradict the literal one. However, Baldwin's point is that the literal meaning of any of the discourses represents a view not of what reality is but of how it might or should be; rather than reflecting the world, these discourses are more likely to affect it (p. …

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