Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrey

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrey

Article excerpt

Karma Lochrie, Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). 292 pp. ISBN 0-8122-3473-1. $45.00.

Karma Lochrie's introduction to Covert Operations promises a study of the `practices of concealment in the Middle Ages' (p. I). The military-sounding title is designed to emphasize her concern with `the operations rather than the objects of secrecy' (p. 4). As it turns out, however, the book has much more to say about constructions of gender and sexuality than about secrecy itself, either as an idea or as a set of social and textual practices. For example, the fourth chapter, `Covert women and their mysteries', depends entirely on a literalization of the legal concept of 'coverture', by which (until the end of the nineteenth century) a married woman was supposed to live under the authority and protection of her husband, without a legal identity of her own. Lochrie suggests that a married woman was therefore 'a woman in disguise' -- `her subjectivity evacuated, her identity merges - or submerges - into that of her husband. The marital union thereby created elides the woman entirely and substitutes for her the secret that she must become' (p. 144). The topic of secrecy here becomes a pretext for rehearsing (pp. 145-64) the uncontroversial argument that the property rights and employment opportunities of married women in the Middle Ages were heavily restricted. Similarly, the fifth and final chapter, `Sodomy and other female per-versions', has little to say about secrecy as such. It is devoted primarily to the unconvincing thesis `that female perversions are (perversely) the norm for medieval sexuality, destabilizing both "natural" (what we might call heterosexual) sexuality and unnatural sexualities alike' (p. 178). Though it is true that homosexual men were often figured by anti-homosexual writers as being unnaturally feminized, `the clear gender inversion at stake in medieval discussions of male sodomy' hardly justifies the conclusion that `sodomy is essentially a female perversion' (p. 191). Equally startling is Lochrie's assertion that "`heteronormativity" is not merely an unstable category; it is an illegible one for the Middle Ages' (P. 199) - which is clearly contradicted, for example, by Clannesse, lines 693-707. There is no discussion of such matters as the problematization of secrecy and plain speaking in Chaucer's Manciple's Tale; nor of the courtly principle of secretiveness about love that underlies both the tragedy of Troilus and Criseyde and the fall of the Arthurian court in Malory's Morte Darthur, nor of the rhetorical topos of `non taceam . …

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