The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

ongoing debate as to whether or not psychoanalytic or deconstructive readings are methodologically "appropriate" to the study of medieval texts, whether or not feminism can speak to a period that was institutionally grounded in a theologically-sanctioned misogyny, and so on, inevitably returns to this binarist metaphysical paradigm. The problem is compounded by economic and institutional issues that are specific to our own historical and cultural context: I refer to the fact that, in colleges and universities in North America and Britain, medieval studies may be in danger of disappearing altogether. Conservative medievalists argue that the recent emphasis on cultural and post-colonial studies, combined with the "transhistorical" demands of "literary theory," are pushing medieval literary studies out of the curricular picture. On the other side of the political divide, some theoretically-oriented medievalists argue that traditional medieval courses have ceased to speak to the present, and are therefore keeping students away in droves. The fact that most of this discussion has taken place at conferences and in electronic discussion forums rather than in print suggests that the issue has thus far evoked emotional responses that are uninflected by any rigorous analysis. That this debate over sameness and difference, historicism and "presentism" effaces other differences that adhere to our understanding of both past and present has been noted by an increasing number of medievalists, however. Drawing on poststructuralist and materialist theoretical paradigms, as well as a formidable knowledge of medieval literary and cultural history, these scholars have begun to interrogate the conditions of historical meaning in terms that efface neither the specificity of the past nor the urgent political and philosophical concerns of the present.

Nevertheless, the field of medieval literary studies continues to be haunted by the notion that deconstructive and psychoanalytic readings of the Middle Ages are "transhistorical" and totalizing, as traditional philological or neo-traditional historicist readings are not. At the conceptual heart of this argument is the assumption that history, as an irreducible origin that stands outside language, is itself transhistorical. If the demand to historicize is, as Fredric Jameson has asserted, "Marxism's only transhistorical imperative," then any attempt to read or write "historically" will always remain excessive in relation to a notion of history that is not subject to historicity, a history that is transcendent and extra-semiotic.2 In opening his introduction to a recent collection of historicist essays by medieval literary scholars with Jameson's command to "always historicize," Lee Patterson links the medievalist's understanding of history to the dialectical

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The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Introduction: the Psychic Life of the Past 1
  • 1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing 15
  • 2. Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana 43
  • 3 - Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics 62
  • 4. Originary Fantasies and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess 82
  • 5. Historicity, Femininity, and Chaucer's Troilus 100
  • 6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess 129
  • Afterword: the Medieval Thing 153
  • Appendix 163
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 211
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