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

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

Introduction: The Psychic Life of the Past

This book has a dual agenda; it seeks to foreground the epistemological question of origins in rethinking the ethical and political basis of aesthetic judgments, and to interrogate some of the ideologies of "medievalism" from a feminist and psychoanalytic perspective. Since the field of medieval studies is to a great extent informed and determined by its vexed relationship to the concept of history-as-origin, these concerns are closely related. It is my contention that the problem of origins is, in medieval literature and criticism, linked to that of sexual difference: in texts as "qualitatively" different as the Middle English Juliana and Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde, the fetishized body of woman comes to stand in for the divisions and losses whereby the historically-specific speaking subject is constituted. In short, sexual difference is installed as a defense against the potentially destabilizing effects of other, prior differences and divisions; for both medieval writers and their modern readers, historical difference is the most troubling and irreparable of these.

It is perhaps owing to the chronological structure of the literary canon that medieval literary studies is so troubled by the question of origins. As the beginning of nationalism and its vernacular literatures, the medieval period is the historical progenitor of western humanism. Medieval writers are themselves not unaware of this burden; Chaucer, Dante, and the Gawain-poet are merely the most canonical exemplars of the medieval literary obsession with history and the genesis of tradition. Chaucer in particular is conscious of the difficulty of building a vernacular poetic tradition on the fragmentary remains of classical precedent; his awareness of this dilemma is reflected in the persistence with which the problematics of beginning and ending, the issues of memory and translation return to disrupt his narratives.

Given the narcissistic dimension of the critical enterprise, it is not surprising that medievalists are similarly troubled by anxieties about origins. The volumes of source studies generated by medievalists since

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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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