Reading contingencies


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Reading contingencies Marian figuration in Middle English literature
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vi, 231 leaves : ; 29 cm.
Reed, Teresa P
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English thesis, Ph. D
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1996.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 220-230).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Teresa P. Reed.
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University of Florida
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Copyright 1996


Teresa P. Reed


For gracefully balanced support and guidance, I thank

R.A. Shoaf, director of this dissertatioin, who taught me

what it means to be a scholar and a theorist. I would also

like to thank the members of my committee, Daniel Cottom,

John Murchek, James Paxson, and Ofelia Schutte, for their

helpful comments and willingness to read this dissertation

in the middle of their own work.

For faith and friendship, I especially thank Marlene,

Dan, Trish, Glenn, Susan, and Stephanie. Though I can

scarcely find words to thank them, their being there in

every hour and a half of need made possible every word that

comprises this text.

For lovingly never doubting that I would do whatever I

set out to do, I thank my parents, Nathaniel and Violet


For providing me with an outside perspective, I thank

Catherine, Michael, Laurie, Louis, and Stew, who loved me

with a perfect indifference to work and its anxieties.





. . . v




The Trouble with Mary . .. 67
The Trouble with Alisoun . .. 87





Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Teresa P. Reed

May, 1996

Chair: R. Allen Shoaf, Professor of English
Major Department: English

This study examines four Middle English literary texts

and one medical text in light of a body of medieval Marian

figuration. The texts that comprise Marian devotion in the

Middle Ages provide one frame for investigating how medieval

Christianity constructed itself discursively. As a

paradoxical harmony of spirit and body, Mary inhabits a

unique position. Her virgin body is nevertheless divided, *

continuously opened and closed, by the various learned and

popular discourses that attempt to gain it and themselves

final significance. Mary's typological relationship to Eve

provides one way to investigate this network of texts,

bodies, and cultural histories, for in this narrative

design, the body of each woman must be divided by the other

and made subject to linguistic and exemplary confusion.

The dissertation pursues the effects of this

divisiveness in the literary texts, contending that an

investigation of it foregrounds the multiplicity founding

the seeming unity behind medieval Christianity. Chaucer's

Man of Law's Tale and the hagiographical Seinte Marherete .

are heavily invested in maintaining this unity, and yet

their figurative language both authorizes and jeopardizes

the dominant ideologies of Christian virtue. In contrast,

Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue and the anonymous -

Pearl are more self-reflexive, offering insight into both

the limits and the possibilities of figuration.

This doubled nature of figuration arises largely from a

narrativized errancy of female physiology, emanating from

the period's theories concerning the Fall in the garden.

Each chapter of the dissertation, using a particular facet

of Marian figuration, studies the status of the female body

as originary of the narrative of salvation. In pursuing

traces of Mary's figured body, the dissertation undertakes

an investigation into how the medieval church and its

believers made meaning and inscribed, for themselves, the

truth of God on feminine flesh.


Ainsinc va des contreres choses,
les unes sunt des autres gloses;
et qui l'une an veust defenir,
de l'autre li doit souvenir,
ou ja, par nule antancion,
n'i metra diffinicion;
car qui des .II. n'a connoissance,
ja n'i connoistra difference,
san quoi ne peut venir en place
diffinicion que l'an face.'
Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, 21543-52

Christianity is doubtless the most refined symbolic
construct in which femininity .is focused on
Maternality. Let us call "maternal" the ambivalent
principle that is bound to the species, on the one
hand, and on the other stems from an identity
catastrophe that causes the Name to topple over into
the unnameable that one imagines as femininity, non-
language or body.
Julia Kristeva, "Stabat Mater," 161-62

As medieval scholars continue to negotiate changes in

literary theory, oftentimes battle lines become firmly

1"Thus things go by contraries; one is the gloss of the
other. If one wants to define one of the pair, he must
remember the other, or he will never, by any intention,
assign a definition to it; for he who has no understanding
of the two will never understand the difference between
them, and without this difference no definition that one may
make can come to anything." Translation is by Dahlberg

entrenched. Like the soldiers of the God of Love battling

the protectors of the Rose in Jean de Meun's allegory, the

post-structuralists, deconstructionists, and psychoanalysts

entrench themselves in a siege on the bastions of the past,

held firm by the historians, philologists, and other like

traditionalists. Yet even as the battle rages, one begins to

wonder what exactly is being fought over and protected. Like

Jean's allegory of the Rose which is both so explicit that

the work was widely read as a pornographic text and yet also

relies so heavily on its objectification that the metaphor

falls apart, what is at stake in the battle over Medieval

Studies is both a tangible and historical foundation of

ideas and a more evanescent investigation into the

interrelatedness of present-day and past ways of thinking.

As I undertake this project, I step into this psychomachia

that rages within the intellectual framework of Medieval


But similar to what Jean's words above indicate about

comprehending things by their contraries, certainly the

hostilities within critical circles illustrate this

recursive process even as many medievalists in any camp

would deny their reliance on other groups. Jean's quotation

can also be understood to remark upon the relation between

past and present. If there is any truth to Jean's words from

this perspective, then, we see that understanding some of

our present reading practices will necessarily involve

retrospective analysis of previous modes of knowledge and

representation. I do not pretend in this project to

undertake the task of an historical or historiographical

description of Medieval Studies as this branch of knowledge

has developed into what it is presently. However, the

contentions within the field right now provide a revealing

analogy to practices in the Middle Ages, practices by which

a culture constructed itself discursively.

One of these practices is the period's development of

the the Holy Virgin Mary's life story. The notion of the

interrelatedness between past and present rings multiply

true for this unique character whose death was made into an

element of eschatology before her birth became a topic of

disputation. Questions surrounding her birth were decided

before those concerning her conception. Her story is one

that began with her bodily end. Significantly the sexual

connotation that may be called up in such a statement would

have had consequential currency in the Middle Ages. Mary's

"tale" was intimately tied to her "tayle" for she was

defined and comprehended via the memory of her opposite,

Eve. In portions of the N-Town cycle, dramas designed to

teach about the holy family and various tenets of Christian

faith, Mary is treated like any other young woman who has

become pregnant outside of wedlock. Several detractors

comment on her apparent promiscuity:

Such a 3onge damesel of bewt6 bryght
And of schap so comely also
Of hire tayle ofte-tyme be lyght
And rygh tekyl vndyr be too. ("The Trial of Joseph
and Mary," lines 94-97)2

[Such a young damsel of beauty bright and of shape so
comely also, of her tail oftentimes be light and right
ticklish under you, too.]

The sexual overtones of this passage indicate that Mary was

the heir of cultural attitudes about women and their

originally sinful mother, Eve. Even if only to be

dramatically disproved later, this passage effectively

sexualizes the Virgin and puts her sexuality outside the

bounds of propriety and into the prurient, specular arena.

Only against this backdrop of the expectation of sin can the

miracle of the Virgin's pregnant body hold its full

salvational significance. As the play uses the technique of

reversal to instruct its audience, so the church turned the

story of Mary into doctrine by playing her exceptional

characteristics off against the typically, perhaps

stereotypically, negative perceptions of female sexuality.

In Reading Contingencies, I investigate the relationship

between such figurations of the church and the female body,

2This and all subsequent references to the N-Town cycle are
to Spector's edition.

specifically Mary's and Eve's bodies, as a way to understand

the fictional foundations of Christianity.

My work is based on reading historical and literary

texts but is also indebted to recent work in post-

structuralist theories of language, subjectivity, and gender

proposed by literary theorists such as Jacques Derrida,

Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler. Bringing such theories to

bear upon texts of Marian devotion has afforded me a unique

opportunity for investigating the cultural matrix that Mary

represents. For instance, Marina Warner's Alone of All Her

Sex, modern though it is, indicates the diversity of

influences that comprise the history of the Virgin. How to

understand this diversity as the foundation of a faith

ostensibly predicated on the unity of the godhead became a

central concern for me. Post-structural theory has allowed

me to begin to unravel the idiosyncracies of some of this

diversity and more specifically of Marian figuration.

Indeed, this project has allowed me to understand figuration

itself as idiosyncratic. Even more basically, this project

struggles to understand how Mary's body and the female body

itself provide the palimpsest of medieval Christian faith.

What must be clarified within this conglomeration is the

difference between a ubiquitous cultural matrix that might

be labeled by "Marian Figuration" and the specific

characteristics of its application in a particular work of


Various thinkers and theologians including Bede,

Alcuin, Pope Gregory the Great, Augustine of Canterbury,

Richard of Saint Lawrence, Thomas Aquinas, Gratian, and Hugh

of Saint Victor dealt with the exceptional quality of Mary's

body and the particular place it must hold in human society,

law, and convention. As the history of a mother in Judea

turned into a story of a miraculous Virgin and the Queen of

Heaven, the church solidified its position on certain tenets

of faith and the social behaviors extrapolated from them.

Yet, as we will see most particularly in Chapter One, Mary's

typological connection to Eve returns in these figurations

in such a way that it undermines the narrative closure

necessitated by the church's ethic of transcendence. Even as

Mary transcends the concupiscence of conception, the pain of

childbirth, and the fear of death, at each moment where her

exceptional nature is based upon an opposition to the

errancy of Eve's flesh--that is, Woman's flesh--the Logos is

divided. This divisiveness is part of the process of

figuration itself, the only process by which it is possible

to speak of the transcendence of the Logos as I argue in

Chapter One on Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale and the

productive, divisive effects of telling tales.

In the tropologies of the Christian tradition, Mary's

relationship to Eve is central for two interrelated reasons.

The traditional misogynistic reading of Genesis provides the

basis of the Augustinian model of semiotics--a model of

language that informs medieval poetics as much as it does

theology. This system connects Eve with metaphor itself, the

loss of direct access to things in themselves necessitating

the mediacy of language as the condition of a post-lapsarian

existence. The era believed Eve's sin to be intimately

connected to misrepresentation and misreading. The Pauline

woman, commanded to save herself through procreation and

modest attire,' inherits the recuperated repercussions of

Eve's ancillary existence and misinterpretations in the

garden. Against this backdrop of natural, social, and

rhetorical categories--produced by it--Mary rights humanity

and redeems femininity. Mary turns the sinful body of "Eva"

into the prayer of blessing, "Ave." This graphic

boustrophedon'--employing reflection and comparison or

ratio, paradigmatic of metaphoricity itself--embodies not

only a poetics but also the very ontology and epistemology

"See 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

'A method of writing in which the lines are inscribed
alternately from right to left and from left to right;
derived from the pattern of the turning of the cxen at the
end of a plowed row.

that Jean describes throughout his portion of Le Roman and

that comprises the foundation of medieval Christianity.

The yoking of opposites, necessarily turning both away

from and towards each other in this way, provides the era

with a way to talk about and conceptualize the Christian

ethic of transcendence. Yet, the yoking of Eve and Mary

illustrates the figural existence of this ethic and its

dependence on a belief in the errancy of female physiology.

The condition of this ethic as both assumed and contentious

underlies my interest in the Eve/Mary figuration and

provides the main focus for my investigations. In my

investigation of this figuration and its uses, I undertake

to discover what Julia Kristeva, in "Revolution in Poetic

Language," calls thetic breaks (pages 98-110), or those

places where a lapse in the signifying system occurs. These

breaks are, at base, revealing because "positionality .

is structured as a break in the signifying process,

establishing the identification of the subject and its

object as preconditions of propositionality" (98). Such

breaks, then, throw into question the absoluteness of

transcendence by allowing readers to investigate the

semiotic processes that produce the idea of transcendence,

the identity of the church and the faithful. The Eve/Mary

trope constitutes such a break because it sc effectively

illustrates both the propositions of the church and their

semiotic inheritance: the re-turn to propriety that Mary

instigates must always be in response to the turning away

from the same that Eve represents. In other words, Mary is

responsible for returning humanity to its rightful

inheritance only by being responsible to the errancy of Eve.

In looking at the consequences of such figuration, the

project also inquires into the powers of narrative to form

the truths held by the church as self-evident. Inherently,

the church is a normalizing institution. The Christian

narrative effectively naturalizes categories of gender,

relation to life and death, social class and class markers,

ethnic identity, and rhetorical practices. Using my

investigations into various facets of Marian figuration as

an interpretative tool, I examine several medieval literary

texts and one medical text to investigate how the tensions

of faith and figuration emerge in the popular and secular

imagination. Doing so allows me to address both the effect

of figuration--the often formulaic literature of faith--and

the semiotic processes that produce such an ostensibly

transparent mode of representation.

The literary texts I have chosen are various and

variously framed by the history of their composition and

reception. Each foregrounds a different portion of the

semiotic process of Marian figuration. Chaucer's Man of

Law's Tale provides the opportunity to study connections

between narrative, death, and propriety while The Wife of

Bath's Prologue and Tale illustrate the powerfully

interdependent relationship between bodies and (pre)texts

and where each exceeds the other. The Middle English Seinte

Marharete, found in two manuscripts dating from early in the

thirteenth century, uses the metaphor of virgin motherhood,

a trope with much currency in medieval Christianity, to

reproduce faith. Finally, the interdependence of faith and

matter, of Word and flesh, God and mother, provides me with

a frame for investigating the effects of the formal and

metonymic qualities of Pearl in making God apprehensible to

the earthbound.

Mary's relation to law and death provides the focus for

my reading of Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale in which the

heroine's death is told over and over again and yet never

occurs. In "Shadows of the Law: Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale,

Exemplarity and Narrativity," I begin by providing a

framework for understanding the reinscriptions,

fulfillments, and substitutions that produce Mary's death as

exemplary of narrative design moving towards a teleological,

indeed eschatological, conclusion. Building on the ideas of

such theorists as Elisabeth Brcnfen, Jacques Derrida, and

Herbert Marcuse, I investigate the public and social uses of

the possibilities of Mary's death. Her body is a fallen

body--and must be if the Incarnation is to signify for

humanity's salvation at all--yet her death is not a given in

the church's systemic rhetoric. In fact, her death story

grows with time.' Even as it takes on miraculous qualities,

it takes on more and more of a normalizing function as it

becomes enmeshed in the Christian narrative of eternal

salvation. Through her death, Mary is made to exemplify the

ethic of transcendence and Christian values, while her body

simultaneously becomes a necessary vehicle of this narrative


Like Mary's death story, told again and again,

Constance's death recurs throughout the Man of Law's

narration even though this heroine never dies. The potential

for her death is one basis upon which the story works to

sustain its sense of propriety in such matters as religious

devotion, marriage, and relation to one's society. Yet, the

Constant re-narration of Constance's death, I argue,

'~bi illustrates the evanescent quality of the bulwark that

sustains such propriety. In the same way that Mary's death

Slegitimates the Christian narrative while also ultimately

'Reading various apocryphal stories of the Virgin's
Assumption into Heaven or her Dormition will show that the
later the text the shorter the amount of time it took for
her soul and/or her son to return from heaven tc claim her

confounding its closure, Constance's death(story)

exemplifies and shadows the Man of Law's faith. This Man of

Law's story of a woman is explicitly concerned with the

question of law, and yet the repeated narration and deferral

of her death brings into question the precedent-based

process of making law. The process of providing examples to

support a thesis not only provides such support but also as

a type of trope, illustrates the errancy of this necessary

figurative language and the infinite possibility of

iteration and of rhetorical and cultural contexts without

absolute anchor." The Man of Law's logic of repetition

becomes a shadow that darkens and permeates the narratively

inscribed boundaries of Christianity and the narrator's

sense of propriety. Thus, it is no wonder that Constance

cannot be differentiated from her ghosts, the ghosts of the

telling of her story. In this tale, the exemplary ghost that

Constance must always constitute is the shadowy rhetorical

strategy by which the Man of Law attempts to control his


Repetition, often self-aware and self-contradictory,

provides the main investigative focus of my reading of The

Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. In this second chapter,

"Texts and Pretexts: The Marian Inflection in Chaucer's

'See Derrida, "Signature, Event, Context," 1-21.


Alisoun of Bath," the relationship between texts and bodies

is thrown into question by the Wife's intertextual life

story. Even though this tale is remarkable for not

mentioning the Holy Virgin's name, the stories of Mary and

Alisoun nevertheless parallel in some revealing ways. Just

as Mary represented a unique coincidence of flesh and

spirit, human law and divine law, body and word, the

coincidence of texts that constitutes the character "The

Wife of Bath" calls to mind the discursive processes used by

a society to describe itself and its members.

Additionally, I argue that the confusion and

contradiction apparent in the Wife's prologue suggest a

parodic strategy of self-definition. My reading is based in

part on the idea of performativity as posited by Judith

Butler in Gender Trouble. I argue that the character of

Alisoun is designed to show a marked awareness of

contradictory roles that texts representative of mainstream

culture and values call on her to perform. Several times she

reminds her audience that her "entente nys but for to pleye"

(Fragment 2.Line 192), calling readers' attention to her

performance and what might or might not be the difference

between a serious life story and a staged, played-out one.

Yet at each moment, her narration suggests the force and

This and all subsequent references to Chaucerian texts are
to Benson's edition.

efficacy of even a mimed or staged repetition of various

discourses. Such decontextualizing works on both the plot

level, that is, on the level of this character's stated

intention, and on the meta-textual level to destabilize

categories of gender. Her prologue and tale suggest

polyvalent categories of gender by repeating and varying

standard, normative discourses of gender. In this way her

tale enters into social debate.

The idea of Mary's perpetual virginity and simultaneous

motherhood similarly pressures categories of existence and

morality. "Dispersing Faith: Seinte Marharete, Maternal

Bodies, and Telling Stories," the third chapter, uses the

paradox of the virgin mother to investigate the reproduction

of faith. Part of Saint Margaret's story is her surviving

being eaten by a dragon while imprisoned. Before being

swallowed she makes the sign of the cross over her virgin

body. The dragon's stomach bursts open and the saint walks

out unscathed. This plot element connected to medieval

representations of birth--most specifically Caesarean birth-

-and during the period this virgin martyr was held as a

patroness of childbirth. Like all hagiographies, this

thirteenth-century Middle English version of Margaret's life

appropriates the pain of a character to the reproduction of

faith. Calling on Margaret's name during childbirth also

calls on the power of God to protect the woman from pain and

the child from the threat of being "misbilimet" or deformed


Yet, Margaret's story is still about pain and it was

used in times of parturitive threat. The processes of

substitution that produce her story as exemplary of

parturition suggest a constant reemergence of fleshiness in

the figurations that reproduce faith. I bring to bear upon

this investigation of bodies, the text of the Middle English

redaction of the De passionibus mulierum curandarum, or the

English Trotula, which provides insight into common,

vernacular practice and presuppositions about women's

bodies. Additionally this chapter builds upon the

theoretical base of Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain and her

ideas of "world-making" through pain to investigate the

liminality of the reproductive and specifically the maternal

body and the ways it divides and legitimizes Christian

faith. Ultimately this chapter posits the idea that Seinte

Marharete does two things simultaneously. It does what Gayle

Margherita argues about hagiography in general: "it

represents the sacrifice of the feminine or feminized body

that enables the transcendence of the logos, or, in Lacanian

terms, of the paternal metaphor" (page 43). Yet, the

intertextuality of her story and its use in a parturitive

arena suggest that "Margaret's body" and physiology in

general exist also somewhere outside (intersections of)


Finally, the interdependence of faith and matter, of

Word and flesh, of God and mother, provides me with a frame

for investigating the effects of the repetition and formal

qualities of Pearl in making God apprehensible to the

earthbound. In this final chapter, I argue that underlying

the obvious logic of metaphor the poem uses, there is a

concomitant logic of metonymy. The poem teaches its readers

to look for this metonymy, which is also a logic of

contiguity, and to understand it as predicative of the

Christian logic of dualism that would set soul and body at

odds. Pearl uses changes to and varied perspectives on the

eponymous jewel to instruct readers about the powers of

repetition, even when the repetition seems unified. The

recapitulative form of the poem, reflecting the perfect

roundness of the pearl itself, the hundreds of pearls and

pearl maidens that suffuse the poem, and the ultimate view

of the New Jerusalem, reflecting so closely the ultimate

biblical vision of heaven in Revelations, all indicate a

belief in the plenitude of heaven and a human metaphorical

relation to it. In the same way that Mary was bodily assumed

into heaven to be its queen, perfect in body and soul, the

Pearl maiden reigns in heaven as "quene by cortaysye" (line


468)," "wemlez" or "immaculate" (737). But the chapter also

investigates ways in which the sublation of Mary remains

incomplete and the ways in which the character of the Pearl

maiden builds upon this errancy. As the poem comes to rely

more and more heavily on the image of the pearl in

representing the ineffable, the pearl remains immaculate and

regal, but with shifts in context the image changes. The

chapter focuses on some of these shifts as a way to

investigate the poem's presentation of differences within

discursively constructed categories of the same. In this

way, the chapter provides some insight into the poem's self-

reflexive awareness of the limits of metaphorical

categorization in representing the plenitude of heaven.

Such a reflexive attitude marks both Pearl and The Wife

of Bath's Prologue and Tale, whereas the Man of Law and

Teochimus, the narrator of Seinte Marherete, present tales

much more invested in maintaining dominant ideologies of

Christian virtue. As the research alternates between

investigations of texts that are markedly self-reflexive and

those that are less so, it provides various avenues for

understanding the intricate nature of the relationship

between texts and bodies. Using the Mary/Eve binary, all the

chapters in some way focus on discursive boundaries and

This and all further citations are from Andrew & Walidron's


expectations of bodies. In this exploration of the cultural

construction of bodies, the project highlights certain

issues that seem always to have been defining points in

culture. My reading of the Man of Law's Tale focuses on the

social employment of death while I argue that Alisoun of

Bath's diatribes against and simultaneous embodiment of

certain anti-feminist commonplaces emphasize the semiotics

of sexuality. Similarly, Seinte Mareherte is concerned with

maternity and Pearl with the potential and pitfalls of

figuration itself as embodiment.

By examining texts that profess respect for the

dominant ideologies and those that overtly challenge it,

Reading Contingencies is situated in such a way that it can

provide insight into discourses that we take for granted

about the period, that dominate our understanding and seemed

to have a similar effect on readers of the Middle Ages. At

the same time it provides a way to understand the limits of

those discourses. Its focus on gender and figuration

foregrounds what Teresa de Lauretis calls in Technologies of

Gender "the constant slippage between Woman as

representation, as the object and very condition of

representation, and .women as historical beings" (10).

The practice of reading for the cooperation and tensions

between these poles, and the practice of reading the

contingencies of a culture on a larger scale, opens a space

within theology and ideology. By refusing to allow the

semiotic processes of culture to be repressed, this space

confronts the idea of truth as a form external to specific

moments in history, particular applications of language, and

singular conglomerations of flesh and subjectivity. By

reading the contingencies of culture in this way, my project

enters into social debate and indicates for its readers

practices for reading their own position within the truths

of their cultures.


Part of the Christian context of the Man of Law's story

of Constance is the body of Marian imagery so popular in the

Middle Ages. Mary is never far away in this story of a

woman's trials and triumphs. Constance suffers forced

marriages, murders of friends, and attempted rape but

ultimately triumphs in her faith, converting others along

the way. She lives up to her name in all ways: she is

constant in her devotion to her god, steady in her emotions,

and faithful to the people in her life. This behavior is one

way that she is like the Holy Virgin Mary, the ultimate

example of female virtue in the period.

But the parallels between the two women run deeper--on

the level of narrative strategy--in a way that can call to

our attention some disturbing implications of the exemplary

mode. As it presents an example of ideal behavior, The Man

of Law's Tale represents Constance, as well as her mothers-

in-law, through metaphors of death. The ghosts of these

women reveal the limits of the Man of Law's precedent-based

narrative strategy in controlling its world. H. Marshall

L rk,-L ; -..ilu$ and

Criseyde, saying that text "mimes a certain sort of

discourse in such a way as to bring out the assumptions that

make it possible and to question them" (17). However, before

we turn to an investigation of the links between narrative

and death in this Man of Law's recounting, we need to

consider how Mary's story came to be one increasingly

concerned with law, human and divine. In the crossings,

reinscriptions, fulfillments, and substitutions that produce

and enact Marian devotion, we can begin to see the

divisiveness of figuration that must confound narrative


The Middle Ages produced Mary's body in specifically

legal, narrative ways. Her corporeal relation to law was one

of prophecy and its fulfillment. By the thirteenth century

it was common to see representations of her reading Isaiah

7:14, the prophecy of her own life: "Behold a young woman

shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name

Immanuel."' Growing from Apocryphal stories of her childhood

(Protevanaelium 8:1),:' beliefs arose which held her to have

'This and all further references to canonical books of the
Bible are from the Oxford edition.

'This and all subsequent references to New Testament
apocrypha are from this edition.

been learned in Jewish law and the seven liberal arts.

Representations of her education, in turn, fed the tenet

that only as a woman aware of the (pre)text of her own life

and responsibilities in salvational law is she qualified to

conceive (of) Christ (Schiller 1:42).

Mary's conception is similarly constrained by prophecy,

by the double-natured position that the human specula sine

macula" must hold if the salvational process is to be

effective. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, made

official dogma only in 1854 (Warner 236), began with the

Protevangelium's description of Anna and Joachim's

miraculous procreativity. The book begins by relating the

story of how the couple is kept from participating in

religious rites due to their barrenness. In grief, Joachim

exiles himself to the mountains, and Anna begins to pray

while walking in her garden. An angel appears to her saying

"the Lord hath hearkened unto thy prayer, and thou shalt

conceive and bear, and thy seed shall be spoken of in the

whole world" (4:1). At the same time, an angel visits

Joachim and tells him to come home because his wife will

-This appellation for the Virgin originates in the Old
Testament apocryphal work, Wisdom of Solomon, chapter 7,
verse 26: "For she is a reflection of eternal light, a
spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his
goodness." This was a common trope during the middle ages,
connecting Mary also to God's wisdom.

conceive. The two meet and chastely embrace at the gate of

Jerusalem. This moment was widely recreated in pictorial

images in churches and books and was one that becomes the

representation of Mary's conception (Grabar 129-31). The

eastern church celebrated this day with a feast as early as

the tenth century, while such a celebration was first known

in England just before the Norman conquest (Attwater 122),

held at two important churches, Canterbury and Winchester

(Him 221). In the twelfth century, however, Bernard of

Clairvaux brought up the main objection to celebrating a

human's conception: doing so goes directly against dogma in

that it has the potential to be a celebration of

concupiscence. Already Bernard had tackled a similar issue

in dealing with the feast celebrating the Virgin's birth.

Only one other saint, John the Baptist, received such an

honor. According to passages in Luke, his intra-uterine

sanctification marked him as specially blessed and "filled

with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (1:15).

Bernard assumed--logically as a good Neoplatonist would--

that God would give to his own mother the same blessing

(Hirn 218).

The history of disputation over these topics pointedly

evidences the process by which the period manufactured the

Holy Virgin Mary. That the question of the holiness of her

birth was decided before that concerning her conception


indicates a recursive process that attempts to write history

to match popular and theological standards. However, Bernard

remained firm in his belief that Mary was released from

original sin only when God became incarnate within her, not

at her own conception. In fact, throughout the period many

scholastic and theologians were of the same opinion as the

master of Clairvaux, but the feast was so popular that

eventually doctrine caught up with practice.

The resulting doctrinal explanation is a mixture of

scholasticism and mysticism. The scholastic part describes a

notion of two conceptions, the natural and the spiritual.

The first is the process by which the organism is materially

put together. The second, called the "animation," occurs

when the soul unites itself to the flesh of the embryo and

is the ultimate goal of conception. Since the notion of a

soul pure from birth would not challenge the church's

doctrine of original sin, this scientific view allowed Mary

to be born pure in body and soul, the former having been

purified by the latter at the moment of animation (Hirn 224-

25). This scientific, scholastic view dovetailed with the

already popular festival of the Immaculate Conception, which

itself was based upon and further fostered the idea that

Mary had been conceived during Anna and Joachim's chaste

embrace at the gate. In the thirteenth century these

correspondences were harmonized by Duns Scotus. Scotus

suggested the idea of the Praredemptio, or the

"Preredemption." Building on the idea of the two

conceptions, he suggested that original sin was something

inherent in the soul and not necessarily the body and, thus,

God must have made an exception when providing his mother

with a soul: "As the perfect intercessor, and the perfect

filial son, Jesus could hardly have failed to obtain moral

purity for his Mother" (Warner 242). Indeed, this notion of

prevention of sin in Mary, says Scotus, enhanced the

mediation and sacrifice of Christ since preventing illness

is better than having to cure it once it has occurred.

Popular literature and its accompanying images

reinforce the notion of a sinless Mary and take it one step

further to remove concupiscence from her conception. Joachim

and Anna's meeting at the gate becomes a very popular image

in the period because it was believed to be the moment of

Mary's conception. The image is often paired with images of

the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, marking the

understanding of this as a moment of conception as well as

greeting. A common iconographical representation of the

Annunciation contained the Christ child in body or soul,

often already within the Virgin's body (Grabar 128-29). A

similar picture of Anna and Joachim at the gate exists in

the University galleries at Oxford. In the picture the

couple embraces as a small female figure clad in white,

Mary, approaches them.- Such an illustration suggests the

common belief that Mary was conceived with a loving and

blessed hug.

The logic of such arguments indicates the way in which

the body of Mary was a vehicle for salvational law, which it

simultaneously represented and legitimized for the purpose

of Christian narrative. Her body as representative of the

fallen human condition reveals the purpose of salvational

law, while her exceptional circumstances underscore the

promise of the law's fulfillment in the Incarnation of

Christ. Similarly in Mary's role as the fleshly portion of

the Incarnation, contradiction is written over so that law

may be fulfilled. However, as is evident in texts as various

as apocryphal works, theological writings, and cycle dramas,

at the same time that contradictions are elided, anxieties

remain, revealed in the very law meant to transcend them.

Thus, the evident anxiety over Mary's conception finds a

parallel in the threat that the Incarnation poses to the

discursively established boundaries of the human body.

Mary's place in human law that protects such boundaries

was questioned as early as the apocryphal works that

describe her life prior to marrying Joseph. The Gospel of

See Himrn (238) for a fuller description and other examples
of images of the embrace at the gate.


Pseudo-Matthew says that "Mary had vowed virginity" (chapter

8) whereas the other virgins of the temple were to be

married when they came to be of age. But because of

Levitical law, Mary also has to leave the temple and be

married so that her menstruous body cannot "pollute the

sanctuary of the Lord" (Protevangelium, 8:2). Despite her

vow of virginity, she must live under Levitical laws because

her body is exemplary, a typical female's. In the Middle

Ages, when these Judaic proscriptions moved from the realm

of law into the realms of philosophy, theology, and science,

the menses were understood as the formless matter of the

world, waiting to be shaped by the semen, the pure male

form, containing the image of God. Menstruation becomes,

then, the sign of excess, matter not given form. Such a

shaping gave the menses meaning in this Aristotelian,

theological system. As such a woman's "spot" is a mark of

Eve's original sin, a bodily defect all women inherit--one

that produces their typical inferior status. All this, in

turn, was supported and made material by empirical data and

medical advice. For instance, couples who wished to have

children were advised to have intercourse during the week

after the woman's period when the menses would be as fresh

as possible and more likely to take the form that the semen

'See for example, Isaiah 30:22, Lamentations 1:17, and
Ezekiel 18:6.

carried (Wood 710-27). As this logical progression makes

apparent, the Levitical prohibitions had wide-ranging

effects. The law of Leviticus becomes philosophy, science,

and theology. A powerful set of discourses is brought into

effect, each reifying the others so that even the status of

empirical evidence is defined with Leviticus in the


So like the other virgins in the temple, Mary had to

leave when she began menstruating. According to the Gospel

of Pseudo-Matthew, Joseph was not even meant to be Mary's

husband, but only a protector for her (chapter 8). The

Protevanaelium is not so clear on what role Joseph was

chosen to play in Mary's life. However, the text's repeated

description of her as one of the "pure virgins of the tribe

of David" (10:1) and Joseph's own confusion over how to

record Mary under Augustus's decree--as wife or daughter

(17:l)--suggest that Mary did not leave the temple to become

Joseph's wife. Again, these contentions indicate Mary's

unique relation to the law as it developed through the

period. She is the exemplary outcome of prophecy and the

instigation of yet further prophecy, but she also creates

confusion in the worldly functioning of the very laws that

she is meant to exemplify.

In the N-town drama cycle, this confusion is evident

when Mary finds herself in between church law and a vow to


A3ens pe lawe wyl I nevyr be
But mannys felachep xal nevyr folwe me
I wyl levyn evyr in chastyte
Be be grace of Goddys wylle. ("The Marriage of Mary and
Joseph," lines 36-39)

Anna and Joachim promised her to the service of the temple

in their petition to the Lord for a child. This passage

intimates her prior knowledge of much of her life story: the

story of her parents' barrenness, their petition to the

Lord, her miraculous conception, her birth, and the

fulfillment of the vows accompanying her parents' petition

when she was brought to the temple to become the model of

"Clennesse and chastyte" (line 70). I quote the Bishop's

response to Mary's words at length because it represents so

fully the troubling confusion over how to make sense of the

extraordinary set of circumstance related to this young


A mercy God bese words wyse
Of pis fayr made clene,
Thei trobyl myn hert in many wyse--
Her wytt is grett, and bat is sene!
In clennes to levyn in Godys service
No man here blame, non here tene [troubles].
And 3it in lawe bus it lyce [goes],
Pat such weddyd xulde bene.
Who xal expownd bis oute?
De lawe doth after lyff of clennes;
De lawe doth bydde such mayndenes express
Pat to spowsyng they xulde hem dres.

God help us in pis dowhte. (79-91)

Mary's very existence brings doubt into a system of law, a

system in which she is remarkably a key term both as a human

and as the mother of God. The passage suggests the common

medieval belief that Mary was aware of her place in

salvational history, of "the mysteries and prophesies that

were to receive their explanation and fulfillment in her

person" (Him 267). Twice the bishop remarks upon the young

woman's intelligence (lines 79 & 82) and on the aptness of

her words? TX th nn rn F n pm np tr- ?In f> r4v-" 4 o-

live a holy life (line 84). Yet the law says maidens must

marry "after lyff of clennes" (a statement that will affect

Constance in some very revealing ways also). The "trobyl"

arises in the question of which law to follow, for the

passage points out anagogical incompatibility between two

ways of making meaning. The bishop sFimply does not know how

to deal with a wise, clean woman who wishes to live a holy

life. Neither empirical experience nor law provides him with

a context for making sense of this situation. Ultimately,

the bishop must call for divine intervention to solve the

interpretive dilemma that he faces in the example of Mary.

An angel appears, and in the following scenes, the elderly

Joseph is chosen as Mary's husband when his wooden staff

begins to bloom.


Mary, however, is conspicuously absent for the next two

hundred lines. Sense is made of her and for her through

articulation of various discourses--from the announcement of

the messenger to all people about what is to be done, to

Joseph's embarrassment over the social impropriety of taking

a young wife; from the characters "generacionis David" that

remind Joseph of his proper place and responsibilities in

patrilineal descent to the mysticism of the moment when the

dead wood begins to bloom. She and her wordss wyse" and

great "wytt" disappear and are replaced by the production of

faith of which she is the prime marker. This production is

characterized by a specific gendered and generational

emphasis, which is both laid at the feet of Mary and is

taken out of her hands. Narratological production under the

guise of divine grace replaces and then recreates who Mary

is and what she signifies.

As the bishop finds, the medieval concept of Mary

proves troubling in part because Mary was closely associated

with texts that were held to presage her life. Even before

the bishop begins to deal with her, her life story consists

of traces of law, prophecy, texts, and writings. Compare

this situation to a very revealing passage from Alan of

Lille's Plaint of Nature (written some time between 1160 and

1172) which describes the ideal (Neo)Platonic version of how

the goddess Nature creates human beings:

With the aid of a reed-pen, the maiden [Nature] called
up various images by drawing on slate tablets. The
picture, however, did not cling closely to the under-
lying material but, quickly fading and disappearing,
left no trace of the impression behind. (Prose 2)

Notice how the ideas expressed in the above quotation

protect the notions of absolute presence and self-identity

both of created and of creator, whereas Mary's life story is

beginning to suggest that such unity is only apparent. So

the N-Town bishop is bound to find that underlying the

apparent unity of medieval Christianity is an untraceable

web of often contradictory intentions, readings, and

contexts. The troubling consequences of this situation,

which are evident in medieval attempts to eliminate

confusion from the narratives of the Immaculate Conception

and the Incarnation, show up as well in medieval

representations of the relation between Mary and Eve.

Mary shares a unique relationship with Eve. That Mary

righted humanity and femininity with her actions was a

popular trope in the Middle Ages, present in learned

writings and popular literature. Mary changed "Eva"--the

first defect of the flesh--to the "Ave""4 of blessing and

"'A typical example of this usage occurs on page 44 of the
Malleus Maleficarum, another in the N-Town "The Parliament
of Heaven," line 219.


faith. By thus "turnand be name of eve again"--"Turning the

name of Eve again," (Brown, Fourteenth 45:8)5`--Mary

represents the original and continuing need for salvation as

well as the promise and fulfillment of salvational law. The

unity broken by one woman is recreated through another.

The prevalent reading of Eve's sin and her very coming

into being connect her with a loss of the literal, with the

process of nominalization which is a turning away from

things. Prior to her meeting with the serpent, Eve's

entrance into the world marks a conjunction between language

and sexuality, or sexual difference, since both are called

into being simultaneously and causally.16 As Carolyn Dinshaw

proposes, speaking of Chaucer's warning to his scribe:

if Adam is the first namer, associated with a
language that is unified, perfectly expressive of
intent or spirit, Eve is associated with fallen
language ., with division, difference,
fragmentation, and dispersal that characterize the
condition of historical language. (6)

In "Sexuality, Sin, and Sorrow" Mieke Bal presents the

typical church reading of Adam in which as the first human,

Adam is a species, not an individual; the first human is

'Unless otherwise noted, all lyric citations are from
Brown's editions. The following practice is used in
reference to lyrics: the number of the lyric in Brown is
followed by a colon and the line numberss. Where necessary
I also distinguish between Brown's collections of
thirteenth- and fourteenth-century lyrics.

'-Reference Genesis 2:18-23.

simultaneously genre and the only example of that genre.

This sexless creature has been differentiated only from its

surroundings, clay pulled from the earth by Jahweh and

enlivened by Jahweh's divine breath. Made in the image of

God to mirror his reason and love,17 the first human's

relationship with God and the book of creation is one of

unity, exact expression, and replication. In direct line

from its creator, it possesses form, Idea, substance, Being,

singularity, "oneness." However, the second human's

relationship to its god is one of contingency, derivation,

accident, supplement, helper. The second human is the

inexactitude of duplication. Philo Judaeus (c. 30 B.C. -

A.D. 45) is an early example in what was to become a

widespread and virtually transparent mode of describing the

relationship between the genders:

To begin with, the helper is a created one, for it says
"Let us make a helper for him"; and in the next place,
is subsequent to him who is to be helped, for He had
formed the mind before and is about to form its helper.
(qtd. in Bloch page 10)

The writers of the fifteenth-century treatise on witchcraft,

the Malleus Maleficarum, describe woman's formation as


And it should be noted that there was a defect in the
formation of the first woman, since she was formed from

"See Genesis 1:26 and "God Creates Adam and Eve" in the
York Plays.

a bent rib bent as it were in a contrary
direction to man. (44)

This passage presents a typical Christian outgrowth of

hierarchical Platonic duality fostered in the early church.

Earlier, Paul had set the stage for such readings, echoing

the Genesis creation myth and collocating language, bodily

activity and contingency with Eve's secondary status and

primary sin:

women should adorn themselves modestly and
sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or
gold or pearls or costly attire but by good deeds, as
befits women who profess religion. Let a woman learn in
silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to
teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep
silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam
was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became
a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing
children ... (1 Timothy 2:9-15)

In other words, Eve's sin has to do with her apparent

inability to comprehend words but her facility in using them

on another. And it is this use that culminates in sexual and

nominal differentiation in the world, for when the first

humans eat some fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and

evil "the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they

were naked" (Genesis 3:7). The superfluity--which is the

danger--of Eve's words to Adam culminates in the awareness

of sexual difference and the no-longer-superfluous addition

of clothing. Philo distinguishes between the Adam of the

first chapter of Genesis and the Adam of the second chapter

who has fallen "from innocence and simplicity of character


to all kinds of wickedness" (22). Again, Eve is responsible

for man's movement--in language and clothing--further from

unity with the book of creation.

Thus in medieval theology, philosophy, and science, is

woman associated with all that is inessential, nonliteral,

multiple. Like clothing, she has the potential to be a

helpmeet or a dangerous supplemental guise. As R. Howard

Bloch asserts: "her coming into being is synonymous .

with a loss--within language--of the literal .. [T]he

creation of woman is synonymous with the creation of

metaphor" (11). She is the corporeal copy of the

incorporeality of truth, much as language copies ideas."

She is the trope, the turning, that Mary must re-turn

through spotless reflection of the divine.

The collocations, in other words, between woman's

original nature and the nature of her original sin are even

more insidious. As a copy her language cannot contain the

one-to-one correlations that the first human's had, and so

her language marks the loss within that original language.

Her sin with the serpent, then, becomes one of language,

misinterpreted, missed, an attempt at communication from

outside the unity that the garden is supposed to hold for

Adam. And this sin becomes located in her body--eating of

"Cf. Augustine's Confessions, book 7, chapter 20.


the tree of knowledge leads to knowledge of sexual

differentiation. Adam's paradisiacal unity is split by the

defective, deficient copy of his body, of his intellect, of

his soul, and he enters the world of toil and constant

(Neoplatonic) struggle to regain what he once had (Bal 29)

through activities at least one step removed from those he

had enjoyed in the garden: he now must toil to make the soil

produce his existence, instead of merely tending the garden

and receiving the direct blessings given him by God. Only

Adam will remember this prior unity and suffer the full

consequences of its loss, of course, because Eve never

enjoyed anything but a mediated relationship to her creator.

Therefore, according to the typical medieval reading,

as such an imperfect extrapolation from the first human,

woman seems fated from inception to be a threat to

paradisiacal unity. Yet the desire present in the Garden of

Eden even before the second human's wish to eat of the fruit

of knowledge indicates that the narrativized unity of the

garden is not the transcendent, natural creation that

materializes in the corpus of Christian history. Instead, a

series of substitutions becomes apparent. "'It is not good

that the man should be alone'" declares God and begins to

make the animals. "The man gave names to all cattle, and to

the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but

for the man there was not found a helper fit for him"


(Genesis 2:18 & 20). This story posits a God whose world is

not complete--so he makes the earth--but the story

immediately writes over this incompleteness by displacing it

onto the human. The perfection of the unfallen garden is

shown to be a myth by Adam's desire, which is an indication

of lack. This incompleteness is then displaced onto and

creates the inferiority of Eve. So even in this supposedly

unsullied original--Adam--lies the potential to produce the

inexactly copied second human. Eve and her tempter are

blamed for what is revealed in this reading to be a pre-

existing narratological condition. The serpent marks a

mimetic break in the creation myth similar to Eve's. The

first human is given dominion over all creatures on earth

(Genesis 1:28 & 2:20), yet the serpent still represents a

threat. Described as "more subtle than any other wild

creature that the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1), the

serpent represents the seductive power of nature, the

plurality of context. Again, the threat here lies in

language: Eve claims that the serpent "beguiled" her causing

her to eat the fruit (3:13).'" Even in paradise the traces

of language are uncontrollable.

'Philo understands the serpent, which he reads as a fallen
representation of all bodily pleasures tied to mental
capacity, to be the first troper of language !e.g. 45-49).

Indeed, here we see the connection between law and

accident, for the misrepresentations that produce the fall

become the very structure upon which the whole of

salvational law is founded. Mary as the turning of Eve and

product of the law is the result of this accident. The Holy

Virgin comes to represent lack, desire, and the basis of

uncontrollableness out of which ostensibly positive

concepts, like God's grace, power, and love for humanity,

grew. We begin to see that the opposition between Mary and

Eve, good and evil, text and body, is more appositional and

interdependent than the Christian ethic of transcendence


The conjunction of the Annunciation and the Incarnation

is one place where the confusion that still persists in

Mary's restoration of Eve becomes apparent. The Incarnation

challenges the notion of the discrete boundaries of the

human body, since the boundaries of Mary's body were made

moot in the process, as were all the laws and social mores

meant to keep those boundaries intact or permeable only

under certain conditions. The Word enters the flesh

immediately as the angel Gabriel announces the good news to

Mary and Mary replies with "Behold, I am the handmaid of the

Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

This moment of Annunciation is commonly considered to be the

moment in which the Incarnation takes place. Countless

images in the early church reflect this belief- and by the

time of Chaucer's early translation of Guillaume de

Deguilleville's "La Priere de Nostre Dame," the idea that

the Annunciation and the Incarnation were simultaneous had

found its way into popular literature. Chaucer writes in

praise of the Virgin in this abecedarius that "the Holi Gost

thee sought / Whan Gabrielles vois cam to thin ere" (lines

114-15). Additionally, Him cites several poems that refer

to Gabriel as "seminiverbius." Him also quotes St.

Bernard's (1090 1153) Sermo II in festo Pentecostes:

missus est interim Gabriel angelus a Deo, ut verbum
patris per aurem virginis in ventrem et mentem ipsius
eructaret, ut eadem via intraret antidotum, qua venenum
intraverat. (qtd. on page 298)

[In the meantime, the angel Gabriel was sent by God
that he, himself, might emit-' the word of the father
through the virgin's ear into her womb and mind, so
that by that way by which the poison had entered, the
antidote might enter.]

This passage uses the typological connection between Eve and

Mary in order to reinstitute the divine symmetry of Mary's

' For a sampling see Grabar, 128-29. Additionally, many of
the religious lyrics of the fourteenth century reflect a
similar idea. See Brown, lyrics 26, 41, and 45.

Other meanings of this word--including "belch forth,"
"vomit," "cast out," and "eject"--indicate the potential
effects of context. All these translations, including
"emit," suggest notions of boundaries, the word traveling
from location to location, yet the pleasant, proprietary
meanings are contained in the same word as :he meanings
suggesting exclusivity and illness.

turning the name of Eve. But as Genesis suggests its own

narratological status, the passage indicates that it is the

word itself that is dangerous, that has in it the power to

kill and heal. The danger of the word is simultaneously its

potential, as "venenum" and "antidotum" enter in the same

way;-- and this figuring of language is at once supplemented

and supplanted by the female figures in the narrative. Eve

is written as body in the creation myth and this begins the

narrative of salvational law; Mary's body is written as

prophecy, stemming from Eve's sin, and is the outcome and

fulfillment of law; and so in the narrative design that

conjoins these figures, the body of each figure must be

divided by the other and made subject to linguistic and

exemplary confusion. Assigned the place of accident,

mistake, defect, Eve is the predication of law, while Mary

is the figure whom divine law has created but human law as

iteration of divine cannot control. The inverted double of

Eve's, Mary's body is figuratively the result of accident,

of the misinterpretation of words, even as its unique status

is paradoxically created by standard repetitions of words.

The Annunciation repeats the beguiling of Eve in Eden and

the word changes from evil to divine, and yet in this very

-One might add "pharmakon" to this list. See Derrida's
"Plato's Pharmacy" 3n the status of such permeable

repetition, we can begin to see a divisiveness in words,

texts, bodies, and cultural histories that must vex all

telling of this narrative.

These confounding narrative complexities, which point

to the limits of any narrative construction of character,

can be understood still more fully by turning to the example

of Chaucer's Constance, who is so crucially concerned with

the question of law. Explicitly and implicitly, Constance

shares with her mothers-in-law, the Sultaness and Donegild,

a relationship similar to that which Mary shares with Eve,

that of the inverted double. She prays to Mary (2.841-54)

and to the cross (2.451-62), and the text also represents

her with imagery familiar to Marian devotion. The Man of

Law's tale also invokes other similarities: he narrates

Constance's death over and over as he attempts to

substantiate the virtues he holds dear. Constructed via

discourse very much as Mary had been, Constance is first

introduced into the tale as narrative, as Carolyn Dinshaw

aptly points out: "She exists as a tale of a virgin" (95)

circulated by the "commune voys" (2.155).- As with the

'See particularly lines 2.162-68 which invoke many of the
tropes often used to describe Mary. Him collects many of
these descriptions and more when he writes of "The Childhood
of Mary" as does Attwater. For a collection of specific
likenesses, see Dor (133-34).

*My reading builds on Dinshaw's structuralist perspective,
based on Levi-Strauss, in an attempt to analyze some of the

story of Mary, this drama's main character is made what she

needs to be:

In hire is high beautee, without pride,
Yowthe, without grenehede [immaturity] or folye;
To alle hire werkes vertu is hir gyde;
Humblesse hath slayn in hire al tirannye.
She is mirour of alle curteisye;
Hir herte is verray chambre of hoolynesse,
Hir hand, ministry of fredam for almesse [generosity in
giving]. (2.162-68)

These lines could easily be about the Holy Virgin, who is

variously described as the most spacious chamber that could

hold the unholdable God, as a mirror of virtue (by

Ambrosius), and as the prettiest but most humble maiden in

any context.- Such orthodoxy has led many scholars to

assume her passivity. Carolyn Dinshaw calls her, via Levi-

Strauss, a commodity passed around among men, a blank page

waiting for signification (88-112). In a Bakhtinian reading,

Juliette Dor describes Constance as "single-voiced,"

repeating monologicall discourses without ever expecting a

reply" and as obedient to the omniscient voice of God,

represented on earth by her father and others who control

her life (131 & 138). Dor compares Constance to the Holy

Virgin to illustrate just how traditional and passive

Constance is. By recalling these likenesses, the Man of Law

articulations her reading takes for granted.

Him collects all these descriptions and more when he
writes of "The Childhood of Mary." Attwater also c-ilec:s
similar depictions.

invokes the propriety of the law in its relation to story-

telling in an attempt to establish firm categories of good

and evil, categories that cannot be "pynche[d]" (1.326).

On the evil side, the Man of Law indicts the Suitaness

and Donegild with typically misogynistic terms, connecting

them with their originally sinful ancestor. The Sultaness

has her own son and everyone in his wedding party, except

Constance, killed on the wedding night. For this crime, the

Man of Law disparages the Sultaness in two ways: by saying

she is a "feyned woman" (2.362) and by saying she is just

like a woman. He calls her a "serpent under femynynytee"

(2.360) or a snake in women's clothes and "Eva" the

"instrument" of "Sathan" (2.368 & 370 & 365). These

metaphors recall the orthodox medieval misogynistic reading

of the fall. The woman is collateral, associated with the

costume and the tool of evil. She is associated with

secondary nature; here she is even secondary to evil. In

effect, she is metaphor itself and as such she recalls the

fallibility of the human flesh, that "tissue of .flesh"

(Augustine, 13.15), the "robe" and "wede" (Fourteenth 16:19

& 31) that Mary gave to Jesus in order to make manifest the

trinity. Even Mary's long-lasting procreative effects are

mirrored in this curse's "al that may confounde / Vertue and

innocence / Is bred in thee" (2.362-64). And this

breeding is why humanity has been "chaced from [its]

heritage" (2.366).

The use of "confounde" is pointed here: meaning to mix

or pour together, it describes a process in which discrete

elements are combined to become something different. And

what is confounding in the sense of "confused" or

"confusing" is that the passage reminds us of its own

metaphoricity even as it demonizes figuration. Thus, the

contradiction of the Sultaness being both a feigned woman

and a woman just like Eve evidences the structure and the

structural limits of this system of -makin meaning; the

curse brings into relief the confounding limits of narrative

construction that were made evident in arguments over Mary's

conception and the Incarnation. The emphasis on procreation,

heritage, and marriage (2.369)--in Chaucer's understanding

of their use and misuse--underscores the many overdetermined

elements of cultural heritage caught up in this narrative

and the tenuous nature of the exemplary outcome that

Constance represents. The foregoing passage attempts to

assert logical control over its figurative terms in order to

apply them to its purpose--the curse of the Sultaness. Yet

it points to its own failure by calling up the name of Eve

and her connection to metaphor.

Similarly, the Man of Law curses Donegild. Donegild's

jealousy over her son's marriage to Constance leads the

older woman to counterfeit letters about the birth of the

couple's child. Upon receiving these letters saying that his

wife--described as "an elf"--has given birth to "a feendly

creature" (2.754 & 751), Alla writes Constance back saying

that he loves her and the child and that he will "Welcome

the sonde [dispensation] of Crist for everemoore" since he

is "now learned in [Christ's] loore" (2.760 & 761). But

Donegild intercepts this letter as well and counterfeits

another one in Alla's name, indicating that Constance and

her son should be exiled on the same ship in which she

arrived. In his curse of this woman, the Man of Law claims

to have no "Englissh digne," or "English appropriate"

(2.778), to speak of her sin; only the "feend" can "enditen"

her (2.780 & 781). The verb "endite" here has specific legal

connotations but also suggests the process of

storytelling.` In the Monk's Tale (line 3858, group B

numbering) it carries the weight of "accuse," as it does

here; but in other usages in Chaucer, "to endite" is to

compose, transitively or intransitively. It is a verb that

suggests writing, describing, relating, drafting, telling.

Indeed, an inditingg" is a composition or the style of a

SOn this word, see Shoaf (289), and A Chaucer Glossary.

composition.27 Given this, the use of "enditen" here

illustrates a particular crossing of the boundary lines

between law and literature, a legal "caas" and a poem. The

Man of Law, however, seems unaware of such similarities

since he claims he has no tell to tell as if every case he

knows since the time of William the Conqueror (1.323-24) is

not also a story. As the verb "endite" suggests here,

exemplarity is a strategy law shares with poetry. The Man of

Law's own preambulary remarks are evidence of this

connection as he serves as Chaucer's own copyright

representative, listing works of the poet and providing

synopses of some."2 His tale itself is a repetition of one

he heard from others (2.132), and yet with the context of

the word that can be both poison and remedy--which is the

Eve/Mary binary--brought to bear upon this story and its

telling, even the most standard repetition of law and the

notion of transcendence upon which it operates cannot remain


The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology suggests that
the Middle English usage was a mixture of the Latin verb
indicere meaning "to proclaim, appoint, impose" and the Old
French verb enditier meaning "to declare, dictate, compose."

--Dinshaw, 91, also suggests that the words "endite" and
"thyng" from the portrait of the Man of Law in the General
Prologue connect literary output with law since these words
are commonly used in Chaucer to refer to literary creations.

The Man of Law's curse of Donegild also suggests

something more, something revealing about the function of

law as the teller of this tale understands it. The narrator

claims to have no language to match the crime he sees before

him. Because Donegild's sin mirrors Eve's in many ways, he

does not want to own her as a character in his tale; his

language cannot even speak of her. Only the devil seems to

have the words and the laws to fit the crime. Yet, as ruler

of what is evil, the fiend was understood in the period to

be ruler of nothing, a negative, non-productive

deficiency.9 Yet he still has the potential to make law;

indeed, Satan has the power to indict Donegild, to make her

into a criminal; that is, to write her character as a

traitor (2.781). In the figurations of his curse, the Man of

Law gives over the power of creation to that which he would

damn. Donegild's sin is that her hand wrote the letter that

caused her daughter-in-law and grandchild to be exiled.

Thus, she disseminated "al the venym of this cursed dede"

(2.890 & 891), recalling the association of this imagery

-See Confessions book 2.chapter 8, 7.3 & 4. Boethius's
Consolation of Philosophy, based on a Platonic notion of
always striving for the true good in the world, operates on
the idea of "good as cause and sum" of all worldly striving
(Prose 10); anything moving away from the good is evil. See
Prose 12 for an explicit definition. And, of course, the
whole of Dante's Inferno creates images of evil as
deficiency, images which culminate in a vision of Satan
frozen in the ice of Cocytus creating the very ice which
imprisons him in silence.


with Eve's sin. Furthermore, the insinuation of a character

from outside the narrator's frame of reference and escaping

his ability to recount reminds us of the confounding

unreliability of that frame. But the Man of Law makes her

fit into his story; that is, he finds English to talk about

her, and his sentence for her is death. But in sentencing

her he cannot help but show the disturbing traces of other

stories, their threat and potential.

In such resolutions we witness the normalizing and

naturalizing functions of narrative. The Man of Law uses

Constance's reactions to these various situations to

reinstitute Christian laws and mores and to provide the

"mirour" (2.166) of Christianity to extra-narrative threats.

For instance, early in the story the Sultaness defends her

own religion, saying,

But oon avow to grete God I heete,
The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte
Or Makometes [Mohammed's] lawe out of myn herte!

What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe
But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,
And afterward in helle to be drawe,
For we reneyed Mahoun [Mohammed] oure creance? (2.334-

With its emphasis on religion as law, this passage echoes an

earlier one in which the Sultan discusses with his lords how

best to obtain Constance as his bride. The Muslim fellowship

recognizes the "diversitee / Bitwene [the] lawes" (2.220-21)

of their faith and the Christian one. But by the time that


the Sultaness has been cursed and Constance begins to pray"

to the cross, the narrative claims that there is "No wight

but God" and "No wight but Crist, sanz faille" (2.476 & 501)

who can know the secrets of the universe. The Moslem laws

and believers become the vehicle of legitimization for the

Christian ethic. The lines that present the story of

Constance's time among the Moslems (2.211-504) recreate the

misogyny and the racial, or "heritage-centered," anti-

sociality of the creation myth. In this way, these lines

pose a threat to the narratively established boundaries of

Christianity, even as the narrative and heroine remain

examples of the Man of Law's faith.

Similarly, as the tale describes Constance's dealings

with Donegild, the Man of Law's narrative concerns make

apparent the self-contradictory construction of the

exemplary Christian figure of Constance. On her way to

Alla's kingdom, Constance launches into a prayer to the Holy

Virgin as her rudderless ship is launched to sea:

"Mooder," quod she, "and made bright, Marie,
Sooth is that through wommanes eggement [instigation]
Mankynde was lorn, and damned ay to dye,
For which thy child was on a croys yrent." (2.841-44)

Like many commonplace prayers to the Virgin, this one calls

on the paradox of Mary's being both "mooder" and madede"

''Constance's prayer reflects portions of the Good Friday
mass as well as the votive Mass that invokes the help of the
cross for travelers.


With her repetition of this prayer, Constance is once again

allied with Mary and seemingly set apart from Eve, the woman

through whom "Mankynde was lorn." Yet the Man of Law's

concern over how "ful hooly" wives (2.709) are required to

lay a little of "hir hoolynesse aside" (2.713) in the

marriage bed recalls and rewrites Donegild's earlier concern

over her son taking "So strange a creature" as his mate

(2.700). The full passage reads as follows:

They goon to bedde, as it was skile and right;
For though that wyves be ful hooly thynges,
They most take in pacience at nyght
Swiche manere necessaries as been plesynges
To folk that han ywedded hem with rynges,
And leye a lite hir hoolynesse aside,
As for the tyme--it may no bet bitide. (2.708-14)

The passage intimates a network of different and

contradictory discourses which the Man of Law tries to

normalize. The contention behind this desire for

normalization is matched by that over the marriage of Joseph

and Mary: as the mother of God Mary was thought to be a

perpetual virgin yet as a human she was also called upon to

live up to legalities which defined intercourse as a

necessary part of marriage.'

As with the Man of Law's attempt to harmonize sexuality

and spirituality, many medieval definitions of marriage

attempted to develop definitions of marriage that would

'Dinshaw, Dor, and Furrow discuss the contention over
Constance's sexuality.

allow for valorization of both human sexuality and spiritual

union. Penny S. Gold collects and explores several of the

most influential arguments concerning Mary and Joseph's

marriage which, despite their many differences, illustrate

the normalizing influence of Christian rhetoric, which uses

as its supports legal, philosophical, and scientific

discourses. The information that Gold collects illustrates

the difficulties in and various results of trying to find a

definition of marriage for the holy couple. Gratian, in his

Concordia discordantium canonum (c. 1140), and Hugh of St.

Victor (1097-1141) attempt reconciliations of these apparent

contradictions. Gratian develops a system of the three goods

of marriage--fidelity, offspring, and the sacrament--of

which Mary and Joseph had all three, but only in name. Thus,

Gratian adds that a marriage in name is different from but

just as valid as one that also has the substance (res) or

effect effectsu) of physical union. Hugh lays out a two-

fold plan of marriage in which there is the marriage, which

is consent, and the office of marriage, which is copulation,

each of which is a sacrament. Thus, for Hugh there can be

true marriage before sex, and marriage can be holy without

sex because without sex the union is a spiritual one like

that between God and the human soul. Even so Hugh also

valorizes the union of the flesh in marriage. As Gold

characterizes Hugh's position:

the intercourse of the flesh (the office of marriage)
typifies that union made between Christ and the church
through Christ's assumption of the flesh; thus there
could be no sacrament of Christ and the church where
there was no carnal mixing. (108)

The confounding problem here is that this process of

harmonization paradoxically serves to reinscribe the terms

of the binary opposition that it is meant to overcome. As

they codify marriage law, Gratian and Hugh, as well as later

writers like Peter Lombard (writing fifteen to twenty years

after Gratian and Hugh) and Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth

century), only reinstate the dichotomous categories of the

Neoplatonic system they inherit and inhabit. Indeed, the

period's fascination with the paradoxes that Mary represents

grows out of this valorization of duality. Mary is the

spiritual body from whom "he tok fleysh & blod, / ihesus,

heuene kynge" (Fourteenth 11:11-12). Chaucer, repeating

church liturgy and imagery, has the Prioress call to the

Holy Virgin, "O mooder Mayde, O made Mooder free! / O bussh

unbrent, brennynge in Moyses sighte" (7.467-68).'- An

"Orison to the Blessed Virgin" dating from 1333 foregrounds

-Hirn collects countless examples of paradoxical
nominalizations of the Virgin. See his chapter "Symbols of
the Virgin."


the familial and social ideologies that bound and (re)create

this symbolic system:

Dou wommon .
Dyn oune uader [father] bere.
Dat on wommon was moder
To uader and hyre brober--
So neuer ober nas.
Dou my suster and moder
And by sone my brober--
Who should beonne drede?
Who-so hauet be kyng to broder
And ek be quene to moder
Wel auhte uor to spede. (16:1-12)

Within such a pervasive system of imagery, Mary becomes

exemplary for behavior in Christian marriage"3 even as the

resulting system of rhetoric, in which soul and body are

categorically opposed, produces the ideological context in

which the Man of Law must seemingly compromise Christian

precepts in bringing Constance to bed on her wedding night.

It also allows him an apparent ease with which to moralize

on the institution of marriage: "Housbondes been alle goode,

and han ben yoore; / That known wyves; I dar sey yow na

moore" (2.772-73).

Given these complexities in narrative strategy and

their bedeviling consequences for the operation of

exemplarity, we begin to see how and around what terms this

teller, as well his cultural contexts, stop the slippages of

the discrete elements of his systemic rhetoric. We see what

"Hirn, 268-69, collects several extrapolations of this
virtuous behavior.

he takes as and makes into foundational components. In the

Man of Law's curse of the Sultaness, the Muslim law is a set

of terms that supplement and mediate Christian laws. His

opinion takes its shape from the very thing that it curses.

As such a medium, these terms remind us of the intersections

of substitutions and traces that produce the "law." These

intersections are most apparent in the tale's anxiety over

the "feyned womann" the Sultaness (2.362). Similarly,

Donegild, neither true nor false, marks the status of the

break that establishes the truth of the tale. These

characters are explicitly both inside the tale and on its

borders and as such make us rethink the status of other

ostensibly more exemplary characters. These passages and the

women they mimetically reproduce bring into relief the

structuration of that mimetic desire. The tensions that

surround these characters and the way that this tension

bleeds onto Constance point to the pervasive desire to halt

the dissolution of the a priori constituents of this system.

These stoppages become the foundation for monuments to a

certain type of logic. Here, they monumentalize

Christianity, Constance, and the Man of Law himself. By

invoking exemplarity as a mode of storytelling, the tale

points to the specter that animates this monumental logic, a

specter that "can no longer be distinguished, with the same

assurance, from truth, reality, living flesh" (Derrida,

"Plato's Pharmacy" 104). Subsequently it is no wonder that

Constance cannot assuredly be distinguished from her ghost,

a characteristic she shares with the Sultaness and


The first picture provided of Constance as a living

ghost is on the day she is to be sent off to marry the

Sultan, a day described as "fatal" (2.261). Lines 190

through 203 discuss the laws of fate, the "large book" that

is in "hevene ywriten" (2.190 & 200), but Constance's death

is not predicted in these lines; the Sultan's is. Yet,

Constance is the ghost, who "with sorwe al overcome / Ful

pale" goes to meet her fate (2.264-65), the possibility that

she might "spille" or die ever present (2.285). As she

floats on the sea after the Sultaness--that "wikked goost"

(2.404)--has set her out in a rudderless ship, Constance

waits "After hir deeth ful often" (2.467). When she finally

lands, "In hir language mercy she bisoghte, / The lyf out of

hir body for to twynne, / Hire to deliver of wo that she

was inne" (2.516-18). A young knight falls in love with

Constance and loves her so much "That verraily hym thought

he sholde spille" unless he has his way with the foundling

"Bronfen writes of the relation between death and
aesthetics, while in "Living On" Derrida analyzes the way in
which the belief in the fixity of the boundary between life
and death founds the fixity of all borderlines. My reading
here builds on the work of both theorists.

(2.587). When Constance refuses his advances, he kills her

benefactress in retaliation, and she is blamed for the

murder. As the narrator describes her at her trial: "For as

the lomb toward his deeth is brought, / So stant this

innocent before the kyng" (2.617-618). As she stands

accused, the narrator again describes her with a pallor of


Have ye nat seyn somtyme a pale face,
Among a prees, of hym that hath be lad
Toward his deeth, where as hym gat no grace,
And swich a colour in his face hath had
Men myghte knowe his face that was bistad
Amonges alle the faces in that route?
So stant Custance, and looketh hire about. (2.645-51)

After having Alla's child and being sent away, she again

appears as a shadow of the grave, "with a deedly pale face"

(2. 822).

The story of Constance's (potential for) death is told

again and again as the tale reinscribes its terms. In this

way, Constance is like the Blessed Virgin whose death was

also foretold and made an adumbration of Jesus's. Luke,

chapter two, tells the story of the Purification. Mary and

Joseph take the infant to the temple "according to the law"

(verses 22 & 24) and present him to the priest, Simeon.

Simeon's blessing includes a prophecy for mother and child:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of
many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. (2:


During the Middle Ages, this presentiment was paralleled to

the lance which pierced Jesus's body on the cross,

suggesting the mater dolorosa (Hirn 380-81). Again,

damnation, salvation, and redemption are blended through the

medium of the prophetic metaphor that is Mary. The prophecy

of Mary's death allows her death to become exemplary of

narrative design, an element in a plot moving towards a

teleological, indeed eschatological, ending.5" Like

Constance's, Mary's own death story is one that grows with

time. From the early centuries of Christianity through the

middle ages, Mary's story grew from being merely a fact of

history to a topic of disputation and literary

investigation, and even though the stories about her may

have been different, the eschatology remained essentially

the same.6 Ultimately, through many retellings of her

death, Mary lives on through the stories of the Assumption

of her body or her Dormition at the time of her leaving

earth. Similarly, Constance's death is prophesied and even

shown time after time. In an almost exact parallel to

3"My reading here builds on Marcuse's essay on the social
uses of death.

"See Hirn's chapter "Mary's Death and Assumption" and
Warner's chapter "The Assumption." Both works read through
various apocryphal books and theological works and in so
doing betoken how her death story came to be told in such a
way as to reflect and, in turn, produce its own teleology.
Chapter Four will look more closely at this process.


Simeon's prophecy about Mary's death in the temple, the Man

of Law creates the potential for Constance's death as an

So vertuous a lyvere [being] in my lyf
Ne saugh I never as she, ne herde of mo,
Of worldly women, made, ne of wyf.
I dar wel seyn hir hadde levere a knyf
Thurghout hir brest, than ben a woman wikke;
There is no man koude brynge hire to that prikke.

The narrator tells the tale of Constance's death over and

over again, yet the tale ends with Constance's living on in

the present tense.

Again, however, the exemplarity here must prove

confounding. Thus, the issue of death in the Man of Law's

Tale initiates the question "Where is the law?" It seems to

be written on the pale faces of the dead women who figure as

examples in this tale," and therein lies the problem.

Recalling the example of Mary, Constance's ghosts reflect

the telos of the law and are its manifestations, and yet

these very manifestations--repeated and varied endlessly"--

also betoken the errancy of metaphor and the infinite

1Fradenburg argues that such is the case in Troilus and
Criseyde and The Book of the Duchess. My reading here also
builds on Bronfen's deconstruction of the relation between
aesthetics and death.

"See the end of the tale, which in its "Joye after wo" and
wish for grace for the pilgrims "that been in this place"
(2.1161 & 1162, my emphasis) suggests the interdependent
nature of its telling and signification.

possibility of iteration and of rhetorical and cultural

counexub wicioluc adsosuce anchor.

This tension between the theology of the system and the

mimetic status of the system becomes most apparent in the

structure of exemplarity on which the tale and the

narrator's profession, itself, operate. Mary and Constance

are examples of a system that makes itself through its

examples. Whether she is read as a model of being a true

daughter, wife, mother, Christian, or saint, Constance's

status as example marks both the iterability of exemplarity

and the desire to stop it, to halt iteration by walling it

up.40 Two times in his tale, the Man of Law brings lists of

examples to bear upon the life of Constance. In both of

these instances--lines 470-504 and 932-945--the narrator

uses examples from the Bible and apocryphal and

hagiographical writings to explain why Constance was not

killed by her adventures at sea. He alludes to the stories

of Daniel in the lions' den, Jonah and the whale, the Hebrew

people's escape from captivity, Saint Egyptian Mary's life

in the wilderness, and the feeding of the five thousand with

39In "Signature, Event, Context" Derrida writes of the
dispersive effect of contextual errancy.

4"Again, Shoaf makes a similar point throughout his essay,
using the vocabulary of circulation and corruption. My
suggestion here is that this is a reading and writing
practice used not only by the Man of Law uses but also used
as a world-building strategy by many readers.


five loaves and two fishes in the first passage. The second

passage calls up the examples of David and Goliath and

Judith and Holofernes. Used to build a case, that is, to

provide precedents for fictive events, as they are here,

these examples suggest the potential to call up other

contexts infinitely. The examples are about death and

overcoming it,41 yet they indicate a complex relation to

death when viewed as monuments created to wall in the traces

of language. The Man of Law's intention in invoking these

examples is to illustrate God's grace and transcendent

presence. But unlike Alan of Lille's description of how

Nature writes the world tracelessly according to God's

ideas, the Man of Law's narration calls on its traces in its

process of signification. In a tale that focuses so heavily

on astrological fate'' and divine justice--or God's "sonde"

(2.523, 760, 826 902)--the tale points to the angogical

differences of perspective upon which it operates, as most

hagiographies do." Yet the tale's focus on how law is

4Farrell points out that the first group of examples were
often used in the liturgy as part of the rites for those who
were near death.

12As evidence of this tendency, see lines 190-203 and 295-
308 and the introduction of the tale itself, which is
conglomeration of astrological, philosophical, scientific,
and theological readings of the time of day.

"3See for instance the Second Nun's Tale of Saint Cecilia or
the Prioress's Tale of the little clergeon.

constructed--which is how it is put to use--emphasizes the

limits of law, narrative, and language. From the perspective

we have been establishing here, we see that ghosts, umbras,

and phantoms of other contexts are invoked in each exemplary

repetition, even as examples do indeed reify concepts. Each

example contains not only the use the Man of Law wishes it

to hold and to which he tries to hold it, but also the

potential for figurative errancy, contradiction, otherness,

or "sin."

Exemplary of the Man of Law's system of values,

Constance represents the narrator's idea of law and

propriety, and yet this very act of representation divides

his notion of transcendence. From this perspective,

Constance can be understood to supplement and reanimate the

Man of Law's books and also to expedite and inspire further

writings," which in turn will substitute for her. While

supplementing previous texts--the "caas and doomes alle"

(1.323) the Man has in his memory--Constance's story will

also authenticate these same texts, because the legalistic

mode of discourse, which we have seen maintaining and being

maintained by theology and philosophy, uses and recreates

the opposition between text and body to ascribe and maintain

authority. Constance becomes a shadowy point of mediation

'*The Man of Law ends his tale with a standarJ blessing fcr
the pilgrims suggesting an ever-ongoing discourse.

between reception and exemplary reproduction. As such, she

is made to function as a site where one realm of knowledge

is transformed into another with a different author. She

begins to signify the Man of Law but only in a sense that

diffuses that very proper and proprietary name into a


Near the end of the tale as he is about to be reunited

with Constance, Alla ponders the mystery of this event:

"Parfay," thoghte he, "fantome is in myn heed!
I oghte deme, of skilful juggement,
That in the salte see my wyf is deed."
And afterward he made his argument:
"What woot I if that Crist have hyder ysent
My wyf by see, as wel as he hire senate
To my contree fro thennes that she wente?" (2.1037-42)

The passage confronts the notion of death as an absolute

limit along traditional Christian lines of argument. Yet it

also indicates how Christianity articulates its own ethic of

death through the "fantome." We can now see that the phantom

in his head is not merely the vision he has had of the woman

he thought was dead, but also the "argument" that his new-

found Christian faith instigates" through its twists and

tropes that turn its narrative into theology. In this tale,

4'This reading of Constance grows out of my reading of
Bronfen's chapter, "Preparation for an Autopsy."

"This incident may be compared to miracles of the Holy
Virgin in which typically, the Virgin appears in a vision to
reinitiate proper Christian devotion and faith. See The
Middle English Miracles of the Virgin and The Golden Legend
of Jacobus de Voraaine.

the ghost that Constance must always exemplify is the ghost

of logic that allows the Man of Law to repeat his tale while

denying the disturbing implications of such repetition.


In the Ellesmere manuscript tradition, The Wife of

Bath's Prologue and Tale follow the Man of Law's tale of

Constance. Those reading in this tradition move from a

teller invested in the authority of example and tightly

structured stories to a teller who questions the power of

narration and written "auctoritee" (Fragment 3.Line 1).

Alisoun of Bath begins her prologue by seeming to rely on a

binary opposition between experience and authority, but as

her personal history progresses, such neat binaries are

broken down. As it reveals the secrets and strategies of

being a wife, her narrative uses and abuses words of clerk <

and church, inflecting them with bodily appetites and

personal desires. In this way her often self-contradictory

prologue, set in counterpoint to the romance of her tale,

calls readers' attentions to the conflicted arena of

sexuality. Alisoun takes the Man of Law's strategy of

exemplarity and uses it for her own purposes. The resulting

tale foregrounds the textuality of authorities and of


bodies. In effect, she takes the traditional identification

of women with linguistic errancy and shows this rhetorically

culpable condition to be necessary to the engendering of

meaning in narratives, including the most sacred stories of,

Christian tradition. In this way, her errant narrative--and

errancy in general--may appear revelatory, and the character

of the woman may upset spiritual tradition not (as tradition

would have it) by violating it, but by faithfully observing

the confused conceptions of corporeality on which it is

based. The way Alisoun faithfully mimes exemplarity then has

consequences for the general understanding of woman in

Christian tradition, starting with the understanding of the

that most exemplary woman, Mary.

Although nominally absent from Alisoun's

tale--conspicuously so--Mary is very much a part of it.

Therefore, to understand what is at stake in the way Alisoun

tells her tale, we first have to be familiar with some of

the key elements in Mary's narrative, such as her

association with literature, the Annunciation and

Incarnation, and the auricular insemination. For the same

Mary that has served as a founding figure of Christian

tradition has also proved troubling to that tradition,

raising questions about its ability to represent coherent

standards of "sameness" and "difference," especially when it

comes to questions of corporeality and sexuality; and it is

because Mary has proved so troubling that Alisoun can be

even more so.

The Trouble with Mary

Mary herself was often depicted as intimately connected

with literature, particularly the act of reading:

"Uncountable paintings and sculptures of the Annunciation

depict Mary as an avid reader" (Bell 154). By the fourteenth

century, the image of Mary as a reader was common in

iconography of the Annunciation (Bell 154; Schiller 1:42).

Anna and Joachim promised their child to the temple where

Mary remained from the age of three until she was twelve.

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew reveals that Mary was

instructed there in the law of God. The N-Town's "The

Presentation of Mary in the Temple" takes up this theme and

develops it. Mary earns her place in the temple by being

able to recite at the age of three (line 164) "be fyftene

grees [steps]" by which believers may ascend to be with God

(97 & 102-61). Then the priest instructs her in proper

trinitarian devotion (178-85) and the act of contrition

(198-201) among other things, ending by telling her that she

is there "to lerne be goddys lawys and scrypture to rede"

(209). By the fourteenth century, she was also believed to

have been schooled in the prophecies of the Old Testament

and even in the seven liberal arts (Schiller 1:41-42). Even

by the thirteenth century, representations occur in which

Mary is shown reading Isaiah 7:14, which prophesies the

virgin birth of Immanuel, enmeshing her sexuality in the

necessities of Christian history.

Such necessities can be understood more fully by

turning to medieval representations of the Annunciation and

Incarnation. These were believed to be simultaneous events,

as the Word of God was immediately translated into the body

of Jesus. However, Mary's body cannot be elided from the

process if Jesus is to be comn etpIl.y himrn. As we 'iill .see,

female physiology marks the narrative in revealing ways.

Grabar describes a common representation of the Annunciation

in which the child is already present even as Gabriel speaks

to Mary. Grabar finds the earliest evidence of this

representation in the eastern church in the ninth century

but claims that by the thirteenth century it was also

prevalent in the western church. This representation is

striking because it contains the image of the Holy ghost in

the form of a bird or waves of light or both coming down to

the praying Virgin within whose breast the child already

resides. As Grabar proposes, "This surprising motif was a

convention to represent--by transparency, as it were--the


future Child" (128)."' However, that the image is created so

that Jesus appears in anticipation in the Virgin's womb

suggests the common belief that the Incarnation begins at

the moment of the Annunciation. A twelfth-century eastern

icon and the liturgy upon which it was based illustrate this

tradition which the western church was to take up little

more than a hundred years later. The liturgy reads, "As she

heard the words of the archangel so she received in a

supernatural manner in her undefiled womb the Son and the

Word of God, his wisdom" (Schiller 1:44). The icon

represents this idea by having Mary listen intently to

Gabriel, and as she does so, she points to the Child inside

her, visible through her garments. Similarly and more

strikingly, Schiller describes an image from one twelfth-

century missal in which

Mary of the Annunciation stands] on the snake. .
Below the Virgin and Gabriel, King Solomon appears,
holding a scroll with the text of Proverbs 9:1: "Wisdom
hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven
pillars." (1:41; figure 86)

These seven pillars foreshadow the fourteenth-century belief

in Mary's instruction in the seven liberal arts, and their

architectural resonance suggests that Mary is, herself, the

house of Wisdom, the site of Jesus's residence on earth even

at the moment of annunciation.

;-See also Schiller 1:45.


In addition to the visual images, the literature of the

period also reflects this understanding of the Incarnation

as simultaneous with the Annunciation. For example, a

religious lyric dating from the first half of the fourteenth

century and occurring in at least four manuscript versions

speaks of Mary's joy upon learning from the angel that

"crist" (26:6) has said that the "holi gost scholde in [her]

bodi wende" (26:7), "wende" meaning "to pass into or

change." Here, Christ even pre-exists the Annunciation and

is, in fact, part of its cause, and yet he is also

intimately tied to the mutable body of Mary. Similarly, an

"Ave Maris Stella" dating from the first half of the century

speaks of the "gretyn uncowpe / pat [to Mary] was sayd of

Gabriel mowthe"--"the unknown greeting that was said to Mary

out of Gabriel's mouth" (41:5-6) as the precipitating factor

behind humanity being returned to "pes"--"peace" (41:7) and

righting "be name of heue a-aayne"--"the name of Eve again"

(41:8). A mid-century "Ave Maris Stella" repeats a similar


Thurght gabrols mough and maine;
In pais Pou put vs out paine,
Turnand Pe name of eue again. (45:6-8)

[Through Gabriel's mouth and strength, you put us out
of pain into peace, turning the name of Eve again.]

Both of these lyrics refer to the typological connections

between Eve and Mary. Typology produced a trope in which the

Virgin was understood to be the inversion of Eve, or her

positive double. Mary turned the (original) sin of the world

into salvation, turning "Eva" into "Ave.""4

By the time of Chaucer's early poem "An ABC" or "La

Priere de Nostre Dame," the idea that the Annunciation and

the Conception were simultaneous had found its way into

popular literature. Chaucer writes in praise of the Virgin

in his abecedarius that "the Holi Gost thee sought / Whan

Gabrielles vois cam to thin ere" (lines 114-15). In these

examples, damnation, Annunciation, Incarnation, and

salvation are all tied together and illustrate the complex

semiosis that produces salvation: the greeting begins the

bodily existence of salvational law and marks its ultimate

fulfillment. This logic also reveals that only at the

coincidence of the Word of God and human flesh that each is

understood to be fulfilled.

Such visual representations grew out of readings of the

gospels and the apocryphal gospels in which the Incarnation

is assumed. These readings trace some of their origins back

to interpretations of Psalms 45:10: "Hear, O daughter,

consider, and incline your ear." This Psalm was interpreted

to anticipate Mary's humility as well as the physiology of

"For typical examples of this usage, see the Malleus
Maleficarum, 44, and the N-Town's "The Parliament of
Heaven," line 219.

her immediate auricular insemination with the Word. For

example in Luke, the angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel,

makes this assumption. He moves from the future tense of

"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the

Most High will overshadow you" (1:35) to the past tense of

"your kinswoman Elizabeth has also conceived a son"

(1:36). The Incarnation is a fait accompli once it has been

announced to Mary and matched by her own words: "Behold, I

am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to

your word" (Luke 1:38). In the Protevangelium, Mary goes to

visit her cousin Elizabeth soon after the Annunciation and

Elizabeth at once recognizes the miraculous state of Mary's

body, calling her "the mother of my Lord" (12:2). In the

early fifth century Augustine was to write of the

Annunciation that through it the "Word, the Beginning, made

himself audible to the bodily ears of [humanity], so that

they should believe in him and, by looking for him within

themselves, should find him" (11.8). By the fourteenth

century the insistence on the conceptio per aurem and its

concomitant affective devotional practice was strong.''

However, the auricular insemination also recalls

original sin. From the perspective of Eve and the fall in

'Warner traces the western development of this practice to
Cistercian and Franciscan insistence on the humanity of
Christ (210).

the garden, medieval semiotics paired women's sexuality with

language, particularly its more errant operations. Mary's

conception per aurem is another component of this system of

making meaning. The Annunciation/Incarnation constitutes an

attempt at a systemic recuperation of female sexuality and

errant language; it provides the antidotum to the venenum

permeating humanity ever since Eve's conversation with the

serpent.' The only way humanity may be saved from the

concupiscence and mortality that arose from original sin is

to be bought back by the singular body capable of making

such a purchase. Or as Albertus Magnus (13th century) wrote

in his tractatus on the incarnation:

omnes homines erant sub peccato; ergo, licet homo
debuerit, tamen homo non potuit redimere; ergo
oportuit, quod aliquis plus esset quam homo, qui
deberet redimere. Sed INFRA probabitur, quod angelus
non erat unibilis; ergo oportuit, quod esset deus et
homo; ergo necesse fuit deum incarnari. (171)

[all men were living under sin; although man was in
debt, man nevertheless was not able to buy [himself]
back; therefore it was necessary that there be someone
more than man who could buy [him] back. But below, it
is proved that the angel was not capable of being
united [to the flesh of man]; therefore, it was
necessary that it be God and man; so, it was inevitable
for God to be incarnated.]

Albertus's voice is a typical one among many in a long

tradition of reasoning about God's human existence. Some

'See St. Bernard's (1090 1153) Sermc fI in festc
Pentecostes, quoted in Him (298).

eight hundred years earlier, Augustine wrote of humanity's

inability to access God in any way "but dimly, through the

clouds," making God's bodily existence (13.15) necessary for

human understanding.

The sublative urge in these examples is evident. The

argument is that God descended to the earth and condescended

to take on the robe of flesh, "the pollution of the body"

(Augustine 10.30). The idea of condescension suggested in

this logic illustrates the Christian inflection of the

classic Platonic hierarchical dichotomy of mind over body

and the Aristotelian notion of form over matter. In the

Christian tradition this hierarchy was translated into

sexual difference as Adam, made first and "in [God's] own

image" (Genesis 1:27), carried the divine form, while Eve,

who was "taken out of Man" (Genesis 2:23), was associated

with the flesh. The female's association with body and

excess, led Paul to caution Timothy about the dangers of the

way women dress and their speech (1 Timothy 2:9-15).

With Paul's admonition that "a woman [should] learn in

silence" matched by Augustine's later claim that "truth [is]

something incorporeal" (7.20), we can imagine some of the

cultural constraints placed on the woman as the silent body

and the figurations that arise from this ethic.

The medieval concept of Mary, in her humility and

servitude to God, is one such figuration, while anti-


feminist tropes represent the non-exemplary outcome of this

epistemology. The interrelatedness of these discourses will

be made clearer by understanding Mary's role in the

Annunciation, particularly her vocation as a weaver, for in

understanding the metaphor which ties clothing to maternal

flesh we can begin to see some of the predicates of sexual

difference that are transferred into the self-contradictory

narrative of Alisoun of Bath.

As Caroline Walker Bynum points out in much of her

writing,'" as much as dichotomies like mind/body,

divine/human, and masculine/feminine were present and

effective during the period so were crossings of the lines

that created them:

Not only did theology, natural philosophy and folk
tradition mingle male and female in their understanding
of human character and human physiology, theological
and psychological discussion also sometimes mingled
body and soul. [B]y the thirteenth century the
prevalent concept of person was of a psychosomatic
unity .. ("Female Body" 183)

Using such metaphors as Jesus as mother or the female holy

person as knight, religious practice and imagination in the

Middle Ages often operated by invoking certain categories

only so that those categories could be crossed, again

reflecting the boundarylessness paradox at the heart of

-See particularly "The Body of Christ in the Later Middle
Ages," "'And Woman His Humanity': Female Imagery in the
Religious Writing of the Later Middle Ages," and "The Female
Body and Religious Practice in the Later Middle Ages."

Christianity. Yet, concurrent with this practice are the

many instances in which the dichotomies of soul/body,

man/woman, and authority/experience, among others, remain as

the defining controlling categories.

Mary is a prime example of how these categories were

activated. As indicated by her education in Old Testament

lore, Mary was the product and end of prophecy, subject to

but definitive of Judaic law. More specifically, Mary was

one of the "pure virgins of the tribe of David" asked to

weave the "the scarlet and the true purple" (Protevangelium

10:1) of the temple veil. The Protevangelium explicitly

connects Mary's weaving functions in the temple with the

Annunciation. After beginning to spin the scarlet, one day

Mary ventures out for some water:

And she took the pitcher and went forth to fill it with
water: and lo a voice saying: Hail, thou that art
highly favoured; the Lord is with thee: blessed art
thou among women.
And she looked about her upon the right hand and
upon the left to see whence this voice should be: and
being filled with trembling she went to her house and
set down the pitcher, and took the purple and sat down
upon her seat and drew out the thread.
And behold an angel of the Lord stood before her
saying, Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace
before the Lord of all things, and thou shalt conceive
of his word. (11:1-2)

Mary then asks the angel if she will conceive like other

women to which the angel responds that she will not because

instead she will be "overshadowed" (11:2) by the Lord. Then

follows, as in Luke, her acceptance of her role.

This passage illustrates two interrelated things, one

of which is the growth even by the time of this second-

century apocryphal gospel (James 38) of the story of Mary.

The Annunciation scene in Luke is clear that Mary "will

conceive in [her] womb and bear a son" (1:31). However, the

angel's announcement in the passage from the Protevangelium

mentions nothing about a human birth; Mary makes this

assumption when she asks how she will conceive and give

birth. This small change marks a striking modification in

Mary's story since the gospels were written: her sexuality

has more clearly moved into a semiotic field. In taking a

look at the semiosis of the Marian cult in her essay "Stabat

Mater," Julia Kristeva reads this as a type of bypass of the

female body, saying that thus female "sexuality is brought

down to the level of innuendo" (173). Nevertheless, I

suggest that Mary's body is never bypassed completely,

however strongly the urge toward its sublation may be

represented. In the dramas the condition of Mary's body is a

constant concern and the connection between weaving and the

Incarnation--the second significance of the above passage

from the Protevangelium--provides another insight into the

import of Marian flesh.

In the N-Town's "The Salutation and Conception" and

York's "The Annunciation, and Visit of Elizabeth to Mary,"

the state of Mary's body continues to be of great concern.

In the N-Town play, Mary is astounded at Gabriel's words

that she "xal conceyve in [her] wombe indede / A child, be

sone of be Trynyte" (lines 239-40-). She responds

In what manere of wyse xal ]is be?
For knowyng of man I haue non now:
I haue evyrmore kept and xal my virginyt6.
I dowte not be words 3e han seyd to me,
But I aske how it xal be do. (246-50)

The York play follows suit, both in Gabriel's announcement

and in Mary's response. Mary does add an emphasis on knowing

and speaking the truth, "the sothe to saye," about her

"maydenhode" (174) and on the specter of Eve when she claims

not to be "fyled" by "werkis wilde" (173 & 175). Both plays

end the scene with a focus on the words of the angel and

Mary's acceptance of them."2 The errancy of female flesh

would seem to be recuperated by the Word of God.

Similarly Mary's weaving seems to be another way that

female flesh is brought back into the heavenly fold. As I

have suggested above, the Protevangelium connects the

vocation of weaving with the Incarnation itself. Schiller

collects many images based upon the Protevangelium's version

of the story, many of them showing Mary holding the

2In the N-Town Mary says "Aftyr pi worde be it don to me"
(288) In York, she says "Be done to me of all manere, /
Thurgh thy worde als pou hast said" (191-92).

spindle." Medieval lyrics illustrate ways in which the

period figured Mary's weaving of Jesus. In Brown's

fourteenth century collection, the Incarnation is presented

a clothing metaphor in two poems. An "Orison to the Blessed

Virgin" attempts to represent the mysteries of salvation by

claiming that Jesus took on the "robe" of human flesh (16:19

& 48) and that Mary "3eue hym my wede," the clothing of

humanity (16:31). The narrator of a short poem from later in

the century (1372) wishes to be "clad in cristes skyn"

(71:3) in order to better understand Christ's suffering on

the cross. These examples illustrate that although "Wearing

the tissue of .flesh" (Augustine, Confessions 13:15)

was not the primary figure for speaking of the Incarnation,

it was one with some currency.

This clothing metaphor suggests an incidental quality

to the flesh of God: as that which is mutable, it cannot

also be intrinsic to the transcendent Godhead. Yet the

fallibility of the flesh, originating with Eve, instigated

the need for salvation and therefore instigated the

salvational narrative itself. Mary represents a sublated

version of this flesh; merely mutable and not fallible, she

'"See pages 35-38 & figures 52, 71-73,& 156 (with a basket
of wool instead of a spindle). Even though these are works
from the early church, Schiller contends that they
influenced medieval representation, as the passages from
lyrics I cite below illustrate.

bodily enacts not only salvation but also the narrative

desire for it in her conjunction with Eve.

The cultural inheritance of this relationship with Eve

is represented in the cycle dramas, particularly in Mary's

relationship with Joseph. As Theresa Coletti points out in

writing about the English mystery cycle dramas, these plays

often present a Mary who has a life that is not so different

from that of some of the plays' viewers (75-76). The mother

of God, she is blamed by her husband for being such a

foolish young woman as to be tricked by a young handsome man

calling himself an angel. Further, Joseph's reaction to

seeing his wife pregnant is merely typical of community

standards. That God would have condescended to be embodied

through the medium of a woman's body, especially one that

lactated and menstruated,"' remained a prevalent topic of

disputation in the period. Mary is simultaneously the Queen

of Heaven, medium of salvation for mankind, and its inverse-

-the concupiscence of female carnality. The York cycle play

"Joseph's Trouble about Mary" concentrates on the

relationship between husband and wife. This play begins with

a long lament by the "elde, / Wayke and al vnwelde [infirm]"

(lines 5-6) Joseph on how unlucky he is to have been wed to

a young wife, a complaint that Alisoun of Bath will inflect

"See Charles T. Wood's famous essay on the physiological
femaleness of Mary's body.

in some revealing ways in her prologue and tale. His

complaints grow from his knowledge that Mary is pregnant and

has become so while he was away. His main concern is over

the "shame" and "blame" (54 & 60) that will fall on him when

her pregnancy is discovered. The N-Town expands on this fear

of communal retribution with its "Trial of Mary and Joseph."

Both Joseph and Mary, revered as the holy parents by the

play's audience even as the two are denigrated during the

drama, are blamed for their sexual appetites. Detractors

call Joseph an "olde shrewe" who is so "anameryd" with Mary

that he must have her (82 & 83). Similarly, Mary is "a 3onge

damesel of bewte bryght" who is so freshh and fayr" that

she would cause even "A 3onge man to haue delyght" (94 & 91

& 93). Once Joseph has proven his innocence by passing a

test of drinking a holy potion (230-57), the detractors and

judges turn their attention to Mary. She must ask twice

before being allowed to prove her innocence in the same way

as Joseph (294 & 333). In between her requests, one of her

detractors makes jokes about how she might have gotten

pregnant, while one of the lawyers brings her own body as

evidence against her:

Du art with chylde we se in syght;
To us pi wombe be doth accuse!
Der was nevyr woman 3itt in such plyght
Dat from mankynde hyre kowde excuse. (302-05)

Such legal proceedings recall Eve and the origination of the

belief in the errancy of female flesh. That the audience

knows that Mary is innocent, as those in the courtroom soon

discover after Mary drinks the holy potion, provides the

sublative element that solidifies the Christian mystery of

the virgin birth. Similarly, in the York play, Joseph knows

"thurgh prophicie" that "A maiden clene suld bere a child"

(61 & 62), but cannot believe the words his wife speaks

until Gabriel visits him and reveals the truth or "soth"

(277) of his wife's pregnant body to him.

Even as such scenes recuperate the errancy of female

flesh, they also serve to establish this errancy or

indeterminacy as the foundation of salvation. Given that the

displacement of this errancy onto the flesh and more

specifically onto female flesh can be understood as a

defining moment of sexual difference, Mary's corporeality

remains troubling. Coletti argues on the general level that

"Mary emerges as a sign of difference, of the

irreconcilability of matter and spirit, the human and the

divine" (86). I would add to this the specific of sexual

difference because as the evidence from the cycle plays

attests, the main contention is over the state of her body

and the responsibility for it. Even though Joseph's

reputation may be at stake, Mary's obviously pregnant state

is the one truth of each of the plays' scenes that is never

contested. It sets her off from her elder husband and the

larger community of her male detractors in a way that cannot

be confirmed or denied by a holy potion even after she has

proved her sexual innocence.

Chaucer's Tale of Melibee renders this idea of female

physiology just barely under control as Dame Prudence

addresses her husband saying, "For certes, sire, oure Lord

Jhesu Crist wolde never have descended to be born of a

woman, if all women hadden been wikke" (7.1073). The

writers of the fifteenth-century treatise on witchcraft, the

Malleus Maleficarum, interpret this accidental quality as


And it should be noted that there was a defect in the
formation of the first woman, since she was formed from
a bent rib bent as it were in a contrary
direction to a man. (44)

This passage is a typical outgrowth of Platonic dualistic

inheritance and the misogyny that followed from it. In the

way that it is representative of the cultural milieu that

produced it, this passage suggests something very revealing

about the dichotomous gender system upon which it operates.

Even within the pre-lapsarian Adam, the supposed unsullied

human original from all humans derive as copies, the

possibility of accident was present and came to bear. This

accidental quality becomes the threat of the flesh. This

risk seems always to have been possible, and is in some

sense a necessary possibility if the substance, or what

Christian doctrine would understand as non-accidental

occurrences like Mary's story, is to be significant. The

Incarnation, as well as its concomitant narratives that seal

Mary's body, evidence the narrative tendency to sublate the

flesh and accident. Yet, the embodiment of this sublation in

the yoking of Eve and Mary indicates a complex and powerful

relationship among figuration, bodies and faith. The

negative and positive poles at which Eve and Mary stand can

then be understood as parts of an ongoing process that

creates them as original and teleological.

Realizing not just the presence of such binary

categories and where and how they are transgressed but also

the very structure of those categories can serve to

denaturalize them. Like the body of Jesus, God incarnate,

the spiritually necessary body of Mary blurs boundaries; but

Mary--with the gendered emphasis on her body as mere matter

and the blame and shame she suffers for her pregnancy--also

embodies the dichotomies as well as their blurring. Like

Mary's story, Alisoun of Bath's Prologue and Tale similarly

point to the articulations of the discourses that define

her; she speaks against some of the very things she seems to

be and in so doing shifts the ground of understanding and

places ostensibly natural categories under pressure. As she

tries to articulate what being the woman she is is like, we

can begin to understand the errancy in her speech as

reflective of the underlying indeterminacy of gender roles.

In the introduction to her book Chaucer's Sexual

Poetics, Carolyn Dinshaw takes a look at the intersection of

some of these prescribed roles, tracing the thoughts of

several medieval writers on the dangers of the body,

particularly the female body, and its relationship to ways

of reading. She highlights "the patristic association of the

surface of the text (the letter) with carnality (the flesh,

the body), and carnality with woman" (21). While my reading

certainly does not deny the potency of such anti-feminist

constructions, examining the ways in which they have been

articulated and solidified can provide another mode of

understanding what is at stake in their formation. Reading

the texts of these discourses and other texts with the

weight of Marian imagery behind them can provide a frame

through which to see the materiality not only of the text

but also of its truths and to see that, like the vagrancy of

female flesh, its possibilities lie in its dangers. So while

what Dinshaw says may be true:

literary activity has a gendered structure, a structure
that associates acts of writing and related acts of
signifying--allegorizing, interpreting, glossing,
translating"--with the masculine and that identifies

'Mary is represented as actively engaging in several of
these "masculine" pursuits. She is the mediatrix between
humans and her son, involved in interpreting his love and


the surfaces on which these acts are performed, or from
which these acts depart, or which these acts reveal--
the page, the text, the literal sense, or even the
hidden meaning--with the feminine. (Dinshaw 9)

Nevertheless, the polyvalent and juxtapositional functions

of Mary's body as a signifier can offer a somewhat different

perspective from which to view the congruence of texts and

bodies. The necessities of Mary's physiology affect her

story and therefore highlight not just the process of

signification being performed on bodies but also the

potential of those bodies to signify and to recirculate

meanings. In effect, what this look at the representations

surrounding Mary's body can foreground is that what Dinshaw

calls the "hidden meaning" and the "literal sense" are

coterminous. In other words, the act of making something

signify is also the act of being signified. Neither the idea

of a prediscursive body and its gender nor of an all-

inclusive language remains untouched once both are seen as

series of junctures. An investigation of ways in which

Alisoun of Bath's story seems to double Mary's will reveal

similar junctures thus undoing the logic of the double.

justice to them and their penitence to him. She is also
often associated with the translational process of

The Trouble with Alisoun

How big is the step from The Holy Virgin Mary to

Alisoun of Bath's inquiry into "virginitee"? Mary seems

conspicuously absent in the Wife's 162-line investigation

that mentions virginity six times (Fragment 3. lines 62, 72,

82, 91, 105, 142) and Jesus four times (3.10, 15, 107, 139,

146), even remarking on his being "a made" (139).

Similarly, later in her prologue, she speaks of

Eva first, that for hir wikkednesse
Was al mankynde brought to wrecchednesse,
For which that Jhesu Crist himself was slayn,
That boghte us with his herte blood agayn. (715-18)

Typically, as the examples from the Malleus Maleficarum and

several of the lyrics cited earlier illustrate, Mary was

seen as the one who turned "Eva" to "Ave," or as the inverse

of Eve and her sin, while Jesus was commonly figured as

Adam's inverse.

Virginity, Jesus, Eve, and sin--the text leaves out

Mary, the central embodiment of the narrative of salvation.

The woman who openly talks about her body and its functions

seems to leave out the matrix of the Godhead in her brief

history of the fall and redemption of humanity. In two

essays Melvin Storm has developed some convincing textual

connections between Alisoun and Mary. In "Aliscun's Ear"

Storm argues that the Wife's deafness is a sign of her

unregenerate spiritual state and faulty intellectual

capabilities. By tracing out a long line of patristic

thinking that equates good "hearing with the apprehension of

truth" (220), Storm's conclusion is that the Wife, hearing

in only one ear, is deaf to the salvational new law (224).

In contrast, of course, Mary's ear was most profoundly open

to receive the Word of God. This acceptance implies her

wholly regenerative nature and her recursively established

ability to learn and live by the law.

In "The Miller, The Virgin, and the Wife of Bath,"

Storm develops parallels between Alison of the Miller's Tale

and Alisoun of Bath to support his conclusion that "the Wife

of Bath is the true inversion of Mary" (297). He cites

several previous studies on parallels between the Miller's

Alison and Mary (291-92) and then develops further parallels

between the two characters of the Canterbury Tales. Again

the issue of the Wife's hearing is the focus. Among other

likenesses she shares with the Holy Virgin, the Miller's

Alison is compared to a "wezele" (1.3234), an animal that

was believed to conceive through the ear and give birth

through the mouth "just as the Virgin was envisioned as

conceiving through the whispering of an angel or dove

representing the Holy Ghost and, in turn, giving birth to

the Word Incarnate" (292). The likenesses Alison shares with

Alisoun of Bath are numerous and include "details of


character, of appearance, of speech, and .shared

social circumstance" (293). Storm concludes that with the

"intermediate parody" (297) of the Miller's Alison, the Wife

of Bath is brought into stark contrast with Mary. Her

"deafness, her evident barrenness, and her unregenerate

nature" (297) all recall the Annunciation and her distance

from salvation.

While the thematic and patristic evidence that Storm

compiles convincingly indicates that his reading is a valid

and insightful one, it focuses on how the context of Marian

imagery provides Alisoun of Bath's story with a frame of

understanding. However, as the previous examinations of

Mary's life story and her relation to Eve have shown, the

Virgin is no less a textual creation than is the Wife.

Further examination of the narrative existence of these

characters will show the interdependence between the

oppositional members of binary systems; specifically, the

Wife of Bath's sometimes confusing and contradictory

prologue and story illuminate the narratively constructed

character of gender.

My synopses of Storm's articles have already

illustrated some important textual and thematic connections

between Mary and Alisoun. The Wife's unregenerate

characteristics recall the original sin of Eve, but as

evidenced by the overdetermined existence of the virtuous


Constance, the relationship between an exemplary maiden and

a sinful wife is more complex than that of a simple

hierarchical binary. In the same way that, as I have shown

previously, Mary's body, marked by the curse of Eve,

authorizes and yet jeopardizes the telos of salvation,

Alisoun of Bath's conspicuously self-reflexive autobiography

also recalls the life story of the Holy Virgin. Alisoun,

like Mary, is a weaver of fine cloth (1.447), but more

telling than this and the other textual similarities I have

previously indicated is the similar way that the textual

bodies of both women represent but also refashion the

changing textures of their cultures. Where Mary is the

juxtaposition of "Glorious made and mooder" ("An ABC," line

49), "doghter of [her] Sone" (Second Nun's Prologue, 8.36),

Alisoun embodies the paradox of exemplifying some of the

same anti-feminist tropes against which she argues. The

stories of both women revolve around secrets--how and how

well they are kept. Mary may wish to keep "all things,

pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19), but her pregnant

body reveals her inner secrets to a suspicious husband and a

legislative community. Alisoun reveals truths about her

body--where she has the marks of Venus and Mars and their

significance (lines 604-626)--but only under the guise of

"pleye" and only after warning that "For half so boldely kan

their no man / Swere and iyen, as a woman kan" (227-28)

Both women are readers and are read to; both have divinely

ordained bodies; both share a bodily and revelatory

relationship to statements of truth. Both Mary and Alisoun

are, on the surface, seemingly contradictory, seemingly

bound by categories that they also break apart. As previous

portions of this project have made clear, Mary's story

suggests a polyvalence but only through repetition of

regulatory, normative discourses. This contrariness

pressures the very logic that produces the original

categories. Specifically, in the confusion of texts, bodies,

and truths that Alisoun represents, some of what is taken

for granted about gender roles comes under pressure.

The Wife of Bath's autobiography and the tale she tells

as her offering to the game that comprises the frame of the

Canterbury Tales initiate the question of gender by

highlighting the culturally constructed character of gender.

Her discussion of the debate over why "membres of

generation" (116) were created implies an understanding that

bodies cannot be said to have a signifiable existence prior

to their being inserted into a recognizable set of


Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun,
That they were maked for purgacioun
Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale
Were eek to knowe a femele from a male,
And for noon other cause, say ye no?
The experience woot wel it is noght so.
So that the clerkes be nat with me wrote,

I sey this, that they maked ben for bothe,
This is to seye, for office, and for ese
Of engendrure, their we nat God displese. (119-28)

The rather technical use of "purgacioun" (3.120),

"uryne" (3.121), and "femele" and "male" (3.122), even when

mixed with colloquialisms like "thynges smale" (3.121),

intimates the way in which scientific discourse affects the

perception of basic differences between men and women.

Medieval physiological research focused on discovering the

essential function of any organ. Organs functioned less as a

part of an individual body and more as manifestations of

eternal forms (Jacquart & Thomasset 7-47). The Wife's

attention to organ purpose recalls this scientific and

etymological system of ordering the world. Invoking the

name of God, mixing this theology with science and adding

her own perspective on sex, she reminds her audience of the

interdependence between modes of discourse and human


She uses scientific and theological terminology as well

as the euphemism of "thynges smale." Later she will refer to

her own "thynge" with the euphemisms "bele chose" and

"quoniam" (3.510 & 608). These lines bring to the fore the

many complex ways in which the body was textualized. The

physiology itself is another term in a culturally

determined, not solely physiologically based, set of

differences. The "membres" have similar functions in

excretion and similar goals in sex but are different in

form. From the perspective offered in this passage, sexual

organs do not carry significance outside a dualistic

referential framework. Alisoun had begun her analysis with a

phrase--"Glose whoso wole"--that indicates the perspectival

nature of the significance of body parts. She concludes her

discussion with a passage that illustrates clearly an

understanding of the interdependence between semiotic

systems, their figurations, and the bodies that manifest


Why sholde men in hir books sette
That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?
Now wherwith sholde he make his paiement,
If he ne used his sely instrument? (129-32)

The body, specifically the sexual body, seems to hold no

value until entered in the ledger book and brought into a

bargain with another body. What seems to hold the ideas

about gender in place in this passage is diffused across

several culturally constructed spectrums. "Bookes" and

whoever will "Glose" them--and the bodies set in them--

become the contextual anchors of what is signified by the

words "man" and "woman."'' Alisoun's parodic repetition of

the words of authority--science, theology, economy--and of

'My reading here builds on Butler's theory of the fictive
quality of what is perceived as an abiding substance of
gender (16-25).

her own experience--"ese" or pleasure in intercourse--

reveals that both are simulacra of the idea of the natural,

the original, or what is "right ynogh" (line 2).

What does it mean to have a certain set of instruments

if they make sense only in relation to another set? Medieval

medical practice held the female reproductive system to be

an inversion of the male. Galen (circa second century A.D.)

provides a foundation for later physiological analyses,

saying, "in women the parts are within [the body], whereas

in men they are outside" (2:628).. In the fourteenth

century Henri de Mondeville and Guy de Chauliac, surgeons,

wrote "The apparatus of generation in women is like the

apparatus of generation in men, except that it is reversed"

and "the womb is like a penis reversed or put inside" (qtd.

in Bynum, "Female" 220). Medieval scientific views, based on

Aristotelian and Christian presuppositions, held the male

body to be paradigmatic, holding the image of God in the

semen. Yet, this paradigmatic form is also the body that in

Eden had the potential to produce the inexact copy of Eve

and that each day continues to have the potential to produce

the "imperfect[ion]" and "mutilat[ion]" (Galen 2:630) of the

female body. The male body and the female body were,

therefore, versions of the same thing. However, as the

This and all subsequent quotations from Galen are from
May's translation.

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