Tuesday, September 16, 2008

the god of medicine has retaliated

After my last post on the evils of medicine, I subsequently contracted a cold of some kind--it's somewhere between a common cold and a sinus thing. More irritating than painful. But I will not succumb to the pharmaceutical powers! I've been bingeing on vitamin C, drinking lots of green tea, and resting. No pills.

But really, I do hope it eases up before Friday as I am presenting a research paper I wrote at the Medieval-Renaissance Conference at the University of Virginia at Wise (yeah, I know--sounds like a snore-fest to me too). The last thing I want is to be coughing up green stuff in front of a bunch of medievalists.

Oh, you want to hear about my paper? How sweet! The title is A Feminism of the Body: Glossing and Christian Mysticism in Marie de France's Yonec. Marie de France is someone who most people probably never hear about unless they've had a liberal arts education. She isn't very well known outside the French circle. She was one of very few women writers in the 12th century. Her work consists primarily of these folktales called "lais" that she wrote down in verse. She also wrote some even more obscure things about the lives of saints, but the lais are far more interesting.

Apart from her writings, the woman herself in something of a mystery. No one really knows anything about her except that her name was Marie and that she was from France (which, at this time, would have been the tiny little portion of France surrounding Paris, known as the Ile-de-France) because she added this information into her writings. There is much speculation about who she really was. The theory that I like is that she was the illegitimate sister of Henri II. This makes a great deal of sense because she was obviously well-educated (if you could read and write in the 12th century you were well-educated and most likely very wealthy), and her writings were not suppressed. There is one theory that "Marie" was actually a man writing as a woman, but as this theory comes from a French intellectual I wouldn't give it much credence.

My paper has nothing to do with who she actually was. For my purposes, I take as a given that Marie was indeed a woman. My paper is about her lai Yonec. This lai is surprising. For one thing, it is a religious allegory, but it is strikingly feminine. By feminine I mean using physical events to relay a spiritual message. This phenomenon is known as Christian mystic literature. Spirituality in the Middle Ages was something of a class-privilege. To "understand" the Bible and religious philosophy you basically had to be wealthy and male. Mysticism, however, relies on individual experience, educated or no, which is often physical. And Yonec is nothing if not physical. Essentially, the main character--a lady locked up in a tower by her domineering husband--has an affair with a knight who is an incarnation of God. Yes, you heard right.

She ultimately has this relationship and bears a son who will eventually slay his mother's evil husband. The story is much more complex than that, but for the purposes of this blog, I think you get the jist. Marie's other lais are not like this. This story stands out because while, in her other lais, Marie condemns adultery (one hypothesis is that these tales were written for the instruction of the young princes of Henri II--thus, every story has a moral), Yonec seems to extol the same thing. Granted, this isn't just any affair--this is God we're talking about. But nonetheless, this is an incredible instance of mystic literature. And you thought the 21st century was risque.

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