To deem something unspeakable involves an inherent paradox, to which Victoria Blud is alert: one cannot ‘not-speak’ about something unless it is first speak-able; staying silent about something, it seems, can involve the employment of a complex and voluble discourse. Blud’s monograph, revised from her doctoral research and beautifully produced by Boydell and Brewer, brings together contemporary theory (particularly Agamben, Lacan, Kristeva, Cixous) and a range of medieval canonical texts (principally Old English, Middle English, Old French) to engage extensively with the workings and consequences of unspeakability and apophasis, its associated topos. After an introduction situating her work within its theoretical context and discussing the philosophical complexities of unspeakability, Blud offers four chapters. Chapter 1 explores ‘expression and suppression’ in the Old English Life of St Mary of Egypt and Ancrene Wisse; Chapter 2 evaluates ‘unspeakable acts’, ranging from John/Eleanor Rykener, the discourse of sodomy, and Alain de Lille’s De planctu naturae, to the Roman de la rose and the Roman de Silence, Chaucer’s Pardoner, and Gower’s Iphis and Iante; Chapter 3 compares the themes of ‘gender and exile’ in Marie de France’s Bisclavret and the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer; Chapter 4 concentrates on ‘glossectomy’ in textual representations of Philomela. A brief conclusion foregrounds another paradox of the topic: saying nothing can be characterized by absence (the lacuna) or plethoric presence (the multivalent passage that says too much). This supplements the two ‘themes’ that Blud identifies as emerging in the book: first, ‘the divergence between the apparent fluency of text or speech and the restless description-defying of its subjects’; second, ‘the question of how power influences and controls speech’ (pp. 175–76). Blud’s work is articulate and intelligent and demonstrates a familiarity and deep engagement with complex theoretical discourses. Her choice to bring together individual medieval texts from such disparate traditions and contexts will alarm some, but Blud articulates a cost–benefit analysis of such an approach. Certainly, it does enable productive and provocative comparisons to be made and avoids the all-too-common relegation of Old English literature to a pre-conquest backwater. On the other hand, it means that individual texts are taken as representative in a way which may suggest a greater homogeneity within these traditions (or author’s oeuvre) than is the case. Inevitably scholars will quarrel with some of the positions taken. For instance, when Blud speaks of ‘the comparative silence on and of non-male, non-heterosexual, non-normative individuals and communities’ (p. 12), one wonders whether this does not risk reifying such categories in such a way as to create a binary opposition that does not reflect textual or lived reality. Much recent scholarship has explored the benefits of seeing the Middle Ages as a repository of neither homosexual nor heterosexual identity categories. Blud does, however, make clear the ‘complexities’ of gender and sexual identity in her discussion of the Rykener case (p. 62). Another contentious issue involves designating the book’s chronological coverage as between 1000 and 1400. For instance, this implicitly prioritizes the manuscript text of Wulf and Eadwacer, but the poem’s composition may substantially predate the year 1000 and Blud invokes oral performance in her discussion. That discussion also critiques the attempt to achieve ‘closure’ in reading this overdetermined and ambiguous text whilst simultaneously asserting its resonance with ‘the maternal body’ (p. 139). Nonetheless, raising such questions is no bad thing, and this is something Blud does admirably: her topic may be unspeakability, but her work invites reflection and dialogue. The book could hardly present the last word on such a complex topic as medieval gender and sexuality, but it does further the discussion and open up an array of stimulating connections. A quick check revealed only one typographical error: ‘Reivaulx’ for ‘Rievaulx’ on page 48, footnote 63; and the use of the ‘tab’ button has created a strange caesura pattern on page 129. There is a substantial and useful bibliography, though the comments on medieval masturbation (pp. 65–66) can now be supplemented by my recent article on the subject (‘Discourses of Masturbation…’ in Men and Masculinities, March 2016). This is a book that will profitably provoke debate amongst both established academics and postgraduate students, and makes an excellent addition to Boydell’s series on Gender in the Middle Ages. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 23, 2017
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