Let's start with the title. It's a shocker. Not only does it suggest, misleadingly, a humorous tome on medieval saints and their appendages, but its register seems quite inappropriate to what is in fact a challenging account of medieval philosophy, poetry - and sex.
David Rollo's book suggests that a barely suppressed subtext concerning men who act or look like women, and vice versa, pulsates throughout some key texts of the high Middle Ages. From the character of Geometry in Martianus Capella's allegorical treatise De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii ("The Marriage of Philology and Mercury"), to Bel Accueil in Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose, ambiguities of gender tease the imagination of the discerning reader.
Extending this idea, Rollo claims that an unstable gender is encoded in the very writing that describes it, where binaries of grammar, rhetoric and poetry produce hermaphroditic discourses. Beginning with the mythological character who gave the condition its name, Rollo describes Hermaphroditus as a complete amalgam of his parents, an embodiment of the ornamental language of Mercury (Hermes) and the sensual pleasure of Venus (Aphrodite).
This merging of language and desire is, according to Rollo, an early Christian response to the disturbingly sensual fictional worlds of the pagan past. Thus Martianus, in his allegory of the seven liberal arts, shows that Pallas, representing wisdom, must be complemented by the influence of Venus. The result is a hermaphroditic discourse - that is, one that displays the playful excess of fiction while still conveying the intellectual weightiness of philosophy.
Hermaphroditic discourse is evident in Alain de Lille's De Planctu Naturae, undermining its avowed disapproval of the pleasure principle. Alain's character Nature rails against various practices that are "against nature", including homoeroticism and men who dress as women. At the same time, Alain uses Nature to foreground the "fallen" language of rhetorical excess, a language she claims to denounce while actually using it herself.
Rollo is perhaps at his strongest when he explores the semantic complexities produced by the intersection of grammatical gender and sexual identity. His analysis of the character of Bel Accueil in Roman de la Rose, grammatically masculine but supposedly the feminine object of Amant's desire, is grounded in a reading of the Roman (following Simon Gaunt) as a "sustained exercise in sexual indeterminacy".
And so we come, by a very circuitous route, to "kiss my relics", which turns out to be a key phrase in Rollo's reading of the Roman and of Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale". When Chaucer's Pardoner, seller of dodgy absolutions, invites the Host to "kisse the relikes", the Host replies tartly that "I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond/? In stide of relikes", echoing a substitution of "relics" for "coillons" ("testicles") previously made by the character of Reason in the Roman. This reading, as several critics have noted, reinforces the likelihood that the Pardoner is meant to be understood as a sexually ambiguous figure, leering at women while asking men to "kiss his relics". I am reminded of William Langland's pardoner in Piers Plowman, who receives men as they "comen up knelynge to kissen hise bulles".
With its slabs of Latin and long-winded arguments, this is not an easy book to read. Commentaries on influential Latin texts that informed medieval vernacular writing are generally to be welcomed, and a detailed analysis of Roman de la Rose that does not shrink from the sexual explicitness of the text will be useful to modern students and scholars. But the reader should be prepared for a kind of rhetorical excess that finds sex, and particularly gay sex, around every rose bush.
Kiss My Relics: Hermaphroditic Fictions of the Middle Ages
By David Rollo. University of Chicago Press. 240pp, £22.50. ISBN 9780226724614. Published 7 October 2011