Living Death in Medieval French and English Literature

April 28, 2011

What happens when the Twilight zone of vampires and zombies comes up against the eternal afterlife? What is the function of the "living dead" when there is no death?

These are largely philosophical questions, and Jane Gilbert, in her intensely argued study of some key medieval texts, takes an explicitly philosophical approach, basing her literary criticism on the psychoanalytical theory of Jacques Lacan and his descendants, including Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler.

Starting with the negotiation of that most fraught liminal space, the place between life and death, Gilbert argues for a distinctively medieval way of understanding death where "dying is seen as ceasing to be one kind of person and becoming another". The dead and the living coexist and are, in some sense, codependents, the one providing protection and advice, the other offering prayer and remembrance.

In the 14th-century English poem Pearl, the young revenant, dead and yet living to the Jeweller who mourns her, helps him to accept and even welcome earthly death because of the glory of the afterlife to follow, while the Jeweller validates and celebrates the short life of a little girl.

So far, so good, but the reader has to work a bit harder to appreciate the medieval epistemology of death. Gilbert sets up a distinction between corporeal death and "symbolic" death: the community's recognition, manifested in conventional funerary rites, that a person has died. Between corporeal and non-corporeal deaths lies a space that Gilbert, following Lacan, calls entre-deux-morts, "between two deaths".

In Chaucer's elegiac poem The Book of the Duchess, the Man in Black and his recently dead wife Blanche inhabit such a space. Unable to let her go, he neglects the living world of leadership, duty and friendship, while Blanche herself remains half-alive, not yet laid fully to rest. It is only when the knight accepts the fact of her death - "She ys dede" - that Blanche's symbolic death can be accomplished.

By contrast, the figure of the revenant Alceste, from Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, rejects male attempts to force her into a symbolic death like the passive Blanche; instead, she repeatedly claims agency and the right to resist this "second death" that will silence her forever.

One of Gilbert's most original interventions is her concept of the "living dead" as a category that includes not only ghosties, ghoulies and revenants but also "the living who actively work towards their own death". This opens up a rich vein of interpretive possibility. Roland, the eponymous hero of the French epic La Chanson de Roland, is the exemplar of such a person, ineluctably drawn towards the giving and receiving of violence to the point where his motivation can only be his own demise. This is perhaps the archetypal definition of an epic hero (think of Cú Chulainn or Achilles), the warrior who prefers an honourable death to a long life.

Just as Gilbert complicates the binary opposition between life and death, she also undermines the polarities implied by gender and sexual orientation. Her account of the French prose work Lancelot argues that Galehot's fatal passion for Lancelot situates him in a metaphorical entre-deux-morts, an interpretation that allows a subtle commentary on the collective death drive of the Arthurian order, located not in adulterous desire but in the "admirable chivalric love between men". Thus, Gilbert proves what many of us had long suspected, namely that chivalry itself is impossible.

With its radical juxtapositions and eye-watering excursions into Lacanian theory, this book is not for the faint-hearted. But the committed reader will be rewarded by the sheer intellectual excitement of a book that gives new meaning to the idea of "social death".

Living Death in Medieval French and English Literature

By Jane Gilbert. Cambridge University Press. 296pp, £55.00. ISBN 9781107003835. Published 17 February 2011

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