Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain, by Carissa M. Harris

Peter J. Smith on an ambitious effort to mobilise Middle English literature for modern feminism

February 14, 2019
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After the customary pleasantries, Carissa Harris’ acknowledgements end, “And to all you motherfuckers who reminded me what rape culture and misogyny look like…I thank you for keeping the fire alive.” Later, she recounts being followed by two men shouting, “Give us some of that pussy.” Perceiving herself as “nothing more than a fuckable body part”, she arrives at a friend’s home with “the shit [scared] out of me”.

As much an indictment of modern America’s predatory patriarchy as an account of Late Middle English poetry, Obscene Pedagogies is really a call to arms: “No more. Fuck this. We will not stand for it.” This is a shame because such an attempt to mobilise medieval English and Scottish literature for contemporary Western feminism ends up compromising Harris’ readings of both.

The ice gets thin when Harris compares “the work of Detroit-born MC Angel Haze”, who challenges “hip-hop’s misogyny”, with 15th-century flyting or pastourelle lyrics. Obscenity is common to both, but is that sufficient to draw any telling parallels between them? Elsewhere, an extended discussion of the sordid details of footballer Ched Evans’ 2016 rape trial is deployed as a frame through which Harris reads The Reeve’s Tale, and here she shows a perverse interpretation of pedagogy, arguing that Chaucer paints a “bleak picture of men teaching their peers the tenets of rape culture through obscene storytelling”.

Harris argues that the explicit language used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is “part of a larger late medieval discourse of women’s peer pedagogy”, but is this not to admire, misleadingly, the female agency of a character created by a male poet? A text called “Throughe a forest as I can ryde” is addressed to “all medons [maidens]” and therefore “invites female readers to join cross-class coalitions”. But is it at all likely that aristocratic women and serfs would form such confederacies (not to mention the lack of literacy among the latter)?

Too often, assiduous close readings are undermined by bludgeoning pronouncements such as “all [emphasis in original] heterosexual encounters in a rape culture – even encounters that are consensual and pleasurable – are inflected by the ineluctable threat of violence” or “hunting and non-marital sexual activity [are] markers of masculinity, valorizing equally the ability to kill and the ability to fuck”.

Harris is an astute close reader of Late Middle English obscenity, and she has some pungent examples. Around 1582, Sir Patrick Hume asserted that his enemy, Alexander Montgomerie, was possessed of “a cunt, deid runt [dead stump]” and commanded him to “kis the cunt of ane kow” (which Harris rather bashfully glosses as “bestial cunnilingus”). She cites the proverbial “He that dies for ane cunt causs burie him in the ars [bury him with his arse facing upwards]” and discusses French poet Jean Bodel’s “penis market stocked with every kind of cock imaginable”. Splendid stuff.

Literary critics want to appear “relevant” or, as the current repugnant jargon has it, “impactful”, but making Chaucer et al. our contemporaries is to flatten, or even erase, the historical difference that makes studying literature of the past important. Late medieval Britain really is a foreign country, and they really do do things differently there.

Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University and author of Between Two Stools: Scatology and Its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift (2012).


Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain
By Carissa M. Harris
Cornell University Press, 308pp, £36.00
ISBN 9781501730405
Published 15 December 2018

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Print headline: Misogyny…and other dirty words

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