Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sirenic nuns and porous cloisters

The mid 12th Century classical commenter Master Alberich of London initiated a moralizing spin on the antiquarian Homeric myth of Odysseus and the Sirens. Eschewing the highly fantastical, Alberich proposed a properly Christianized warning-tale:

“The wise man stops up the ears of his dependants, less they hear [the Sirens’] melodies, that is he instructs them with salutary teachings, lest they become entagled in secular delights. But he himself passes by bound to the mast, that is, supported by virtue, although he feels the enticements of the mutable world, yet he despises them and makes course for his fatherland of eternal bliss.”

Alberich of London could have easily been writing this cautionary fable for communities of the sacred as much as it was intended to threaten communities of the heathen. Clothed in highly gendered language, Alberich makes no small insinuation as to the semiotics of the “male”. Wisdom, the defining virtue of the “wise man” casts him as the (after)life-saving good shepherd that “stops up the ears of his dependants”, averting the lascivious calls of the Sirens to “secular delights” en route to an ethereal post-worldly “fatherland of eternal bliss”. The wise man, however, himself protected by “virtue”, is able to deflect the seductive call of harlotry by rejecting its interpellation. What is evacuated by means of this textual construct is precisely the presence or notion of the female body – only briefly indicated via popular contemporary associations of Sirenic voices to female performativity. The single-sided epistemological wall serving to delineate virtuous masculine wisdom simultaneously casts a long, ambiguous shadow over the dwelling properties of the “other”.

Others, like Isidore of Seville, Hugh of St Victor, Brunetto Latini and Eustathius the Homeric commentator, chose to conflate the vocalic qualities of Siren bodies with “lyre-playing harlots who deprived passers-by of their travel goods”, accounting for the ways in which performing harlots “consumed travellers’ money and possessions”. This phenomenon, explicated as early as the 3rd century survived long into texts of the 12th and 13th century, bearing heavy moralizing accents that warned of the dangers of seductive, secular song in clerical circles, and the fundamentally deceptive-inclinations of women in others. These fast-establishing epistemological walls that sought to discipline, contain and control the vocalic dangers of unknown bodily/musical territories were equally matched in architectural structures of division. The 12th and 13th Century, in particular, saw the rapid rise of medieval cities, facilitating the localization of Universities and institutions of cloistered learning. These new physical “walls”, as William Cook and Ronald Herzman note, did not merely foster a structural divide between subscriptive communities and bounded realms of knowledge access, but also encouraged the lively growth and exchange of knowledge-communities organized around disciplinary concerns. Theology, medicine and natural philosophy filled the halls of these new sites of learning, although contemporary concepts of autonomous disciplinary “walls” tend to obscure the fact that intense debate between each of these disciplines was the norm rather than the exception. Fuelled with an increasing body of translated literature distanced by geography and historical time, learned men commented endlessly on matters of the word, slaving hard to integrate disparate sources of knowledge into one harmonious, integrated ‘truthful’ whole.

For intellectuals residing within the structures of the Church, university walls were not always necessarily impervious. Instead, large intersections across institutional borders ensured that Clerics and other religious thinkers stayed in touch, challenged, and effectively affected the translation and dissemination of sources of theoretical debate. As Joan Cadden notes, the commensurability between university and monastic structures of learning rested on their historical parity:

“[Many] of the new tendencies – the interest in systematic science, the development of new formats for discussing it, the elaboration of settings for teaching and learning, and the execution of translations – had roots in the same monastic tradition which in the earlier period had cherished and preserved (if also diluted and fragmented) the remnants of previous transmitted classical learning.”

University scholarship thus supplemented and expanded upon a system that was well in place in Monastic pedagogical structures, resulting in a rich tradition of imported, exported and hybridized epistemological worlds. This also meant that early theological concerns, especially concerning the sexual division between man and women as articulated in biblical scriptures, became what Foucault calls “transdiscursive” sites of linkage and shared scholastic concerns. A number of important scholars such as Constantine the African and Hildergard of Bingen, for example, represented these transdiscursive bodies that were located across monastic and other “extra-sacred” sites of discourse. These writers, drawing on popular intellectual concerns of their time, expanded and nourished the corpus of theorizing the natural body, along the received lines of neo-Platonian, Byzantine and Aristotelian lineages, shedding light on the shadowed epistemology of the “other” side of the sexual wall, that is, the contested dwelling space of the “feminine”, which, in turn, defined or ensured the conceptual integrity of the “masculine”.

Despite obvious contradictions between a large body of theoretical material in circulation, notions of “sexed difference” were mostly concerned with marrying observed empirical “difference” with biblical and philosophical sources – attempts that led many-a-thinker to assume a fundamental essential nature of sexual polarities, informing, as it were, typological or characteristic “dispositions” of the either biological sex. Semantic binaries between hot/cold, dry/moist were popular categories that further extended the conceptual division of gender, though not always uncontested. Theorists such as Jacopo of Forli, Bartholomew the Englishmen and Albertus Magnus echoed popular views that linked such gender-specific qualities in a chain of signification that tended to cast “woman” as the miscreant, albeit derisive counter to the male:

“Women’s complexion is more humid than man’s. [The nature] of the humid receives an impression easily but retains it poorly. The humid is readily mobile, and thus women are unconstant and always seeking something new. Hence when she is engaged in the act under one man, if it were possible, she would like at the same time to be under another. [...] In short, I should say, every woman is to be avoided as much as a poisonous snake and a horned devil.”

Quoted from Quaestiones de animalibus –expositional lectures on Aristotle’s zoological works – Albertus Magnus forged a logical pathway linking empirically observed data with speculative biological thought. Such a descriptive procedure of claiming knowledge over the Other, as Edward Said reminds us, is a mode of power acquisition, a mode of description that operates through prescription, eventually articulating means of proscription. Indeed woman herself is prescribed as naturally unfaithful, guaranteed by her biological disposition that projects itself into cultural typologies. Coupled with the rise of Aristotelian translations and debate in 12th and 13th Century academic circles, “women” also became typecast as a less-perfect or imperfect manifestation of man – a concept that rested well with scriptural evidence of women’s hierarchical subordination to man, having been made from Adam’s rib. As with the writers of Malleus maleficarum, John of Garland emphasizes his pre-redemptive conceptions of Eva’s “imitators” in a language that “put the case in the open”, casting the unredeemed woman as “enthroned” in “death’s eternal kingdom”, her lips dripping with sensuously sweet “honey” although inspection through the de-rarefying faculties of reason reveal her “depths” as being “wormwood”. “Woman”, Garland suggests, “is lovely, beautiful – and destroys everything through lust.”

Matters became further complicated by the complexity of women’s biological rhythms to monastic scholars who tried to align natural bodily phenomena and notions of behavioural proclivities while remaining consonant with scriptural sources. Nowhere was this interplay of intertextuality more pertinent than in the discussion of the Menstrual Cycle in discourses of sin, salvation and medicine. According to Charles T. Wood, medieval menstruation became seen as a symbolic marker or a perpetual bloody reminder of Eve’s “original sin”, although Pope Gregory rhetorically absolved menstruation as being a sin-in-itself:

“A woman’s periods are not sinful, because they happen naturally. But nevertheless, because our nature is itself so depraved that it appears to be polluted even without the consent of the will, the depravity arises from sin, and human nature itself recognizes its depravity to be a judgment upon it.”

Menstruation became an important paradox for scholars who wished to clarify the messy logic between Eve’s original sin (postlapsarian epistemology) with the redeeming virginal qualities of Mary’s immaculate conception. This very fulcrum situated upon the “split” nature of woman carried immense theological weight regarding the salvation of mankind, with Mary symbolising the absolution of bodily-sin by her intrinsic purity. The 15th Century Malleus maleficarum (which notoriously conflated base womanhood with witchcraft and “carnal lust, [of] which is woman insatiable”) spells out the rising importance of virginity over the flesh as no less than an epistemic revolution enabling believers to rise above the postlapsarian corpo-reality of the body:

“[It] is true that in the Old Testemant the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about woman, and this because the first temptress, Eve, and her imitators; yet afterwards in the New Testemant we find a change of name, as from Eva to Ave (as St. Jerome says), and the whole sin of Eve taken away by the benediction of Mary.”

What follows is an instruction for preachers to “say as much praise” of Mary’s redemptive qualities as much as possible, highlighting the grammatical revolution from Eva to Ave that, as Robin Hass Birky suggests, not only elevated the embodied virtue of virginity, but made possible what he calls a “Marian rhetoric”. For Birky, “Marian rhetoric” aesthetically incorporates this conceptual fulcrum into a linguistic one as “the feminized analogues of the masculine incarnational and naked rhetoric”. That is, while discourse on Eve and the “original sin” caused a “fall” that dismantled “language’s efficiency” through filial signification, Mary’s (Ave) conception as virginal purity embodied in flesh “reunites language and meaning”. Writers such as St Jerome and John of Garland do not merely bespeak of the redemptive qualities of Marian virtue; this conceptual revolution is mirrored, even performed rhetorically through a more “ornamental” employment of language. Initially espousing a reduced, “plain”, “naked”, indeed exposing form of rhetoric, John of Garland reverses his previous position on base women when considering the need to reflect an elocutionary shift from Eva to Ave:

“With Mary’s body a fit container for Logos, the virginal purity of that body redeems language’s capacity to depict the truth. Metaphorized as everything but the physical body, the body of Mary purifies language, thus allowing ornamentation.”

What better way to manifest theological markers of difference between Eva/Ave and divisions between the crass secular and the redeemed sacred through dividing architectural structures. The physical walls of the cloister provided a conceptual boundary that delineated spheres of outside/inside, resonating with pre-existing conceptual binaries that functioned to keep these spheres separate and autonomous. For Lisa Colton, architectural bastions extended to mark the physical body of woman metaphorically, especially through the proliferation of chansons piesus and chanson de nonne in the 13th and 14th Centuries. Such musical literature, she shows, exemplifies valorised modes of chastity and sacred virginity by associating bodily boundaries with “walls and other architectural structures”. The dwelling space of the womb, central as it were to the tipping point between Marian virginity, cloister or monastic chastity and secular vices, was commonly described as an enclosure resembling the fortified walls of a nunnery. Fortifications inscribe boundaries of restraint on the human body both physically and conceptually, disciplining its inhabitants to internalize its structures as given psychic reality.

Notions of the voice in medieval accounts of singing and musicianship, however, tend to trouble the authority and impermeability of these cultural markers of difference. In particular, the equivocal nature of a woman’s singing voice was a musical site of ambivalence that appeared to be able to transgress such carefully constructed walls of enclosure. As Colton notes, one of the common tropes of threatened chastity was the “excessive use of a woman’s mouth for ‘display’ ... [and] a singing woman was often feared as seductive and ‘siren’-like”. This dimension of “singing”, for Richard Middleton, features what he calls the “vocalimentary canal” that conceptually links performative body (and all its sexed implications) with the apparent spectrality of the singing voice as a partially “lost” object ejected from the body. But beyond appropriations of St Augustine’s easy division between the “aesthetic” nature of music (managing and regulating psychic-somatic jouissance) and its “representational” instrumentality, Mladen Dolar calls attention to the voice’s “third level” of the “object voice” which stubbornly resists dissolution in the Lacanian order of the Symbolic. For Dolar, this spectral “object voice” corresponds to Lacan’s objet petit a (the “little object” or the “object cause”) beyond the Symbolic or the aesthetic, a “lever of thought as opposed to the anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking”. The coincidence of the “object voice’s” mysterious sensuality yet transgressing alien quality residing impossibly outside Symbolization is the key feature of the objet petit a – an impossible psychic object of pure alterity that produces a horizon of desire always out of reach, a desire that can never be satiated. As Todd McGowan describes:

“Desire is motivated by the mysterious object that the subject posits in the Other – the objet petit a – but the subject relates to this object in a way that sustains the object’s mystery [i.e. sustains his desire]. Hence, the objet petit a is an impossible object: to exist, it would have to be simultaneously part of the subject and completely alien.”

If the voice was desire-inducing as well as irreducibly alien, then such a feature must be deemed dangerous and subject to discipline under clerical law. Indeed the excessive in monastic music was viewed with a suspicious (if not ambivalent) eye by religious authorities such as John of Salisbury who asserted in his 12th Century Policraticus that music defiles the sacred when musicians ornament the instrumental, “showing off as it were, strive with effeminate dalliance of wanton tones and musical phrasing to astound, enervate and dwarf simple souls.” Paraphrasing St Augustine, John warned that “pleasure”, especially in the purely musical, was “the father of lust”. Performance should serve ecclesiastical means and inspire worship rather than stir the loins, the latter which served as a popular denunciation of secular music-making beyond monastic walls in the lusty merriment of popular Caroles. Perhaps it is no surprise that numerous chanson de nonne as explored by Lisa Colton and Suzannah Clark depict female subjects singing in lament of their bartered sexualities for religious chastity. A similar chanson of interest to both scholars is Joliement en douce desirree / Quant voi la floret / Je sui joliete / Aptatur, a four-voiced chanson that draws rhetorical strength from the interplay between what seems to be a nun wishing to be delivered of her cloistered life having found love, a monk debilitating on the consequences of his current love interest, and a youthful nun feeling the pangs of desire.

Inasmuch as architectural metaphor serves to articulate boundaries of possible transgression, Clark’s analysis of the musical operation of the motet traces a link between the triplum (the ambiguously sexed individual that declares “for naught this nunnery confine me”) which derives from another pre-existent chanson de nonne in trouvere repertory Quant ce vient en mai. The chanson of interest tells of “a young woman trapped in a nunnery” singing out to be rescued while the “narrator” who recounts the nun’s tale, “reports that the lover received her message and arrives to rescue her”. If this passage survives in Joliement en douce desirree’s triplum as a culturally-informed quotation that may have been identifiable to listeners, Clark proposes that the subject voice of the triplum, possibly a monk, “sings” the nun’s song both alludes to exclusive knowledge on behalf of the monk in a “seductive routine” that channels the spirit of trouvere chivalry. Furthermore, Clark speculates that the musical parity of both sources suggest that the nun of Quant ce vient en mai and the monk in Joliement en douce desirree “share a unity of purpose”, suggesting that the monk may turn out to be the rescuer of that nun, though piping his response through intertextual means by a voice that, quite literally, transgresses the physical wall of the individual, printed score or autonomous performance.

Sirenic powers of the singing voice to pierce, transgress and penetrate epistemological walls were mirrored by real concerns about the “object voice’s” abilities to elude the sanctified house of knowledge. A scandalous tale recounted by Gerald of Wales told of how a Canon and Nun in the double-house system of the 12th Century Gilbertine Order were “driven to desire” by hearing their singing voices on either sides of the gender-partitioning wall. Both blessed with an “attractive” singing voice, the penetrative powers of their voices caused them to escape “over the cloister wall the same evening”. Although Gerald of Wales equally attributes siren-like transgressive qualities to both the male canon and female nun, the follow-up punishment enacted by Gilbert of Sempringham is highly revealing – Gerald mentions how the nuns were punished by restricting their musical activities for mere “humble psalmody”, and shaving their heads beneath their veils to reduce their physical beauty, but, as Heather Josselyn-Cranson argues, there are disturbing omissions in the text:

“The lacunae in the text leave many unanswered questions: were the lovers caught? Were the canons also punished? The kind of psalmody to which the nuns were restricted is also unclear.”

Indeed no mention of punishment on behalf of the canons were mentioned by Gilbert, perhaps clueing us in on the perceived danger of female sirenic bodies over male ones. An interrogation into the Gilbertine Order, though admittedly the first of its kind to employ the “double-house” system which paired both sexes in the same physical space nonetheless used physical partitioning means to keep carnal temptation from escalating. Walls divided the female and male sections of the Church to “keep the canons from hearing the nuns, and the nuns from seeing the canons”, save a Pyramus-Thisbee-like aperture with which to pass the pax brede in as chaste a manner as possible. Severe disciplinary schemes were enacted to silence the sirenic call, including sections in the Order’s Institutiones which “entirely forbid all of [their] members ... the use of organum and descant, falsetto and pipeth at the Divine Office”, fortifying the heavy-handed control of what was usually deemed “emasculating” and “effeminizing” secular musical practices. The section on sisters in the Institutiones further declares that:

“We do not allow our nuns to sing [cantare] but absolutely forbid it, desiring rather that they chant plainly [indirecto psallare] in a spirit of humility, together with that ever blessed virgin, mother and daughter of almighty God, rather than corrupt the minds of the weak by lustful melody with that wicked daughter of Herodias.”

Although Cranson suggests that indirecto psallare may have come to signify a more “naked” form of plainchant (recalling John of Garland), the specific restrictions applied to the female sex bears testimony to the known powers of the “object-voice” and its uncontrollable order-defiling properties beyond the sacred, self-sufficient realm of the Symbolic. Indeed Nigel de Longchamp’s Speculum Stultorum (1179-80) in description of the Gilbertine Order may be read on two levels concerning the epistemological and architectural walls erected to reinforce each other:

“One house contains a quartered
Of canons, lay brothers, and
Similarly divided.
The canons perform masses, and the
Sisters do the rest.
They fulfil the due service of the Office;
A wall separates their bodies, not their
Voices; as one
They sing psalms directly, without a

Indeed the very transgressive qualities of the “object-voice” continue to dismantle the body politic of the church by queering its epistemological fortifications – fortifications that split up an already fragmented symbolic understanding of “women” and the plural nun that, with her voice, slips between Eva and Ave, probing and interrogating the intrinsically porous nature of cloister walls and gender bastions.

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