BMCR 2007.08.29

Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence

, Ovid's art and the Wife of Bath : the ethics of erotic violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 206 pages : illustrations. ISBN 9781501727061. $20.95 (pb).

In 1994 Marilynn Desmond argued in Reading Dido that the medieval vernacular representations of the queen of Carthage are largely independent of her association with Aeneas and invite interpretation as a challenge to the imperial discourse “central to the construction of Eurocentric identities,” found in Vergil’s account.1 Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath (hereafter Ovid’s Art) continues that discussion of the after-life of classical literature with a provocative examination of the medieval reception of the Ars Amatoria. In this book Desmond focuses on medieval readers’ failure to recognize the parody in Ovid’s association of desire with violence in the Ars and considers the implications of their consequent reception of Ovid’s work as “an ethical treatise on love and seduction” (37) for the development of European erotic discourse in the high Middle Ages.

Ovid’s Art consists of an “Introduction” and a brief “Afterword” which frame six densely argued chapters (1. “Sexual Difference and the Ethics of Erotic Violence”; 2. Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and the Wounds of Love”; 3. Dominus/Ancilla: Epistolary Rhetoric and Erotic Violence in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise”; 4. ” Tote Enclose : The Roman de la Rose and the Heterophallic Ethic”; 5. The Vieille Daunce : The Wife of Bath and the Politics of Experience”; 6. “The Querelle de la Rose : Erotic Violence and the Ethics of Reading”). In the opening sentences of her “Introduction” she grabs her readers’ attention with an account of the uproar that resulted from the decision of the State University at New Paltz’s Women’s Studies Program to include a panel on consensual sadomasochism (S/M) in its 1997 conference on women’s sexuality. Though provocative, this discussion is not gratuitous, and draws our attention both to the fact that the scripts of consensual sadomasochism “parody the formations of power and fetishize the instruments of violence” and, more importantly, to the implications of that fact. Desmond observes that the outrage prompted by non-condemnatory considerations of sadomasochism such as the New Paltz panel “obscures the everyday violences that work to organize gender and sexuality.” She contends that consensual sadomasochism’s transgression lies largely in the demonstration its theatricality provides that the “nonnegotiated, nonconsensual violence and humiliation” of domestic violence is no less constructed; however, she points out, domestic violence continues to be regarded as an expression of the naturalized “hierarchy and power” of heterosexual identities and thus, she argues, continues to perform “the category maintenance work of contemporary heterosexualities” (4).

Desmond suggests that “the scandal generated by S/M” derives from the observer’s failure (or refusal) to recognize the gap between its staging of “the erotic possibilities of violence without actually constituting violence” and the unilaterally oriented construction of power that is expressed in domestic violence. She finds a similar failure of perception at the root of the medieval appropriation of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria not as parody, but rather as a codification of the apparently natural power structures that define masculine sexual identity. In the course of her study, Desmond delineates the presence and the power of Ovid’s work in the medieval construction of heterosexuality and argues that Ovid’s influence “continue[s] to shape the ‘strategic relations’ of erotic cultures in the contemporary West” (166). In the service of her argument, Desmond tracks “the emergence of erotic violence in medieval constructions of subjectivity and erotic agency” finding traces of Ovid’s “discourses on coloniality and desire” in the letters of Abelard and Heloise, in the Roman de la Rose and the epistolary debate known as the Querelle de la Rose which that work inspired, and, especially, in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue, to which she devotes the fifth chapter of her study. Although we must wait until this chapter for Desmond’s full discussion of the relationship between the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and the Ars Amatoria, that relationship provides the subtext for the whole of Desmond’s project. As she suggests in her “Afterword,” the Prologue encapsulates the broad argument of her study—that the potential for violence contained in the “erotic and amatory structures of the medieval West” drained the irony from “the power erotics Ovid ironically proposes in the context of Roman imperial culture . . . domesticat[ing it] as a feature of medieval marriage and desire,” and that the readiness of modern readers to “recognize the Wife of Bath as a familiar figure” attests to the continuing power of Ovid’s erotic discourse in the contemporary world (166).

As Desmond points out, appreciation of the force of Ovid’s parody demands a knowledge of the imperial politics of the Augustan age; without that knowledge, “medieval readers lacked the framework within which to appreciate the ironic texture of the poem”(37). In Desmond’s argument, however, the failure of Ovid’s medieval readers to grasp the irony in the Ars is explained only circumstantially by their inability to historicize their reading of the poem. Far more significant an explanation of their readiness to accept as normative Ovid’s depiction of the inherent violence of the heterosexual contract is the nature of the Christian marital construct. Because of its stress on “the bond between husband and wife,” marriage in the Christian era “becomes an institution intended to regulate desire as well as reproduction” (29). Consequently, Desmond argues, “the cultural norms for marital violence articulate an assumption that violence and erotic agency are inextricably linked”(34). She points to Augustine’s observation in De Civitate Dei that “gestures of discipline are gestures of affection,” arguing that from this it follows that “the potential violence of the husband as dominus is one manifestation of the emotional bond between husband and wife” (30-31). Thus, she argues, it is hardly surprising that Ovid’s medieval readers seem not only to have accepted his argument for skillfully deployed violence as an effective erotic strategy but also to have taken the exhaustive detail of his discussion of heterosexual conduct and desire as a prescription for the achievement of masculine identity (7).

Having established in her opening chapters the circumstances under which Ovid’s focus on erotic violence in the Ars Amatoria led inevitably to his poem’s being read in the later Middle Ages “as a treatise on the heterosexual ethic,” Desmond turns her attention in the remainder of the book to an examination of the nature of Ovid’s influence on the erotic discourse of the period and of the implications of that influence. Chapter 3 (“Dominus/Ancilla”) finds echoes of the precepts of the Ars in every aspect of the correspondence between Abelard and Heloise. Although none of their earlier letters survives, Abelard speaks in the Historia calamitatum of the importance of those letters to their incipient affair, echoing the praeceptor‘s identification of “the exchange of letters as the rhetorical performance of desire” ( 55). Desmond’s analysis of Heloise’s letters from her convent demonstrates that “this textual desire . . . functions as a sexual performance after Abelard’s castration” (56). She argues that Heloise’s insistence in those letters on “Abelard’s masculine privilege as a powerful magister. . . achieve[s] a rhetorical play of dominance and submission within the erotic script suggested by Ovid’s Ars Amatoria” that evokes the structures of their earlier relationship and works to restore the masculinity that was compromised by his castration (68).

In Chapter 4 (“Tote Enclose”) Desmond turns her attention to the Roman de la Rose, arguing that the narrator’s assertion in the opening lines that in this poem “the whole art of love is contained” (“ou l’art d’Amors est tote enclose”) should be taken as a conscious identification of the ” Roman de la Rose as a vernacular version of the Ars Amatoria” (73). The praeceptor’s assertion in Ars 3 “that love is a form of warfare” is translated into the Rose‘s “elaborate allegory of siege warfare”; the Rose substitutes “the mercantile economic cultures of the late medieval world” for “the imperial ethos of Augustan Rome” as the structural principle of desire; above all, she argues, the Roman de la Rose joins the French versions of the Ars that survive from the period in appropriating the violence of Ovid’s model of erotic behavior without its accompanying irony. Drawing on Sylvia Huot’s research, Desmond notes that medieval readers were fully aware “of the intertextual relationship between the Rose and the Ars,” and she argues that Guillaume de Lorris’s recognizable Ovidianism allowed Jean de Meun to look to the Ars as he undertook his continuation of Guillaume’s text (79). Given this recognized link between the Ars and the Rose, Desmond’s remark that “the text of the Rose develops a cumulative lesson on erotic violence” is presumably intended to convey that we find in that lesson the medieval understanding of Ovid’s teaching (111).

Chapter 5 (“The Vieille Daunce“) is in many respects the heart of Desmond’s book. It deals, after all, with Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who provides Desmond with her title. More than that, as she points out both in her “Introduction” and in her “Afterword”, the Wife of Bath’s debt to Ovid and her appeal to modern audiences encapsulate the overall argument of Desmond’s study in very particular ways. Desmond opens with a reminder that the Wife’s Prologue offers a series of arguments “against a variety of misogynist and misogamist traditions,” in which the Wife counters textual authority with the ostensibly counter-textual authority of her own life experience. In fact, as Desmond points out, however, that “the Wife’s discourse . . . originate[s] . . . in the speech of the Vieille” of the Roman de la Rose, and thus ultimately from Ars Amatoria Book 3 . . .At her most personal or authentic, the Wife of Bath is most constructed” (127). Furthermore, the Wife, no less than the Prologue itself, is a discursive construction of the male author of the Canterbury Tales (116). One might observe that the latter point hardly needs iteration—as Desmond herself notes, Chaucerian scholars seldom omit “the initial acknowledgment that the text of the Prologue is male-authored”—were it not that, as she also notes (and here lies much of the thrust of her argument), “critics often . . . proceed to discuss the Prologue as a text that might testify to female consciousness and desire in historically contingent terms” (117). In part this is a tribute to the skill with which Chaucer deploys his rhetorical strategy, for the Prologue situates the Wife more thoroughly as an apparently autonomous speaker than any of the other taletellers on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, and readers of Chaucer’s text have responded accordingly since its first appearance (Desmond 117). Mere rhetorical skill, however, is not enough to explain “the visceral appeal [of the Prologue ] as a text that purports to embody the lived experience of a married woman,” especially since that appeal is acknowledged even by those fully aware of the Prologue‘s constructed nature and its textual ancestry (118). Desmond argues that our inclination to view “the fictional widow of Bath as an authority on the lived experience of marriage” attests “to the degree with which [her performance] is consistent with marriage as an institution that elicits and disciplines sexual desire,” and she goes on to note that her enduring familiarity “suggests the extent to which modern heterosexualities are haunted by medieval discourses on sexuality” (119).

Much of the appeal that the persona of the Wife of Bath holds for modern readers lies in the image it presents of female dominance, an image encapsulated in the illustrations found in the Ellesmere and Cambridge Gg.4.27. As Desmond points out, the rich clothing and the fine boots in which the artist dresses the Wife, “attest[ing] to her economic achievements,” derive from the description in the General Prologue, but the assertiveness with which she mounts her horse and, especially, the whip she holds aloft in her hand “offer a visual interpretation of the Wife’s sexual skills precisely as she describes them in [her own] Prologue when she characterizes her dominance of her first three husbands” (122). However, this visual interpretation of the Wife is in fact a citation of the images found in the medieval “textual tradition of the ‘mounted Aristotle'” (Desmond 122). This tradition, as Desmond explains in Chapter 1, “demands that the viewer recognize the erotic possibilities of female sexual and phallic mastery” and, as she reminds us, “[the] erotic potential of such equestrian fantasies remains a recognizable feature of modern power erotics” (28, 27). It is true that, despite the misogynist anxiety that drives it, this fantasy of erotic violence “designates sexual agency as separate from masculinity.” In practice, however, as Desmond reminds us, “erotic violence in medieval cultures is most evident in marital violence, a form of intimate violence that enacts masculine dominance” (28).

Although the images in the Ellesmere and Cambridge manuscripts reflect the economically and sexually dominant picture “that emerges from the portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue,” the end of her own Prologue argues that this portrait is incomplete. While it accords with her description of the advantageous position she held with regard to her first three husbands, when it comes to the fourth, “her display of rhetorical and sexual dominance starts to unravel,” and, she tells us, her conflict (both verbal and physical) with the fifth, Jankyn, is resolved when she becomes “to hym as kynde / As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde” (140). Significantly, Jankyn is of all her husbands the one that she loved best, and her desire for him is aroused and maintained by his violence towards her. As Desmond remarks here that “[the] combination of violence and affection in the Wife’s fifth marriage is consistent with the portrait of marriage that emerges from canon law” (140), we recall her earlier citation of Augustine’s remark that “gestures of discipline are gestures of affection.” Despite the Wife’s enjoyment of her dominance over her first four husbands, it is, as Desmond points out, “the erotic violence of Jankyn that she ultimately celebrates,” and she “explains her response . . . in terms that categorically connect gendered identity and desire”(132). When the Wife ends her Prologue with a vision of marital concord that derives ultimately from the violence Jankyn enacts upon her and thus concludes “her reiteration of the Ovidian script of the Vieille from the Rose,” she thereby, Desmond contends, “domesticates the erotic violence of the Ars Amatoria” (141, 125).

In her final chapter Desmond turns her attention to the early fifteenth-century epistolary debate known as the Querelle de la Rose. The participants in this debate were several members of the French royal chancellery and Christine de Pizan. As Desmond notes, both sides in the debate view reading as an ethical practice—that is, “they assume that the Rose should be read for its utilitas“—and none of these readers is blind to to the presence of “violence as a component of the allegorical narrative” that is the Rose (153). Christine alone, however, identifies that violence “as a critical issue for readers of the Rose,” as she questions the purpose and effect of “the thematic emphasis on erotic violence in the development of the Rose” (153, 162). When Christine gathered the letters of the Querelle into a dossier early in 1402 and presented them to Queen Isabeau, her dedicatory letter “characterize[d] her subject position as a woman writing in defense of women” (151). As Desmond points out, by thus “authoriz[ing] her agency as a letter writer in addressing the Queen,” Christine sidesteps the epistolary conventions that would otherwise force her to acknowledge the subservience she owes her male interlocutors by reason not only of her gender but of their office (151). However, her characterization of herself as a defender of women is no mere convention, for the thrust of her argument in the Querelle is, as Desmond points out, the ethical issue raised by her perception of the link between the Rose and marital violence. In the course of her argument, Christine pairs the figures of the Vieille and the Jaloux, arguing that the “exemplum of female conduct and experience” offered by the former justifies and also eroticizes the violence of the latter so compellingly as to give rise to comparable behavior on the part of the poem’s male readers. In Chapter 4, Desmond draws our attention to the frequency with which images of the jealous husband’s beating his wife are found in illustrated manuscripts of the Rose, and argues that the memorability of these images and of the passages that inspire them works against the text’s ostensible presentation of the Jaloux’s behavior as a negative exemplum. Christine’s critique of the Rose bears this out as she offers an anecdote in which, according to her, a member of the royal bureaucracy was so impressed by the Rose‘s depiction of the female character’s perfidy and of the jealous husband’s behavior that it prompted him to accuse his wife of infidelity and beat her up. While both she and her interlocutors view the Rose‘s exempla from an ethical standpoint, Christine is particularly concerned for “their effect on the conduct and ethics of specific readers” (163). Those specific readers, her critique makes clear, are the husbands who at that time “had a legal right . . . to discipline their wives within limits” and who, Christine argues, were likely to be encouraged by the Rose‘s promotion and eroticization of violence to subject their wives to unwarranted abuse” (163).

The past two decades have seen an increasing level of interest in the afterlife of the classics in the medieval and early modern period, and we can hope to see further studies of this type in the years ahead. Given the power Desmond ascribes to Ovid in this study—after all, she argues that even now, some two thousand years later, his unrecognized influence still drives many aspects of our erotic engagements—it is surprising that relatively little sustained attention has been paid to his work by non-classicists. However, that is probably more an argument for the unfortunate effects of academic periodization than a challenge to her thesis. Desmond makes a convincing case in this study, one supported by her extensive endnotes that in themselves take up thirty pages of her text, and she is likely to provoke other medievalists as well as many classicists to consider Ovid in ways they perhaps have not before.


1. Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality and the Medieval Aeneid (Minneapolis, 1994) 227.