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On the Receiving End

Nunzio N. D’Alessio

Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence
Marilynn Desmond
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. xiii + 206 pp.

A fter California’s Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples
regardless of state residency, the Advocate declared open season on the “Great
Marriage Rush.” Featuring white-gowned and black-tuxedoed couples and the
Golden Gate Bridge, the cover conjoined a homonormative rights agenda with a
pioneer rhetoric of individual freedom and hard-won riches.1 Advocating a pause
before this juridical embrace, some theorists argue for disarticulating marriage
practices from kinship structures.2 But another potential lengthening of this respite
emerges from scholarship on premodern literature, which continues to complicate
our easily drawn assumptions about past and present marriage politics. 3 Offer-
ing such breathing space, Marilynn Desmond’s Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath
examines Ovid’s medieval reception in Héloïse, the Roman de la rose, Chaucer,
and Christine de Pizan.
Desmond’s carefully executed readings of visual and written texts high-
light intimate connections between violence and erotic desires. An opening
chapter surveys the “mounted Aristotle,” a specular tradition depicting the phi-
losopher, in a trope of erotic humiliation, ridden like a horse by a woman, which
foregrounds anxieties about female erotic agency. The especially rewarding sec-
ond chapter reads in Ovid’s Ars amatoria a structural and mimetic correspon-
dence with Roman scripts of imperialism and coloniality. This prepares readers
for how an ironically framed imperial work became in its medieval appropriations
an ethically authoritative treatise. Desmond accounts for this interpretive rupture
by emphasizing how institutional apparatuses condition both what and how a text
is pedagogically appropriated. For example, when treating epistolary activities
through appeals to the medieval handbook tradition of letter writing, Desmond
demonstrates how the genre rhetorically “fixed the status of the sender in rela-
tion to the addressee and thereby encoded and enacted social hierarchy,” which
leads to her provocative claim that “epistolary structure replicates the structure
Books in Brief 523

of desire” (55 – 56). Equally noteworthy are comments on how illustrations and
Latin commentary in manuscript page design can give any text authoritative fram-
ing. Operative in these structures is a mechanics of absorption that brought texts
of disparate value systems into the medieval classroom to teach Latin within a
utilitarian axiology: poetry teaches ethics because it speaks of proper desire and
Much merits comment in Desmond’s study. Both the archival survey of
medieval French translations of the Ars amatoria and the excellent treatment of
Christine’s studies of her own sources prove essential. Parsing Chaucer’s reli-
ance on the mounted Aristotle for his Wife of Bath’s cultural legibility, Desmond
also examines how Chaucer uses first-person confessional structures to establish
the Wife’s authority. A fuller appreciation of Chaucerian discursiveness emerges
from Desmond’s genealogical tracing of the Wife through the Roman de la rose:
precisely when the Wife seems “most personal or authentic,” she is “most con-
structed” (125). Throughout, Desmond enacts a disciplinary capaciousness along-
side a remarkable facility with a temporally diverse set of multilingual texts. (Such
comparativist strengths could have been better displayed with a comprehensive
Some readings will rub specialists the wrong way. But more pressing is the
disjuncture between theoretical languages and very exciting textual work. Des-
mond rhetorically frames her study with S/M’s potential to disrupt heteropatriar-
chy by staging “problem[s] of ethical negotiation” (2 – 3). Left undeveloped is her
intriguing description of much S/M writing “read[ing] like a rhetorical manual”
(4). Still, it seems that S/M appears only long enough to conjure its opposite in
domestic violence; wife beating, not the desexualizing intensities of S/M, is key for
her argument.
This neat binary between consensual and nonconsensual erotic violence
breaks down at critical moments. Consider Héloïse, who, because of a hegemoni-
cally carceral religious life and a clerically administered education, appears
incapable of resistance. In Desmond’s hands, Héloïse’s religiously imbricated
life seems irredeemably oppressive; here spousal abuse becomes a Christianly
permissible act.4 But Christine de Pizan resists more effectively because cultural
shifts in gender relations, Parisian bureaucratic culture, and autodidactism make
possible “a less institutional and more idiosyncratic appreciation” of the Ovidian
material (155). The contrast is even sharper when Desmond declares Héloïse little
more than a “submissive lover” but Christine a forthrightly assertive subject (164).
This not only posits religion and secularity as discrete and intrinsically agonistic
spheres, it also places the locus of resistance on an externally sovereign subject.

Desmond, unable to locate in Héloïse’s submissiveness any tangibly resistant act,
makes eroticism isomorphic with violence. A more productive reading would indi-
cate the radical instability subtending erotic hierarchies. That structure can imply
stricture need not mean the loss or irrevocable diminishment of agency, only that
these are agency’s framing conditions.
Another concern is how Desmond uses heterosexuality. While sometimes
highlighting its performativity, Desmond nonetheless uses heterosexuality inter-
changeably with heteroerotic and heterophallic, which conflates sexuality and
gender within a hetero-homo frame. Conceptual dependency on such a capaciously
normalizing category essentializes a discursive effect. By laminating heterosexu-
ality onto a premodern past, as James Schultz argues, scholars allow it to “escape
history” and assume a “cosmic and inevitable” status, thereby contributing to
both the term’s colonization of the past and its consolidation in the present.5 If
Desmond relentlessly trains our eyes on discomforting scenes of erotic violence
to demonstrate both their invitation to “ethical reading” and the presence and
power of “textual violence in the disciplinary acts of interpretation,” then concep-
tual reliance on heterosexuality does its own discursive damage by foreclosing the
sexual field within hetero-homo or conjugal frames (9).
But such criticisms cannot devalue what is an otherwise excellent and
thrilling treatment of Ovid and his medieval appropriators. Argumentatively
compelling and accessibly written, the book is also handsomely produced, with
thirty-seven illustrations. Specialists will benefit much from Desmond’s strengths
in dealing with manuscripts and premodern rhetorical and pedagogical traditions.
But queer readers might take away from Desmond a disquieting problematization
of marriage: if the West remains heir to an “Ovidian libidinal economy” whereby
the institutionalization of marriage not only “structures eros” but also “elicits and
regulates violence” (64, 29, 116), then it seems all the more vital not to rush
toward, but to interrogate, whether these bonds are irrevocably pathological.
Perhaps, then, the medieval never feels more modern than when asking, “Who’s
on top?”
Books in Brief 525


1. To view the cover image, see (accessed Sep-
tember 16, 2008). The California Supreme Court’s 4 – 3 decision, which overturned
the state’s existing ban on gay marriages, was handed down on May 15, 2008, and
took effect on June 16, 2008. The passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008 has
now invalidated these measures.
2. See, e.g., Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004). I remain par-
ticularly indebted to Butler’s theory of agency, as recast here, for several of my critical
3. Emma Lipton, Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late
Medieval English Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007);
and Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadel-
phia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). Both Lipton and Dolan situate their
work with respect to contemporary marriage debates.
4. That Christianity’s relation to erotic domination between spouses is a more ambigu-
ous phenomenon can be glimpsed in the writings of John Chrysostom, whose often
noxious treatment of women still disallows domestic violence — a condemnation far
stronger than his contemporary Augustine. See Joy A. Schroeder, “John Chrysos-
tom’s Critique of Spousal Violence,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12 (2004):
413 – 42.
5. James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the
History of Sexuality 15 (2006): 20. Briefly, Schultz taxonomizes heterosexuality in
three ways: as naming discrete sexual relations between men and women, claiming an
orientation or identity, and describing a regulatory institutionalization. This tripartite
taxonomy causes damage, argues Schultz, through correspondingly reductive analy-
ses that make heterosexuality isomorphic with reproduction, psychosexual integrity,
and marriage. The article also appears as chapter 4 in Schultz’s Courtly Love, the
Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2006). Schultz is certainly not alone in questioning the signifying capacity of
heterosexuality; see Graham N. Drake, “Queer Medieval: Uncovering the Past,” GLQ
14 (2008): 639 – 58.

Nunzio N. D’Alessio is a PhD student in English at the University of Texas, Austin.
DOI 10.1215/10642684-2008-038