In Symptomatic Subjects, Orlemanski investigates the use of “terms of physik” in literary writing in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, a time which saw an enormous proliferation of medical material. The later Middle Ages, she argues, is a time of “etiological imagination”(the way people think about medicine and causation)– a greater interest in causal chains (why does what happens, happen?) and also greater exchange between scholarly and non scholarly discourse (in new genres like the encyclopedia, the plague tract, the gynecology treatise, etc.). Her central claim is that “when we attend to the language of physik, both in the intricacy of its conceptual system and in its promiscuous uptake, we discover previously unremarked experiments in combining causation and selfhood in the texts of late medieval England. These experiments transpire, I will show, in the space of a stubborn phenomenological gap between one’s materiality and one’s experience, or between having and being a body” (3). “Symptomatic subjects”, including Arcite in the Knight’s Tale and Thomas Hoccleve in the Series, are characters who are compelled to understand and explain their bodily condition. Such narratives, including romance, regimes, and autobiographies, “speak back” to physik, reinventing it by mapping the self and its causes.
The first four chapters are more strictly medical, though they pay close attention to related genres like the fabliau, the exemplum, and the self-help tract or mirror. Chapter 1 discusses the Wound Man as an example of the rise of medical textuality in the fourteenth century, where readers were encouraged to imagine their own bodies and see them as the materialization of causes (11). If every illness or condition has a cause, the etiological imagination becomes key for understanding why symptoms originate and questioning whether (in Galenic terms) the complexion determines the person, or vice versa. As a dissolving body between “him” and “it”, pulled back together by the idea of the self while being a compendium of other peoples’ injuries, the wound man is an example of medieval medicine’s transition between particulars and generalities, and also represents the embodiment of causes in an individual.
This is where we get an explanation of the “symptom”, a “somatic disturbance that, in its departure from expectations of bodily appearance or function, provokes interpretation” (16). As an involuntary but not necessarily medical bodily sign, they require practitioners to infer causes from effects and also to look at the “discursive environment” the body is in and make a choice between systems that explain what is happening. The sign (in Augustinian terms) is either a natural sign (smoke comes from fire), or a conventional sign (a wish to be understood, for example language). In this arrangement, a symptom “means” a disease because it is caused by one; the symptom is a signifier, and the problem is the signified.
Chapter 2 examines physik’s expression in four areas: cause, sign, authority, and book.
- Cause: Galen (humoral), Aristotelian (four causes, philosophical), and Joannitian (the “naturals”) are the three main discourses of cause in the medieval period.
- Authority: The rise of physik means physicians become the ones who interpret the body, rather than the patient; however, access to medicine was still multi-step and took individuals through a lengthy route to treatment.
- Sign: Signification of an illness needs both a sign(a change in the humors, temperature, etc.) and an apprehending mind (the physician); when it is interpreted, the living body becomes a signifier. (As with Daniel on melancholy, the sign must be seen to exist; however, I’m unsure whether the patient seeing the sign is enough here, if the patient does not.)
- Book: Medical texts increasingly appear alongside literary works, and their layout informs and embodies medieval ideas about the “relationship between literature and healing” (70).
Chapters 3 and 4 cover this relationship in medical language in fabliau (jargon) and exempla. Chapters 5 and 6 cover literary narratives, including the specific medical language of Arcite’s death scene and leprosy in Cresseid. The last two chapters cover the autobiographical writing of Thomas Hoccleve and Margery Kempe, arguing for the importance of sociality in construction of illness and wellness and reading Margery’s tears as a symptom that both repels and draws people into itself, offering the possibility for spiritual transformation to a near-infinite audience.
As with Rawcliffe’s overview of late medieval medicine, Orlemanski notes the permeability of medieval bodies by sight, smell, and thought, connecting this as susceptibility to causes. Like Daniel, she also draws attention to Galenic (humoral/theoretical) and Aristotelian (experiential) factors, though they clearly have different resonances at this time and she notes Avicenna’s attempts to fuse them. She argues that physik (the intellectualization and popularization of medicine) becomes the dominant medical ideology in the fourteenth century, relying less on (Galenic) self-determination of the body and more on patients’ bodies as particular expressions of general ideas or problems, which the physician can interpret. I was also especially interested in her assertion that the proliferation of medical texts produced a kind of “too-muchness”: “The potential for both ‘information’ and for ‘noise’ grows with the expansion of the lexicon” (85), a claim which reminds me of Daniel’s claim about Burton and his encyclopedic listing. Can the medical ouevre of the late Middle Ages be seen as performing a similar melancholizing or overwhelming function as the Anatomy does?
Ultimately I found Orlemanski’s central tie between literary texts and medical texts compelling. Both are concerned with determining causes, and both show symptomatic bodies that a) signify something about themselves and b) exceed and are exceeded by their symptoms. No one can completely describe, communicate, or (in certain cases) even recall their condition, but symptoms spur performance of the self. The process of finding a chain of cause and effect in order to construct oneself saw medieval writers experimenting with how to understand a person’s material condition, and how to influence it. I also think it’s fascinating that she approaches physik from an understanding of its weakness: if physik is not a dominating ideology but one among many, it becomes more available for medieval writers to use and set against other discourses in a narrative as ways to talk about or explain embodiment. The “gap between somatic materiality and felt experience– between having and being a body” (279)– means dwelling between generalized and individual suffering, an exercise that can stretch into the present.
Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia distinguishes between the two on the basis of self-knowledge. Melancholia is related to an “object loss which is lost from consciousness”– the melancholic might know rationally what they have lost, but not what specifically was lost to them. In mourning, there is “nothing about the loss which is unconscious” (245). In mourning, the world becomes empty and meaningless; in melancholy, the ego does. Finally, the melancholic does not confine this feeling to the present, but stretches it to the past: things were never any better, and (assumedly) they will never get any better.
Their complaints are “not plaints in the old sense of the word” (248)– plaint meaning wail or cry– because they are not sufficiently humble, and they are really speaking about someone else through themselves (i.e. the wife who claims she is incapable is actually accusing her husband of being incapable). This is a massively unsympathetic thing to say. It’s especially interesting given that earlier in the essay, Freud seems to take pains to understand the melancholic’s attitude at face value: if someone expresses they are in pain, even if we can’t see that pain, he argues that it is real because it is real to them. (This reminds me of Amy Hollywood’s breakdown of the real and the true with respect to religious melancholy– just because something isn’t real for us doesn’t mean it’s not real for the person experiencing it.) But here, he seems to reverse and say that because their frustration is actually directed at someone else, they don’t deserve sympathy.
Freud is interested in why the disease seems to alleviate in the evening, and determines that there must be a somatic reason and maybe even a somatic version of melancholy that results from “toxins”. His simultaneous consideration of the medical aspects of melancholy and at the same time his unwillingness to explore whether his psychogenic concept of melancholy can have a medical basis is confusing. There seems to be no way that medical and emotional/social/psychological melancholy can be the same thing; one is brought on by the loss of an object in which too much of the ego was invested, the other by “toxins”.
Ultimately, the awareness of the lost object is not the central factor in melancholy’s development; the most important thing is that it needs to have an ambivalent connection to that object which the ego, in trying to destroy, has turned back onto itself. The ego destroying itself is (to Freud) the most important factor of melancholy, and the one that distinguishes it from mourning. Interestingly, where I had remembered misplaced and/or temporally inappropriate mourning constituting melancholy, it is actually any situation where the ego attacks itself in place of something else that Freud believes constitutes melancholy over everything else. Failing to properly separate from an object, whether because of unawareness of it or some other reason, is what leads the ego to ambivalence, making it attack itself and resulting in melancholy.
In The Melancholy Assemblage, Drew Daniel claims that melancholy in the early modern period constitutes an epistemological-affective assemblage, a collection of factors that is always plural; it emerges in individuals and yet is also a “social and material assemblage of bodies being together” (15). In being both interior and exterior, melancholy can be recognized but not explained, faked but not verified. Being melancholy occurs when it is recognized; “one signature from someone”, the self included, can make it happen, but can’t prove it.
Daniel begins with an outline of the landscape of melancholy in Early Modern England, arguing that it was a back-and-forth between two approaches; the Galenic, which diagnoses melancholy as an illness and a medical condition, and the Aristotelian, which is associated with scholarly seriousness and treats melancholy as an affectation, orientation, or gift. The attempts of writers like Richard Burton to synthesize these two approaches, and the lasting tension between them, help to explain why there is such an interest in verifying melancholy, and why melancholy is still so present now.
He goes on to note that melancholy is cumulative: Hamlet is a collection of actions and feelings that make up a melancholy person, a melancholy assemblage in one individual. I am also compelled by his prompt to consider London itself (30) a melancholy assemblage, fashioned by plagues and print-capitalism. His point is that there are many ways to express melancholy as catalogues of symptoms, collections of social, physical and political factors. This squares with premodern disability theory and the social model: there is not one unified experience of disability, but many individual, localized experiences made up of social and political and medical factors. In summary, melancholy is:
- the melancholy body as a legible site for interpretation
- the social network that makes the melancholy body available for diagnosis
- a text (like Burton’s) that puts fragments together to create the affect of melancholy, or force the reader to read melancholically
- A community or audience that participates in the feeling or knowledge of others, identifying with and also being skeptical of the melancholy they see.
Melancholy assemblages can be bodies, symptoms, texts, communities, and relationships between them. It is made of too-muchness, overproductions of social knowledge which can then become subject to scrutiny.
Melancholy is always in danger of being faked; each time we encounter someone exhibiting the signs of it, they are subject to scrutiny. In a similar way, anyone claiming to be melancholy has to be verified to make sure their melancholy is genuine. When Hamlet claims “that within which passes show” (with Daniel claiming the “that” is melancholy), others see his outward form and diagnose it as misplaced grief; he, and the audience he shares his asides with, are the only ones with access to the truth, and the audience’s access is only partial.
Taking a cue from object oriented ontology’s claim that anything (thoughts, or faked thoughts) can be matter, melancholy is “matter” in the early modern period because it depends on something which doesn’t literally exist (black bile) but which is an important, literal part of experience. Melancholy is a “fugitive matter” which is a medical reality, a social fake, and a modern fashion all at the same time (240). In early modern thought, it is an epistemological effect that cannot actually be seen but which is constantly felt and identified. This helps to explain its current power: because melancholy can’t be located, it persists and currently defines a sorrow at the world’s transience, or a social commodity, or a scholarly affectation, or….
Melancholy is an interplay between depth and surface. It is also a profoundly social emotion, because it requires being recognized, by the self or by another person (or in the case of a play, by the audience). The melancholy subject has an affect that can never be completely known, but can be seen. He covers melancholy posturing/propping as a convention signifying melancholy, which prompts the viewer to decide if the emotion is genuine; the use of (melancholic) asides in Hamlet to allow audiences special insight into melancholy without revealing it (despite the implied association of the aside with truth, and that of melancholy with untrustworthiness) and asserting that melancholy comes between the public and the private; and reads Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy as a text that uses “melancholy structure” to curate “too much” and make the reader follow along by “melancholizing”, i.e. making the experience of reading the work mirror the experience of melancholy. In all these cases, a reader or author is given some amount of perceptual experience with melancholy, an “intimacy with the unknown” (154) that then has to be unpacked.
Daniel is especially useful to my project because he provides me with a foundation from which to assert that medieval melancholy as an aesthetic does, in fact, exist. He briefly goes into an investigation of contemporary styling of early modern melancholy, which he identifies in the Lars von Trier film Melancholia and in black metal “melancology” (a theory connecting melancholy to extinction and to an earth hostile to life, which is very useful for my interests in apocalypse fiction and the imagined medieval, as is the note on p.72 that melancholy is associated with the center of the earth). This investigation is brief and never quite explains why these are specifically resonant with early modern melancholy, although it’s clear why they are connected to humoral theory. However, he specifically stops short of identifying other modern melancholies that are especially connected to his subject material, or of asserting that the relationship between the contemporary and the early modern is melancholy itself. The closest he gets is the note about “the ambivalent terms of survival offered to the past by the present” (235); i.e., when we look back at the past, it is tempting to either try to assert dominance over it or use our contemporary outlook to change it. While this is a judgement about our relationship to the past, it stops short of claiming anything about the affect of melancholy and its relationship to the early modern period.
There are also several collections of affect that I want to track as I begin my project, including his idea of accumulative “melancholy structure”, and his compelling question “how does melancholy speak?” (i.e. can melancholy participate in discourse?). I am most interested, though, in continuing to investigate the transmission of ideas about the medieval period through the lens of melancholy, and feel more confident in asserting that melancholy has had affective potential even in the medieval and early modern period, in addition to its Galenic, humoral status.
I am returning to Michael Camille’s work after some time, and reading the entirety of Image on the Edge for the first time. Camille’s central argument is fairly simple: that margins and their relationship to central images in medieval illuminated manuscripts are the site of an engagement between societal margins and centers. In other words, the “explosion” of marginal illustration that occurred in the thirteenth century, which coincides with the shift from oral to visual reading, create a relationship on the page where the political and scribal center relies on the margins to exist, and the margins edit, satirize, reinforce, and complicate the center. Marginal illustration not only undermines many of the binaries we have now between high and low art, sacred and profane, satire and seriousness, etc., it also possesses shifting meaning, i.e. a snail had many possible associations but not one singular possible interpretation. In this way, Camille convincingly argues that post-medieval imagery is in some ways much more restrictive and exclusive in its separations of “popular” and “art” than medieval art.
Margins show monstrosity and the edges of otherness (monasteries), humanize or other monstrous images and human monsters that represent vices and illnesses (cathedrals), and locate marginalized people like wanderers and the poor who were othered and seen as a threat, juxtaposing rich and poor in a way that would not appear natural now (cities and their representation in manuscripts). While they do have the power to satirize, Camille is careful to note that marginal illustrations were made for inclusion in books owned by the wealthy, and often reflected the goods and lands they owned or their social power, poking fun at the already disenfranchised (women, peasants, beggars, etc.). While marginalia do have the potential to question social norms, that potential is limited and not free from bias. For example, Camille mentions a manuscript made for a duke where he appears opposite a beggar dressed in the same clothes; not intended to be a social commentary, Camille argues, but a chance to poke fun and reinscribe the duke’s wealth.
One thing I had failed to notice is that Camille explicitly mentions the apocalyptic perspective of some aspects of the Middle Ages: “In contrast [to today], the people of the Middle Ages saw themselves at the edge, the last ageing dregs of a falling off of humanity, the dissipated end of a Golden Age… mostly alone” (53). This has interesting implications for the rest of my work connecting pessimistic (or maybe just accurate) representations of the end of the world today and their use of medieval imagery. It is striking to see confirmation that this belief was present, if not necessarily common, in the twelfth to fifteenth century. I’m also interested in the mental illnesses he argues were represented (84), though these are in cathedrals rather than manuscripts.
Camille’s arguments about the relationship between the margin and the center and its mirror in political and social activity has influenced my work more than I can say. Revisiting it has made me more interested in thinking through some of the things he only touches on in his overview, like health and disability in marginal manuscripts, as well as thinking more about medieval painters as laborers and their work as often precarious (174).
Amy Hollywood’s collection of essays is about the experiences of medieval mystics and other religious women, and modern attempts to reckon with and define their experiences. As she mentions in the first section of the introduction, she is interested in determining “what it might mean to say that the Virgin is real– actual, present, palpable– in one time and place and not in another” (2). Just because something is a force (cf Lacan), just because people experience it as real, does it exist outside of human practice– and, if not, can it still be defined as real?
Hollywood argues that yes, treating the experiences of medieval mystics in particular, and medieval people interacting with religious figures in general, as real (what takes place from an individual’s perspective) without regarding it as true (what a third party witnesses) is not only possible, but the best way to ethically engage with writing about mysticism and religious experience. She centers this argument on an understanding of Christian religion as self-critiquing, through the ideas of locative and excessive religion, the first of which is seen as traditional, and the second as radical:
locative- religion that affirms the basic order of the world and places human beings within it, focused on place
excessive- religion that goes beyond stable ideas of order and world, destabilizing authority, focused on non-place
Not only can both of these be self-critiquing, Hollywood argues, they are often entwined and not separate. They are also determined by repetition with a difference, swinging between cataphasis (naming or locating God) and apophasis (human insignificance in the face of God, meaning we ‘unsay’ the name of God and can’t locate him in things like ‘love’ or ‘truth’). Swinging between these two things, each of which requires the other, means that Christian religion is constantly moving between cataphasis and apophasis, meaning that traditions change and repeat with a difference. Finding out what is “real” and what is “true” requires not only the critique, changing, and also handing-down of tradition, but also understanding that there is a “gap between what is handed down and what is received… Critique emerges as a self-conscious modality in the moments when we realize that we occupy the world differently– or desire to occupy the world differently– than at least some part of the traditions into which we have been born demand” (17). This realization requires sameness– we change from something– and difference– we are changing. Finally, she asks, if sadness, trauma, and melancholy can be real, can joy be real, too? And if so, can it be used for political or ethical goals larger than the individual? (In other words, if melancholy and trauma are sites of the unspeakable real, can inarticulate joy also be real, and– through action– can it make something true?)
Her question is, as she admits, unanswerable. The answer that she comes to, though, is that it is important to emphasize the subject’s experience of the real. If religious practice can make God, the saints, or any other divine figure real, then individuals can as well, meaning that when we read accounts of mystics touching God, or being in close proximity to him, we should take them seriously as real– even if they’re not true.
Chapter 6 is a good example of an application of this thesis. Hollywood takes up a discussion of differences between the norm and the natural (natura), through an examination of Dinshaw’s concept of the “queer” as what defines the normative/natural by opposition. This wanders into the longstanding argument within disability studies, that you can’t talk about “normalcy” and therefore disability in the premodern period, because there was no premodern language for normality. Dinshaw’s reading of Margery Kempe as “queer”, precisely because she fails at her ultimate goal to “touch” Christ has, for Hollywood, the potential to pathologize Margery, who did in fact believe that it was possible to touch Christ, and who believed that she had been successful in doing so. In refusing to accept Margery’s experiences as genuine, we are in danger of pathologizing her.
This echoes some parts of Rosenwein’s argument about Kempe in Crying, that it is impossible and indeed irresponsible to speak of Margery in terms of particular or even general diagnoses. But while Rosenwein seems to want to restrict how we define Kempe because she doesn’t see evidence for her being depressed, suicidal, etc., Hollywood refuses on principle: Margery thought of herself in a particular way, that was real for her, and it is not our responsibility to describe her as queer, or depressed, or anything else. Real=for the individual, true for ‘us’ has some interesting implications for the study of melancholy, too. Is self-description of an experience enough to make that experience “real”? On the flip side, do we invest too much in trying to match narratives to what we believe or expect to be true about someone’s mental experience in the past, even if they would not have described themselves in that way?
I think Hollywood would say yes. After all, Kempe and other women like Christina the Astonishing describe their experiences as divine, and there is no evidence to suggest that they were forced to do so by a male authority, as is usually suggested. Christina’s joy deserves to be taken seriously, as does Kempe’s joy and suffering/ecstasy/sorrow. Suffering is real, but it is not the only real; joy is real too. If melancholy has been seen as critical, in other words, then joy can be critical (and lead to action) too.
All in all, Hollywood makes me consider whether (especially) melancholy and joy are emotions, feelings, experiences, or something else entirely. She would probably say all (and/or the distinction isn’t what’s important) but I feel like in advocating for the importance of joy in medieval mystical narratives, what melancholy is to her becomes increasingly unclear. Is there room for medical discourse on melancholy, or self-definition as melancholy, or a post-medieval aesthetic of medieval melancholy (which is mentioned on p29: Henry Adams’s medievalist turn is seen as evidence of his mourning, and p.41 where the return to the medieval is seen as nostalgic) in her definition of melancholy as related to trauma? Part of me thinks that while this book takes great pains to flesh out a certain kind of Freudian melancholy, there is a lot more under the surface that is more compatible with the revolutionary, radical, or social impulses she wants to locate in joy.
Keywords: melancholy, the real, the true, Lacan, mystics, Kempe