Fowler, Mourning, Melancholia and Masculinity in Medieval Literature

Following are my notes on Rebekah M. Fowler’s dissertation “Mourning, Melancholia and Masculinity in English Literature”. Fowler wants to explore a pattern of emotion that

consists of love, loss, grief madness and/or melancholy, wilderness lament/consolation, and synthesis and application of information gleaned from the grieving process, which is found in diverse texts from the twelfth century romance of Chrétien de Troyes‘ Yvain to the fifteenth century dream vision/consolatio Pearl. A focused study of how bereavement is represented through this pattern gains us a deeper understanding of medieval conceptions of emotional expression and their connections to gender and status. In other words, this project shows how the period imagines gender and status not just as something one recognizes, but also something one feels” (i).

She is specifically interested in masculinity’s relationship to bereavement, which she argues can be a push against socially sanctioned values: “my purpose is not to view losses as lack, but rather, to see them as a positive impetus to push beyond the limits of social behavior in order to realize textually various outcomes and to suggest the limitations of such socially sanctioned conventions as literary forms, language, rituals, understanding, and consolation to govern the enactment of grief” (ii). In other words, she wants to reconsider medieval men as men who feel, even if literature ends up not being able to contain that feeling.

All of the characters she examines– Yvain, Orfeo, the Pearl dreamer, and the Black Knight– follow the pattern of grieving but also supercede it, and it is by deviating from the pattern that they feel authentic emotion. She is not talking about lovesickness, which these characters have usually been subsumed into, but “grief madness” at losing loved ones. Grief itself is not insanity, but it can lead to insanity; if it is prolonged or intense, it can cause mania. Lovesickness, on the other hand, is never having had the love object to begin with; grief madness is having it and losing it. Her approach here seems Freudian, although again he is more concerned with ego than with loss; I don’t know that the ego of characters makes an appearance here. However, she makes the point that each character is trying to reclaim a lost object that should be gone, and is varyingly successful.

In her introduction, Fowler cites Dixon who makes a very similar argument to Boquet/Nagy’s about sensibility: “he contends that our modern term ―emotions is far too broad and simplistic and lacks the precision of earlier terminology and its usage (i.e. passions, motions, and affections)” (5). He distinguishes passions (earthly impulses) from affections (spiritually directed feelings). She also brings up the stigmatization of public grief in courtly society: “Grief over a personal loss is, perhaps, inevitable, but to publicly display that passion is not” (6). Finally in this section, she addresses my previous question about what “adust” means (it means burnt, and burnt bile causes mania).

Out of the four texts she discusses, “Sir Orfeo makes the strongest case for a humoral reading of melancholia, as his illness lasts for ten years and his physical description suggests that black bile is in abundance in his system, manifesting itself in his dark, hirsute appearance” (8). Duration is important here. So is the concept of encomia common in medieval love poetry: just as beloveds there account the virtues of their lovers, the grief-stricken men do so here. All four of them go to the/a forest, “only to find that traditions are hollow and fail to convey the sincerity or truth of loss” (17). Orfeo’s grief allows him to express emotion in public, where previously he can only do so in private; for Fowler this means he is redefining masculinity as a way to be a man emotionally. When he praises the steward for being a “trewe man”, he is using the archaic “true”, meaning real or honest. In other words, the steward’s shock and grief at Orfeo’s made-up death proves that he is a real man. Heurodis, on the other hand, feels her grief and “mania” with her full body and makes “the chaos of her own loss” public (103). Orfeo needs to retreat to solitude in order to do so. The poem happens because he has lost his wife and needs to grieve, not find her. He does this in the forest because it is a liminal space “of bereavement and despair” where he can find himself (123).

I found this about Orfeo’s materiality especially interesting: “That he resides alongside death is evidenced in the line―Bot wilde wormes bi himstrikeþ‖ (But wild worms [serpents] by him glide [slither]; 252). Though this line could refer to snakes (serpents were often called ―worms‖ in Middle English) and therefore unholy and evil torments or actual vile neighbors of theslithery sort, it could also refer to simple earthworms. If the latter, Orfeo is side-by-side with the worms, who make meals of detritus and dead flesh, attesting to his proximity to death and serving as a memento mori for both himself and the readers of this story” (123). This is when Orfeo slips into melancholy, Fowler argues, and if this is true then his proximity to worms and digestive life reflects interestingly not only on the ubi sunt of the previous lines, but on melancholy’s own construction as a digestive illness (cf Rufus of Ephesus). She continues this: “That Orfeo spends so much time close to the ground and digging and rooting for tiny morsels to eat recommends itself to Avicenna‘s description of melancholic behaviors, which include ―a constant looking at only one thing, and at the earth (77). And Neaman explains that black bile is ―cold and dry like earth‖ (7). As noted above, Orfeo‘s connection to the earth may also be indicative of what Avicenna sees in ―certain ones‖ as a ―love [of] death” (125). While I am not totally convinced dark hair and proximity to the earth are enough to signal melancholy, this is something I want to keep thinking about.

One part of this argument I have a problem with is the assertion that Heurodis is definitely alive at the end of the poem. Fowler argues that she does not need to be vocal because she has been “incorporated” into Orfeo’s body (143). This reminds me of Torok: incorporation is not resolution, but failed mourning. I know this is a turn of phrase, but if he were actually incorporating her, this implies that 1) she is gone, and 2) he has failed to overcome his melancholy, and in fact may still be pre-melancholy (not yet shaken from the idea that Heurodis is still alive).

The chapter on the Book of the Duchess explores the possibility of shared understandings of grief. The knight’s grief informs the narrator’s melancholy, but their communication is obstructed by the use of forms (lament, love poetry, etc.) The only way to really express grief, for Chaucer, is to combine forms in order to try and express what is inexpressible. For instance, the narrator uses memory (the practice of imagining sensory images that must be searched for in the “storehouse of the mind” (193) to find the knight in the first place, and he believes it will help the knight overcome grief to remember White. However, since Black’s understanding is “lorn” (lost), he is unable to conjure the images and thus unable to get rid of his melancholy. He never does so, and the narrator eventually achieves understanding: “What Chaucer achieves in this text is not universal understanding of another‘s grief, but universal understanding that loss and grief exist, and a plurality of understandings of what loss and grief are, why we suffer them, and how they feel” (201). Fowler’s last chapter is about Pearl, in which she argues that the speaker seeks to dissolve himself into his daughter and God (incorporation?) but cannot. The poem characterizes appropriate and inappropriate ways of suffering, and posits that the dreamer’s substitution of Christ for his daughter teaches him “there is no end to sorrow, only a substitution of one sorrow for another—corporeal for spiritual” (254).

Being a study about masculine grief, this dissertation comes to an interesting conclusion: that genuine grief is genderless. “This project argues that society often argues for gendered emotions or affect while the reaction to an emotion as strong as grief is actually genderless. Gestures of grief are often those given to us by our culture and are gendered; genuine grief often is not, and the grief demonstrated in Pearl, being the most affective of the four here, exemplifies just such a genderless grief” (257). Rather than just being the opposite of femininity, “masculinity in the Middle Ages is also defined by how well a man understands and performs his role as man of a particular socio-economic estate” (258). Overcoming melancholia, and reintegrating into society, becomes restating one’s masculinity. The question I have about this is whether any of these characters, particularly Orfeo and the Dreamer, really do. If her argument is that nobility becomes associated with humanity, and melancholy needs to be overcome in order to establish nobility, then characters can’t be melancholy and human at the same time– though melancholy and loss are two different things.