Reading for pleasure: Erotic discourse and early English religous writing

Lara Renee Farina, Fordham University


The twelfth and thirteenth centuries, like the nineteenth in Foucault's famous formulation, witnessed their own “proliferation of discourse” about sexuality. Religious writings from this period bear witness to an intensified effort to articulate sex, an effort that is discernible in such diverse products as confessors' manuals, letters of devotional instruction, and the amatory metaphors of “affective” piety. The diversification of forms of religious devotion in the twelfth century, especially, occasioned numerous transformations and adaptations of monastic sexual codes, so that these codes could be newly understood and practiced by observant laypeople. Consequently, as medieval scholars have increasingly come to recognize, the period is a complex and richly productive one for the study of the discursive regulation of sexual practice. My dissertation contributes to this area of study by examining erotic rhetoric and representation in English devotional and instructional literature from the tenth to thirteenth centuries. I do consider the use of the erotic a regulatory practice, but, following the work of Foucault, view “regulation” as a process of construction rather than repression. Thus, I argue that the texts enact a sexual practice as well as a sexual politics, shaping the reader as a sexual subject and acknowledging the role of reading in the formation of desire. The constructive role played by eroticized writing and reading practices has not previously received adequate attention in histories of medieval sexuality, most of which explicate proscriptive, doctrinal narratives of the body, “flesh,” and sensuality. But a focus on rhetorical eroticism suggests ways in which those doctrinal narratives—descriptive accounts of sexual behavior—were complicated by the tropes of the works in which they were embedded. I begin the study with an examination of Christ I, a tenth-century hymn which illuminates how eroticism functioned in the service of collective, Christocentric devotion before the twelfth-century efflorescence of affectivity. Subsequent chapters examine texts written after, and profoundly influenced by, the systemization of affective devotion by twelfth-century Cistercian and Victorine writers. I do not, however, view these later texts as mere derivative reproductions of an already-formed erotic discourse, but as “events” in which monastic discourses encounter new readers and new domains of reading. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the appropriation of affective tropes by anchoritic texts, the Ancrene Riwle and the Wohunge of Ure Lauerd; my focus here is on the complication of monastic sexual codes by the privatized, feminized space of the anchorhold. Chapter 4 considers the influences of new audiences on mendicant adaptations of affectivity by examining the work of thirteenth-century English friar Thomas of Hales.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|British and Irish literature|Religious history

Recommended Citation

Farina, Lara Renee, "Reading for pleasure: Erotic discourse and early English religous writing" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9917505.