IMC Reflections (2) The non-significant Carolingian body

There were a couple more papers from IMC that also got me thinking about Carolingian matters, ironically by concentrating on fifth and sixth century material. One was a very interesting session on gender and narrative in the early Middle Ages, which included papers by Julia Smith on Venantius Fortunatus and St Radegund and Jennifer Robbie on Gregory of Tours and the nuns of Poitiers (Radegund’s old convent). Smith’s paper was looking particularly at some of Fortunatus’ poems on Radegund, showing how he was ‘condensing’ ideas in the late antique treatises on virginity (such as the virgin as bride of Christ) into narrative form, providing complex works for the nuns to ruminate on and absorb this teaching. Robbie, meanwhile, was talking about how Gregory was making the revolt of the nuns of Poitiers in 589 into an apocalyptic sign, by describing it using terms drawn from Old Testament prophets. Both papers together showed the persistence of the female virgin as a key symbol into the late sixth century, which raised again a question I have: why does virginity lose so much of this charge in Carolingian times? (Julia Smith reckoned that there was no new literature on virginity between Aldhelm and the eleventh century).

One part of the answer was suggested by a paper from Kate Cooper on marriage in 400-600 AD, which was arguing that Christian writers were trying to strengthen the marriage bond then, partly as a reaction to the excesses of the ascetic movement (particularly Jerome). Augustine (and even more so Fulgentius of Ruspe) argued that marriage vows were to be taken very seriously (no separation to enter a convent without mutual agreement) and that marriage was a good in itself. There was therefore a counter-tradition (though probably not a very well-documented one) to the early Christian noisy exaltation of virginity.

I’m still trying to work out the patterns here: what we really need is the equivalent of a second volume of Peter Brown’s ‘The Body and Society’ which covers 400-800 AD. One key factor is obviously child oblation, which develops from the sixth century. Once the main form of recruitment is child oblation rather than adult entry, the relationship between ascetics and the laity changes considerably. There is far less benefit for the promoters of monasticism in simply denigrating the lay life: instead the emphasis moves to redeeming family life via the offering of a portion of its ‘fruits’. Oblation also potentially makes instilling ideas of celibacy easier: oblated children can be raised in an asexual environment, till they possess their own ‘internal cloister’. This in tern has a gendered impact: it allows the production of virgin males in far greater numbers than adult recruitment does. The symbolism of virginal bodies that clustered around convents got spread onto monasteries as well (or even focused on them). The most prominent sex scandal of Carolingian monasticism, after all, were ugly rumours about sodomitical monks that Charlemagne heard.

So the lack of Carolingian literature on female virgins may be partly because writers have now lost interest in them and want to think about male monasticism. But it may also reflect a wider feature about female asceticism: that it’s not so obviously competitive as male asceticism is. This seems to me for practical as well as political reasons. The practical reason is that there’s nowhere obvious to go beyond female virginity: if almost everyone in a convent is virginal, there’s no higher level to take it to. (Perhaps this is why female food asceticism has a role later). The other thing is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of early Christian writing about male asceticism is about claims to power and authority: I live a more austere life than you and so therefore I deserve to tell you what to do. Given far fewer opportunities (though there are some) for female ascetics to gain such authority, competitive female asceticism is likely to be less developed, because it’s not playing for such high stakes.

If there isn’t competition within female asceticism, once the principle of virginity as being superior has been established in a particular society (and the recruitment problem is solved via oblation), then there isn’t really a driving need to keep on pressing the point and create new virginity literature. One of the things I must examine some time is if the dating of virginity literature in different early medieval kingdoms fits this: an initial emphasis and then a tailing off. I think it does in both England and Francia, but I need to explore more.

Male asceticism, however, remains potentially more competitive, both for physiological reasons (even Cassian doesn’t think you can eliminate wet dreams) and because the prize of authority is higher. But I think here too, there is a change after the fourth century. Kate Cooper and Conrad Leyser have argued convincingly that Augustine ridiculed Cassian’s ideas of focusing on nocturnal emissions so effectively that it lost its power and emphasis switched onto male control of speech. Competitive asceticism, however, obviously had a revival with Columbanus and his followers. I think, however, the focus was slightly different; because so much of the emphasis is on penance for sins (including sexual sins), there is less call to stress the heroic ability to resist temptation. The male ascetic body doesn’t become defined again by its determined sexlessness.

As a result of these developments, it seems to me that the Carolingian body isn’t anything like as charged as it is in many earlier periods. The dazzling aesthetics of the ascetic body has largely been lost (although Lynda Coon sees some aspects visible in Hrabanus Maurus). The converse of this is that the sinful body is rarely as potent as symbol of absolute wrong, but simply of human frailty. Neither the female nor the male body seem to have been so ‘good to think with’ for Carolingian thinkers as for those of other eras.

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