Darryll Grantley and Nina Taunton, eds. The Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. x+253pp. ISBN 0 7546 0115 3.

Maurizio Calbi. Approximate Bodies: Aspects of the Figuration of Masculinity, Power and the Uncanny in Early Modern Drama and Anatomy. Salerno and Milan: Oedipus, 2001. 302 pp. ISBN 88 7341 022 7.

Margaret E. Owens
McMaster University

Owens, Margaret E. "Review of Darryll Grantley and Nina Taunton, eds, The Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture, and Maurizio Calbi, Approximate Bodies: Aspects of the Figuration of Masculinity, Power and the Uncanny in Early Modern Drama and Anatomy." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.2 (September, 2002): 10.1-11 <URL:

  1. The scholarly fascination with early modern corporealities continues unabated, as the two books I review here attest. By my calculation, body criticism (or "the new somatics," as Terry Eagleton once facetiously labelled the development) has been flourishing for about two decades. Now firmly entrenched in the mainstream of literary studies, the "Body" increasingly figures as an illusory centre, a site where highly specialized research into topics as diverse as military conduct books, Marstonian satire, travel literature and theurgical treatises (a sample of the subject matter covered in Grantley and Taunton's collection) may be brought together under the aegis of a presumed "common ground." Presumably, it is the material dimension of the body that offers the allure of ground and centre. To quote Eagleton again: "There is a glamorous kind of materialism about body talk" (7). As much as we recite our allegiance to the poststructuralist code of attending to discontinuity, contradiction, and multiplicity, we just can't seem to resist fetishizing the "Body."

  2. The Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture offers a striking example of the seductive appeal of the fantasmatic "Body." With its brashly naked and singular "Body," the title paradoxically betrays the diversity of the collection's contents. The editors offer little in the way of a rationale for the selection of essays, beyond the goal of "moving away from Shakespeare somewhat" to "carry forward debates about grotesque, spiritualized, mortified, unaccommodated, sexualized, institutionalized, textualized, regimented, destabilized, demonized, dissolved bodies into areas reaching beyond existing Shakespeare criticism" (2). Fortunately, the effort to expand the purview of body studies into fresh materials and topics proves successful, and the sheer interest of many the individual essays more than compensates for the volume's lack of coherence and focus.

  3. The editors have grouped fourteen essays under four broad topics: Gendered Bodies, Occupational Bodies, Mystical Bodies, and Bodily Otherness. (Since constraints of space preclude engaging with all fourteen essays, I will offer only a sample of the contents.) The late medieval material promised by the title is distributed across three essays. In "The Politics of Self-Mutilation: Forms of Female Devotion in the Late Middle Ages," Claire Marshall intervenes in ongoing debates about the affective spirituality embraced by female mystics and holy women, debates which boil down to the question: should these devotional practices, with their emphasis on bodily excess, be understood as empowering or disciplinary? Focusing on the transgressive implications of Margery Kempe's enthusiasm for fasting and for receiving communion, Marshall presents a nuanced reading of the mystic's relation to ecclesiastical authority, one which scrupulously resists the binary logic of the orthodoxy/subversion debate.

  4. The ambiguous coding of the female body in religious culture is also the subject of Felicity Dunsworth's article on representations of the maternal body in sixteenth-century drama, from Bale's Kyng Johan and the Marian Respublica through to Titus Andronicus and Tamburlaine. Arguing that the legacy of late medieval drama may be traced in the Elizabethan drama's preoccupation with the maternal body as a site of violence, Dunsworth's essay is one of only two contributions in the volume to address the relation between medieval and early modern corporealities. The other is Stephen Clucas's "Regimen Animarum et Corporum: The Body and Spatial Practice in Medieval and Renaissance Magic," which explores the relation between the human body and sacred space in magical practice. Theurgical constructions of sacred space, such as the magic circle, he argues, were modelled on "pre-existent -- and pre-legitimated -- ecclesiastical and monastic spaces and bodily practices" (129). Although the editors claim that the "choice of essays in the volume recognizes both continuities and discontinuities between perceptions of the body in the medieval and early modern periods" (3), the selection is heavily skewed in favour of the Renaissance and, apart from the essays by Dunsworth and Clucas, the question of "continuities and discontinuities" over time receives little attention.

  5. The editors achieve greater success with their goal of opening up fresh topics and texts for investigation. For instance, in "A Camp 'well planted': Encamped Bodies in 1590s Military Discourses and Chapman's Caesar and Pompey," Nina Taunton brings together military conduct books and an often overlooked Roman history play as she explores discursive strategies for managing the border anxieties that circulated in the wake of late Elizabethan military campaigns. These texts, she argues, turn to concepts of "encampment as a strategy of empowerment" (90), a strategy which articulates bodies and space. Disciplinary regimes are also the subject of Darryll Grantley's "'A bodie of presence': Early Modern Education and the Elite Body in the Writings of Richard Mulcaster." Observing that "Mulcaster takes a considerably stronger interest in physical training and activity than either Elyot or Ascham," Grantley attributes this to Mulcaster's role as a "public schoolmaster . . . in the business of helping to build the new elite" from a pool of "social aspirants who had not been born to a class culture that included activities such as hunting as a leisure pursuit" (108-109).

  6. For the most part, the essays in this collection adhere to critical praxes solidly in the new historicist/materialist tradition, with psychoanalytic theory taking a low profile. However, a conspicuous exception to this trend is Barry Taylor's virtuoso reading of Book 2, Canto 12, of the Faerie Queene, which draws upon Judith Butler's work on the production of gender. Focusing on the image of the post-coital Verdant, with his armour recklessly cast aside, Taylor shows how the poem's project of "fashioning of gentleman" emerges as a process of fashioning an armoured masculine identity "through the violent exclusion of the fluid and indeterminate, which is named 'feminine'" (40). According to Taylor, the counterpart to this episode's evocation of anxieties over the fluidity of gender identities and sexual desire is the poem's repeated staging of tensions between modes of reading (allegorical vs. sensual) and generic categories (epic vs. romance).

  7. As is the case with many essay collections, readers are likely to dip into this book in a fairly piecemeal fashion. Some of the essays deal with relatively specialized interests (such as, demonology or Marston's verse satire), and few engage with "big pictures" or reflect on critical methodologies. Unquestionably, The Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture is rewarding insofar as it brings together some meticulous and interesting research, but, given the book's highly fragmented quality, I would not turn to this collection for a distillation of current thinking about medieval and early modern corporealities.

  8. Among the most ambitious projects engaging with early modern corporealities are those which strive to integrate historicist and psychoanalytic critical praxes. Maurizio Calbi's Approximate Bodies: Aspects of the Figuration of Masculinity, Power and the Uncanny in Early Modern Drama and Anatomy stands out as a valuable contribution to that project. Approximate Bodies focuses on three Jacobean tragedies (The Duchess of Malfi, The Changeling, and Women Beware Women), which are read in concert with early modern anatomical and gynaecological texts, most prominently Helkiah Crooke's Microcosmographia. Bearing out Judith Butler's "insistence that the 'construction' of the body is in fact a reiterated and reiterable process of 'regulatory production'" (22), Calbi traces the uncanny dynamics of exclusion/abjection that suffuse the articulation of gender, class, and erotic difference in both medical discourses and dramatic texts. As Calbi repeatedly demonstrates, whatever is repudiated in the formation of the dominant and normative eventually stages an uncanny return.

  9. Concentrating on The Duchess of Malfi, the first chapter investigates the performative and contradictory qualities of early modern anatomical discourses, as they sought to discover women's private spaces and to abject feminine body parts. The discussion moves toward a fascinating analysis of Ferdinand's psychic investments in his sister. Here Calbi moves well beyond the "incestuous desire" interpretation of earlier criticism to map out a densely overdetermined field of specular identifications. One of the most impressive features of Calbi's readings is his insistence on the "interimplication between the 'social' and 'psychic'" (138), and it is in the chapter on The Changeling that the complex articulation of class and gender boundaries is most rigorously interrogated. As Calbi points out, the reassertion of hierarchical order at the play's conclusion "depends for its effectiveness upon a 'contaminating' identificatory bond between men across class boundaries" (125), specifically on the approximation of Alsemero and De Flores. In the process of extracting Beatrice's secrets and ultimately purging her polluted blood, Alsemero enters into a "'cryptic incorporation' of De Flores which also further excludes/abjects Beatrice" (163). What emerges from this analysis is the impossibility of the "effort to make class, gender and erotic boundaries cohere" (165).

  10. Chapter 3, which deals exclusively with medical discourses on false conceptions (known as "moles"), makes a suggestive companion piece to the chapters that engage with dramatic texts. Speculation about the cause of false conceptions in this period ranged from an excess of imagination and desire in the celibate woman to an excess of menstrual blood overwhelming and disabling the male seed in the heterosexually-active woman. As Calbi demonstrates, discussions of monstrous conceptions serve as "one of the discursive areas onto which male anxieties about reproduction are displaced but not fully assuaged" (208). He points out that the mole stands in a metonymic relation to the womb itself, to the extent that even healthy wombs are constructed in medical discourse as excessive, monstrous and abject.

  11. The book closes with a look at figurations of desire in Jacobean tragedy (mainly Women Beware Women) and anatomical discourse, concentrating on the male homosocial model of heterosexual desire wherein the female body serves (for the male subject) as a compulsory detour on the road "to homosocial satisfaction . . . which consists, in this case, in the 'extension' of the (masculine) self" (231). In dramatic and medical texts, this model emerges as problematic insofar as male homosocial desire often fails to negotiate this detour securely. In Women Beware Women, this failure implicitly exposes "some of the 'faultlines' of the ideology of 'companionate' marriage" (243). Detours through bodies, as Approximate Bodies richly demonstrates, are fraught with perils. If a journey into the medical archives is a detour on the road to a "proper" destination, namely the explication of a literary text, then Calbi proves a shrewd guide, precisely because he is so alert to the contradictory and complex qualities of both dramatic and medical discourses.

Work Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).