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Violence: a touch fo anxiety among the Narbonnais?


In contemporary discourse, 'medieval' has come to describe the violence of a deregulated, premodern Other. This article interrogates such a construction of the medieval by exploring the status of touch, contact, and violence in the chansons de geste of the Narbonnais cycle. In these poems there is a palpable anxiety over issues of touch, because patterns of tactile interaction seem to express the power dynamics at play in the intersubjective relationships that constitute symbolic identity. As a radical version of such interaction, violence is highly regulated, even as it appears out of control; it constructs identities, even as it tears bodies apart.

Society is getting out of touch. Face-to-face interaction is steadily being replaced by communication via mobile phones, e-mail, Skype, webcams, and Facebook. Entertainment is a largely individual endeavour, with computer games, DVDs, plasma-screen TVs, and iPods dominating the market. In sport, the increasing popularity of endurance sports such as running and gym-going shows that the individualizing trend is affecting the domain most noted for its team-building and camaraderie. Even in the realm of interactive habit and etiquette, the British are cited as a minimally tactile culture, with the inhabitants of Mediterranean countries being proven more likely to touch each other during conversation and greeting. (1) Norbert Elias's work on the progressive 'civilizing' process that took place in Europe in the early modern period seems to historicize the beginning of this gradual retreat into ourselves. (2) The study, which implicitly invests our reserved attitude to tactility with a moral value, constructs this early modern 'birth' of civilization against what is then retroactively construed as an unenlightened prior age of unregulated contact, unrefined gestures, and irrational behaviour. Carolyn Dinshaw acknowledges this when she says that 'medieval' is the space of all that is abjected from this world, and her reading of the basement scene from Pulp Fiction reveals that 'getting medieval on your ass' is not just about making clever use of a set of assumptions about that period, but also implies a moral displacement--whereby brutal acts of torture are aligned to a bygone age, even as they are enacted in the present. (3)

One of the trends of 'refinement' noted by Elias is that 'a warrior nobility is replaced by a tamed nobility with more muted affects, a court nobility'. (4) This miraculous transformation of warriors into 'tamed' (refined? restrained? regulated?) courtiers begins the process whereby the physical reality of war is dissimulated behind a facade of regulated behaviour in the present, and/ or deemed to belong to the past. Today, the very thought of hand-to-hand combat is horrifying, and wars are largely fought from a distance.' From this perspective, medieval warfare seems especially bloody and barbaric. Take, for example, this scene from Aymeri de Narbonne, in which Aymeri is entering battle:
   Qui la veist conte Aymeri aidier
   Paiens ocirre au branc forbie d'acier
   Testes et braz, et piez et poinz tranchi
   Molt le deust aloser et proisier.

   (Aymeri de Narbonne, 11. 1173-76) (6)

We recoil at the goriness and visceral grotesqueness of the description, at the poetic delight taken in it, and at the fact that dismembering pagans is cited as a way to win praise. Sarah Kay has suggested that the long scenes of violence (and presumably the glee taken in depicting them) can perhaps put off some potential readers of the chansons de geste; such violence is too excessive, too intimate, too bloody, too unpredictable, too 'medieval'. (7)

Given our sticky discomfort over (medieval) violence, the Narbonnais cycle seems to speak of touch gone mad. (8) Over the course of the cycle, wives and sons are summarily thumped, servants are struck for nervous hesitation, Charlemagne's wife is nearly killed for a seemingly insignificant moment of touch, Aymeri's son is nailed to a cross in front of him, limbs are torn off, brains ooze through ruptured helmets, and blood runs over the landscape in torrents. How can we fail to be horrified by such a perversion of tactility? How can physical contact have ever been so distorted, so chaotic, so radical?

Following in the footsteps of those scholars attempting to recuperate various aspects of medieval life from the distorting lens of anachronistic projection, I want to suggest that perhaps the violence of the Narbonnais cycle is not as chaotically perverse as it might appear. (9) For a start, what is dissimulated by our own political and moral discourses, and by our skewed media perspective, is the universal truth that 'the characteristic act of men at war is not dying, it is killing' (10) We cannot simply take the fact of the chaotic savagery of war per se and assign it to a 'dark' past from which we have evolved as enlightened citizens. (11)

In the poems of the Narbonnais cycle, great care is taken to describe moments of touching and its social effects; tactile exchange is, in fact, highly stylized, and structured according to patterns that seem, at first, to mirror social relationships. Theorists of tactility agree that touch maintains social hierarchy: rather than being a private action or communication, 'it is a fundamental medium for the expression, experience and contestation of social values and hierarchies'. (12) Who touches whom, who does not, who initiates touching, and the depth of tactile penetration are all highly significant factors in the power dynamics of society. Nancy M. Henley further notes that touch is dependent upon status (as figured through sex, race, socio-economic status, and age) and that, as a rule, those of higher status initiate touch with those of lower status, touching them more than vice versa. In her reading, for example, women are touched more than men and are thus 'subjected to reminders of their inferior status in our society'. (13) She implies, therefore, that status comes 'before' touching; that patterns of contact are based upon some pre-existing structure of social dynamics. Yet, in the narrative space of the Narbonnais cycle, the two cannot be distinguished. Rather, tactile behaviour between individuals is constitutive of the relationship between them; it expresses or performs the power dynamics at play in the pairing.

As the most radical expression of tactile behaviour, violence works in the same way. We might not be used to thinking of violence as 'touch', and yet the language that we speak acknowledges the place of violence on the tactile spectrum through idiomatic phrases such as 'she didn't lay a finger on him', or 'he didn't touch her'. In these instances, the nature of the 'touching' is implicitly abusive; and the very same idiom is used in Les Narbonnais. During the siege of Narbonne, a Saracen, Clargis, agrees to escort the Christians Romanz and Guibert out through the enemy camps in order to seek help from Charlemagne in Paris. As they pass through the besieging armies, Clargis warns his men to refrain from any contact with them: 'Franc Sarrazin, gardez, n' en tochiez mie! | Je sui Clargis' (ll. 5434-35). Touch is deliberately invoked as a type of contact that might occur between enemies, but that can be avoided with a few careful words of self-identification. Touch and violence are not only inter-implicated, then, but are together linked to the construction and understanding of identity in the poems. In fact, I shall argue that they are enmeshed in a framework of structured, performative interactions that are expressive of social relationships and thus the symbolic order itself.

Theories of performativity maintain that social reality and identity are not givens, but are created as an illusion 'through language, gesture and all manner of symbolic social signs'. (14) Judith Butler posits that there is no ontological being that can be figured outwith the network of intersubjective relationships that are held together by the contingent discourses governing speech, gesture, and interaction. An individual's performance aligns him/her to a subject position by and through these discourses, while being entirely conditioned by them. What we read back as 'identity' thus relies on a constant and repetitive acting, as dictated by the norms of a particular subject position. Butler further explains that those actions work by establishing what the subject is not:

The subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, 'inside' the subject as its own founding repudiation.

In the same way that we, in the modern age, seem to define ourselves in part through the construction of an abjected medieval past, the Narbonnais knight must define himself through a series of discriminations that determine what he is not. He is male, not female; aristocratic, not peasant; Christian, not nonChristian, and so on. The impossibility of using modern theoretical terms such as 'class', 'gender', and 'race' to describe these conceptual categories in the medieval context hints at the problematic foundations of identity construction. As Carolyn Dinshaw attests, 'medieval represents [...] the impurity of these apparently pure concepts (straightness, whiteness, identity)', and the idea of 'getting medieval' highlights 'the impossibility of absolute straightness, whiteness, modernity, of the purely dominant, of essentially being anything'. (16) In other words, while we might use the term 'medieval' to cleanse modernity of its savageries and perversions, to laud our own regulated and regulatory approach to human contact, that very act of abjection undermines its own endeavour. Rather than being a flawed past from which we emerge with strictly delineated identities and ethical purity, the medieval proves the impossibility of such essentiality.

An example from Les Narbonnais will help contextualize these ideas. When Aymeri agrees to enter into single combat with a Saracen leader during the siege of Narbonne, the young Romanz offers to fight in his stead, saying: 'Chevalier sui de novel adobe; | Mon hardement vodroie avoir prove' (ll. 4558-59). (17) Remarkable here is the use of tense; the combination of conditional and perfect infinitive implies that Romanz wants to have already proved himself ('I am a newly dubbed knight, I would like to have proven my bravery'). He wants to bypass the fact of performance and repetition, and be the hero about whom no more questions need to be asked; he wants to have secured some kind of ontological security in his heroism with one moment of fleeting contact, one act of (perfect?) violence. Yet, Romanz's desire is, ironically, indicative of its own failure, and bears witness to the anxiety at the heart of heroic subjectivity: his identity cannot be swiftly and definitively asserted with an initial, glorious victory, needing rather to be continually proven, continually reiterated in a never-ending series of encounters, wherein he must assert his superiority over a series of abjected others. Subjectivity is a battle whereby '[divides] must be erected and anxiously maintained'. (18) First, the knight must prove that he is a man--a category that, of course, exists only in opposition to woman. This self-definition must thus be built upon the sustained performance of a dominant male role. Taking a scene from Les Narbonnais in which Aymeri hits his wife Hermengart, I want to look at the way in which violence is used to assert domestic, marital superiority--and how that very violence, simply by being 'necessary', flags up what Carolyn Dinshaw calls the impossibility of essentiality.

In the opening stages of Les Narbonnais, Aymeri announces that he must send his sons away to seek their fortune and win honour. His wife, Hermengart, objects to the decision, suggesting that the move would leave Narbonne open to attack from Saracens (justifiably, given that this does eventually happen). To add insult to injury, she suggests that Aymeri is not up to the task of defending Narbonne without the support of his sons. She says 'trop les vielz, ne ceindras mes espee' (1. 428). His worth as a man is figured as indissociable from his ability to wield a sword and, in this case, the physical act of strapping on a sword is transposed into a scorning linguistic act meant to produce an effect on Aymeri's action. Instead, it produces anger:
   Aymeris l' ot, s' a la color muee,
   Hauce la palme, tele li a donee,
   Desus la face qu' ele avoit coloree,
   En mi le mabre l' abasti enversee.

   (ll. 433-36)

As Aymeri hears Hermengart's words, the effect they have is akin to that of a physical blow. He literally changes colour--a standard manifestation of epic anger, caused by a displacement of blood. According to Stephen D. White, such displays of anger in the chansons de geste, and indeed medieval literature in general, offer 'quasi-juridical appraisal of the act and of the person [...] deemed responsible for it'. (19) Moreover, 'to display anger about an action publicly is to construe the action as an injury, as a wrongful act causing harm, damage, or loss, as an offence against a person's honour' (20). In this instance, Hermengart's words are particularly damaging to Aymeri's honour--or male social standing. They are uttered in public and directly undermine his authority over her, jeopardizing his status and power in the eyes of society. Recalling the performative supposition that social status and identity are not givens, but are created as an illusion through language, interaction, and symbolic meaning, we can understand that Aymeri's position as feudal baron relies on his ability to assert control over members of his household and to be recognized as occupying a position of command. Failure to prevent his 'own' woman from speaking out of turn seriously undermines that position. (21) Here, Hermengart's body has slipped out from the bounds of his control, and her speech issues forth from it.

If Aymeri must perform his heroic identity in terms of polarizations that prove what he is not, then Hermengart's linguistic blow jeopardizes all the 'identity work' he has been doing. (22) She not only undermines his assertion of 'maleness' over 'femaleness' by revoking the power distribution that should prevent her from questioning her husband's authority in such a public context, she also casts doubt on his ability to rule effectively, all the more so because she is right. Yet, by striking Hermengart so hard across the face that he knocks her to the ground, Aymeri reasserts his power over her in the most radical way possible and, in a cruel transposition of the intimate touch that should occur between a man and his wife, reinstates his dominant position in the male--female hierarchy. In so doing, he also reiterates, in the public eye, his ability to impose the 'rightness' of his actions, and thus to fulfil his symbolic mandate. He will decide the fate of his sons with no interference from his wife, just as he will decide the fate of Narbonne as its lord and leader.

However, Aymeri's behaviour in this case seems to stray from or exceed, in terms of force, the normative code for tactile interaction. Those gathered around, and who witness the scene, do not accept Aymeri's gesture without question. Indeed Hernaut, Aymeri's son, reacts angrily to such treatment of his mother:
   Hernaut le voit, a pou d'ire n'enraje,
   Pasa avant corn hom de fier coraje.
   'Vellart' , fet il, 'o cors avez la rage
   Qant nostre mere ferites par oltraje.'


Hernaut accuses his father having 'la rage' , a word that implies anger to the point of madness, wildness, or loss of control. (23) He bolsters this accusation of reckless excess by claiming that his father acted ' par oltraje'. 'Oltraje', means 'infringement, arrogance or excess in word or deed', (24) and so conveys perfectly not just the contempt that Hernaut feels, but also the transgressive nature of the act itself. The blow does not adhere to the normative rules of engagement, but allows violence to seep in at a level usually marked only by the threat of it. Perhaps it is the seriousness of the immediate situation that provokes such a radical reaction, or the fact that Aymeri sees the truth in it and is afraid of such truth; after all, he is getting older, and is losing his power. More importantly, though, Hermengart has drawn attention to the disparity between what Slavoj Zizek would call his 'imbecile body' and his symbolic role. (25) Because, as I have been suggesting, social identity is not organic or corporeal, but rather social and symbolic, Aymeri's position as lord relies on his incorporation of the insignia and behaviour that construct him in that role. (26) This 'symbolic castration' (the violent cut between a subject's physical body and his function) is the paradoxical corollary of power. By questioning his decision, Hermengart has played upon this nameless fear, revealing for a second the arbitrary constructedness of social relationships and evoking the possible demise of symbolic identity itself.

At this point it is also worth bearing in mind an episode from La Prise de Cordres wherein Aymeri strikes his son, Aymer. Aymer had disobeyed Aymeri and entered a river to retrieve a rather fine horse, thus provoking the wrath of his father, who calls him a 'garcons demesures' (l. 407). (27) Aymer responds in anger that his father is too old to be out in the field anyway: 'Cant l'ons est viel[z], si se dolt resposer | Et en ses chanbres sainier et ventoser' (ll. 426-27). By implying that Aymeri should be cosseted at home at the mercy of a doctor, Aymer undermines his father's power, which rests on his authoritative agency and (violent) assertion of his right to rule. Aymer chooses to use the examples of being bled and cupped and this, in itself, provides food for thought. I have been arguing that power relations rest to a large extent on patterns of violent and tactile engagement. In this image, Aymeri is at the mercy of a doctor, who is performing another kind of radical touch and letting blood flow from the count. Rather than being the active party in the encounter, Aymeri is the recipient. Not only that, it does not take place on the battlefield, whereby the environment would at least configure a heroic context. Rather, Aymer's slur places his father back home in the castle chambers, and away from the public sphere of performative heroism. It is a damning insult indeed, and one that makes use of a general understanding of the social economy of touch.

In an effort to reinstate his paternal authority, Aymeri 'prist .i. troncon d'un espiet noielet; | Desor son hiaume velt ferir Aymer' (ll. 438-39). Yet, this violence is out of place and again goes beyond what is expected or recognized as normal. Aymeri is reprimanded by Baldus: 'Sire Aymeris, molt grant tort en aves | Or vos deust de vos enfens manbrer' (ll. 442-43). In other words, the way to reinstate his authority is not by lashing out in an uncontrolled manner at the very son he is duty-bound to protect, but by remembering his mission and successfully saving his other sons. Again, a fleeting moment of the narrative reveals the terrifying contingency of Aymeri's subjectivity: his days as a powerful warrior and dominant patriarch are numbered, and those around him are already resisting his attempts to control them.

We see, then, that in the domestic sphere, the intimate bonds of touch between family members can easily collapse into moments of brutality. For, these two 'types' of touch are, in fact, just extreme manifestations of the same thing. Whether between two opposing knights, two sisters, or a man and his wife, interaction is expressive of a relationship based on the negotiation of power. Ordinarily, the power distribution in relationships between man and wife, or father and son, is accepted in these poems, and so touch retains its benevolent veneer. It is only when that dynamic is contested that touch reveals its obscene underbelly and violence flares up to help reassert a domination that has been temporarily usurped. It is for this reason that Slavoj Zizek calls touch 'traumatic'. Because, just as tactile interactions conform to and confirm the symbolic fabric of social life, ' real' episodes of touching belie that very symbolic illusion. (28)

Moving on from the knight's putative 'gender' identification, he must also prove himself a man on the battlefield. Warring is sanctioned, nay, demanded in the chansons de geste by a social system constructed around the exclusion of the outsider:
   La violence epique est au service d' une edologie sommaire qui
   procede par xenophobie. L' adversaire est l' autre, l'leranger [...]
   dont on accuse les differences jusqu' a la monstruosite. (29)

Because identity is forcibly constructed through systematic division and discrimination along lines of what we now call race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and class, violence is written into society at every level. But when it erupts in physical and visual form--as war, killing, or torture--it is retroactively justified as the effect of the clashing between 'us' and 'them'. The cause for the violence is displaced onto an outside force that attacks or threatens 'our' well-being and against which ' we' must defend ourselve. (30) This ideological imperative to defend the parameters of the social body is replicated on an individual level, so that the knight's prowess, honour, and self-worth--his heroic identity--are figured through his ability to destroy enemy bodies while remaining inviolate or untouched.

Throughout the poems, there is an intense fascination with the corporality of the body and its destruction. It appears that, in this way, 'violence is recognized and measured by its visible effects, the spectacular blood of wounded bodies, the material destruction of objects'. (31) This remark by Susanne Kappeler is especially pertinent in that a prominent feature of battle scenes is the blood that flows across the landscape: 'Tant ont [li Francois] ocis de la gent deslea | Que de for sanc cort li ruz contre val' (Les Narbonnais, ll. 3951-52). Blood is, of course, highly symbolic in feudal culture as it denotes the family genealogies that are a source of such pride and that underpin the networks of power being contested at moments such as this. More significantly, however, it is a potent metaphor for the materiality of power itself. Being able to make blood flow proves a knight's ability to break down the boundaries of another's body, to dissolve that body and absorb its power. By doing so, he asserts the integrity of his own body. Indeed, 'the other's death means that his own insecure boundaries are intact and those hardened boundaries are interpreted by him as a sign of his virtue'. (32) Those who cannot thus defend the boundaries of their own body against the transgressive touch of an opponent are unworthy of being invested with the power to defend the parameters of the social body.

Kappeler goes on to suggest that the reductive tendency to view violence in terms of its material outcomes eliminates, to a certain extent, the horror and threat of that violence. In her words, 'the violation as such, or the invisible forms of violence--the non-physical violence of threat and terror, of insult and humiliation, the violation of human dignity--are hardly ever the issue'. (33) Yet, in the chansons de geste, these collateral aspects of violence are markedly present in the anxiety that pervades the accounts of violence. The actors seem all too aware of the power negotiations at stake, and seem to manipulate the terror and indignity of violence to better serve their needs. Accordingly, lengthy descriptions of the damage inflicted on enemy bodies by Christian heroes are another prominent feature. Here, Guiz takes on Gracien in Les Narbonnais:
   Desoz la bocle li pecoie et li fant,
   Et le hauberc li desmaille et desment,
   Par mi le cors li mist l' espi trenchant,
   Encontre terre l' abati mort sanglant,
   Puis tret l' espee par molt fier mautalant.

   (ll. 1911-15)

The detail here is impressive, and highlights the intensely physical aspect of the encounter. Special emphasis is placed in the insertion of the sword 'par mi le cors', the depth of tactile penetration highlighting the relationship of enmity between the opponents and establishing Guiz as the dominant party. Attention is even paid to the retraction of the sword, showing that Guiz is in control: he can enter and leave the body of his opponent while he himself remains whole and untouched. As already noted, this inviolability is crucial in the assertion of power and, elsewhere, God even intervenes to guarantee the integrity of his champions' bodies: 'Dex le gari, q' an char no pot tochier' (Les Narbonnais, 1. 5774). When such divine grace is not on hand, and the Christians are in a difficult position, descriptions of the violence endured by them are usually less detailed and physically explicit. The audience is perhaps told that they have 'les cors [... ] tainz de sanc et de suor' (Aymeri de Narbonne, 1. 2906). It appears, then, that even in the context of these medieval poems, non-contact (in the passive sense) is invested with a moral value. Active touching is used as a means to safeguard the body against the unwanted, or uncontrollable, contact of the enemy. It is used to keep the other at bay, while also engaging that same other in a relationship--albeit one of enmity.

This dichotomizing approach to identity is, of course, ambivalent and fundamentally flawed. In the Narbonnais cycle, the enemies are never described in concrete, analytical terms, but rather appear as a shifting, ill-defined, and subversive force. At times the armies of the East are named as Saracens ('la gent Sarrazinor' :Les Narbonnais, l. 18), at others they are pagans ('gent paienor', l. 48). Elsewhere they are even hybrids ('la geste grifaigne'': Le Siege de Barbastre, l. 97) (34) or demons ('[ils] sont deable qui d' enfer sont issuz': Les Narbonnais, l. 7226). In fact, these enemies really represent something less tangible still: the 'impersonal mass, the menacing danger', the anxiety that haunts the margins of an identity violently forged through abjection." If there can be no ontological or innate 'outsider' who exists independently of social discourses and their performative reproduction, there can be no secure 'them' that can define the parameters of 'our' identity. Our heroic subjects must rather seek their own ontological stability by dint of a sustained and repetitive drive to kill, maim, capture, and drive back the Saracens, even as they see themselves troublingly reflected in these advancing armies.

In a passage touched on earlier, Clargis agrees to escort Romanz and Guibert out through the enemy camps, and warns his men: 'Franc Sarrazin, gardez, n'en tochiez mie! | Je sui Clargis' kes Narbonnais, ll. 5434-35). In the medieval context, warfare demanded the physical proximity of its combatants, and here, as already noted, violence is called 'touching', emphasizing the intimate corporeality of the interaction. In order to be protected from the violence of his own men, Clargis must apply a linguistic tag to himself. By naming himself as one of them, he can ensure that the Saracens behave appropriately towards him. This invoked sphere of inviolability is then passed on from him to the two Franks under his care--and who would most certainly have been 'touched' without such protection. What this example also makes clear is that the Sara cen 'outsiders' have a system of codified behaviour just like the Christians, in which discursive categories produce and are produced by specific behaviour. They, too, need to establish whether Clargis is friend or foe, before acting appropriately towards him.

However, things are not as straightforward as they seem, and the quasi-oxymoronic nature of the appellation 'Franc Sarrazin' is an obvious indication of this complexity. Strictly speaking, 'Franc'should be translated as 'freeborn', but the pun on 'Frank'is obvious and, even without it, 'Frank' is an epithet appropriated wholesale from those who identify themselves as Frankish. Probing further, the way in which Clargis divulges his name, with the obvious expectation that it will have an impact and that certain meanings will automatically be associated with it, is problematic. He is a Saracen and so he rightly expects that his name will mark him as not-Other to the troops, thus allowing him to provide protection to Romanz and Guibert. Yet this name also marks him out clearly as Other from a narrative perspective-or does it? Given the implied conflation of pagan and Christian groups in the linguistic formula 'Franc Sarrazin', and the fact that Clargis is, in fact, aiding Romanz and Guibert (and so the Christian cause more generally), the audience cannot be so sure. There is a sense in which a society is in touch with, and contacts, a subject via their name, and yet that name is arbitrary, a sequence of sounds that delineates a social space and the expectations attached to that space. Later in the poem, Clargis converts to Christianity and it is emphasized that his name does not change: 'a Clargis n'ont son non remue (l. 7898). The name is simply shifted over the pagan--Christian divide and a different symbolic content is immediately attached to it. That this can happen highlights the fundamental constructedness of social meaning, and the arbitrariness of connections between subjects, behaviour, and language. They are held together in an 'illusion' and are open to constant (re)negotiation.

In this context, it would be unsurprising if the Saracens 'touched' not only Romanz and Guibert, but Clargis too.

This then begs questions of the whole system whereby society is played out: Who is really a Christian? Who is one of 'us'? Whom can we contact as a friend, and who must be rejected as an enemy? These questions are never directly addressed, but rather implied by the situations that occur within the poems and by the interactions of their protagonists. It seems that, rather than reflecting upon such issues, anxiety is (temporarily) alleviated by ever-escalating violence, and ever more resounding defeats of the enemy. Passages such as this from Aymeri de Narbonne are a case in point:
   Tant hante frete et tant escu troe,
   Et tant hauberc desrout et desafre,
   Tant braz tranchie, tant pie, tant pong cope,
   Tant Sarrazin trebuchie et verse!

   (ll. 4213-16)

The hyperbolic, anaphorically repeated 'tant' construction shows this preoccupation with emphatic and definitive destruction of the enemy. The heroes are shown to be taking apart, literally and systematically, the bodies of the pagans in order thereby to posit and revel in their own integrity and, with it, power. And yet, the relentless repetition of it already points to the fact that victory and the assertion of a fully developed and definitive social identity are impossible. (36) If the pagan enemy is the founding exclusion of the heroic Christian identity, the outsider who must be repudiated at all costs, he also gives shape to that identity by defining its contours. In her essay 'Racialized Bodies', Sara Ahmed discusses the issue of the ' other' who is necessary to the expression of one's own identity:

In seeing the bodies of others, we are always engaged in practices of both recognition and reading that fail to grasp the other. The perception of others as ' the black other' involves wrapping the bodies of others in fantasy. Indeed the monstrous black body is represented here precisely as a white fantasy, or as a fantasy that works to constitute whiteness in the first place. (37)

Although in the context of the poems it is more appropriate to consider issues of religion rather than skin colour when considering 'racial' identity, the white--black dichotomy is already evident, and expresses the same value judgements that Ahmed alludes to here. In Les Narbonnais, pagans are described thus: 'granz ont les cors et noirs com arrement' (1. 3803); later they are ' hideux et noir' (l. 4591). Such descriptions indeed 'wrap the bodies of others in fantasy', not simply in terms of bodily differences, but in terms of the meaning attached to those differences. The term 'noir com arrement', far from being simply a racist cliche--whereby the word 'black' 'spill[s] out from a deep contempt and fear' (38)--refers specifically to this idea of wrapping the 'other' in fantasy.

The poet draws on the evidence of their otherness with ink and thus, with his painter's touch, roots the arbitrary Christian--pagan distinction in ontological fact. This image-making is in itself an 'act of ideological violence' committed by the poet on behalf of the Christian cause because it determines and defines the 'pagans' in a way that they cannot control. It implies a knowledge drawn from perception--but it is a perception conditioned by ideological imperative and the need to create a sense of unified 'us' and avoid the 'risks of an unknowable reality'. (39)

However, the very unreliability of such categorizations is explicitly stated elsewhere; in the Siege de Barbastre, for example, four messengers are sent from the besieged town to enlist help from Aymeri. The messengers paint their faces black in order to pass incognito through the Saracen camp. This time, Saracen armour will not suffice; a more radical identification is called for. It is successful and, despite some close encounters with the Saracens in which they act and appear convincingly 'Saracen-like' , they make it to Aymeri's court. There, their disguise is so good that the plan is nearly jeopardized: Aymeri does not believe, at first, that they are actually Christians. He says: 'Vous estes plus noir que errement tenpre | Grant hisde m'en est prise, quant vous ai esgarde' (Le Siege de Barbastre, ll. 3848-49). Having realized his mistake, and had them wash their faces in vinegar to remove the blackness, he finally embraces his friends and apologizes for his previous actions. So, 'blackness' is only skindeep, and implies social discrimination rather than 'racial' difference. For all the attempts that are made to draw a biological line between the opposing sides in the endless battling of the poems, those attempts inevitably fail and, rather, highlight the impossibility of such a division. As Sarah Kay notes, 'the violent interaction between two forces can result in a polarization which has the value of political knowledge', but it will never achieve the stubborn fixity of bodily 'truth'. (40)

Touch has been 'taken for granted as a fundamental fact of life, a medium for the production of meaningful acts, rather than meaningful in itself'. (41) In fact, it is not something that individuals 'do'; it is something they 'are'. If identity is constituted by and through symbolic acting conditioned by social discourses and practices, then the individual cannot be imagined outwith the complex codified system of intersubjective relationships into which he/she is born. Nor can the hierarchical ordering of 'us' over 'them' be conceived of as natural or innate, but is similarly constructed through the repeated assertion of bloody superiority over the outsider. As Slavoj Zizek puts it in his Deleuzian study of subjectivity,' the subject "is" only (exists exclusively as) the activity of its own self-positing'. (42)

But, just as touch is constitutive of identity, it is also deeply traumatic. Even the title of another of Zizek's works on what he terms 'political ontology'--the Ticklish Subject--highlights this very ambiguity. (43) Tickling walks a fine line between pleasure and pain; there is only so much a person can stand before the experience becomes troubling and painful. In the same way, touch works as a sliding scale of contact and subjective interaction: at one end is the cosy intimate touch of lovers and friends, but at the other is the equally intimate touch of two knights locked in a battle to the death. Both extremes are politically charged and socially informed; both include a negotiation over power and status; both help constitute the identity of the subject. In fact, the one can easily collapse into the other, so that:

Any contact with a real flesh-and-blood other, any [...] pleasure that we find in touching another human being, is not something evident, but something inherently traumatic, and can be sustained only in so far as this other enters the subject's fantasy-frame. (44)

The fantasy-frame that Zizek refers to can be understood in the same terms as Butler's 'illusion': as the network of intersubjective relationships as sustained through a collective and symbolic fantasy. Touching 'real' bodies thus reminds the subject of its non-existence, or rather its contingent existence figured through the medium of symbolic, tactile relationships. Thus moments of intense tactility are troubled by the lurking danger of being 'swallowed up by the pre-ontological Real'. (45) This anxiety is acknowledged in these poems by the care taken to describe tactility and by the attempts made to manipulate it into some kind of ontology.

If these medieval subjects can be called 'ticklish' in view of their ambivalent relationship with a constructed and constitutive other, are not we in the (post)modern age 'ticklish subjects' too? For we squeamishly try to disengage ourselves from a medieval literary past in which honour was measured as a body count, yet also find ourselves drawn to it in fascination. We observe that the gruesome violence of the chansons de geste may put readers off, while our own soldiers are locked in the bloodiest of battles overseas. We recoil as knights' limbs are severed and brains spilt, while certain contemporary film genres strive to show ever more explicit and ever more gratuitous scenes of cruelty and horror. Perhaps it is time for us to accept our own violent tendencies, rather than 'getting medieval' on our past?

(1) See Michael Argyle, Bodily Communication (London: Methuen, 1975).

(2) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, rev edn, 2 vols in I (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). See especially vol. 1, Chapter 1, Changes in the Behaviour of the Secular Upper Classes in the West', pp. 1-172.

(3) Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 184-89.

(4) The Civilizing Process, p. 389.

(5) The ethical implications of which are summarized perfectly in one of Dave Grossman's chapter titles: 'Killing at Maximum and Long Range: Never a Need for Repentance or Regret', ion Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston, New York, and London: Back Bay, 1996). The title is from Section III, Chapter 2, pp. 107-11.

(6) Aymeri de Narbonne, ed. by Louis Demaison, 2 vols (Paris: Societe des Anciens Textes Francais, 1887). Subsequent references given in the text are to this edition.

(7) Sarah Kay, The 'chansons de geste' in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. I

(8) I refer to the Narbonnais cycle as per Duncan McMillan's formulation of the 'Petit Cycle': including Girart de Vienne (1190-1224), Aymeri de Narbonne (1190-1217), Les Narbonnais (c. 1205), Le Siege de Barbastre (1165-1200), Guibert d'Andrenas (1220), and La Mort Aymeri de Narbonne (c. 1180) ('Les Enfances Guillaume et Les Narbonnais dans les manuscrits du Grand Cycle: observations sur la fusion du Cycle de Narbonne avec le Cycle de Guillaume', Romania, 64 (1938), 313-27).

(9) See e.g. the treatment of anger in Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages, ed. by Barbara Rosenwein (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1998).

(10) Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-Face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (London: Granta, 1999), p. xiii.

(11) Indeed, George Kassimeris suggest that 'the [twentieth] century will go down in history as one of the most gruesome and murderous centuries' ('The Warrior's Dishonour', in Dishonour: Barbarity, Morality and Torture in Modern Warfare, ed. by George Kassimeris (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 1-18 (p. 2)).

(12) Constance Classen, 'Fingerprints: Writing about Touch', in The Book of Touch, ed. by Constance Classen (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005), pp. 1-9 (p. 1). See also Anthony Synnott, The Body Social: Symbolism, Self and Society (London and New York: Routledge, 1993),P. 168.

(13) 'Status and Sex: Some Touching Observations' Rulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 2 (1973), PP. 91-93 (P. 91).

(14) Judith Butler, 'Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory', in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. by Sue-Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 270-82 (p. 270).

(15) Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex' (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), P. 3.

(16) Getting Medieval, p. 189.

(17) Les Narbonnais, ed. by Hermann Suchier, 2 vols (Paris: Societe des Anciens Textes Francais, 1894). Subsequent references given in the text are to this edition.

(18) Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, p. 194.

(19) Stephen D. White, 'The Politics of Anger', in Anger's Past (see above, n. 9), pp. 127-52 (p. 140).

(20) Ibid., p. 140.

(21) This is not the only instance in the cycle in which a woman speaks out of turn. When, in Girart de Vienne, the widowed Duchess of Burgundy makes her marriage preferences known, and states her displeasure when wedded to Charlemagne, the general feeling is that' ele en dut estre ocise!' (l. 1476: Bertrand de Bar-Sur-Aube, Girart de Vienne, ed. by Wolfgang Van Emden (Societe des Anciens Textes Francais: Paris, 1977)). As is the case with Hermengart, the real problem is not what she says, or whether she is justified, but the disruption caused to the smooth downward flow of authority and power in the male--female gender hierarchy.

(22) A term borrowed from Arthur Brittan, Masculinity and Power (Oxford, Blackwell, 1989), p. 36.

(23) Adolf Tobler and Erhard Lommatzsch, Altfranzosisches Worterbuch, 10 vols (Berlin: Weidmann; Stuttgart: Steiner; Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1925--), VIII, 174, s.v.

(24) Ibid., VI, 1414, s.v. (translation from German and emphasis my own).

(25) Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality (New York and London: Verso, 1994), p. 47.

(26) Slavoj Zizek, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 85-87.

(27) La Prise de Cordres et de Sebille, ed. by Ovide Densusianu (Paris: Societe des Anciens Textes Francais, 1896). Subsequent references given in the text are to this edition.

(28) Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York and London: Verso, 1997). See especially pp. 183-84.

(29) Jean-Charles Payen, 'Une poetique du genocide joyeux, devoir de violence et plaisir de tuer dans la Chanson de Roland' Olifant, 6 (1978-79), 226-36 (p. 227).

(30) Susanne Kappeler, The Will to Violence: The Politics of Personal Behaviour (Cambridge: Polity, 1995). See especially Chapter I, 'Violence and the Will to Violence', pp. 1-23.

(31) Ibid., pp. 1-2.

(32) James William Gibson, Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), p. 112.

(33) The Will to Violence, p. 2.

(34) Le Siege de Barbastre, ed. by Bernard Guidot (Paris: Champion, 2000). Subsequent references given in the text refer to this edition.

(35) Norman Daniel, Heroes and Saracens: An Interpretation of the 'Chansons de geste (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1984), p. 266.

(36) Reminding us of Butler's formulation that' performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate "act", but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects it names' (Bodies That Matter, p. 2).

(37) Ahmed, 'Racialized Bodies', in Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction, ed. by Mary Evans and Ellie Lee (New York: Palgrave, 2002), pp. 46-63 (p. 57).

(38) Jonathan Rutherford, 'Who's that man?', Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity, ed. by Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), pp. 21-67 (p. 61).

(39) Kappeler, The Will to Violence, p. 45.

(40) Kay, Political Fictions, p. 51.

(41) Classen, 'Fingerprints', p. 2.

(42) Organs without Bodies, p. 69.

(43) Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (New York and London: Verso, 1999).

(44) Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, p. 184.

(45) Ibid., p. 185.


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Author:Whiteley, Lucy C.
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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