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Medieval Studies Scholar Parses Modern Bodice-Rippers









 
 

Medieval Studies Scholar Parses Modern Bodice-Rippers

Nicola McDonald, D.Phil., notes that medieval romances have taken on much of the burden of satisfying readers’ desire for politically incorrect forms of pleasure.

Photo courtesy of the University of York



“One of the most exciting things about

studying modern mass-market romance

is that the student of Middle English romance

can enjoy a rare moment of pleasure.”


By Joseph McLaughlin

As a medievalist and specialist of medieval literature, Nicola McDonald, D.Phil., might be expected to quote from Chaucer:

“Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”

But McDonald read from a very different text during her presentation on Oct. 20 at the William D. Walsh Family Library:

“Tension gripped Lisette’s body instantly. Her mouth went dry, and her heart beat so fast she could scarcely catch her breath,” she said.

McDonald, an expert on romances written in Middle English during the 13th through 15th centuries, has, for the moment, shifted her focus to examine how the medieval period is portrayed in modern Harlequin-style romances.

If Middle English romances have been dubbed “the ugly ducklings of medieval English studies,” then what could McDonald learn from their modern counterparts, which have likewise been much maligned by scholarship? What pleasure could she find in reading the bodice-rippers? And how could they help her to move Middle English romances to the forefront of modern debate about medieval English literary culture and its achievements?

She detailed her findings in “What’s Your Pleasure? Mass-Market Medieval Romance,” part of the fall lecture series presented by the Center for Medieval Studies at Fordham.

For her research text, she chose the Medieval Lords and Ladies Collection (Harlequin Mills and Boon, 2007), a set of six, two-volume anthologies.

“One of the most exciting things about studying modern mass-market romance is that the student of Middle English romance can enjoy a rare moment of pleasure,” said McDonald, editor of Pulp Fictions of Medieval England (Manchester University Press, 2004).

Aspects of modern medieval romances uncovered by her inquiry include:

• self-conscious historicizing with a flagrant disregard for historical facts;

• descriptions of time that serve to wrench the reader back into the present; and

• depictions of violent sexual encounters, which are seldom found in non-medieval Harlequin romances.

Of course, medieval scholars aren’t the target demographic for modern medieval romances. Still, McDonald admitted that she enjoyed spotting historical blunders in the books’ pages and in the artwork on their covers.

She pointed out references to a two-pronged dinner fork, when that table utensil was invented after the medieval period; Caxton’s printed books classified as “new,” when Caxton had been dead for over a decade; and a cone-shaped hennin, a headpiece that was fashionable in the 15th century, on the cover of a romance set in the 11th century.

“What is especially pleasing to the snobbish scholar about these references is their very purposefulness, the way in which they are so intimately bound up in the self-evidently lowbrow work of historicizing for readers who, it seems, don’t know any better,” McDonald said.

She also noted how the Medieval Lords and Ladies novels portray time as pre-modern—something that is marked by hours of prayer or notches on a candle, despite the fact that clock was invented in the Middle Ages—while medieval sex acts are distinctly outside of time.

“Eleanor, the Englishwoman who is abducted and sold into the harem of a Ottoman caliph, explicitly falls through time and space,” McDonald said, “when, to quote from the text again, she welcomes ‘the sudden thrust of Suleiman’s manhood.’”

Moreover, the historicizing that she mentioned earlier—introducing items that are common today but new to the characters in the novel—“actively exploits the distance between the medieval and the modern, and actively demands that the reader fall back through the space in between,” she explained.

“This gesture, by which the reader is made to conceptualize a space between us and them and then travel through it, is a remarkably consistent feature of all the historical romances set in the Middle Ages.”

Finally, McDonald noted that while Harlequin novels in general have drastically reduced their depictions of sexual violence over the past few decades, books set in the medieval period are a notable exception.

In fact, while fewer than half of the women in Medieval Lords and Ladies are actually raped, almost all arethreatened with it and virtually all are manhandled and bruised at some early point in the romance.

“‘But what are a few bruises?’ Cresside asks her husband, the Lord Wroxeter. He doesn’t answer; he doesn’t need to. The reader already knows that bruises, like losing one’s virginity, are—according to these romances—a painful but obligatory rupture en route to sexual pleasure,” she explained.

As to how modern novels speak to Middle English romances, McDonald said she has no simple answer.

“As I ‘fall through time and space’ into the middle of my own research, I know that I can no longer be secure in the distance between my Middle Ages and the [romanticized] one I once so confidently disparaged.”

 


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