Indecent Exposure: Gender Politics, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature
This book analyses obscene comedy in Middle English writing of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Sidhu examines obscene comedy as a discourse, rather than a lexical or generic phenomenon. Noting that obscene comedy is set in domestic spaces and frequently portrays men and women struggling for control of marriage, the household, and sexuality, Sidhu argues that only a discourse-based analysis — which recognizes how a particular way of thinking about men, women, and household hierarchies can extend across a variety of different genres and artistic forms — can come to terms with the full import and range of obscene comedy. The book examines a variety of texts, including Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and ‘The Reeve’s Tale’, PPl, Lydgate’s ‘Mumming at Hertford’, Troy Book, and Fall of Princes, the Book of Margery Kempe, and biblical drama. Sidhu proposes that Middle English writers use obscene comedy not only to work through issues relating to gender and sexuality, but also to create a new political language capable of confronting the disturbances that English society experiences in the century and a half following the Black Death. In a society undergoing radical change but with few developed theories to account for that change, obscene comedy emerges as an important political language, wherein writers can examine and critique traditional political formations, as well as imagine what new political relationships might look like. The complex semiotic status of the medieval obscene made it attractive to writers interested the operations of power in their society. While modern obscenity is often associated with the counter-culture, medieval obscenity was often used quite explicitly to bolster the established order. And yet, because it is, by definition, a violation of taboo, obscenity always maintains a subversive valence. Sidhu proposes that, as a discourse both subversive and aligned with the status quo, obscene comedy gave late medieval writers unprecedented freedom to explore new ideas without exposing themselves to political risk.
Chapter 1, ‘Comedy and Critique: Obscenity and Langland’s Reproof of Established Powers in Piers Plowman‘, points out L’s extensive and productive use of obscene comedy in PPl, a facet of the poem that has never been discussed by scholars. Although Chaucer is often cited as the father of sexual comedy in English literature, because he is the first to write fabliaux in English, it is actually L who introduces obscene comedy into English writing. Citing the obscene comedy found in church architecture, in the numerous stories of sex and domestic strife found in sermon exempla, and in the appearance of battling husbands and wives in prominent ecclesiastical writings, Sidhu points out that medieval culture provided L with ample precedent for using comical tale telling to express spiritual meaning. Sidhu goes on to examine how L appropriates obscene comedy in the Meed episode, the argumentative exchanges between Will, Study, Scripture, and Imaginatif in the third vision, and in the impotence vignette of the final passus. Obscene comedy is important to L, Sidhu proposes, because it allows him to interrogate social and religious authority with an aggressiveness not available in any other discourse and because it provides him with a way of criticizing social authority while at the same time affirming its basic legitimacy. Noting how L often pursues his critiques of secular authority under the guise of other projects (like an examination of the ethics of reward, or a consideration of education’s role in spiritual development), Sidhu proposes that the mode of L’s political expression is comparable to manuscript marginalia, which often carried out separate conceptual projects alongside the ones ostensibly being promoted in the text. Using James Scott’s notion of the hidden transcript, Sidhu asserts that we should not ignore L’s politics because they often appear garbled or obscure. In this respect, obscene comedy is also important to L as a blind, its ridiculousness and debased characters enabling him to disavow his critiques even as he states them.