William Reddy Response

Professor William M. Reddy is William T. Laprade Professor of History and Professor of Cultural Anthropology, at Duke University. Here he responds to the reviews of his book by Katherine Clark, David Lederer and Hera Cook for the History of Emotions Blog.

Thanks to Thomas Dixon for organizing this forum, and to the reviewers for their many thoughtful and penetrating comments. I will try to respond briefly to two sets of critical reflections: (1) cases in which a reviewer disputed or rejected an assertion of mine, but without addressing the considerable evidence supplied in the book to support that assertion; (2) cases in which a reviewer rightly objected that a certain issue was not addressed, or not adequately dealt with in the book. Ten years in the writing, unwieldy in its ambition, my book, I knew from the beginning, would be, like Swiss cheese, full of holes, and not necessarily easy to follow. I thank all involved for their patience in reading it.

Cases in which a reviewer did not address the evidence supplied in the book:

1. The Gregorian reform. Katherine Clark insists that “At the turn of the twelfth century … the Gregorian Reform movement did not primarily function as a philosophical campaign against the general concept of desire; rather, it had gained momentum as a ‘renovation’ of clerical practices (initially monastic, later engaging the secular clergy) whose ‘appetites’ were more narrowly defined than Reddy suggests.” As a result, she states, “the courtly poetry of the troubadours and trobairitz of southern France flourished well before Gregorian reformers shifted from internal campaigns against clerical vice to a more global attempt to regulate lay morality and religious practice through a ‘reformed’ clergy.”

Yet the elevation of marriage to the status of sacrament, the prohibition of divorce, the labeling of secondary wives as “concubines,” the railing of popular preachers against the dangers of concupiscence, the frequent expressions of revulsion for sexual pleasure, Robert of Arbrissel’s rounding up of prostitutes and setting up of convents for them, the vast extension of the incest prohibition to seven degrees of kinship—all of these phenomena date from the late eleventh or early twelfth century, and are generally regarded as features of the broad, heterogeneous movement known as the “Gregorian Reform.” The book provides detailed documentation on all these facets of the movement (just, for example, the organization of Arbrissel’s famous monastery at Fontevraud around 1100 CE [pp. 117-118], or the sculpture program completed at Moissac by 1115 [p. 88]).

Clark grants that “the struggle between the nobility and the clergy over the indissolubility and sacramental nature of marriage form a context for this [i.e., the fin’amors] literature.” But is this not to concede that the Gregorian Reform did help shape the literature of fin’amors? In any case, one must go further, and recognize that a general revulsion toward sexual “pleasure” was in the air, appearing as an element of the popular asceticism that made itself felt between 1050 and 1200, not only among the Patareni of Milan, but also among the hundreds of wandering hermits of the early twelfth century, among the many thousands who admired the Cathar perfecti of Languedoc (well before the crusade against them was organized), as well as among scores of clerical chroniclers, canonists, theologians, and prelates, from William of Malmesbury to Roger of Howden, from Peter Damian to Ivo of Chartres to Anselm of Bec to Geoffrey Babion, from Gratian to Peter Lombard. (Here, please note, I am simply alluding to evidence discussed in the first three chapters.)

2. William IX of Aquitaine. As documented in the book, there is substantial evidence that William of Aquitaine’s very identity, and his survival as a territorial lord, were threatened by the Gregorian Reform, because his parent’s marriage—his father’s third marriage in pursuit of an heir, after two divorces of childless wives—was condemned as invalid. After William’s father rushed to Rome, a compromise was reached in which his mother was to be treated as a concubine, while William was granted legal legitimacy. In repayment, his father promised to generously endow a new monastery in Poitiers. William in his turn fell afoul of a reforming bishop when he tried to divorce his first wife in 1113 in order to marry Maubergeonne, Vicountesse of Châtellerault. Many scholars more learned than myself, including Reto Bezzolla, Rita Lejeune, and Gerald Bond, have argued convincingly that William’s love songs were addressed to Maubergeonne.

Whether that is the case or not, in William’s songs, the beloved is treated as spiritually and politically powerful: “Through her joy a sick man can become well, / and through her anger a healthy man can die.” (quoted by me on p. 97) William expresses an exaggerated fear of revealing the existence of his love to her. “I don’t dare send her any message through another, / I’m so afraid she might immediately be angry …” (p. 98). These are not the words of an “unabashedly carnal” concept of love, as Clark claims. However, William did write some “ribald” songs, one of which has been called the earliest known example of a fabliau, in which the clergy are belittled for their failure to control their own sexual “appetites.” In this sense, William did indeed, by his composition of songs in two such different genres, display his understanding of a sharp contrast between love and lust. As for the other troubadours who imitated his innovative methods, I urge interested readers to consult the many examples discussed in chapter two of the book, of troubadour love songs that pit love against sexual appetite, and see love—not as desire’s opposite—but as a spiritual force capable of taming appetite and rendering it innocent.

That William IX’s love songs are the earliest recorded examples of fin’amors literature has been disputed by no scholar, to my knowledge. They form a dividing line between an ancient conception of love as debilitating and humiliating for elite male citizens and a medieval and modern conception of love as something able to “Make Me Better,” to cite the title of a hit music video of 2007 by the artist known as Fabolous.

3. Vaishnavism and related forms of devotionalism of South Asia. Cook finds it “not credible” that “there is no evidence [South Asian] elites regarded sexual orgasm as pleasurable.” However, this claim, quoted from p. 5 of the introduction, is backed up by substantial evidence presented in chapter four. For example, Daud Ali, in his valuable study of medieval South Asian court life, as quoted on p. 248 of my book, argues that “ ‘For the people of the court, sex ‘was a highly mannered and tutored experience, an ‘art’ which, like other aspects of the courtier’s life, was to be refined and perfected.’”[1] These refinements and accoutrements were so important that “ ‘the theatrical traditions considered a number of them … to be ‘determinative’ of the very emotion of sexual pleasure (rati) on the stage.’”[2] It is quite understandable that, in a tradition involving highly refined and mannered forms of interacting (including with sexual partners) the mere occurrence of an orgasm in the absence of such refinements might well be experienced as distressing, unpleasant, even disturbing. This is not really so different from some contemporary Western experiences, even though the elaborate and mannered interactions many Westerners engage in are governed by the love-lust dichotomy and enact a belief in desire-as-appetite.

Points well taken:

1. The question of the body. It is true that I did not address explicitly the theme of the “body,” which has played a very important role in historiography over the last twenty-five years. I can only offer as an excuse or explanation two considerations.

First, this was a conscious decision. I was concerned that the introduction of this thematic into my comparative work would inadvertently slant the discussion in favor of certain modern Western notions of the body, notions which have, indeed, often detracted from attempts by other scholars to use this theme as an escape hatch from suffocating notions of modern subjectivity. Caroline Walker Bynum herself warned against this tendency some time ago.[3]

Second, despite my neglect of this theme, I was very careful to explore what counted as “bodies,” more or less, in each tradition, including issues of beauty, dress, gesture, and touch. If lovers of the fin’amors tradition appear sometimes disembodied in my treatment, it is partially because the literature itself often has little to say about bodily matters, other than to offer vague superlatives about beauty, valor, or the extraordinary joy found in sexual embraces, when under the aegis of true love. Doubtless this was part of a strategy to counter the vivid negative descriptions of sexual beauty and sexual embraces found in clerical sermons.

In contrast, South Asian sources include extensive protocols for lovemaking, self-presentation, and dance in both courtly and ritual contexts—all of these I discussed in sufficient detail so that anyone interested can discern the strikingly different notions of embodiment implicit in Tantric, Vaishnava, courtly, and literary texts. I offer an in-depth discussion of the devadasi tradition, a tradition of female priests. Hardly marginal, these ritual dance experts were generously endowed from temple incomes; they were prestigious, admired, valued guests at weddings, showered with gifts. For Heian Japan, I provide numerous observations of the elaborate dress code, and complex rules of movement and gesture that governed aristocratic “bodies.” Beauty often seems to have been judged strictly in terms of dress, for example. Izumi Shikibu found Prince Atsumichi’s appearance to be “ravishing,” I note on pp. 326-327, quoting her own third-person autobiography.

From beneath his soft, voluminous costume with its great, billowing sleeves could be seen the skirt of an incredibly beautiful underrobe. Every detail was as she would have wished, and she felt as if her eyes must be playing her false.[4]

Tears, another interesting manifestation of the “body,” were also regarded as prestigious markers of spiritual melancholy or else of an exceptional capacity for compassion.

2. Christian devotionalism. It is true, as all the reviewers suggest, that I neglected the emotions of Christian prayer, meditation, and ascetic practice. I presented clerical culture as if it were unidimensionally dominated by revulsion. This, too, was, to an extent, a conscious choice. Knowing that Bynum, Dyan Elliott, Piroska Nagy, Damien Boquet and others had carried out fascinating explorations of Christian devotional life, I sought to “go around” this dimension, fearful, as I was throughout the project, that the project’s contours would become unmanageably vast.

In fact, I could have strengthened the argument by considering this issue in greater depth. After all, in the Christian platonism of the middle ages, it was perfectly clear how a figure such as Bernard of Clairvaux could condemn a beautiful woman (in this case, his sister) as a “sack of excrement” and, later on, write melifluous sermons on the erotic relation of the soul with God, as described in the Song of Songs. As any platonist knows, the ideals of which everything here below is a degraded copy are more real, and the degraded copies around us are less real. Thus, the “reality” of spiritual eroticism, accessed through allegorical interpretation, is more “real” than that of actual here-and-now sexual encounters. Using this figleaf, as the history of Christian devotion shows, one can go very far down the road of passionate intensity, without moving from the kneeling position. There can be little doubt that such experiences were known to authors and composers of fin’amors literature.

In my defense I will add that, after working on the nonwestern traditions, it was indeed the revulsion toward “desire-as-appetite” that constantly lept to my mind as a defining feature of twelfth-century European practices. As for my accepting the categorization of hunger and thirst as “appetites,” I will simply assert, naively if one likes, that going without food and water soon leads to death, and I regard what happens in such circumstances as substantially different—in all cultural contexts—from what happens when one goes without orgasms, however that difference may be locally construed or experienced. Doubtless the “appetite” concept itself deserves much greater attention, but that was not my focus.

I will also add that I expended considerable effort getting up to speed on the remarkable new research concerning the warrior elite, its kinship reckoning, its castle building, its war-making, its “bad customs” and reputation for trickery and “turbulence”; research on marriage alliances and breakdowns; on vassalage and title and shared sovereignty; on administration and justice. This research establishes the existence of a new aristocratic honor code, and a corresponding use of language that sheds new light on the adulterous and clandestine character of courtly love. Martin Aurell has been kind enough to share with me his very positive review of the book, forthcoming in Cahiers de civilisation médievale, in which he commends the efforts made on this front.

In the Conclusion to the book, I sketched out some ideas about the twentieth century, the sexual revolution, and the current state of play of sexual and romantic practices. While this was far from a systematic treatment, it did not occur to me that anyone would doubt that desire and love are still distinguished, or that, in spite of a long campaign dating from the 1970s, or rather from the 1870s, sexual desire is often still stigmatized, even (or most especially) by the persons who are directly involved in enacting desire. One need only glance at the sociological research on “slut-bashing” among adolescents in Europe and North America, or the research on the “hookup culture,” on marital infidelity, or on the vast expansion in pornography with the coming of the internet. One need only consult the work of queer theorists on the ubiquity of shame. Many still find that the idealized “earthly religion” of romantic love provides a refuge from all that stigmatizing, and from the carefully enacted impersonality of mere “appetite,” a refuge in which sexual embrace, as Giraut de Borneil wrote long ago, becomes a “hundred times” more joyful. None of this is inscribed in nature.

Return to the Introduction to the William Reddy Round-table

Read Katherine Clark’s review.

Read David Lederer’s review.

Read Hera Cook’s review.



[1] Daud Ali, Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 213.

[2] Ibid., 75, also quoted in The Making of Romantic Love, p. 248.

[3] Caroline Walker Bynum, “Why All the Fuss About the Body?  A Medievalist’s Perspective,” Critical Inquiry 22 (1995): 1-33

[4] Izumi Shikibu, The Izumi Shikibu Diary: A Romance of the Heian Court, trans. Edwin A. Cranston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 170.