Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Refiguring Disability: Deviance, Blinding, and the Supernatural in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2009), 3, (2), 131–146.

Abstract

This essay examines Thomas Chestre's fourteenth-century Middle English Sir Launfal, which features the blinding of the adulterous Queen Gwenore by the fairy Tryamour, in view of the complex legal and social valences of blinding and blindness in the Middle Ages. While blinding could both symbolize the holiness of a saint and serve as the punishment for a treasonous or sexual criminal, blindness could also signify a literary figure's inward sinfulness. By featuring the blinding of a female character that is marked by her sexual promiscuity and cruelty, Chestre's tale complicates the already dense subtext of both the punishment and the impairment. In particular, Gwenore's impaired body comes to personify Artour's corrupt, unjust, and ineffectual court, while Tryamour's status as an agent of justice casts her supernatural, all-female counter-court as a powerful and enabling force. Building upon David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's theory of narrative prosthesis, the essay argues that Gwenore's blinding represents an intrinsic narrative drive to control the deviancy that her sexual impropriety creates. However, instead of neatly concluding the narrative, Gwenore's punishment succeeds in producing alternative narratives that challenge common medieval notions of femaleness, femininity, and disability.

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Tokes, Myra. "Lanval to Sir Launfal: A Story Becomes Popular." The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance. Eds. Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert. London: Longman, 2000, 56–77. Google Scholar

Van Eickels, Klaus. "Gendered Violence: Castration and Blinding as Punishment for Treason in Normandy and Anglo-Norman England." Violence, Vulnerability, and Embodiment: Gender and History. Eds. Shani D'Cruze and Anupama Rao. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 94–108. Google Scholar

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Wills, David. Prosthesis. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995. Prosthesis Google Scholar

The Book of Sainte Foy. Trans. Pamela Sheingorn. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1995. Google Scholar

Bürhrer-Thierry, Geneviève. "'Just Anger' or 'Vengeful Anger'?: The Punishment of Blinding in the Early Medieval West." Anger's Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages. Ed. Barbara H. Rosenwein. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1998. 75–91. Google Scholar

Carlson, David. "The Middle English Lanval, the Corporal Works of Mercy, and Bibliotheque Nationale, Nouv. Acq. FR 1104." Neophilologus 72 (1988): 97–106. The Middle English Lanval, the Corporal Works of Mercy, and Bibliotheque Nationale, Nouv. Acq. FR 1104 Neophilologus 72 97 106 Google Scholar

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Miller's Tale." The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd edn. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 68–77. Google Scholar

Chestre, Thomas. "Sir Launfal." The Middle English Breton Lays. Eds. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995. TEAMS Middle English Texts. 27 October, 2008. > http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/laun.htm Google Scholar

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles. New York: Palgrave, 2006. Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles Google Scholar

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999. Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages Google Scholar

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body Google Scholar

Furnish, Shearle. "Civilization and Savagery in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal." Medieval Perspectives 3 (1988): 137–149. Civilization and Savagery in Thomas Chestre's Sir Launfal. Medieval Perspectives 3 137 149 Google Scholar

Hazell, Dinah. "The Blinding of Gwennere: Thomas Chestre as Social Critic." Arthurian Literature XX. Ed. Keith Busby. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. 123–144. Google Scholar

Laskaya, Anne, and Eve Salisbury. "Sir Launfal: Introduction." The Middle English Breton Lays. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1995. TEAMS Middle English Texts. 27 October, 2008 > http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/launint.htm Google Scholar

Leicester, Jr., H. Marshall. "Newer Currents in Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Difference 'It' Makes: Gender and Desire in the Miller's Tale." ELH 61.3 (1994): 473–499. Newer Currents in Psychoanalytic Criticism, and the Difference 'It' Makes: Gender and Desire in the Miller's Tale. ELH 61 473 499 Google Scholar

Marie de France. "Lanval." Les Lais de Marie de France. Ed. Jean Rychner. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1981. Google Scholar

McCracken, Peggy. "The Body Politic and the Queen's Adulterous Body in French Romance." Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature. Eds. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1993. 38–64. Google Scholar

McCracken, Peggy. The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1998. The Romance of Adultery: Queenship and Sexual Transgression in Old French Literature Google Scholar

"The Merchant's Tale." Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster. New York: Humanities Press, 1958. 341–352. Google Scholar

Mitchell, David T., and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse Google Scholar

Quayson, Ato. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation. New York: Columbia UP, 2007. Aesthetic Nervousness: Disability and the Crisis of Representation Google Scholar

Salisbury, Eve. "Chaucer's 'Wife,' the Law, and the Middle English Breton Lays." Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts. Eds. Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida P, 2002. 73–93. Google Scholar

Spearing, A. C. "The Lanval Story." The Medieval Poet as Voyeur: Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993, 97–119. Google Scholar

Tokes, Myra. "Lanval to Sir Launfal: A Story Becomes Popular." The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance. Eds. Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert. London: Longman, 2000, 56–77. Google Scholar

Van Eickels, Klaus. "Gendered Violence: Castration and Blinding as Punishment for Treason in Normandy and Anglo-Norman England." Violence, Vulnerability, and Embodiment: Gender and History. Eds. Shani D'Cruze and Anupama Rao. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 94–108. Google Scholar

Wheatley, Edward. "'Blind' Jews and Blind Christians: Metaphorics of Marginalization in Medieval Europe." Exemplaria 14.2 (October 2002): 351–382. Google Scholar

Wills, David. Prosthesis. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995. Prosthesis Google Scholar

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Pearman, Tory Vandeventer