My absolute favourite among the Grail quest romances, old and new, the thirteenth-century ‘Queste del Saint Graal’, contains a curious and slightly kinky episode.
Sir Percival, moored on a desert island, fights dragons, despair and all sorts of dangers and temptations for three days, sustained not by food or drink but by an occasional conversation with a white-clad old man, Saint Joseph of Arimathea. At the end of his sentence, he sees a ship, which he first mistakes for the vessel on which Joseph came earlier on. But the ship bears a different visitor – a beautiful, but sadly disinherited hence distressed damsel, who reminds Percival of the Round Table vow to help maidens, ladies, gentlewomen and widows. So Percival is taken on his word and enters the tent erected immediately on the shore – not unwillingly, given the promise of a much-needed meal that awaits him.
There is not only food, but also drink in the tent – exquisite wine and a mysterious liquor called cervoise. And, above all, the damsel herself, with her gracious airs and courteous speeches. So far, it is a familiar episode in the career of a knight errant. Indeed, Percival’s progress in Chretien de Troyes’s ‘Percival’ and other pre-‘Queste’ romances is thickly peppered with such agreeable interludes: a hospitable damsel, providing bed, breakfast and, on occasion, warm embraces to the tired champion. The ‘Queste’ Percival, too, tries to reach the logical conclusion by courting the damsel, who seems to be slightly reluctant – or is she?
Now, the Lancelot-Graal cycle in general and the ‘Queste’ in particular differs from the preceding Arthurian romances by having a distinctly Christian agenda. There are no random or meaningless episodes in the ‘Queste’ – every episode serves a moral function, much like the descriptions of marvellous beasts, plants and stones in the bestiary are but metaphors of Christian reality. As Percival swears absolute loyalty to the damsel and is about to indulge in sexual intercourse with her, he glances upon his sword hilt with an enamelled cross, and automatically crosses himself. The next moment, the tent is filled with sulphurous smoke, and the damsel – none other than the devil himself – disappears, shrieking that Percival has deceived her (him?).
Percival, left on shore in a highly flustered and almost completely naked state, inflicts on himself a wound in the thigh with the same sword that saved him just before it would have been too late.
Looking at this instance of self-punishment, the reader may well wonder: why Percival did it? There can be a number of explanations, from psychological to theological, from historical references to canon and secular law as well as feudal obligations, to contemporary philosophy of discipline and punishment. An ingenious explanation is offered in the ‘Queste’ itself, expounded by Joseph of Arimathea, who returns to console the wounded knight. It is not my intention to elaborate on the latter interpretation of the episode, though it is well worth reading as an elaborate piece of medieval exegesis.
In fact, castration – for Percival’s wound seems to be a euphemism for castration – is a common remedy against temptation as well as punishment inflicted on the disobedient flesh in medieval hagiography and other religious literature. For instance, in the bestiary, the beaver is often portrayed biting off his genitals and flinging them in his hunters face: according to the exegete, the beaver represents the good Christian, and the hunter – the devil.
So Percival is the good beaver… Sorry, the good Christian. But why mutilate himself when the devil has already been chased away with God’s name and the sign of the cross? To prevent further temptation? As penance for one’s sinful intentions?
Turning to medieval law, one finds that cutting off the genitals of the criminal is a common way of punishing sexual offence, such as rape. after all, Percival nearly forced the damsel to intercourse, and it does not make much difference that the ‘damsel’ was in fact only too willing. The latter argument would not have been very efficient in court.
Another crime Percival has committed is feudal – he has sworn absolute loyalty to the damsel, whereas he was already a knight of King Arthur, and, ultimately, God’s soldier.
By secular or feudal law, Percival could have been punished by castration. And here, the Foucauldian theory of discipline, particularly his concept of Panopticon, comes in useful. Percival pre-empts the punishment, which he might have avoided, as there was no witness to the crime, save the all-seeing eye of God. I would prefer not to take this argument too far by presenting God as a Foucaldian jailer, but finish with a quotation from Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ on the individual’s plight in the Panopticon:
‘[s]he who is subjected to a field of visibility and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; [s]he makes them play spontaneously upon [her/]himself; [s/]he inscribes in [her/]himself the power relations in which [s/]he simultaneously plays both roles; [s/]he becomes the principle of [her/]his own subjection.’
It all sounds slightly intimidating, so turning to Foucault’s exegetes, one is relieved to read this less arcane explanation:
‘The individual within the Panopticon is forced to internalise the disciplinary gaze. … Thus, a new form of power relation develops where rather than power being exercised very materially on the body through torture, by someone with authority, someone in power on someone who is powerless, the individual herself [sic] now “plays both roles”: the oppressor may well be absent, but the prisoner has internalised the behavioural code of the oppressor, and will behave as though the prison guard were still watching.’ ( Clare O’Farell and Sara Mills, ‘Michel Foucault,’ p. 48)
If you have thoughts on the episode or on the application of Foucault’s theory to other medieval texts and contexts, please leave them as comments.