From Curtius to Bakhtin:  from mixing genres and kitchen
humor to Grotesque Realism
    Decorum, excess, classical, medieval, modern.  Include
Prudentius, Liudprand, Bernard Silvestris, Alanus, Walter
Map, Walter of Chatillon among Latin writers; Wolfram for
Middle High German; Rutebuef, Roman de la Rose, ovide
moralis€, Deschamps' grivoiserie, and Cuvelier for French
   Romilda, Simon de Montfort, Welch women mutilating
English, Crusaders canibalizing Saracens, or merely killing
them in the process of excreting. Athanasius and others
killed in the jakes.  In addition, Liudprand's
representation of the woman whose pudenda saves her
husband's treasures might widen the topic somewhat, while
the fabliau about the man who could make pudenda speak would
also, particularly since it has an anal resolution, related
in some distant fashion to some of the goings on in the
Miller's Tale (substituting orifices), and Bloch's routines
in The Scandal of the Fabliaux.  The topic would then seem
to be grotesque realism in medieval history and literature,
extending Bakhtin's intuition to suggest that a
consideration of genre, anti-feminism, and political faction
makes grotesque realism more useful. Mutilated and violated
genitalia.  Copulating, excreting and urinating (mingens ad
parietem, in Gregory, for example). Is the function in each
case reductive? Does the PL offer an index that would help?
The article in Viator on medical advice for sexuality.
Origen, Abelard, Babio for castration. Violence and the
lower bodily functions might cover all categories.
   Recall also the passage from Gesta Stephani with
overtones and resonances of impotence, although what is
being described has nothing to do with sexuality.
   Specifically graphic realism in representations of deaths
in battle also might help, as well as deaths of martyrs,
which give rise to desire for term like Mannerism.  In
characterizing Prudentius' poetry, Jacques Fontaine
describes the Mannerist as one who displays an interest in
irrationality, instability, excess, affective violence, as
well as a taste for display, a pleasure in ambiguity,
constructive imbalance, structure and ornament that do not
match, and broken unity(1).
   The association between grotesque realism and "freedom"
then, would be removed, and the technique would reveal
itself as part of the standard satirical paraphenalia,
capable of generating different tones in different contexts.
   In spite of the fact that Bakhtin's work in many ways
seems to be a set of typical academic fantasies, involving
the writer's desperate hope that the subject matter he has
chosen displays a freedom and vitality denied to himself,
the formal remarks he makes have some use. His assertions
about historical developments in literary genres are
hopelessly naive, but can be forgiven because his results
transcend his premises. He himself apparently changed his
mind over the years about the historical substance of his
remarks, arguing first that Dostoievsky was unique, then
that he was the last and most remarkable example of the
genre or combination of genres in which he was working.
   Formal symptoms of grotesque realism are usefully
isolated, but he offers the Cena Cypriana as the only work
in the middle ages that demonstrates the qualities he
isolates. An edition produced as a penitential task, an
inept little book, hardly covers the field. Bakhtin's
configurations appear in a mystical, playful, Ambrosian
roman by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in the second part of the
Roman de la Rose, in Gawain and the Green Knight, in Walter
Map's satirical, if not Mennipean satirical De Nugis
Curialium, in philosophical works, in historical works, in
many incidents from fabliaux, defined, though
insufficiently, by Muscatine as tales about sex and
excrement, the passage by Bernard on the breasts sweeter
than wine, the passages from Liudprand, and much else
suggests that one need not go to a folk tradition to find
the symptoms.
   Bakhtin establishes a polarity between what he conceives
of as "classical" aesthetics and grotesque realism. After
the Renaissance, he insists:
     In the new official culture there prevails a
     tendency toward the stability and completion of
     being, toward one single meaning, one tone of
     seriousness. The ambivalence of the grotesque can
     no longer be admitted. The exalted genres of
     classicism are freed from the influence of the
     grotesque tradition of laughter(2).
According to Bakhtin, classicism vitiates the awareness of
the body; grotesque realism insists upon the body and the
physical nature of reality by deliberately exaggerating and
profaning whatever high culture has established as sacred:
     Debasement is the fundamental principle of
     grotesque realism; all that is sacred and exalted
     is rethought on the level of the material bodily
     stratum or else combined and mixed with its
     images(3).  As Bakhtin conceives of it, the
     classical aesthetic is one of exclusion; the
     excluded elements are the ones that grotesque
     realism, as a kind of vox populi, reintroduces and
     insistently magnifies:
     The new bodily canon, in all its historic
     variations and different genres, presents an
     entirely finished, completed, strictly
     limited body, which is shown from the outside
     as something individual. That which
     protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off
     (when a body transgresses its limits and a
     new one begins) is eliminated, hidden, or
     moderated. All orifices of the body are
     closed. The opaque surface and the body's
     "valleys" acquire an essential meaning as the
     border of a closed individuality that does
     not merge with other bodies and with the
     world. All attributes of the unfinished world
     are carefully removed, as well as all the
     signs of its inner life.  The verbal norms of
     official and literay language, determined by
     the canon, prohibit all that is linked with
     fecundation, pregnancy, childbirth. There is
     a sharp line of division between familiar
     speech and "correct" language(4).
Bakhtin also includes banquet imagery (related to what
Curtius calls "kitchen humor"), games and riddles as part of
the parphenalia of grotesque realism: "the images of games
were seen as a condensed formula of life and the historic
process:  fortune, misfortune, gain and loss, crowning and
   The major short-coming of Bakhtin's work lies in his
attempt to describe a medieval tradition of grotesque
realism by referring enthusiastically, but vaguely, to the
Cena Cypriani (or perhaps merely to Paul Lehmann's
description of the poem), as well as to examples of
carnivals and banquets in general, with none of the
attention to detail that makes C.L. Barber's examination of
approximately the same tradition so much more satisfying(6).
In his haste to establish grotesque realism as the exclusive
province of folk-culture, he overlooks the abundant
occurences of these elements in, to name only major
examples, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the Roman de la
Rose, Alanus' Complaint of Nature, the six volumes of
fabliaux in Montaiglon's edition, and the prosodic exercises
for schoolboys, the comoediae, and in as unlikely a place as
the Middle English Gawain and the Green Knight.
   The first time I tried to test his scheme, I turned to
Gawain and the Green Knight.  Here to p. 67 of "Aspects"
then to bottom of p. 68, then stand aside to talk of
comoedia and the material on p. 69, and sum up the rest of
the article, with debasement of money and sex.
   However, the major examples in medieval literature are
Alanus and the Roman de la Rose.
   Philopsophical poets were accustomed to using genitalia
(Bernard, Alanus, Jean de Meun, comoediae) as part of
elaborate rhetorical, but earnest game; Wolfram does it in
   Bernardus Silvestris brings his Cosmographia to an end
with a description of sexual propagation as a natural,
life-affirming battle against fate and death. He provides
the phallus with no periphrastic euphemism, but uses the
same word that Catullus and Martial use -- mentula:
     The lower body ends in the wanton loins, and the
     private parts lie hidden away in the remote
     region. Their exercise will be enjoyable and
     profitable, so long as the time, the manner, and
     the extent are suitable. Lest earthly life pass
     away, and the process of generation be cut off,
     and material existence, dissolved, return to
     primordial chaos, propagation was made the charge
     of two genii, and the act itself assigned to twin
     brothers. They fight unconquered against death
     with their life-giving weapons, renew our nature,
     and perpetuate our kind. They will not allow what
     is perishable to perish, nor what dies to be
     wholly owed to death, nor mankind to wither
     utterly at the root. The phallus wars against
     Lachesis and carefully rejoins he vital threads
     severed by the hands of the Fates. Blood sent
     forth from the seat of the brain flows down to the
     loins, bearing the image of the shining sperm.
     Artful Nature molds and shapes the fluid, that in
     conceiving it may reproduce the forms of
Also in the twelfth century, Alain de Lille celebrated the
phallus, though in a more elaborate, excessive tone, in his
satiric Complaint of Nature.  The opening attack on
homosexuality speaks of transgressions of boundaries, in the
language of a school-teacher:
     The sex of active nature trembles shamefully at
     the way in which it declines into passive nature.
     Man is made woman, he blackens the honor of his
     sex, the craft of magic Venus makes him of double
     gender. He is both predicate and subject, he
     becomes likewise of two declensions, he pushes the
     laws of grammar too far. He, though made by
     Nature's skill, barbarously denies that he is a
Next he describes sexual activity in terms of a blacksmith's
     He strikes on an anvil which emits no sparks. The
     very hammer deforms its own anvil. The spirit of
     the womb imprints no seal on matter, but rather
     the plowshare plows along a sterile beach.
Alain is equally inspired when he describes the pleasures of
correct sexual behavior.
   The most excessive rhetorical exercise on the process of
reproduction occurs at the end of the Roman de la Rose, when
the lover deflowers the rose. Jean de Meun offers an
allegorical representation of the event, but he upsets the
convention entirely by using arranging for the allegorical
level to point not to some Christian truth, but to a
brutally biological transaction, complete with pain and
suffering.  Here use pp. 454 ff. of Robbins translation.
   For a trivial but amusing example, or reduction of what
Alanus, and Bernard of Chartres as well, do for the phallus,
see the attempts to teach students the elements of poetry,
in the twelfth century obscene verse narratives composed by
desperate school-masters.  In one of them, the Alda, the
heroine is seduced by a man disguised as a woman. When she
recovers from their first encounter, she declares that she
cannot find any adequate way to thank him, and, borrowing a
line from Horace's Art of Poetry, she asks for the lesson to
be repeated, ten times if possible.  She also asks where she
might find an instrument like the one which has just given
her so much pleasure. He replies that he bought it from a
merchant, that the price varies according to weight, and he
himself, a poor man, bought a very small one.  He goes on to
give even more specific details, as William of Blois warms
to his task.
   Here to Parzival, where the feeding is illustrated by
Herzeloyde's breast (pp. 194-195), its relation to Bernard
on the breasts sweeter than wine; then on to the debased
passage, where Gawain feasts his eyes on Antikonie, while
battling his enemies with a chess board and chess pieces;
consider also Parzival's abrupt feeding earlier in the poem,
p. 196, and the final notion of the Eucharist, as Leopold
Bloom intuited centuries later, "it's everybody feeding on
everybody else."
   For example, Walter Map's bitter satire on life of court
contains passages like this:
   A third illustration of the horrors of heterosexual life
occurs in the story of Alanus, king of the Britons (376ff.),
in which Walter gives violence, emasculation and blinding a
grotesquely ludic twist. Wigon is goaded by a remark made by
his wife into taking vengeance upon the Breton king Alanus,
his father-in-law, who had blinded and emasculated Wigon's
own father Remelin, the count of Laon:
     Contigit Wiganum cum uxore sua in scaccis ludentem
     ad maiores operas a suis vocari, liquitque loco
     suo fidelem sibi militem ut cum domina ludum illum
     fineret, et abscessit.  Cum ergo domina vicisset,
     ait militi secum ludentio: 'Non tibi, sed orbi
     filio mat.' Quod improperium Wiganus cum
     equanimiter ferre non posset, ad Alanum Rebrit
     properans inopinum invasit...
     Now it happened that Wigon when playing chess with
     his wife was called away by his courtiers to more
     important business, left in his place a loyal
     knight of his to finish the game with his lady,
     and withdrew. When then the lady had won, she said
     to the knight who was playing with her: 'Mate, not
     to you, but to the blind man's son.' This taunt
     Wigon was unable to put up with; he hastened off
     to Alan Rebrit and fell on him unprepared....
Wigon proceeds to capture, blind and emasculate his
father-in-law. Upon his return, he resumes his position at
the chessboard, and waits until he has won the game to
deliver his trophies of victory.  Like Walter Map himself,
Wigon adopts a jovial manner to mask his purpose; as he
tosses the eyes and genitalia of his father-in-law Alan onto
the chessboard, in front of his wife, who had had taunted
him into taking the vengeance, he uses her own words against
     Wiganus, ut plena glorietur, ulcione, ablatis
     secum in manica sinistra oculis et genitalibus
     Alani, celato et facto et proposito facie iocosa
     et hylari, domum reversus cum uxore considet ad
     scaccos, et obtento ludo super scaccarium
     genitalia et oculos proicit, dicens quod ab ipsa
     didicerat: 'Filie orbi dico mat.'
     Wigan, in order to boast his full revenge, carried
     off with him in his left sleeve Alan's eyes and
     privy parts, masked deed and purpose with a
     smiling merry face, returned home and sat down to
     chess with his wife; when he had won the game he
     cast both upon the board with the words he had
     learned from her -- 'Mate to the blind man's
The bitter irony about shared identity produces in his wife
no apparent emotion; instead, she smiles, quietly and
effectively plots revenge, both sexual and otherwise, with a
young and handsome aristocrat named Hoel, and Wigon himself
is killed, though with no graphic details, yet another
victim of a woman.
   For example, a medieval historical text might contain a
passage like this:
     King Cachanes was a very handsome man, and
     Romilda, much taken with his good looks, had such
     a great desire for him that she surrendered the
     city to him, on condition that she spend a night
     with him. She delivered the city in this manner.
     When he had captured the city, taken all the
     wealth, and enslaved the people, he lay one night
     with her, to fulfil his agreement.  After that, he
     gave her to twelve Slavs, who each, one after the
     other, took his pleasure with her, as though she
     were a common whore. Then he had a large, sharp
     stake placed in the ground and ordered that she be
     placed on its point. When she had been speared
     through the body as a reward for her behavior, he
     said: "This is the kind of husband you deserve."
     The example of the destruction of this foolish
     woman should be kept in mind. If this king was
     somewhat cruel and treacherous, nevertheless he
     showed very clearly by this deed that she who
     committed the treachery displeased him.  He
     thought that she would quickly have him killed, by
     treachery or by poison, if she stayed with him any
     longer, since she had betrayed her own children
     and her kin. Thus perished the treacherous woman,
     who desired the pleasures of the flesh more than
     the safety of her children and of the citizens of
     the city. Her daughters did not follow the example
     of their mother's lechery, but loved chastity, and
     because they did not wish to be corrupted or
     shamed, they took the stinking flesh of raw pigs
     and put it between their breasts, under their
     garments, relying on the stench and corruption of
     the rotting flesh to protect them against being
     touched by the barbarians. Exactly what they
     anticipated happened, for when these people
     foolishly wanted to touch them, they recoiled,
     because of the great stench of the rotten flesh,
     cursing them and saying that these Lombards all
     stank. Afterwards they were much honored, as was
     right, for having guarded the purity of their
     bodies and their chastity, for one became the
     queen of Germany, and the other became the duchess
     of Bavaria.
        Consider also the advice Theodoric's mother
     gives him when he is momentarily frightened in
     This Theodoric was so well made, and always
     so reliable, that he was one of the most
     valuable men of the emperor's court, for his
     intellect and for his prowess; he surpassed
     the others both in size and in strength and
     courage. The emperor liked him very much at
     that time, as did many senators, for his
     intellect and for his valor. When the
     messagers to the Romans came before the
     emperor, and he heard the reason for their
     trip, he sent them Theodoric, making him
     patrician and defender of all Italy. When he
     arrived, and the Romans had received him, he
     prepared his troops, and fought against
     Odoacer several times. One day, in fighting
     against him, he and his men were defeated,
     and he had to flee. He fled to Ravenna, where
     his mother ran to urge him to return to
     battle. But when she saw that he refused, and
     was afraid to return, she said to him:
     "Lovely son, believe me, you have no fortress
     nor hideaway where you may flee or hide
     yourself, unless I raise my skirt so that you
     may enter the house from which you issued at
     birth." When the young man heard this, he was
     outraged and shamed by his mother's words; he
     took courage, got together whatever of his
     men he could, and returned to the field of
Here, then the lower bodily stratum is used, as it is often,
to express anger, and its relationship to folk-culture seems
to be beside the point.
   Liudprand of Cremona, an historian and gossip-monger of
the 10th century, tells some stories in the Antapodosis that
offer symptoms of grotesque realism; the Priapic priest who
cuckolds king Berengar is castrated, as part of one of
Liudprand's antifemine routines (pp. 199-200). The Greek
woman who saves her husband from being castrated with a
rhetorical display, pp. 148-149. that. significantly,
generates laughter. See also pp. 150 ff. for Willa, who
saves her husband's jeweled belt by storing it in the lower
bodily stratum, and the poem that follows. Here the
judgement is on greed.
   Here to the fabliau about the man who could make female
genitalia speak, and the woman who successfully resisted
him, only to be betrayed by another part of the lower bodily
                      Menippean Satire
   In the fourteenth century, for example, two
allegorizations of Ovid's Metamorphoses offer good examples
of the Menippean form as Bakhtin describes it, with two
important elements missing, or not incontravertibly present,
however: the comic and the truly dialogic.  Otherwise, the
poems conform to most of Bakhtin's criteria, since they
contain fantastic, exceptional incidents, are not bound by
the requirements of external verisimilitude, show remarkable
inventions in plot and interpretation, combine comparatively
free fantasy, symbolism, and mystical-religious elements,
show a tri-level construction of heaven, earth, and hell,
investigate unusual pyschological states, contain scandalous
scenes, actions, words, offer sharp contrasts, and are
composed of other genres(8).  That they are "united by a
profound bond to carnavality," however, is not clear, since
the violent, erotic, troublesome material comes straight
from a Latin classic.
   If there is any sense in which they contain the
"dialogic" element, it would have to be the freedom of
interpretation contained in both the ovide moralise and in
Bersuire's Reductorium morale.  Juno may be interpreted
either as Mammon or Christ, Pentheus may be either Christ or
the Jews who persecute Christ, and many other antithetical
allegorizations of the same figure occur.
   Consider also Chaucer's Summoner, Miller, and Dante's
devils who greet each other with anal trumpet blasts.
   insert here material for Gawain and the Green Knight from
pp. 68 ff. of article.
   Satire's complex, radical concern with instinctual,
irrational impulses, and its connection with Saturnalian
license, then, combine with the provocative material offered
by Ovid's Metamorphoses to provide a playground more
expansive than that offered by any other classical text in
the middle ages.  Kevin and Marina Brownlee, Romance,
Hanover, 1985. PN663 R66 1985. For Segre and Stephen Nichols
on Bakhtin.
(1) Forma Futuri: studi in onore del Cardinale Michele
    Pellegrino, Torino, 1975, pp. 755 ff.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, Cambridge, 1968, p.
Ibid. 370.
(5) Ibid. p. 235.
(6) Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, Princeton, 1959.
(7) Aimon, borrowing from Orosius describing the Persians?
(8) This list is selected from M.M. Bakhtin, The Problems of
    Dostoievsky's Poetics, Ann Arbor, 1973, Chapter One.