BOOK REVIEW: Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature–Review by Micah Goodrich

Nicole Nolan Sidhu. Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Cloth. Pp. 320. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4804-3

In Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature, Nicole Nolan Sidhu examines the role of obscenity in critiquing sociopolitical attitudes in the late Middle Ages. The great strength of this work is the application of a wide-ranging discourse to examine ideologies consistent with and influencing major political medieval authors writing in Middle English. The book begins with a robust introduction that outlines the context of a literary phenomenon that Sidhu calls “obscene comedy” (2) and does good work to extend obscenity in Middle English literature as a “discourse rather than a genre or a lexicon” (4). To set this up Sidhu mentions Michél Foucault’s “discursive formation” (4) but offers little more by way of theoretical models until the end of the introduction. Moving from the larger context of Old French fabliaux to the insular experience of obscene comedy in England, Sidhu creates a focused profile of her archive and project. The overarching goal of the book is to locate a specific relationship between obscene comedy and political critique among late medieval English authors and texts. In positioning that medieval attitudes toward medieval sex and sexuality are not wholly different from modern attitudes, Sidhu marks out a clear political purpose to look to obscenity in medieval texts as an entry point into a wider discussion of sociopolitical perspectives on taboo topics. Indeed, Sidhu notes the etymological applicability of obscaena as “offstage” (15-17) to medieval literary texts that present an idea, figure, object, etc. that is “hidden in plain sight” (17). This allows Sidhu to engage with texts across demarcated genre boundaries, specifically texts outside fabliaux, bringing into view the political uses of the indecent, uncouth, and obscene.

Obscenity is crucial to uncover in medieval texts as its comedic and serious iterations are used to reinforce hierarchies of power while simultaneously denigrating marginalized groups. Sidhu writes that modern scholars may be able to reconcile what is “censorious and unselfconsciously obscene” in medieval literary culture “if we make a distinction between what a culture regards as obscene and what it regulates” (22). This is where Sidhu briefly draws upon Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of medieval “carnival,” a theory that affirms rather than subverts political and social hierarchies, and refocuses her discussion on Foucault’s notion of changeable and unstable discourse. This may endorse and sustain sociopolitical hierarchies, but it “also has the capacity to undermine that order” (29).

The book is separated into two parts with five total chapters. All chapters focus on a late medieval author with the exception of the final chapter devoted to biblical drama. Part I, “Fourteenth-Century Pioneers,” hosts two chapters that stake out the contributions of Langland’s Piers Plowman and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Legend of Good Women in paving the road for obscene comedic writing as a political critique. Chapter 1 asks how obscene comedy is used in the most intellectually charged passages of Piers Plowman. Sidhu argues that “Langland’s evocation of the discourse always aligns with those moments when his interrogation of authority, particularly secular authority, is most aggressive” (36). Looking at three crucial passages, Lady Mede, the third vision with Dame Study, and the impotence vignette, Sidhu recalibrates Langland’s political agenda as one that is obscure. Piers Plowman already is a supremely challenging and abstruse text, so the application of obscene comedy to the text does not necessarily reveal what is supposedly “hidden” in Langland’s work. Obscene comedy, however, does take on Langland’s use of gender in the poem, and the analysis of Dame Study was particularly enriching. Chapter 2 investigates the use of obscene comedy and fabliaux politics in fragment one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as well as the Legend of Good Women. Most importantly for this chapter, Sidhu repurposes the discomforting spectral violence of the Reeve’s Tale as it looms over the first fragment. She correctly notes that the Chaucer extends the fabliaux formula in Reeve’s Tale to reframe the tales told by the Knight and the Miller by suggesting that the “militaristic ethos” of the Reeve’s Tale shows that violence between men to achieve honor – at the expense of both women and other men – sits at the center of late medieval chivalric culture. Chaucer is able to do this by reinterpreting obscene comedy through “violating fabliau convention.” He “ruins fabliau pleasures” and “corrects for the fabliau’s political failings” (79) by using classical tradition, specifically Statius’s Thebaid and Ariadne, where a daughter’s willingness to undo her father is atypical of fabliaux but often appears in classical tradition. Aligning the story of Ariadne in the Legend of Good Women with the Reeve’s Tale, Sidhu shows that obscene comedy as a discourse is strengthened when combined with other genres and traditions. Although there is not much time spent on the Legend of Good Women, the examination of Chaucer’s gender politics remains the great success of this chapter.

Part II, “Fifteenth-Century Heirs,” hosts three chapters that mark the literary progeny of Langland and Chaucer’s work. Chapter 3 focuses on the writing of John Lydgate and his unexpected use of the discourse of obscene comedy, specifically in the Mumming at Hertford. In an attempt to reform royal authority to address the changes in socioeconomic conditions of the fifteenth century, Lydgate’s Mumming at Hertford shows lower-rank spouses addressing the king. Lydgate himself was a laureate poet to the Lancastrian family and the Mumming at Hertford was presented to King Henry VI. Sidhu suggests that Lydgate’s appreciation of Chaucer infiltrates his own work in discreet but palpable ways, although Lydgate is less inclined to use obscene comedy to demand change or expose political corruption. The way in which Lydgate intersects with the discourse of obscene comedy is through misogyny. His few instances of using obscene comedy occur in his laureate texts, and Sidhu recognizes this as Lydgate’s attempt to reimagine politics as an “all-male political community” (115). Chapter 4 examines the Book of Margery Kempe and explores the fabliaux tropes of marital contention and the unruly wife in order to locate the Book’s comedic impulses. Sidhu’s objective in this chapter is to expose the Book’s use of obscene comedy as a rhetorical device in grappling with issues of gender, sexuality, and power in a male-dominated Christian society. The Book, perhaps more than the other texts under consideration in Indecent Exposure, is concerned with the increasing domination of Church power over bodies that are entitled to participate in spirituality. The possibilities that the discourse of obscene comedy opens up, specifically for a female figure, points to a space for literary anarchy in the medieval period. The final chapter discusses women, marriage, and death in biblical drama. The pageants are not stable entities; these are sites where, as Ruth Evans has demonstrated, “meaning can be contested” (189). Late medieval biblical drama repurposes the discourse of obscene comedy, of misogyny and unruly women, to reinstate the role of women into the familial order. In many ways the focus on the biblical dramas opens up new ways of using a literary discourse to interrogate boundaries of genre, as well as identifying a behind-the-scenes critique of social and political culture.

The conclusion asks us to consider the roles of medieval obscenity and modern pornography as explicit and anarchic expressions of social and political commentary. That obscenity occupies a marginal space in public discourse; the utility of bringing private thoughts into a public sphere in major political texts (Piers Plowman, Mumming at Hertford, biblical pageants publicly performed) complicates the place of crude humor in mainstream conversations. Methodologically successful, Sidhu’s book shows that the application of a discourse, a mode of thinking, can help us to pair texts, genres, and literary histories differently. Nicole Nolan Sidhu’s Indecent Exposure is quite compelling for scholars working with gender, sexuality, and politics in the medieval period.

Micah Goodrich

Micah Goodrich is a PhD candidate in Medieval Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is working on early and late Middle English literature with a focus on dream, debate, and dialogic literature. His research includes the rhetoric of erotics, labor and production, abjection, and queer theory.