Whiteley, Lucy C.
Touching the hero: bodies, boundaries and blood in the Old French Cycle des Narbonnais.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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The poems of the Old French Cycle des Narbonnais are highly concerned with touch, paying close attention to who touches whom first in greetings, who is authorised to perform certain symbolic touches and, reading violence as a radical version of touch, whose touch is victorious in battle. Modern sociologists suggest that touching follows lines
of social prestige; however, by employing a performative approach to identity, overlaid with a psychoanalytic interpretation of the subject’s relationship with the Other, I argue that regulated patterns of touch in the poems iterate and maintain heroic identity. Of course, an identity forged in this way is problematic, for touch both creates and erases the difference upon which performative identity depends, and I argue that violence erupts as a
result of this paradox. By thus linking touch, violence and identity, I ask questions about the nature of violence itself, making this a relevant study in a world that is getting out of touch, yet is riven by violent conflict.
I demonstrate that within the community of knights with which the poems concern themselves, there is a shared language of touch that creates bonds between those men,
excluding those who are ineligible: women, peasants, children and Saracens. The ritualised public touch of the dubbing ceremony marks the knight’s entry into this community, and announces his willingness to kill its enemies. Now his prowess, honour and self-worth –
his heroic identity – will be figured through his ability to destroy outsiders whilst remaining inviolate. His violent touching of the Other is a means to safeguard his own body against the Other’s traumatic touch, yet it also necessitates proximity with an enemy that troublingly mirrors his own values and achievements. As anxiety provoked by disintegrating subjective boundaries worsens, violence escalates and knights battle mercilessly, until as one poem describes, ‘de lor sanc cort li ruz contre val’ (‘the river of their blood ran down the valley’, Les Narbonnais, l. 3952).
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