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Désir n’a repos

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Florence Bouchet
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Danièle James-Raoul

Normes, histoire et anthropologie

Relative Roles in Medieval Incest Stories: Fathers and Daughters

Elizabeth Archibald

Texte intégral

  • 1 P. Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822, ed. F. L. Jones, Oxford, (...)
  • 2 See S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Acad (...)
  • 3 O. Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, t (...)

1The English Romantic poet Shelley remarked in a letter to a friend that « incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance »1. Just as incest taboos in some form are found in every society, and always have been, stories about incest are found throughout the world and throughout the centuries in a range of literature including in myths, legends, folktales, ballads, epic, romance, hagiography, and chronicles2. Sometimes they are cosmologies in which the incestuous partners are gods or the first humans; sometimes the threat of incest motivates the travels of the protagonist; sometimes incestuous birth marks an important hero, king or saint: well-known examples include Gregorius, Siegfried and the Irish hero Cuchulain3 ; sometimes incest is part of a series of disasters afflicting a family or dynasty – the most famous example is Oedipus, of course. But there were also fashions in incest narratives, it seems: certain types of plot are found in classical literature but not in the Middle Ages, others in medieval literature but not in classical literature, others again are very popular in ballads in the early modern period but not so popular in the Middle Ages.

2In this essay I ask some questions about the particular forms of incest story which were circulating in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and the forms which are noticeably absent, and I speculate about the reasons for the popularity or unpopularity of certain themes. I am especially interested in the kinds of incestuous liaison which were most often described – that is, the precise relationship between the incestuous partners and the extent of their knowledge of what they are doing. This is a huge topic, so I shall focus on two types of father-daughter incest narrative: those where the father does actually sleep with his daughter (whether or not either is aware of their relationship), and those where the horrified daughter runs away or is exiled for rejecting his advances. Classical literature and legend offer many examples of knowingly incestuous fathers, but no fleeing daughters; medieval literature has many fleeing daughters, and some fathers who seduce their daughters knowingly; but in both periods unwitting father-daughter incest is extremely rare. Consummated father-daughter incest is never central to the plot of an extended narrative in the Middle Ages, but appears quite frequently in exemplary texts. How can we explain these literary trends?

  • 4 Patrologie Latine, 3: 337. « Thus you weave a tale of incest, without even realizing it » (...)

3In classical mythology and legend, paternal incestuous desire usually involves consummation, and the daughters do not run away. Sometimes the daughter desires her own father, like Myrrha (he was unaware that he was sleeping with his daughter). Sometimes she is used as a pawn in a larger dynastic struggle: Thyestes is directed by an oracle to seduce his daughter Pelopia in order to beget a son destined to avenge him on his brother Atreus. Daughters who have been seduced by their fathers usually die violently: Pelopia commits suicide; Harpalyce cooks her son (or possibly her brother) for her father Clymenus, and is killed by him when he finds out. Metamorphosis is another option for incestuous daughters: Myrrha becomes a myrrh tree; Nyctimene is turned into an owl. What we do not find in classical literature, it seems, are the motifs of the father who seduces his unrecognized daughter, and the daughter who flees her father’s advances. The Oedipus plot is well known all around the world, and the father-daughter equivalent certainly exists too – but not in classical literature, and very rarely in medieval stories. This seems strange to me. The early Christian writer Minucius Felix claims that unwitting incest is inevitable when morals are so loose, and when unwanted children are regularly exposed: sic incesti fabulam nectitis, etiam cum conscientiam non habetis4.

  • 5 See J. Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe f (...)
  • 6 Geoffrey Chaucer, « The Legend of Good Women », in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson (...)
  • 7 M. Frisch, Homo Faber, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1957; Voyager, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, (...)
  • 8 The Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2002. URL: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3582792/Spirits-of-the-age.html>.

4No doubt both boys and girls were exposed in the Middle Ages, as in the classical world5. Yet in both classical and medieval literature, it is almost always male children who are exposed, rather than female, and it is usually foundling boys who unknowingly marry their mothers, rather than daughters who marry their fathers. In real life, it must surely have been fairly unusual for a woman of thirty or forty to marry a boy of fifteen or twenty – who is indeed young enough to be her son – and more so for a teenage boy to fall in love with a woman who is indeed old enough to be his mother. When Chaucer’s Wife of Bath describes her impetuous marriage for love at forty to a twenty-year-old clerk, she makes it sound very unusual6. On the other hand, older men in both classical and medieval society certainly married much younger women, especially if they were anxious to produce heirs, or if the younger women were rich heiresses or politically significant; so it would be quite plausible for a man to be attracted by a younger woman who turns out to be his longlost daughter. There are hints of this scenario in classical drama. In Euripides’ lost Alcmaeon, for instance, the hero buys his unrecognized daughter and narrowly avoids committing incest with her. Similar situations arise in New Comedy: in Plautus’ Rudens a father meets his longlost daughter in a brothel and is very attracted to her, but disaster is averted by a timely recognition scene. If the Oedipus scenario was so appealing as a plot, why should not the father-daughter equivalent have been just as powerful and moving? Modern authors have found it perfectly plausible: an example is Max Frisch’s powerful novel Homo Faber (made into an equally powerful film, Voyager)7. Truth is often stranger than fiction: some years ago a reputable English newspaper (The Daily Telegraph) reported that an Israeli on holiday at the Red Sea sent for a prostitute to come to his hotel room, and had a heart attack when he opened the door and saw his own daughter8!

  • 9 Marie de France, Lais, ed. K. Warnke, tr. L. Harf-Lancner, Paris, Librairie Générale, coll (...)
  • 10 Hrólfs Saga Kraka, ed. D. Slay, København, E. Munksgaard, 1960. King Hrolf and His Champio (...)

5Medieval writers also seem to have been uninterested in this plot, though they certainly made much use of the Oedipus theme (Gregorius is the best known example, but there are numerous other versions). Marriage with an unrecognized relative usually involves a foundling, exposed as a baby to save a parent from some kind of shame or prophesied disaster; such babies are almost always boys, in both the classical and the medieval world. A rare example of a female foundling is Marie de France’s Fraisne, but in her story the incest is displaced: her lover puts her aside to marry a girl who turns out to be Fraisne’s longlost twin sister, so Fraisne marries her lover, and another husband is found for the sister9. I am only aware of one medieval narrative of a father marrying his unrecognized daughter, in the Old Norse saga of Hrólf10. Here King Helgi abducts and marries Yrsa, who is the product of his earlier rape of a German queen, but has been rejected by her mother and raised by peasants. When the girl is grown up, she encounters her father, who carries her off and marries her; both are quite unaware of their relationship. Hrólf is their son. Much later the malicious Queen Olof tells her daughter the truth. Yrsa is horrified and leaves Helgi; she marries again, but Helgi wants her back, and is killed in the attempt. This saga survives only in a seventeenth-century manuscript, but was composed much earlier, and the story seems to be set in a pre-Christian era. There is no reference to the spiritual danger of the incestuous couple; Helgi wants to continue their marriage, but his death is not presented as punishment for his immorality. The plot may well be derived from a popular oral tale, yet it seems to have no analogues in medieval Europe. Here the incest is part of the background story of the birth of the hero, Hrólf, and does not appear to have any effect on his subsequent career. It is striking how differently father and daughter react here; the story probably dates from the pre-Christian era, and contrition and penance are not an issue, as they are in many medieval incest stories.

  • 11 See E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991, p. 1 (...)
  • 12 See B. Murdoch, Gregorius: An Incestuous Saint in Medieval Europe and Beyond, Oxford, Oxfo (...)
  • 13 A possible exception is St. Metro, who does penance for a mysterious and unspecified sin, (...)

6The motif of unrecognized father-daughter incest does appears in some early Renaissance versions of the popular medieval exemplum of the mother who sleeps with her adolescent son and gets pregnant11. In most medieval versions the mother kills the child of her incest at birth, and only when she confesses this infanticide can she die saved. But in the versions told by Luther, Bandello and Marguerite de Navarre (ch. 30 of the Heptaméron), the child of this incest, a daughter, is sent away by her mother to be reared elsewhere; when she is grown up, inevitably she meets her brother/father and marries him without either of them knowing the truth. Their mother realises with horror what has happened, but her confessors order that the innocent children should not be told or separated; it is she alone who must do penance. Though this father-daughter (and also sibling) incest is shocking, it is only a minor aspect of the plot, however, and is not included in the medieval versions (in the « Dit du Buef » father and daughter do meet later, but there is no sexual relationship, and all three do penance together); in all the variants the main focus is on the incestuous mother, and whether she will repent and confess. In the exemplary lives of various holy men, it is mother-son incest that causes the peripeteia and sets the protagonist on the road to penance, absolution, and spiritual success, as in the stories of Gregorius and Albanus, for instance12. Sometimes the saintly protagonist is the product of father-daughter incest (e. g. Albanus), but in these cases both are well aware of their relationship, and it is only the prelude to the more shocking mother-son marriage. I do not know any such story in which the protagonist is converted to a pious life by the discovery that he has slept with his unrecognized daughter13.

  • 14 A. K. Ramanujan, « The Indian Oedipus », in L. Edmunds and A. Dundes (ed.), Oedipus: A Fol (...)
  • 15 I summarize the tradition very briefly here; for further discussion with plot summaries an (...)

7Medieval writers and audiences were much more interested in stories of marriageable daughters who are forced to leave home when their fathers try to seduce or marry them. This Flight from the Incestuous Father is also found in many other parts of the world, in forms such as the folktale Catskin and Peau d’Âne, one branch of the Cinderella tradition; Ramanujan comments on Indian folklore that « Dozens of tales open with the flight of the daughter from the lecherous father-figure »14. We may be rather alarmed by the popularity of this grim story in the Middle Ages: sometimes the horrified daughter flees of her own volition, sometimes she is exiled by her furious father when she rejects him, and in both cases she may have one or both hands cut off (they are of course miraculously restored at the end of the narrative). The earliest known Latin version is in the Vitae Duorum Offarum, an historical narrative attributed to Matthew Paris and written about 125015. Around this time more elaborate vernacular versions began to be produced incorporating the Accused Queen motif (written ones – no doubt the plot already circulated orally): among the earliest are Beaumanoir’s La Manekine (probably around 1240), and Mai und Beaflor (around 1260). Latin and vernacular versions of the Flight from the Incestuous Father continued to be produced throughout the later Middle Ages in Latin and many vernaculars: some present the story as a sort of romance, some as an exemplum, some as a miracle of the Virgin, some as history, and it appears in chronicles and hagiography. There are two main questions to be asked: are there any classical sources or analogues for this motif, and why was it so popular in the Middle Ages?

  • 16 Die Pseudoklementinen, vol. 2, Rekognitionen in Rufins Übersetzung, ed. B. Rehm and F. Pas (...)

8The first question is easier to answer than the second: there are no direct classical sources known to me. The only possible analogues I know are both very late, and differ in important ways from the standard medieval narrative. One is overtly Christian, the separated family narrative embedded in the Clementine Recognitions (a source of the medieval Crescentia plot)16:

The virtuous Mattidia, mother of St Clement, leaves home with one of her sons to avoid the incestuous advances of her brother-in-law; her husband sets out to look for her with their other sons, but all are separated. They are only reunited years later through the agency of St Peter, who is able to reassure the suspicious husband of his wife’s virtue (the wicked brother had claimed that she propositioned him, and then ran off with a slave). After Mattidia’s initial flight, her adventures consist only of living patiently in poverty for many years, gnawing her hands to the bone, till St Peter realizes who she is and brings about the family reunion (he also converts the pagan members of the family).

Here we have a familiar pattern of family separation and reunion – but familiar from medieval and Renaissance texts, not from earlier classical narratives. The context is obviously Christian, and the main point is St Peter’s role in converting the heathen. The earliest surviving texts are fourth century AD, but they are derived from a second- or third-century original, which may in turn go back to a pagan source. However, the incestuous aggressor is a brother-in-law, not a father, so the story is less shocking; and Mattidia undergoes no adventures or ordeals or journeys, but stays in one place in poverty for many years until Peter finds her.

  • 17 See E. Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations, Camb (...)

9The other late classical analogue, a much more influential one, is the story of Apollonius of Tyre, which is dominated by fathers and daughters17. We see here many elements of the Flight from the Incestuous Father story, but rearranged and displaced. At the beginning the widowed King Antiochus rapes his daughter: she makes no attempt to flee (though she does briefly contemplate suicide) – instead it is her wooer Apollonius who flees when he discovers the king’s dark secret. When Apollonius is shipwrecked he meets another king who is very kind to his daughter, and allows her to marry the destitute stranger. She is abandoned at sea in a coffin, but because she has been wrongly diagnosed as dying in childbirth, rather than falsely accused. The grieving Apollonius leaves their newborn daughter with foster parents: there is no wicked mother-in-law or forged letter. Instead there is a wicked stepmother who attempts to assassinate the girl, who is then carried off by pirates and sold to a brothel-keeper. When father and daughter meet at the end, they are mysteriously drawn to each other: the shadow of possible incest may be present, but there is no explicit sexual attraction, and the speedy recognition prevents any serious danger. The role of the female protagonist can be seen as divided between the initially innocent victim of incest, who then becomes guiltily complicit; the innocent wife who is mistakenly abandoned in an unintended exile; and the innocent daughter who is persecuted by a mother figure but not slandered, and then forcibly taken from her home by pirates. There are many sea journeys and arrivals in strange lands, as in the medieval Flight from Incest Stories, but the reunions and recognition scenes function very differently.

  • 18 Aesop without Morals, ed. and tr. L. W. Daly, New York and London, Yoseloff, 1961, p. 90.

10But where does the Apollonius story come from? It has almost no Christian elements. The earliest extant Latin versions are fifth century, but may well be based on an earlier Greek source. How many legendary or literary characters in classical literature run away from the threat of incest? The only ones I know are Caunus, who flees from his sister Byblis and founds a city in Turkey, Mattidia who flees from her brother-in-law, and Apollonius, who flees not from a threat to himself but from the discovery of the incestuous relationship of the princess he is wooing. There are plenty of daughters who are seduced by their own fathers in classical myth and literature, but none averts this disaster by running away. A tantalizing possibility is raised by one variant of the Life of Aesop. When Aesop is about to be thrown over a cliff by the Delphians, he tells them one last story18:

« A man fell in love with his own daughter, and suffering from this wound, he sent his wife off to the country and forced himself upon his daughter. She said: “Father, this is an unholy thing you are doing. I would rather have submitted to a hundred men than to you.” This is the way I feel toward you, men of Delphi. I would rather drag my way through Syria, Phoenicia, and Judaea than die at your hands here, where one would least expect it. » But they did not change their minds.

  • 19 B. E. Perry, Studies in the Text History of the Life and Fables of Aesop, Haverford, PA, A (...)

This variant appears in a thirteenth-century manuscript (W), and Perry argues that it is based on a much earlier text, probably going back to an original written between 100 BC and 200 AD. He comments on the incest episode in a tantalizingly provocative way19:

Can it be that we have in W only the beginning of the original tale? The father’s attack upon his daughter, together with the allusion to travel in Syria and Phoenicia, reminds one of the romance of Apollonius of Tyre, or (less precisely) of Matthidia in the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (VII.15); hence, it is not difficult to imagine that the story which Aesop told the Delphians on this occasion related to some young woman who had wandered about in voluntary exile suffering many hardships in order to avoid the incestuous advances of her own father at home. Such a story would be relevant to Aesop’s situation – in danger at the very shrine of the Muses – and at the same time would account for the otherwise meaningless allusion to foreign travels.

This is only a hypothesis, however. It may not be difficult to imagine – but we are forced to imagine it, since there are no extant classical versions of such a story of the wanderings of an innocent victim of incestuous desire.

11Why were classical writers apparently not interested in the Flight from the Incestuous Father scenario? Perhaps they had a different concept of the female protagonist. In many classical incest stories, the female victim of a brother’s or father’s lust is generally a marginal, passive character, and the main plot deals with the men in the family. These stories seem to emphasize the inevitability of cause and effect, the way that « violent delights have violent ends » (as Shakespeare puts it in Romeo and Juliet, 2.6.9), so their effectiveness is considerably diminished if the objects of incestuous desire run away, as Caunus does from Byblis; and prophesied destiny is not to be avoided. Furthermore, classical writers were not very interested in the ordeals of vulnerable heroines travelling alone, it seems. It is true that the heroines of the Hellenistic novels typically survive an astonishing series of ordeals in locations all around the Mediterranean, but they never run away from a threat of incest, and the adventures are usually intertwined with the equally melodramatic vicissitudes of the hero.

  • 20 M. Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth, 2e ed., London, Duckworth, 2007, p. 131, and id., Heroi (...)
  • 21 J. J. Winkler, « The Invention of Romance », in J. Tatum (ed.), The Search for the Novel, (...)
  • 22 N. Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of The Structure of Romance, Cambridge, MA, Harvar (...)
  • 23 See the comments of d’Arco Silvio Avalle in his introduction to A. N. Veselofskij, La Fanc (...)
  • 24 Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu, in Oeuv (...)

12Mary Lefkowitz has argued that it was Christianity which emphasized the dangers of female sexuality, whereas it was female intelligence that was feared in the pre-Christian classical world, Medea rather than Helen; and heroines who take action like men tend to be self-destructive, she argues20. Jack Winkler, writing about the Hellenistic romances, argues that before the Hellenistic period Greek literature is not interested in « eros leading to gamos », but rather in eros as a dangerous and destructive force21. The wanderings of a persecuted heroine are only of interest in relation to larger issues: so Iphigeneia among the Taurians is important because of the rest of her family, and Io is interesting as the object of Zeus’s lust and Hera’s jealousy, but not really on her own account (she tends to turn up in the context of some important male figure, such as Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, where he prophesies her destiny, with the emphasis on her descendants). Danae does move on from her shower of gold phase to be besieged by an unwelcome suitor, from whom she escapes to Italy, where she founds Ardea and becomes the ancestress of Turnus; but again we know about her because of her famous descendant and her marginal role in the founding of the Roman Empire, not her own experiences or qualities. In later classical texts, the Greek novels, the Clementine Recognitions, and the story of Psyche in Apuleius’ Golden Ass, we do begin to get a focus on a suffering woman for her own sake, not because of her relations or political destiny. Northrop Frye has noted that « with the rise of the romantic ethos, heroism came to be increasingly thought of in terms of suffering, endurance and patience… This is also the ethos of the Christian myth »22. A recent critic has pointed out that the fashion for such stories can be traced on through the centuries to the work of de Sade, though his unhappy heroines do not succeed in preserving their chastity as the medieval heroines do23. A comment made by de Sade in the introduction to Justine is equally applicable to the medieval stories, and gives a partial explanation for their popularity: « Ô combien ces tableaux du crime me rendent fière d’aimer la vertu! Comme elle est sublime dans les larmes! Comme les malheurs l’embellissent! »24

  • 25 See C. Roussel, Conter de geste au XIVe siècle: Inspiration folklorique et écriture épique (...)
  • 26 Roussel, Conter de geste au XIVe siècle…, op. cit., p. 426.

13In the medieval Flight from Incest stories, the heroine travels far from home, but remains fairly passive. It is quite unusual in medieval romance generally for a heroine to take central stage, and to wander through Europe having adventures. What kind of adventures can a woman have that would compare with those of a young knight, unless she crossdresses (in Yde et Olive and the English adaptation, an incestuous father is the catalyst for Yde’s flight, cross-dressing and chivalric success)25. What kind of talents can a wandering heroine display? Beauty and chastity are the chief female virtues in these texts, and so a story of an innocent virgin driven from her home by her father’s incestuous desire, and persecuted because of her beauty, would clearly appeal to a medieval romancier. But such a story also had much to offer the didactic writer. Medieval Christianity was enormously concerned with physical and sexual purity; in some exempla incest is understood to represent original sin. One can see, therefore, how the ordeals of the daughter who flees her incestuous father would have enormous exemplary value. Roussel argues persuasively that the Flight from Incest motif found popularity because of its representation of a virginal, patient and passive heroine26. Unjustly persecuted by lustful men, she is the personification of Virtue beleaguered by Vice in the fallen world. Women, as daughters of Eve, were both morally weak themselves and notorious temptresses too. Therefore accounts of virtuous women who resisted sexual temptation and trusted in God to save them from male lust were especially useful exemplary material.

  • 27 Études sur le théâtre français du XIVe et du XVe siècle: La Comédie sans titre et les Mira (...)
  • 28 See Chapter 4, « Fathers and Daughters », in E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagina (...)

14An exception that proves the rule about the lack of classical interest in the Flight from the Incestuous Father theme is the little known but fascinating Latin play Comoedia sine nomine, sometimes cited as Columpnarium. It consists of seven acts of fairly erudite Latin prose, and survives in a single copy, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale Lat. 8163, probably written in the later fourteenth century27. It is a classicizing adaptation of a plot which was very popular in the Middle Ages, combining the themes of the Flight from an Incestuous Father and the Falsely Accused Queen28:

(I) The dying queen of the Carilli makes her husband King Emolphus swear only to marry a woman who looks exactly like her. He sends the court painters to travel the world and record possible candidates. (II) The people urge Emolphus to remarry; Princess Hermionides’ nurse rashly remarks that her charge is the image of her dead mother. The king falls passionately in love with his daughter and decides to marry her. (III) Hermionides is horrified and wants to die. The nurse plots to save her: she persuades the king to delay the wedding until the gods have been placated, and escapes with the princess to Phocis. (IV) There they are taken in by Sophia, an old friend of the nurse and expert needlewoman. Hermionides is seen by the local king, Orestes, who falls madly in love with her. He sends Aphrodissa, a bawd, to negotiate their union, and they are secretly married.
(V) Orestes’ mother, Queen Olicomesta, is furious, as her son had foreseen. Orestes leaves for a tournament at Athens to pursue glory at Hermionides’ urging, even though she is pregnant. (VI) When she bears a fine son, the messenger Epiphanius stays with Olicomesta en route to Athens, and while he is drunk the clever maid Pharia substitutes a letter announcing that the baby is an Ethiopian monster. This news makes Orestes sad, but he orders mother and child to be well looked after until his return. Again Epiphanius stops chez Olicomesta, and the letter is changed to order the killing of mother and baby. The faithful seneschal Coelius exposes the baby in a watertight cradle, and sends Hermionides into exile.
(VII) The baby in its richly equipped cradle is found by Achironeus, a poor fisherman. He wants to adopt the child, but first consults the oracle of Apollo on Parnassus, after discussing the matter with his friend Amyclas. Their conversation is overheard by Orestes and his counsellor Regulus, who are on their way back from Athens, suspicious of recent events. Coelius too is suspicious and discovers the forged letter trick, which he reveals to Orestes and Regulus. Meanwhile Hermionides, wandering on Parnassus, meets a shepherd who urges her to consult the oracle. All the main characters then make for the oracle: Hermionides meets Achironeus the fisherman, hears his story, recognizes the baby as hers, and manages to recover him. The nurse, Orestes and Coelius all overhear their conversation: Hermionides and Orestes are reunited. News arrives that Olicomesta and her maid are dead. The nurse announces that Emolphus is dead and that Hermionides has inherited the kingdom.

  • 29 See L. Muir, Love and Conflict in Medieval Drama: The Plays and their Legacy, Cambridge, C (...)
  • 30 Comoedia sine nomine, II. 6, p. 45

15There is no known precedent for this classical version of the familiar plot. Great care has been taken to rework the story, with much arcane detail and borrowing from classical authors: the heroine Hermionides marries King Orestes, but his advisers have Roman names, Regulus and Coelius, and other names are borrowed from Virgil and Roman historians (there is even a Cornelius Tacitus). The choice of the Flight from Incest may seem surprising for a learned Latin play, but the Comoedia is not the only dramatized version of this hugely popular plot, though it has numerous unique features: for instance, there is an elaborate sixteenth-century Italian play about Santa Uliva, based on a fifteenth-century poem29. But where the Uliva play seems to have been intended for public performance, it is less likely that the Comoedia was ever actually performed. It is a coterie play, produced for the circle around Cardinal Colonna, patron of Petrarch, for an audience well acquainted with classical literature and particularly interested in Roman comedy; perhaps it was read aloud, or used by schoolboys. What is significant for my argument here is that this classicizing play does what no classical author had done in giving an elaborate account of the Flight from the Incestuous Father. It is ironic that when the nurse first realizes what Emolphus has in mind and goes to see Hermionides, she finds the girl embroidering a story chosen by her father. The nurse recognizes it as « de scelesto qui filiam… » (the wicked man who — his daughter)30. Yes, says the princess innocently. A classical reader would presumably have deciphered this clue as indicating consummated incest to come, assuming that the missing verb was something like stupravit or rapuit, whereas the medieval reader would understand something like adulterium comitere voluit (the title of the fourteenth-century Ystoria regis Franchorum version of the story), and would expect a plot involving flight from an incestuous father.

  • 31 See Roussel, idem, p. 126-129.
  • 32 For an excellent overview of the problem of origins, see Roussel, idem, p. 132-40. He cite (...)

16There seems every reason to think that the Flight from Incest motif was well-known, and popular, before the twelfth century, when the first medieval written versions appear. Both the Apollonius story and the Clementine Recognitions were circulating in writing during the early Middle Ages, and there must have been oral versions too. The relationship between oral folk literature and sophisticated written literature is of course a very complex one. In some cases it is clear that a written text has circulated in oral form and has become simplified, or misunderstood; in other cases folk tales are taken up by sophisticated writers and are assimilated into the written culture. The versions of the Flight from Incest told by Straparola as Histoire du roi Thibaud in his Piacevoli Notti, written in the mid-sixteenth-century, and by Basile as Penta and L’Orsa in his slightly later Pentamerone certainly suggest a folk origin31. It has been argued that the Flight from Incest plot was introduced into Western Europe from the Byzantine world in the twelfth or thirteenth century. It is possible, I suppose, that the changes we see in Straparola and Basile were made by storytellers who were adapting the more sophisticated written versions for popular tastes; but it seems to me more likely that the folk versions were circulating orally throughout the Middle Ages, and that their literary potential was recognized in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by both clerical and courtly writers. Separated families, forgotten or suppressed identity, and recognition scenes were important themes in the new and popular vernacular genre of romance, which also of course was immensely interested in all forms of passionate love, bad as well as good. M. Roussel suggests that the Flight from Incest story may have found favour in the later Middle Ages because it expressed, at least partially, « l’experience féminine du désir » (in the phrase of M. Poirion); but to me these stories seem notable for their lack of feminine desire32. The heroine is desired by various men, but it is not clear that she feels much desire even for her husband, and the fleeing daughters certainly do not desire their incestuous fathers.

  • 33 See for instance F. C. Tubach, Index exemplorum; a handbook of medieval religious tales, H (...)
  • 34 Comoedia sine nomine, II. 1, p. 34.
  • 35 An earlier version of this essay was given at a conference organized by Danielle Bohler in (...)

17Cautionary tales of incest, both father-daughter and mother-son, are quite frequent in exemplary collections and hagiography, but it is usually consummated incest (sometimes followed by infanticide or murder), so that the main issue is whether the sinner (s) will confess or die damned. Incestuous mothers usually do confess; incestuous fathers do not33. For Christian didactic purposes, any form of consummated incest would do, but parent-child is clearly more shocking than sibling. Stories of incest with an unrecognized parent or child might be considered somewhat less effective in didactic terms: intention was an important aspect of sin. But incest is often represented as standing for original sin, for instance in moralizations in the Gesta Romanorum. One would have thought that both scenarios, unrecognized father-daughter and unrecognized mother-son, would have been equally appealing to writers of romance and extended saints’ lives, and also to classical writers of tales about cause and effect, and inexorable destiny. I can offer no satisfactory explanation for the curious lack of the unrecognized father-daughter motif in both classical and medieval literature. In the Comoedia sine nomine the widowed Emolphus recognizes his inappropriate desire for his daughter and worries about becoming a second Oedipus34 : it is not an accurate analogy, but there is no familiar classical story that he can invoke. It is somewhat easier to account for the medieval fashion for Flight from Incestuous Father stories, where the innocent heroine can stand for the beleaguered Christian soul in a wicked world of predatory and sinful men; but I still find it surprising that classical authors did not use this motif, given its popularity in folklore around the world35.

Notes

1 P. Bysshe Shelley, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792-1822, ed. F. L. Jones, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964, vol. 2, p. 154.

2 See S. Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk Literature, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1932-36, 6 vols.

3 O. Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, tr. F. Robbins and S. E. Jelliffe, New York, Brunner, 1957.

4 Patrologie Latine, 3: 337. « Thus you weave a tale of incest, without even realizing it » . Minucius Felix, Octavius, XXXI.3, tr. T. R. Glover and G. H. Rendall, London, Heinemann, coll. « Loeb Classical Library », 1966.

5 See J. Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, New York, Pantheon, 1988.

6 Geoffrey Chaucer, « The Legend of Good Women », in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson, Boston, MA, Houghton Mifflin, 1987, p. 600-602.

7 M. Frisch, Homo Faber, Frankfurt, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1957; Voyager, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, USA, 1991.

8 The Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2002. URL: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3582792/Spirits-of-the-age.html>.

9 Marie de France, Lais, ed. K. Warnke, tr. L. Harf-Lancner, Paris, Librairie Générale, coll. « Lettres Gothiques », 1990, p. 88-114.

10 Hrólfs Saga Kraka, ed. D. Slay, København, E. Munksgaard, 1960. King Hrolf and His Champions in Eirik the Red and Other Icelandic Sagas, tr. G. Jones, London, Oxford University Press, coll. « World’s Classics », 1961, p. 221-318.

11 See E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991, p. 133-143, and N. Cazauran, « La Trentième nouvelle de l’Heptaméron ou la méditation d’un “exemple” », in Mélanges de littérature du moyen âge au XXe siècle offerts à Mlle Jeanne Lods, Paris, École normale supérieure de jeunes filles, 1978, vol. 2, p. 617-652.

12 See B. Murdoch, Gregorius: An Incestuous Saint in Medieval Europe and Beyond, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012; K. Morvay, Die Albanuslegende: Deutsche Fassungen und Beziehungen zur lateinischen Überlieferung, München, Fink, 1977, and H. B. Sol, La Vie du pape Grégoire, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1977.

13 A possible exception is St. Metro, who does penance for a mysterious and unspecified sin, identified in a late source as unwitting incest with his daughter; see U. Mölk, « Zur Vorgeschichte der Gregoriuslegende: Vita und Kult des hl. Metro von Verona », in Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, I, Philologisch-historische Klasse, 1987, p. 5-54.

14 A. K. Ramanujan, « The Indian Oedipus », in L. Edmunds and A. Dundes (ed.), Oedipus: A Folklore Casebook, New York, Garland, 1984, p. 234-261; see p. 250.

15 I summarize the tradition very briefly here; for further discussion with plot summaries and bibliography, see E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2001, p. 145-191, idem. p. 245-256.

16 Die Pseudoklementinen, vol. 2, Rekognitionen in Rufins Übersetzung, ed. B. Rehm and F. Paschke, Berlin, Akademie-Verlag, coll. « Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte », 51, 1965-1969.

17 See E. Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations, Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1991.

18 Aesop without Morals, ed. and tr. L. W. Daly, New York and London, Yoseloff, 1961, p. 90.

19 B. E. Perry, Studies in the Text History of the Life and Fables of Aesop, Haverford, PA, American Philological Association, 1936, p. 35.

20 M. Lefkowitz, Women in Greek Myth, 2e ed., London, Duckworth, 2007, p. 131, and id., Heroines and Hysterics, London, Duckworth, 1981, p. 5.

21 J. J. Winkler, « The Invention of Romance », in J. Tatum (ed.), The Search for the Novel, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, p. 23-38; see p. 35.

22 N. Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of The Structure of Romance, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, coll. « The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures », 1976, p. 88.

23 See the comments of d’Arco Silvio Avalle in his introduction to A. N. Veselofskij, La Fanciulla perseguitata, Milano, Bompiani, 1977.

24 Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, Justine, ou les malheurs de la vertu, in Oeuvres, ed. M. Delon, 3 vols, Paris, Gallimard, 1990-8, p. 129-30.

25 See C. Roussel, Conter de geste au XIVe siècle: Inspiration folklorique et écriture épique dans La Belle Hélène de Constantinople, Geneva, Droz, 1998, p. 180-2, and E. Archibald, « The Ide and Olive episode in Lord Berners’ Huon of Burdeux », in R. Field (ed.), Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1999, p. 139-151.

26 Roussel, Conter de geste au XIVe siècle…, op. cit., p. 426.

27 Études sur le théâtre français du XIVe et du XVe siècle: La Comédie sans titre et les Miracles de Notre-Dame, Paris, A. Rousseau, 1901, p. 1-192; comparison of this edition with the manuscript indicates some problems in the transcription and editing of both text and glosses. There is now a translation with brief introduction by Monique Goullet, La Comédie sans nom, XVe siècle, Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, coll. « Petite Collection Atopia », 1996. See too E. Archibald, « The Flight from Incest as a Latin Play: the Comoedia sine nomine, Petrarch and the Avignon Papacy », Medium Aevum, 82, 2013, p. 81-100.

28 See Chapter 4, « Fathers and Daughters », in E. Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination, p. 145-191.

29 See L. Muir, Love and Conflict in Medieval Drama: The Plays and their Legacy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 91-99. She notes among others the fourteenth-century French collection of miracle plays known as the Cangé manuscript, and also German and Italian versions from the late Middle Ages.

30 Comoedia sine nomine, II. 6, p. 45

31 See Roussel, idem, p. 126-129.

32 For an excellent overview of the problem of origins, see Roussel, idem, p. 132-40. He cites Poirion’s view on p. 140.

33 See for instance F. C. Tubach, Index exemplorum; a handbook of medieval religious tales, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1969.

34 Comoedia sine nomine, II. 1, p. 34.

35 An earlier version of this essay was given at a conference organized by Danielle Bohler in Paris on « Récit et mémoire ».

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