Book Chapter Details
Mandatory Fields
Lindsay Ann Reid
2017 Unknown
Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil Science
Unsoiled Soil and “Fleshly Slime”: Representations of Reproduction in Spenser’s Legend of Chastity
Duquesne University Press
Optional Fields
Spenser; Edmund Spenser; Ovid; The Faerie Queene; Metamorphoses; spontaneous generation; chastity; reproduction; sexuality; mythology; early modern literature; Renaissance literature; Britomart; Chrysogone; sixteenth century
Given that Book 3 of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene is ostensibly devoted to depicting the virtue of chastity, it is difficult to know what we should make of its attendant emphasis on Britain’s heroic lineage—and, by extension, the crucial role that human (or faerie) reproduction plays in the unfolding of this history. After all, the deeply nationalistic “Legend of Britomartis or Of Chastitie” is concerned not only with the battles waged against lust and its agents by Britomart, but equally with the future “Progenie” of this cross-dressed “mayd Martiall.” The principal connections that The Faerie Queene establishes between Britian’s ancient, legendary past and Spenser’s own Tudor present are, thus, inescapably sexual. Even if we rationalize Britomart as the embodiment of that culturally specific, Reformation-era concept of married chastity (or monogamous, wedded love) rather than of either virginity or celibacy, the relationships between sexuality, desire, abstinence, and fertility in Book 3 of The Faerie Queene remain tangibly uneasy. Throughout the Legend of Chastity, Spenser repetitively, and rather neoplatonically, aims to distinguish love from those fleshly, sensual impulses “which doth base affections moue / … and filthy lust inflame” (3.3.1). In so doing, he habitually associates the “filthy” (3.2.40, 3.1, 11.4) sexual desires of the unchaste with subhuman, animalistic behavior. In an equation that closely echoes the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage service, wherein “mennes carnall lustes and appetytes” are described as being like those of “brute beastes,” lust in Book 3 is, again and again, similarly cast as “brutish” (3.3.1, 7.15) and “beastly” (3.1.17, 7.15, 8.26, 11.4). It is therefore significant to note that where Spenser tries to distinguish Britomart’s projected union with Artegall from these baser impulses, he relies, in part, on edaphological and botanical metaphors—an especially salient point, given that plant reproduction was widely understood by his contemporaries to be an asexual generative process. When Britomart, for instance, first catches a glimpse of Artegall in her father’s magic mirror, her love for him takes “first rooting” (3.3.16); later, in Merlin’s visions of the British ages to come, Britomart and Artegall’s “famous Progenie” are evocatively imagined as a family tree “enrooted deepe” in the heroine’s “wombe” (3.3.22). This arboreal conception of Britomart’s offspring allows Spenser to sidestep associating his Knight of Chastity with the “fleshly slime” of human sexuality (3.6.3)—and also skirts the problematic similarities between chaste marital and lustful extramarital sex. In this ecological recoding of her connubial and maternal body, the heroine’s fertile womb becomes a lush seedbed from which the “Most famous fruits” of her “matrimoniall bowre” will simply “spring” (3.3.3, 22), and Britomart’s prophesied acts of reproduction are rendered in terms that sound suspiciously like spontaneous generation. The crucial subtext for such images, of course, the idea that a birth from soil is less dirty, so to speak, than one resulting from run-of-the-mill, libidinous copulation. Though Spenser’s use of this representational strategy—like his use of so many others—is inconsistent throughout The Faerie Queene as a whole, the way in soil is used in Book 3 as a site for rethinking reproduction along both ethical and ecological lines nonetheless speaks to the poetic tensions surrounding lust, chastity, and the genesis of Britain’s illustrious heirs. In this chapter, I reexamine the problem of representing genesis in Book 3, and, in so doing, I focus my attention particularly on canto 6, which has long been understood as the book’s “allegorical core.” This canto opens by purporting to explain how the twins Belphoebe and Amoret (the respective wards and protégées of Diana and Venus, often read as dual emblems of chastity in its variant forms) first came into the world “Pure and vnspotted from all loathly crime” (3.6.3), and this depiction of the sisters’ anomalous yet morally laudable birth is—much like Merlin’s aforementioned vision of Britomart’s future maternity—conspicuously rooted in soil.
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Humanities in Context