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Subjectivity in “Philomena and Procne”

Sophia Natasha Sunseri



Sophia Natasha Sunseri

The University of Toronto


The Incommensurability of Past and Present:

An Exploration of Subjectivity in “Philomena and Procne”


Chrétien de Troyes's adaptation of Philomena and Procne, the sixth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, has been described by one scholar as a "pure gem of atrocity.” Replete with deceit, kidnapping, rape, mutilation, and cannibalism, it is hardly surprising that this twelfth-century text invites its interpretation as a narrative about trauma. By contextualizing “Philomena and Procne” within the theoretical frameworks of Roger Luckhurst’s The Trauma Question and Susan J. Brison’s essay “The Uses of Narrative in the Aftermath of Violence,” this paper will examine Philomena’s narrative as a cathartic one in which Philomena’s mastery over alternative forms of narration ultimately restores language to the body, thereby transforming her status from that of the object to that of the subject of her own story. While my paper will endorse a traumatic reading of Ovid’s poem, it will also address the more problematic aspects of attempting to situate a twelfth-century text within the theoretical framework of trauma studies. Focusing on issues of subjectivity, specifically within the context of French authorial practices of the twelfth-century, my paper will explore one of the caveats currently confronting medieval feminists: the incommensurability between the past and the present. I will explore, for example, the sacrificial logic of matricide and the gendered value of blood as it is imagined in medieval literary texts and what all of this means in terms of contemporary interpretations. Ultimately, I will advocate a dialectical approach in which female subjectivity is perceived in a fragmentary way. Relying on the collaborative writings of E. Jane Burns, Sara Kay, Roberta L. Krueger, and Helen Solterer, my paper will caution against essentializing women of different historical periods and cultural epochs by conflating the past with the present. Instead, I will adopt a destabilized stance that discounts neither the tenets of history nor the fact that women’s bodies have been sites of historical difference.



Chrétien de Troyes's “Philomena,” a text chock-full of deceit, kidnapping, mutilation, rape and cannibalism, invites its interpretation as a narrative about trauma.  By contextualizing “Philomena and Procne” within the theoretical frameworks of Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to The Trauma Question and Susan J. Brison’s essay “The Uses of Narrative in the Aftermath of Violence,” this paper will examine Philomena’s narrative as a cathartic one in which Philomena’s mastery over alternative forms of narration ultimately restores language to the body, thereby transforming her status from that of the object to that of the subject of her own narrative. While this essay endorses a traumatic reading of Chrétien de Troyes’s version of Ovid’s poem, it will also address some of the potentially problematic aspects of such a comparative approach, particularly those concerning subjectivity.

            Before addressing the ways in which Philomena restores language to the body, it is first necessary to delineate what, in this context, is meant by “trauma.” Derived from the Greek word for “wound,” “trauma” was first employed in English during the seventeenth century in the field of medicine to refer to external ailments. The term began to take on psychical connotations around the turn of the twentieth-century, as is evidenced by a 1895 copy of Popular Science Monthly: “We have named this psychical trauma, a morbid nervous condition” (Luckhurt 2-3). In current editions of the Oxford English Dictionary the mental and psychological components of the word far outnumber the physical ones. However, as Steven Connor notes, “Trauma…still refers to bodily injury in medicine and…the focus on the boundary of the skin in ritual piercing, cutting or scarification continues to play with taboos in many cultures. Trauma culture has emerged whilst the skin has been ‘the visible object of many different forms of imaginary or actual assault’ in the modern world” (Luckhurst 3). Indeed, the trauma that Philomena endures is at once psychologically and physically scarring, the former embodied by forced separation from her family and the consequent confinement that ensues and the latter by Tereus’s rape and mutilation, ultimately castrating her ability to speak. The text reads:


Yet he took a sharp knife so that she might not relate how she suffered this disgrace and shame, he said that at a single stroke he would cut out her tongue from her mouth: never would any of this story be told. (One misfortune leads to another…) He yanks her tongue from her mouth and cuts off nearly half. Now he has behaved very badly, both in this act and in the other [the rape]. He leaves her locked up in the house, where she weeps and cries and shouts (239).


It is Tereus’ severing of Philomena’s tongue that compels the young woman to seek other viable means of communication in an attempt to relay her story. The first of these attempts, the creation of an elaborate tapestry, offers a visual alternative to written accounts or spoken utterances:


No tool was lacking there, even to fashion a tapestry. She decided to make something by means of which she could be assured that her whole misfortune would be revealed to her sister…She reflects no further but immediately sets to work. She goes and opens the chest where the peasant-woman had placed her skeins and spools of yarn, and, taking them out and unwinding them, she begins aptly to work with great care. The old woman does not stop her, but quite willingly helps out by obtaining or seeking whatever she thinks necessary for such work. She immediately finds tools for her, so that she has a quantity of blue-black, scarlet, yellow, and green thread…It was very hard to do, for Philomena embroidered at one end what had happened to her. There was portrayed the ship, the one in which Tereus crossed the sea and came for her to Athens, then how he behaved when he reached Athens, how he took her away, and then forced her, and how, after cutting out her tongue, he left her. She worked it all on the tapestry, including the house and the forest where she was imprisoned. When she finished the work as best she could, she wondered if she could find someone who would bring it to her sister. How greatly this would comfort her grief and vexation (249-251).


Brison, herself a survivor of a “near-fatal sexual assault and attempted murder” (204) that occurred in France in 1990, underscores the therapeutic importance of trauma victims telling their own stories after the fact. While Brison’s essay is primarily concerned with textual accounts of such stories, Philomena’s visual narrative is a form of story-telling that Brison would likely encourage. As she states: “I leave the term ‘narrative’ vague because I want the term to encompass verbal and nonverbal (such as the painted or physically enacted) account” (201).  Additionally, Brison writes, “Telling their story, narrating their experiences of traumatic events, has long been considered—at least since Freud and Janet—to play a significant role in survivors’ recovery from trauma” (200). When considered within this context, Philomena’s retelling of her traumatic experience may be perceived as her way of gaining mastery over her environment. Such an act is dependant upon a survivor’s ordering of traumatic memories within a narrative sequence. Speech acts that retain narrative memory, Brison argues, represent a lack of passivity on the part of the narrator (or, for our purposes, the embroiderer). They are instead indicative of a gradually evolving sense of control that works to defuse traumatic memory while “giving shape and a temporal order to the events recalled, establishing more control over their recalling, and helping the survivor remake a self” (215). Philomena gives shape to her recollected memories when she creates the tapestry within a temporal framework, beginning in a linear fashion with an image of the ship at one end and an image of her location in the house in the forest at the other. Externalizing trauma by visually representing it, as Philomena has done, ultimately allows her to split herself into an active subject (who is narrating/embroidering) and a passive object (who is described/visually depicted), a process that “can help resubjectify a self objectified by trauma” (217) by allowing her to engage sympathetically with her objectified self while gaining a sense of control through the act of narrating/embroidering, eventually enabling an act of resubjectification to occur.

            Yet, as Cathy Caruth reminds us, trauma is a crisis of representation (Luckhurst 5). That is, how does a victim of trauma represent the unrepresentable? Say the unsayable? To answer these questions,  perhaps it is best to turn to Jean-François Lyotard’s notion of the sublime, “where representing the very failure to process the overwhelming event paradoxically figures its success as a work of art” (Luckhurst 5-6). Lyotard expounds upon this paradox: “What art can do is bear witness not to the sublime, but to this aporia of art and to its pain. It does not say the unsayable, but it says that it cannot say it” (Luckhurst 6). In quite a literal sense, Philomena’s tapestry makes this very pronouncement with its image of her tongue being hacked off; her tapestry says what she is literally unable to say and that she is literally unable to say it, as “speech was impossible, for she could not reveal or speak her mind in any way” (249).

            Just as Lyotard observes the importance of art bearing witness to pain, Brison also underscores the significance of bearing witness in cases of trauma testimonials. Many trauma theorists will agree that it is beneficial for survivors to share their narratives with an empathetic audience. In Philomena’s case, her “audience” is undoubtedly her sister Procne, the intended recipient of the tapestry:  Procne laments, “Sister…my grieving is great on finding you mutilated” (257).

            The second instance of Philomena reclaiming language is undoubtedly more controversial than her creation of the tapestry. Here, Philomena and Procne’s “wild justice” (Cormier 184), the murder and cannibalization of Procne’s son Itis, is a rewriting of Philomena’s trauma. In the violence enacted by the two women, Itis functions as a double for his father: an “image of the fraud, that vile demon!” (257). Philomena thus exists as a “resubjectified” (Brison 217) self, revising the script of her traumatic narrative via a physical enactment in which she is in control of the outcome. Before exploring this gruesome revenge scene, however, let us first examine a parallel narrative of sacrifice that occurs earlier in the poem. Interestingly, the murder and cannibalization of Itis is preceded by an episode that foreshadows the child’s beheading and eventual consumption. This episode occurs in Procne’s sacrifice of the bull to Pluto, god of the dead. Not found in Ovid’s original story, this scene initially read: “Then Procne tore from her shoulders the robe gleaming with a broad golden border and put on black weeds; she built also a cenotaph in honour of her sister, brought pious offering to her imagined spirit, and mourned her sister’s fate, not meet so to be mourned” (McCracken 67). In de Troyes’s extended Christianized version, however, Procne performs a ritual sacrifice in order to “keep her sister’s soul in hell with honor, peace, and repose” (247). The sacrifice scene reads:


Then a bull was brought to her to make a sacrifice to the gods. She puts its blood in a phial lest a single drop spill. When the bull was sacrificed, she ordered a fire lit in the temple of doom. (Thus did they maintain custom and example on behalf of their ancestors, for they made sacrifices to Pluto, the lord of the devils, above all the most terrifying, the most hideous, and the ugliest). As ordered, the fire was lit and made before the altar of that god, and to make more smoke,  as was their custom, the bull was brought to the fire. Then Procne promised and vowed to the god to offer a similar sacrifice every year before his altar so that he would keep her sister’s soul in hell with honor, peace, and repose. When all the flesh and bones were burned and nothing at all remained except ashes and embers, she spilled the blood on it. And afterwards, she carefully put everything in a white pot and buried it under a sarcophagus of dark marble. When the stone was lowered, at one end she fixed an image, visibly ugly, which was made in the likeness of the one who has power over the souls burning in hell and over the devils that guard them. Then she had an inscription in her language made on the sarcophagus. Before the image one could read quite readily: ‘God who is King and lord of hell, Pluto, have mercy on the soul for whom I perform this sacrifice and this worship—wherever her body may lie.’ Thus, with great devotion Procne placed all her attention in offering the sacrifice to rescue the soul of her sister from a place where it was not” (245-247).


            The description of the sacrifice is followed by a description of Philomena’s suffering, underscoring the futility of the sacrifice as Philomena is still very much alive. In her essay “Engendering Sacrifice: Blood, Lineage, and Infanticide in Old French Literature,” Peggy McCracken suggests that “the narrative link between the sacrificial death ritual and the tormented life that Philomena continues to live seems to suggest a parallel structure: a ritual sacrifice follows the (false) revelation of Philomena’s death, and a ritual death will follow the discovery that she is alive” (68). Readers are therefore compelled to rethink the bull’s sacrifice in conjunction with Itis’s death. Even though de Troyes’s version of the poem depicts the child’s murder as an act of vengeance rather than an act of sacrifice, “the structure of the story aligns Procne’s sacrifice of the bull when she learns of Philomena’s death with the murder of her son when she learns that her sister lives”  (69). Furthermore, the preparations undertaken for the child’s death, such as the cutting and cooking, echo the preparations undertaken for the bull’s sacrifice. In the scene in which Itis is slaughtered, the narrator describes the child’s beheading as well as the culinary preparations undertaken to prepare him for Tereus’s feast:


(Law and nature and pity, too, forbid all human creatures this, that a mother should kill or dismember her child.) And yet when she [Procne] began to remember the traitor, to recall the fraud, she did not reassure the child, but asserted that, however it might fail, she would have to cut off his head, and his father would have to eat it. Thus she could avenge her sister on the scoundrel who had mutilated Philomena. And now, just as the little child held to her lovingly, she, fiendish and ferocious, goaded by the devil, cuts off the child’s head, then hands it to her sister. Together they prepare the flesh quickly and carefully: one part they roast, the other they stew. When the flesh was heated and cooked it is ready to be eaten. Procne delays and tarries in order thoroughly to accomplish her will. She comes to the king, who suspects nothing, and begs and urges him to come eat the special dish she thinks he will love very much (259-261).


The reversal of roles illustrated in this excerpt, in which Tereus is no longer a subject of violence but an object, is quite evident: by eating his own child, Tereus is having a body forced inside of him, rather than him forcing his body inside of another. Thus it is through the medium of bodies that a rewriting of Philomena’s trauma narrative occurs. This of course is not merely evident with the cannibalization of Itis but also in the physical acts of cooking (Itis’s meat) and sewing (the tapestry)—deeds belonging to the domestic realm of the feminine. By enacting “a kind of physical remastering of the trauma” (Brison 221), Philomena and her sister possess “the ability to change the ending [of the traumatic event]—in space as well as in imagination” (Brison 221). Doing so arguably allows them to gain more control over traumatic memories.

            It is necessary to note that in the original Ovidian text, it is Philomena who beheads Itis, not her sister. This change on de Troyes’s part has been identified by many feminist scholars as a “demonization of the character of Procne” (McCracken 55), a mother whose vengeance is so great that it exceeds her maternal inclinations.

            McCracken’s essay explores the ways in which sacrificial practice is imagined in medieval literary texts. The focus of her research lies in the distinction between the ways in which fathers who murder their children are portrayed and the ways in which mothers who murder their children are portrayed. “Unlike examples of maternal infanticide” McCracken writes, “a father’s murder may be explained as a sacrifice, not a vengeance: a father may kill his child in the service of some higher good or higher purpose” (56). She elaborates: “There are no biblical examples of mothers who sacrifice their children; when a mother kills her child, the infanticide is always a murder. Not all paternal murders are sacrifices, but it seems that no maternal murders can be explained by sacrificial logic, the logic that explains a child’s death as necessary to accomplish a higher good or a higher purpose” (56). McCracken’s observations are illustrated in Philomena and Procne’s slaughter of Itis, which is described in terms of  “kill[ing],” “dismember[ing],” and “avenge[ing]” (259-261). Their heinous act is one attributed to “the devil” (259) not to God. De Troyes’s description of Itis’s murder confirms McCracken’s observations about the ways in which maternal infanticide is depicted in French medieval literature. Such depictions, McCracken argues, are anchored in medieval thought concerning the gendered value of blood. She explains that the blood shed during sacrifice is gendered symbolically, not by the animal or person being sacrificed but according to the identity of the one performing the sacrifice. Thus, if a father is performing the sacrifice the blood shed symbolizes either loyalty among men or loyalty between men and God. It is “blood that is shed deliberately and with intention; it is therefore blood that can mark a covenant, blood that can be spilled for a higher good” (74).  In contrast, blood associated with a mother is denied any sacrificial worth. Recalling menstruation and parturition, it is “a polluting blood, a blood that cannot serve a higher good” (74), rendering the act of maternal infanticide a murder rather than a sacrifice.

            When viewed within the context that McCracken imparts, the notion of Philomena’s restored subjecthood becomes markedly more problematic. Because in medieval literature the act of a woman murdering her child is denied the religious significance that is sometimes attributed to the act of a man murdering his child, women are still relegated to secondary roles. Paradoxically, Philomena and Procne’s perceived attempt to rewrite Philomena’s trauma—thereby inciting an act of resubjectification—may have an adverse effect. It may, in McCracken’s words, “transform the figure of the murdering mother into the mother whose renunciation of maternal affection grounds patriarchal authority” (75). Therefore, within McCracken’s model of sacrificial logic, Philomena’s supposed resubjectification is inherently flawed, as it restores Tereus to the position of an authority figure within a patriarchal system, a context in which Philomena’s voice and narrative would presumably be stifled. Thus, the attempt to situate a twelfth-century text within the framework of trauma theory poses a number of difficulties insofar as a comparative approach is concerned. One of many such concerns is that of essentializing all women by conflating the past with the present, assuming that what applies to one group of women applies to all groups of women, in this case regardless of which historical and cultural epoch they belong. In their essay “Feminism and the Discipline of Old French Studies: Une Bele Disjoinure,” medieval scholars E. Jane Burns, Sara Kay, Roberta L. Krueger, and Helen Solterer warn against such essentialism: “the feminist writes from a destabilized position in the present to confront a different form of instability and mouvance in the past. Not wanting to lose sight of the women whose bodies, experiences, and actions were the sites of historical difference, yet wary of essentializing that experience, the medieval feminist does not abandon history but problematizes it, as she does her own moment in the present” (225-226). The task confronting medieval feminists, then, is a problematizing between the past and present.

            The incommensurabilities between the past and present continue to prove relevant in the assessment of Philomena’s recovery of voice and agency which, according to a traumatic reading of the text, Philomena gains through her creation of the tapestry and the murder of Itis. However, the portrayal of Philomena as the poem’s resubjectified female protagonist seems especially suspect when French authorial practices of the twelfth-century are taken into consideration. In all likelihood, the author of “Philomena and Procne” was a man or a group of men. If either is true, whose voice then is actually recovered? Can the recovered voice that a traumatic reading of the text attributes to Philomena really be considered her own?  Burns and her colleagues attempt to address this issue when they posit, “But in what sense can female characters be considered speaking subjects in…Old French literary work?” (239). To further explore this question, the authors cite an example belonging to the chanson de femme oeuvre, a corpus of anonymous “woman’s song[s]” (238). The song they discuss is taken from the chanson de toile. The authors observe that Bele Yolanz, the song’s female protagonist, often has “her” speech intruded upon by a narrator. Women’s voices, the authors remind us, 


though emitted from the ‘mouths of women’ as [Pierre] Bec describes them, issue from the rhetorical bodies of fictive protagonists situated at a far remove from the mouths of real historical women. If the women’s voices we hear…have been placed in female mouths, as Bec consents obliquely, they have been placed there by someone else. By a male author who has constructed and created female voices as products of his own literary imagination? In which case these women’s songs would really be men’s songs in disguise. Are they then examples of men singing in drag? Of men speaking for women, that is to say, ‘in their place,’ literally displacing women from the stage of creative inspiration and literary productions? Or are we to assume, conversely, that these diverse women’s songs have been gathered together by a manuscript compiler who has taken them from another source, perhaps from the dictated accounts of oral performance, once intoned by living women and reshaped by years of manuscript copying until they became contextualized within a literary narrator’s voice? In both scenarios the status granted to the female speaking subject—whether as a mask for a male poetic voice or as real women whose voices have been appropriated into a written tradition—is…problematic” (239-240).


Although “Philomena and Procne” does not belong to the chanson de femme genre, many of the arguments claiming that Bele Yolanz’s voice is not her own can be considered in our assessment of Philomena and the questionable status of her recovered voice. The authors’ suggestion that women’s voices are possibly masked variations of a male poetic voice seems quite plausible. In Michel Zink’s work on the chanson de toile, Zink counters the notion that women’s work songs were written by women simply because they depict women working and singing. Rather, he argues that that the chanson de toile is a “rhetorical device used by the male poet to seduce a male reader” (Burns et al. 241). Thus, the poems depict young girls and women in accordance to the male reader’s “desire and seductability”: “As the femaleness of woman’s song is displaced onto the function of the text, woman as a historical personage or inscribed voice disappears altogether” (Burns et al. 241). Is Philomena’s recovered voice, then, to be discarded altogether? Are we to write her character off as ahistorical and completely voiceless? Burns and her fellow scholars think not. They advise readers to not think strictly in terms of the binary distinction between the masculine and the feminine, suggesting instead a reading of the medieval female subject in a fragmentary way.  They write,


Taking our cue from the ambiguous voice of “Bele Yolanz,” could we try instead to move beyond this kind of polarization and read the female subject as she exists in a partial and fragmentary way within the medieval textual tradition? This is indeed a most difficult and vexing task: to imagine a kind of female subjectivity that might exist outside the obvious binary opposition of masculine and feminine. Western culture and convention have trained us to think subjectivity within that binary opposition. From the Stoics to Descartes, the status of the speaking subject in Western philosophical and literary discourse has been defined as homo loquens, he whose identity derives from his activity as a thinking speaker. Woman in this scenario functions often as the object of the male speaker’s discourse, the listener or receiver of his words, the object of the desire articulated in his speech. The objectified female other moves with great difficulty into the position of speaking subject traditionally reserved for the male, whether she is a real-live woman or fictional creation (Burns et al. 242).


Arguably, a fragmented approach to female subjectivity allows for a more comprehensive discussion to take place about the role of men and women in medieval literature. Such an approach also allows for Philomena to not be regarded solely as the subject or object of her own narrative, but as a catalyst for an in depth discussion of the ways in which women have traditionally been silenced in relation to their male counterparts. Burns and her colleagues’ point is well taken: whether Philomena’s voice is truly her own, inspired by the oral performances of actual women, or the fictional construct of a male author may be besides the point. The silence she represents contains an inherent truth about the difficulties faced by the objectified woman who strives to assert herself as a speaking subject. 

            Interpreting Philomena’s subjecthood through a splintered lens in which the instabilities of the past and the present are acknowledged ultimately enables readers to eschew “the search for timeless acontextual truths…the sine qua non of the philosophical enterprise” (Brison 203), which many feminist philosophers have taken issue with. By rejecting the notion promoted by Western philosophy that there exists a universal human subject and endorsing a non-essentialist stance instead, perhaps it is possible to read “Philomena and Procne” as a trauma narrative without neglecting its historical context. Doing so would change the emphasis of the original question, “who is speaking?” in Old French literature to an arguably more complex and intriguing one: “How do women speak from the pages of Old French literary works?” (Burns et al. 242).



Works Cited

Brison, Susan J. (Ed. Card, Claudia). “The Uses of Narrative in the Aftermath of Violence.” On Feminist Ethics and Politics. Lawrenceville: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

Burns, E. Jane, et al. (Ed. Bloch, R. Howard et al). “Feminism and the Discipline in Old French Studies: Une Bele Disjointure.” Medievalism and the Modernist Temper.

Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

de Troyes, Chretien. (Trans. Cormier, Raymond). Three Ovidian Tales of Love. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1986.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Trauma Question. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

McCracken, Peggy. “Sacrifice: Blood, Lineage, and Infanticide in Old French Literature.” Speculum, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Jan., 2002), pp. 55-75. Retrieved from:, 12/04/2012.



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