Of saints and angels
I recently joined a medieval Ph.D. comprehensive exam committee. A question about violence as spectacle led to a lively discussion of a recently discovered manuscript describing the martyring of St. George, during which he was split in many pieces—explicitly including dismemberment of his genitalia—three times. No matter how far his body was scattered, it kept coming back to life, thus providing the reader with yet another spectacular description of sadistic bloodshed.
I found myself thinking about the performative aspects of violence in romances written not in the Middle Ages, but in the 21st century, and Nalini Singh’s Guild Hunter series came first to mind.
In this series, Singh establishes a parallel world in which angels and archangels with no tie to divinity rule vast territories. They are practically immortal and gifted with pretty wings. Singh seems primarily interested in exploring the effect of immortality on one’s tolerance and appetite for violence. Their long life causes angels to become more and more dispassionate, scornful of human life, and—significantly—aroused only by violent spectacle.
Most of this violence is carried out on vampires, who acquire near-immortality in return for 100 years of slavery, much of which is marked by sexual and violent brutality exercised by bored angels. The sexual aspect of violence is key. The heroine of several Guild Hunter novels describes being “beat[en] to a pulp by proxy,” for example, and one of the angels responds “In some circles. . . that would be considered foreplay.”
Like the author of the St. George manuscript, Singh treats the reader to long descriptions of vampires whose bodies are shattered and dismembered—with explicit attention to the genitalia—only to regenerate. She emphasizes again and again a kind of attention to violence that is somehow excused, or at least explained, by long life: “That level of brutality took both time and an emotionless kind of focus,” she writes after the description of a gruesome discovery.
In the case of St. George, readers are presumably supposed to be in awe of George’s suffering. But it’s a complex sort of admiration, focused on the theological significance of pain. In Singh’s world, the heroine investigates crimes that often arise from this sort of “emotionless” violence, but there’s no theological lesson in sight.
How is the reader meant to react to the explicit seeing of violence which has no lasting consequences—i.e., the genitalia grow again, and the next day the angel is just as rapacious and brutal in his or her appetites? Is the reader, numbed by depictions of violence, reading from the stance of the angel, then?
I don’t have answers for my own questions, which are just beginning to come into focus. But I know there’s something both traditional and troubling about the spectacle of violence in popular romance.
Eloisa James is a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University in New York City and New York Times bestselling author of historical romance novels. Find out more about Eloisa James.