Skip to content Skip to navigation

Blogging Kalamazoo 2021 – Session 70 - Bodies that Transform: Visual, Material, and Conceptual Transitions

Monday, May 10, 2021 - 15:02

Although it isn’t entirely clear from the session title, the common theme here is thinking in the context of transgender and gender fluidity.

Butler and þæt Bodiġ: Constructing, Performing, and (Mis)Reading the Female Body in Ælfric's Life of Saint Agnes - Thelma Trujillo, University of Iowa

Looks at the choices and inclusions that Aelfric made in working from multiple source manuscripts to write his own saints’ lives. Aelfric primary focused on the “virgin martyr” as his epitome of female sanctity, reflecting an ambivalent attitude toward the female body. Using Butler’s framework of gender as performance, we see how Saint Agnes manipulates gender performance to create a space for female sanctity. She remains intelligible as female while refusing to be constrained by female category structures.

Agnes rejects her earthly (non-Christian) suitor, but not the symbolic structures of a woman’s “life script” framing God as her lover and expected husband using the language of physical love. Her pagan suitor is shows as not recognizing the references to God and interpreting her descriptions as indicating a human rival. There is a discussion of whether medieval people would have understood this attitude as being a “sexual orientation”, that is, as a re-orientation of sexual desire toward the divine. There is a discussion of the purpose of motifs of rape and torture within this type of saint’s life.

Agnes is the only female saint in Aelfric’s text where devotion to God is frame in terms of a bodily sexuality and marriage. At the same time, she rejects the physical performance of the expected female role.

Of Breasts and Beards: Hirsutism and the Shifting Genders of Saint Wilgefortis and the Lady of Limerick in Late Medieval Visual Culture - Sara K. Berkowitz, Auburn University

The paper looks at instances of conflicting visual signifiers of gender, especially as interpreted as bodily transformation. Saint Wilgefortis prayed to escape an unwanted marriage and was granted a beard. The “Lady of Limerick” was famous as a bearded woman. Male beards in the middle ages were considered a symbol and prerogative of masculinity, as well as a sign of male virtue. But in art, beards could also represent racialized identity. So “bearded women” represented cross-category individuals, having a definitively masculine attribute, while still being considered categorically female.

There are a variety of versions of the Wilgefortis legend with different contexts and locations, united by the theme of using the miraculous beard as a way to escape an unwanted marriage. There are speculations as to whether the legend originated by a misreading of a male image wearing clothing interpreted as feminine. Depictions vary between showing a very full complete beard and a very wispy partial beard. In some images, other physical signifiers (such as breasts) are hidden and only clothing is able to indicate her assigned gender.

A manuscript illustration of the Bearded Lady of Limerick (in the Topography of Ireland by Gerald of Wales) shows her as one of the “miracles and marvels” shown naked, with very small pendant breasts, a full long beard, and in the process of spinning with a distaff and spindle. She has not only a beard, but has hair all down her spine. But the description also suggests that she is a bilateral hermaphrodite, with only half her face being bearded and the other half being smooth. The distaff and act of spinning are noted as being strongly gendered as a feminine activity. [Thank you!] Berkowitz suggests that the shape of the distaff and spindle are phallic, creating a mixed message. [I’m not sure I buy this part.] A bearded woman can never be fully female, but also cannot create masculinity.

The same section of Gerald’s manuscript depicts an “ox man,” shown naked with ox-like hoofs on hands and feet. This reinforces the classification of the bearded woman as monstrous. Bearded women are ambiguously sexed, and thus to some extend undermines the interpretation of the beard as a male signifier.

Menopause: Melusine's Final Transformation - S. C. Kaplan, Independent Scholar

A brief recapitulation of the legend of Melusine. Rather than exploring the dynastic elements of Melusine’s story, Kaplan focuses on Melusine’s final transformation, after her husband Raymond’s betrayal, as aligning with menopause. Her original transformation, when she is cursed to periodically transform into a half-snake, occurs when she is 15 and she appears to be in maturational stasis for the next 400 years until she marries and begins producing her 10 sons. Does Melusine age naturally or does she move in and out of human time as she transforms? If her husband had kept his promise not to gaze on her when she is transformed, and not to tell anyone about it if he finds out, she would have aged and died “naturally” (i.e., as a human). But since he fails to keep his promise, she turns fully inhuman and flies away. In all this, the question of whether she ages naturally (as a human) is—Kaplan maintains—irrelevant. Melusine’s “feminine” status boils down to associating socially with women, bearing and raising children, and supporting feminine religious establishments. Otherwise, her behavior and actions are more aligned with the role of an aristocratic man rather than a woman. Raymond, her husband, is teased that he is insufficiently masculine in that he is obedient to his promise to Melusine and insufficiently curious about her secrets.

Raymond doesn’t consider pursuing this knowledge until late in their marriage, at a time when Melusine is producing children at much longer intervals than at the beginning of the marriage. Once she is no longer popping out sons every year or two, her atypical femininity becomes more a source of anxiety. This is the point in her life when (triggered by Raymond’s betrayal) she fully transforms to a serpent and leaves him, but returns regularly to visit her children (but not her husband). This, Kaplan suggests, represents the physical and interactional changes in a woman’s life at menopause.

Respondant: Roland Betancourt

(It’s really hard to take coherent notes on responses, so I’m going to skip trying, as usual.)

Major category: