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Ambiguous Correspondences

Thursday, December 21, 2017 - 07:00

I've attended several sessions of papers at the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo that discussed the overtly sensual and erotic language included in male ecclesiastical correspondence, particularly of the medieval period. When discussing male clergy of, for example, 12-14th century France, one can triangulate on the relationship between texts that strike the modern ear as decidedly homoerotic and larger social discussions and concerns regarding sexual relations between men either in monasteries or among the clergy. Robert Mill's Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages discusses that larger context for men. But differences in how people viewed women's sexuality, in the greater opprobrium for male homosexuality, and in the political consequences of having "favorites" based on a sexual relationship, mean that there isn't the same larger context of discussion for understanding women's homoerotic correspondence. (Not that there was no larger context, but it isn't as extensively documented.) This can make it more difficult to examine letters like the one discussed in this article with an eye to determining whether they did express--or would have been considered to have expressed--a relationship that had romantic and erotic components, as opposed to using the language of romance simply as a form of literary expression.

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Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

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A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Weston, Lisa M.C. 2011. “Virgin Desires: Reading a Homoerotics of Female Monastic Community”

Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.

The convent in question was founded by Saint Radegund in 522 and was a novel type at that time, bringing together women from various families rather than being an establishment associated with a specific family. While secular noblewomen were defined by family and their lives used in service to their dynastic affiliations, monastic women were (incompletely) shifted from secular to monastic family, though secular ties could disrupt that ideal.

The reading and writing of texts was an essential component of engaging in that community, many of which texts directly address the definition and negotiation of virginity as a status. Literacy was an essential focus at the monastery of the Holy Cross--a required skill.  The institution became famous for its participation in literary culture of the time. Much of this celebrates a culture of female friendship parallel to that better documented among male ecclesiastics of the era. This literature of male monastic friendship could express excessive poetic sensuality because it was given license by the overt elevated purity of the context. Similarly, writing about the convent community celebrated the mutual affection and bonds of the nuns. The letter considered here represents a performance of female desire expressed through the medium of friendship and so allowed that emotional excess.

The writer positions herself as younger and subordinate, able to express desire and a wish to emulate the addressee only because the addressee herself has requested it. This permission makes the expression possible, rather than being presumptuous due to the difference in status. This negotiates the acceptability of the expression of desire, a return of attention once the writer knows she herself has been noticed.

The article discusses the literature of how women learn to be virgins, including the caution that the Biblical claim that religious virgins “become like men” should not be taken literally as license for cutting hair short, cross-dressing, or behaviors with a masculine engagement with the world. (Note, however, that this explicit admonishment suggests that some women did take the Biblical passage as license for cross-gender presentation.) Monastic women are enjoined to love each other in close community to better direct their souls to God. There is a regular theme that they are expected to form close familial-like bonds, sometimes cloaked in the language of mother-daughter or sisterhood, and that such pairs might share a cell and bed. But at the same time, they are admonished that “unchastity of the eyes” (mutual glances) leads to unchastity of the flesh. And nuns are expected to police each other’s behavior as well as their own. These concerns are then applied to “special friendships”, see e.g., the Rule of Donatus against walking hand in hand or using endearments.

Correspondence would seem to evade concerns about physical interaction and gaze, but text itself is gazed on and written endearments may stand for caresses. The letter in question does not include such endearments and shifts from the personal (I) to collective (we) in its praise of the recipient. It offers praise in Old Testament imagery, using a metaphor of virgins receiving the Word into their wombs and bearing salvation. The letter uses recurring images of this metaphor. The writer protests her unworthiness to address the recipient as “sister”, using instead Lady (domina). Thus an otherwise suspect close relationship is re-framed in a distancing way (via differences of age or authority) while retaining an emotional closeness.

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