There's a certain type of book structure that always makes me wonder if the work has its origins in the author's doctoral thesis. (I mean, in the specific subject matter and organization, not simply in the themes.) I have no idea whether that's the case for Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, but it has the earmarks that raise that suspicion: a group of highly focused discussions of specific works, people, or events, tied together by--and featuring a conclusion referencing--an overall theme that operates at a tangent to the objective content of the material. These are books aimed at playing with ideas more than they're aimed at presenting and interpreting historic data.
And...I mean...that's fine? It's very much an important part of the theory side of "doing history." Historians dive into the wrestling pit of theory and come out with new ideas and approaches for how to work past the superficial meanings of historic data to identify underlying themes, forces, and motivations. This is important. But for me, as an amateur (but I like to think, sophisticated) consumer of historic research, I find this type of book frustrating. Especially when the shadow it casts over other, more data-driven, publications is large enough to lead me to expect something different.
If for no other reason, this is part of why I would never be interested in pursuing history as an academic subject. (Leaving aside the fact that I've already done the PhD thing, so I know that I'm already doing the "fun parts" of an academic history degree in this blog.) On the one side, I'm more interested in trying to understand past lives "from the inside", even if that understanding is flawed, than to think about history through a modern methodological lens. Even though that "from the inside" approach can only be made possibly by the apparatus of academic methodology. And from the other side, I'm completely comfortable with the goal of that understanding being the manipulation of historic data for highly subjective modern consumer purposes. (I.e., the production of historical fiction.) Books like Dinshaw's fall between those two purposes. And--in the context of the purpose of this blog--isn't a book I would recommend to the casual reader seeking to understand queer lives in history. The non-casual reader, sure. But if you're non-casual, you probably aren't coming to me for advice on useful sources.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Coda: Use of the Past
This final section starts with the inspiration for the book’s title in a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. Dinshaw explores the imagery of sodomitical rape in this movie and other films. There is an association of the concept of “medieval” as an out-of-context reference alongside imagery of male aggressive sexuality, contrasted at the same time with male bonding. The same preoccupations, Dinshaw asserts, run through Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1.
The rest of the conclusion both critiques and celebrates Foucault’s work with its contras between identities and acts, and how acts tend to be prosecuted only when they disturb the social order. But since I’ll be covering Foucault’s work separately, I think I’ll leave the details for that entry.
For some reason that has not yet become entirely clear to me, Margery Kempe--a medieval English widow who experienced a religious calling outside of formal religious institutions and is well-known primarily for the memoir written under her name--has become a popular topic among queer studies scholars. While she transgressed a number of social, cultural, and religious norms, within the field of queer studies, she seems to function more as a second- or third-hand metaphor for more centrally "queer" themes. (It's possible that this is simply part of my difficulty in grasping exactly what the central themes of "queer studies" are.) In any event, this chapter is all about Margery Kempe and is hard to fit into the central scope of my Project. Which is not at all to say that she isn't fascinating as a subject.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Chapter 3: Margery Kempe
When Kempe was required to defend herself against charge that included Lollardy, one of the questions thrown at her by the Mayor of Leicester was that she “went in white clothes ... to lure away our wives from us and lead them off with you.” What did that mean? Why did accusations of heresy and sexual deviance get associated with white clothing? Why would wearing white signal that she had intentions of leading women away from their homes? And what was she leading them away for?
Kempe held that she dressed in white because Christ asked her to, but in her memoirs she treated the act as something of a bargaining point. She would wear white if Christ offered her protection in return. She was aware that the color signaled a type of purity (virginity) that she was not technically worthy of, and that others would criticize her for this, so she needed something in return. The garments regularly stood out as unusual and drew down criticism.
The wearing of white clothing may have been associated in England with specific foreign sects that were considered heretical and accused of deviant sexual practices. [Note: Dinshaw doesn’t name the sects specifically.] From accusations of heresy, it was a small step to Lollardy at that time. Thus her clothing may have drawn accusations of Lollady “by contagion” as it were, even though her actions and beliefs were clearly in contradiction with Lollard principles.
Kempe’s status as a widow who adopted the signifier of virginity provokes a discussion of attitudes toward sexual experience and sexual continence. It can be seen as a type of transvestism to use clothing to cross or blur categories in this way.
At this point, I’m going to skim over the long discussion of Kempe’s behavior under questioning. One of Dinshaw’s points here is that Kempe’s habit of answering back and challenging her questioners raises issues of authority and truth. If two people can charge each other with sexual deviance, who has the right to make such a charge?
On multiple occasions, Kempe was accused of “leading women astray.” But what exactly was she being charged with? The language hints at, but does not outright name, same-sex acts.
There is a long analysis of Kempe’s habit of public crying and lamentation over Christ’s passion and how this was considered disruptive. We then move on to a modern work of fiction that uses Kempe as a touchstone in a queer (male) narrative. And then the discussion goes sideways into debates over modern arts and research grants and the uses of accusations over whether particular projects are absurd and unworthy.
One of the minor themes in this chapter of Dinshaw is the tantalizing window that a detailed legal record can provide of what must certainly have been a more widespread phenomenon. John/Eleanor Rykener is a popular example of gender disruption and category challenge in medieval England, but as Dinshaw points out (in the book--I haven't had space to discuss it all here), there is tangential evidence for that probably "more widespread" context. In addition, there may be a basis for believing that Rykener (or someone with a highly similar story) is reflected in one of Chaucer's characters in Canterbury Tales. In this chapter, one of the primary reasons for discussing Rykener is how their testimony ties in with the Lollard accusation of sexual impropriety among the religious establishment. Does that testimony, indeed, support the claim that sexual indiscretions of all types were rampant in the church? Or is it an example of someone using the popular image of those indiscretions as a distraction from their own sexual transgressions?
Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
Chapter 2: John/Eleanor, Dame Alys, The Pardoner and Foucault
The chapter begins with a summary of the legal records concerning John/Eleanor Rykener who was arrested for prostitution and who confessed to having sex with men as a woman, and with women as a man. [Note: The primary publication concerning this historic record is Karras & Boyd 1996] Of particular relevance to Dinshaw’s theme, Rykener specified having sex with both clerics and nuns. (There is no explicit mention of being paid to have sex with women, as there is when having sex with men.) The court records date to two months prior to the posting of the Lollards’ “Conclusions” (their manifesto of principles) and the Rykener case reads as if designed to illustrate their claims about sexual corruption in the church.
Rykener’s story also has echoes in Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale,” involving themes of casual prostitution among London’s working class in the late 14th century. But Rykener holds an unusual position in the English legal record, which is generally devoid of accusations of men for prostitution. Prostitution was understood to be an inherently and essentially female crime.
Although originally arrested for suspicion of prostitution (due to female dress and appearance), the investigation shifted to being for sodomy. And yet Rykerer’s entry into the trade involves feminization not only with regard to sexual activity but in occupation (embroiderer).
Using this jumping off point, Dinshaw uses this chapter to explore the questions Rykener’s interrogation raises, comparing this with Chaucer’s queer character of the Pardoner, and with Foucault’s essay on “the life of infamous men.”
Rykener’s crime is described in the text as “vitium...nephandum” (unmentionable vice) which traditionally alludes to sodomy. Yet there are regular references back to “the aforementioned vice”, highlighting it as unspeakable and yet referenced by previous utterance. The interrogatoin involves many layers of “translation”: an English proceeding recorded in Latin, possibly rendered into the formulaic language of confessional manuals. Our ability to retrieve Rykener's own voice is questionable. [Note: I have been shifting to a practice of using they/them pronouns when discussing individuals whose lives crossed gender lines. However this approach has it's own hazards, especially in flattening the data about how their gender was performed and perceived. The transcript of the trial evidence shifts between male and female pronouns for Rykener in ways that reflect both the speaker's attitude and the interpretive layer of the clerk.]
The emphasis on clerical offenses might come from the concerns of the questioners, or from Rykener’s focus in answering, or from the clerk’s own focus in recording the procedings. Rykener appears to cooperate eagerly, but may have shaped their testimony out of fear of the legal penalty for sodomy. (Technically, the death penalty was called for, but very rarely implemented.)
Rykener presents a category crisis. Despite the initial emphasis on male/male sodomy, the emerging details blur categories of gender and sex acts. Rykener’s description of their own actions strictly follows a heterosexual framing: female with men and male with women, dodging the strict definition of sodomy entirely.
Sodomy isn’t the only queer element present. Why would Rykener choose prostitution as a woman (or even embroidery as a woman) over the more profitable options available to even the poorest of men? Practicality and logic suggest this was not simply an economic strategy. Did Rykener’s male clients all believe themselves to be having sex with a woman? Or did they desire sex with someone falling between categories? Women taught Rykener how to be read as a woman and how to play on gender expectations. To what purpose?
Laws that expected a clear gender binary had no way to address the situation. Despite the detailed interrogation, no formal charges were recorded against Rykener--which doesn’t preclude more informal hazards now that their story was out.
Dinshaw compares Rykener’s categorical indeterminacy with the way Chaucer’s Pardoner is presented (and mocked, in-text) as anomalously masculine (with hints that he might be a eunuch). [There follows a great deal of analysis of Chaucer’s use of language and imagery in general.]
The chapter ends with Foucault’s essay “The Life of Infamous Men” on the context and problems of doing history on persons whose lives emerge only from (often antagonistic) texts. [Note: Foucault seems to be playing on both the derogatory sense of “infamous” and a literal sense of “not famous,” that is, men for whom we don’t have multiple textual sources due to the obscurity of their lives.]
Foucault was struck by the power that such ordinary “real existences” have in contrast to the more mythologized lives of the famous. Although his essay is not specifically commenting on queer history, Foucault’s observation is powerful in the context of trying to document and understand queer lives. Texts such as Rykener’s can create affective relations across time that stand apart from any objective unknowable “truth” of their lives.
One tricky problem in trying to identify homoerotic practices in the pre-modern West is the rhetorical layer in which accusations of sodomy (or, at times, tribadry) were used as a generic insult or strategic accusation in contexts where actual specific sexual practices may have been irrelevant. Thus, in a context where two groups (Lollards and orthodox writers) simultaneously charge each other with sodomy, are we to look for shades of meaning and context in which both charges might be literally true? Or do we treat it similarly to a modern schoolyard insult in which an agreed on disparagement of homosexuality is communicated but the practice of it by specific individuals is not the point?
One thing that we can glean from the Lollards' detailed explanation of why they were concerned with clerical sodomy are the distinctions they make between men and women in the accusation. In addition to a belief that "idolatry" (as the Lollards conceived it) led to sodomy, or that it was a consequence of "foreign" influence, they expressed a concern that the gender-segregation inherent in the priesthood, and present in monastic houses, would result in same-sex erotics due to a need to fulfil the sex drive. But while they asserted that “men who are averse to relations with women” (with an implication that they are not at all averse to relations with men) might be specifically drawn to a religious life, the framing of women's desires is entirely about "making do" when men are not available. There is no acknowledgement that women might be attracted to the convent specifically because they were "averse to relations with men."
Chapter 1: Lollards, Sodomites, and Their Accusers
When the Lollards posted their manifesto on the doors of Westminster in 1395, one of the themes was railing against sodomites, especially in the clergy. Given that sodomy was traditionally charged against heretics (such as the Lollards), was this intended as a literal accusation or only a sort of general defaming? The intersection of these motifs--Lollards and sodomites--is the topic of this chapter.
The Lollards, though of diverse nature, were concerned with church reform, especially of clerical privilege and misbehavior. Sodomy is reference in their accusations as a consequence of the requirement for clerical celibacy. (That is, the believed that enforced celibacy resulted in practicing sodomy.) But among the practices they objected to were the concept of the priesthood itself, transubstantiation (i.e., conversion of the Host to the body of Christ), pilgrimages, and prayers for the dead.
Lollards identified themselves as “we poor men” and presented themselves as a community concerned with secular as well as sacred ills. Among their concern, accusations of sodomy are persistent, if not as numerous as concerns with simony and idolatry. There is also a strain of nationalism in Lollard rhetoric that frames sodomy (among other things) as a foreign practice (by ethnic or racial “others”) and as something that could (and should) be eliminated by rejecting foreigners.
Idolatry and sodomy were causally linked in their arguments via Paul’s letter to the Romans, where idolatry is presented as the cause of God “giving them up to same-sex relations.” By similar logical connections, sodomy is linked to murder, simony, leprosy, and heresy.
But opponents of the Lollards, in turn, included sodomy in accusations against them, though it was not a common or universal accusation and may have simply come from a general conflation of heresy and sodomy. In this specific instance, sodomy may be no more than a mocking echo of the Lollards own accusations against the clergy. This sort of “I know you are, but what am I?” rhetoric drains the word of specificity and shifts it to a generalized insult.
The Lollards argumentation is that the requirement for clerical celibacy results in gender-segregated institutions which result in same sex activity due to the need to resolve sexual desire. But they also noted that men who are averse to relations with women (implying that such a--possibly innate--preference existed) are thus drawn to clerical life. But these supposedly logical arguments only raise more complicated questions about the nature of desire and sexuality.
(The chapter moves into discussion of other Lollard concerns such as transubstantiation.)
The Lollard objection to celibacy was not restricted to men, but anxiety about women’s vows takes a different form. Again, the basic concern is that if women do not have a heterosexual sexual outlet, they will turn to having sex with themselves (either in the sense of masturbation, or in the sense of with other women) or with irrational beasts, or with inanimate objects. This is contrasted as being even worse than other female-coded, sexually-related sins such as infanticide and contraception. But the worst such sin is the sort of lechery they “will not name..for it might do harm to clean hearts.” I.e., naming it might give women ideas. For both men and women, lechery was thought to be caused by an imbalance of humors due to indulgence in rich foods, so the urge toward sexual sins was tied up with general railing against “luxury.”
The idea of exactly how women might engage in sex without men is fuzzy. It assumes the need for a penis-substitute and for an “active” partner. For women, the Lollard recommendation to resolve this is to provide a heterosexual alternative (e.g., marrying off widows and nuns). There is no suggestion of a parallel to the “men who are averse to relations with women”, i.e., that some women might be drawn to a cloistered life due to antipathy toward men in general.
Stepping back, the Lollard concerns around sexuality are little different from orthodox ones, differing perhaps only in the suggested remedy. From the point of view of sexual “deviants,” dissent and orthodoxy look very much alike.
Some works loom large in a historic field without necessarily providing new bodies of data for that field. In fact, to a large extent, one might view the writing of historians to divide (somewhat messily) into "the presentation of facts" and "the interpretation of the presentation of facts." With an additional category of "the interpretation of the interpretation of the presentation of facts."
It was the references to Dinshaw's Getting Medieval in that third category that led me to include it in my current focus on "foundational works", but Dinshaw's book itself belongs solidly to the second category. This means that its discussion of queer-relevant themes in history largely involves moving objects around on an idea-board for which familiarity is assumed rather than created. This is, of course, much of what the work of history is: the questions of how we interpret "facts" and how different interpretations of "facts" are themselves a subject that must be studied and understood as part of "doing history."
In tackling the books in my "theoretical works" series, I've dithered a bit in how to schedule the blog. Many of my write-ups are a bit long to do as a single post, but don't necessarily contain enough interesting material to justify spreading them out over multiple weeks. So for some books, like this one, I'll be doing a cluster of sub-blogs in a single week. This means that the amount of work I spend on reading and writing them up will be a lot more concentrated than usual. For this reason, I've revised how I'm scheduling things for the next several months to break up the dense books with groups of semi-related articles. (Originally, I'd planned to do all the books in a row and get them out of the way!) I suspect this will also be more interesting for readers. I don't want to scare you away (all six of you) with a few months of nothing but theory and philosophy!
This is not fundamentally a book about queer sex in history, it’s a book about the place of sex in the construction of certain historic communities in 14-15th century England, and specifically the place of sexuality in community-identification in relation to Lollard ideas. [Note: it may be useful for the reader to get a brief background in Lollardy from Wikipedia. Basically, it’s a pre-Protestant reformation movement inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe and his translation of the Bible into English.] Some examples involved in this study are queer or have resonance for modern queer communities. And Dinshaw’s approach includes a queer-aligned examination of how people connect with historic communities across time. So it’s not so much a contribution to queer history as a topic, but to the act of doing queer history as a project.
The introduction (as is usual for a book of this sort) provides a survey of the topics and texts that will be discussed. It begins with a late 14th century verse manual for parish priests. In discussing sexual advice, the manual suggests with regard to sexual sins: “Also written well I find, That of sin against kind [i.e., sin against nature], Thou shalt thy parish nothing teach, Nor of that sin nothing preach.” Dinshaw examines how we can understand what “sin against kind” means in a context where its unspeakability was an essential characteristic. This will be explored further in chapters 1 and 2.
The definition and discussion of types of sexual sin--with the understanding that under some theologies, all sex was inescapably sinful--creates an indeterminate understanding of where same-sex practices fell within it. Some sex acts were simultaneously “against nature” and something that people might fall into through innate desire, as in Gower’s version of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.
Dinshaw discusses the theoretical landscape she’s working in, with a review of existing studies, including the uses of cross-historical affective identification as a type of dissidence and agency. That is: the desire of modern people to identify with people in the past as “like them” gives those modern people both a way of challenging the modern narratives they’re forced into, and a way of taking charge of their own transhistorical identities.
Although viewing cultural phenomena (such as sex) as “fundamentally indeterminate,” Dinshaw does not see this as incompatible with identifying a “usable history” for queer people. In terms of providing identification for community formation, connections across time need not be complete or identical to create “community.”
John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” opened an ongoing debate on this topic and is analyzed as a community-building force of its own in Dinshaw’s book. Boswell assembled evidence supporting a conceptual shift in the mid 13th century from a relatively tolerant Christianity and a flourishing self-consciously “gay” urban subculture to a more repressive, intolerant Christianity. Boswell was accused of “white-washing” the church out of a desire for a sense of acceptance (i.e., a desire to find a historic Christian church that allegedly had accepted and embraced homosexuality, as a path to influencing modern Christians to “return” to that state). Boswell’s work serves as an example of the public side of “doing history” in the late 20th century.
Boswell participated in a debate on whether one can say there were “real” gay people in history, or whether sexuality is always an ephemeral cultural construct--the former being an apparent prerequisite for the existence of “gay history.” Apart from the essentially cultural critique, Boswell’s approach has been accused of glossing over institutionalized age-difference aspects of male-male relationships, and of unwarrantedly assuming that his overwhelmingly male data applied to women as well.
Dinshaw discusses Foucault’s reception of Boswell’s work and how it interacted with his own work and approach. She surveys other historians working across the field of the history of sexuality.
Dinshaw uses an analysis of the Lollards as a light on the complexity of identification--how such cultural conflicts are complex, with the sides often having far more in common than not, even while people yearn for simple tests and metrics of truth and deviancy.
One chapter uses the case of John/Eleanor Rykener as an illustration of the elusiveness of categories.
There is much philosophizing to finish up the introduction.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40d - Class and Models of Lesbian Desire - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/11/23 - listen here)
There are a vast number of historical lesbian archetypes--always keeping in mind that I’m not necessarily talking about historic people who would have identified as “lesbian” but of people and lives who have resonance for modern readers who enjoy stories about women who love women. When we think of people like the women in a Boston Marriage, or a cross-dressing “female husband”, or the doomed swaggering seductive temptress of a decadent French novel, there is a tendency to imagine those archetypes as being the image of the lesbian in their particular era and culture.
This isn’t the case, any more than a particular era has only one model of what it means to be heterosexual. But in examining these archetypes in isolation, another thing we can lose sight of is that each model arises out of a particular set of cultural circumstances, and not all women had the opportunity to participate in all of their era’s lesbian archetypes. From the point of view of an author, the circumstances of your character’s birth affect what their options are likely to be for expressing same-sex love.
Today’s discussion explores the importance of class in lesbian archetypes. Which roles would a woman be able to inhabit? By “class” I mean not only economic status, but different social strata that brought both beliefs and expectations about one’s life path and goals. All of these factors changed over time. In order to know what your character’s expectations are--or what sort of character will best fit the plot you envision--you need to examine the setting in time, geography, and social context.
I’m going to look at five factors that intertwine in complex ways: understandings of sexuality, money, family structure, agency with regard to marriage, and access to economic independence. This won’t be an exhaustive catalog of the possibilities, but rather a set of contrasts and comparisons that inform how a woman might think about same-sex relationships and what her options are for engaging in them. As usual, my focus is primarily on Europe and the European-colonized era in America. I don’t feel I have enough of a deep understanding of other regions to do a similar analysis.
One of the more essential features of class difference in history can be beliefs about the sexuality of people of different classes. Does a culture believe that working-class people have a more intense or less controlled sex drive than upper-class people? This was true at certain times. Or does a culture view upper-class people as given to wild decadence and libertine sex lives, as contrasted with the down-to-earth morality of the poor? This also was true at certain times.
Cultural beliefs about the innate sexuality of people of different classes aren’t rooted in some sort of truth and don’t even necessarily reflect statistical reality. But they shape people’s self-image as well as shaping how others react to their behavior. When the image of chaste female Romantic Friendship was celebrated among middle-class British and American society, it was understood to be in contrast to the less “elevated” sensibilities of the lower classes and foreigners. The famous trial of Woods and Pirie concluded that it was inappropriate to even imagine nice, educated, middle-class women having sex with each other, but acknowledged that such things were done by the lower classes.
The libertine sexuality of the English and French courts in the late 17th and early 18th century included an assumption that both men and women were capable of sexual desire for any gender. But those ideas existed in parallel with a growing religiously-inspired sexual conservatism that was more popular among the middle and working classes.
So when you’re developing your historic character, you can’t assume that there’s a single attitude toward same-sex sexuality in your setting. How will people react to her desire for other women? How will they interpret it? How much will that depend on who she is?
In 21st century western culture, we’re accustomed to the idea that wealth can make everything easier and more possible. Whether we view wealth and class as distinct or as linked concepts, modern fiction tends to separate the abstract concept of wealth from the social contexts in which it is acquired.
Money buys us privacy; it insulates us from the opinions of others; and it goes quite a ways toward insulating us from legal consequences for our actions. Especially if wealth is inherited, we can treat it as a neutral character asset, like beauty or a good sense of humor.
But historically wealth has been closely tied to class in various ways, and class in turn affected self-identity and expected life paths. If a person’s wealth came from membership in a hereditary land-owning aristocracy, it came with strong expectations regarding one’s family role and the need to help create alliances and networks to maintain that status. Opting out of those responsibilities generally meant opting out of the benefits of the family wealth.
When the world turned, and wealth became associated with the rise of a middle-class mercantile or industrial class, one of the features of those groups was an aspirational upward mobility that often embraced stricter ideas of moral behavior than the aristocracy, even as they viewed their material success as distinguishing them from the lower classes.
So the same wealth that might, in theory, provide freedom and protection from popular disapproval of one’s sexuality, might bring with it an increased expectation to subordinate one’s personal desires to the goals of the family. Or the social aspirations that money made possible might be undermined by any appearance of deviating from expected behavior.
Furthermore, in past eras, wealth and its benefits were not easily portable. It could be difficult to continue to enjoy the benefits of money if you walked away from the institutions and social structures it was tied to. And someone with no apparent social or familial ties who shows up in town with a large fortune will likely be under more scrutiny for unusual behavior rather than less.
So you can’t necessarily solve the hazards of your historic character’s sexuality simply by throwing money at them. You need to consider how they obtained that money, what they need to do to maintain it, and what additional restrictions and burdens come with it.
The question of money leads naturally into issues of family structure and responsibilities, as well as household structures. How do these questions differ for different classes? And how do they enable or hinder different types of same-sex relationships?
In the realm of historical fiction, we often imagine that marriage obligations to further dynastic goals are restricted to royalty, or at least to the aristocracy. But especially in the pre-modern era--before the rise of industrialism--the creation of personal connections between families via marriage or other relationships had vital consequences for the economy and stability of the larger group as well as the individual. Heterosexual marriage was a way of exchanging resources between families and securing expectations of loyalty or assistance. Marriage established financial arrangements for the transmission of wealth to the next generation. Those arrangements could continue to bind the members of extended families in mutually beneficial contracts for generations to come.
This held true not only for middle class mercantile and craft families, but for rural agricultural families as well. So a specific woman’s life choices to marry a man or not could affect her entire extended family. In eras when participation in those extended family networks was critical to one’s personal success, as well as being driven by family feelings, it could seem only natural to subordinate personal taste to the greater good.
Conversely, the economic and familial bonding aspects of heterosexual marriage meant that the people engaging in it didn’t necessarily expect marriage to fulfill their emotional or erotic needs. Due to patriarchal interests in being certain of parentage, there was a great deal of scrutiny on women who looked to men to fill those needs, but for the same reason there was far less concern if they looked to other women.
And the inter-family bonds across all classes were not restricted to marriage, though as usual, the nature of those bonds differed by class. In working class families of the pre-industrial era, it was common for adolescents of any gender to spend time working outside the family home, either as a formal apprentice, or as a domestic servant, or as something halfway between the two. It was usual for a young woman in this type of arrangement to be part of a group of age-mates in the same position, who would share living space (including sharing beds) and perhaps make friendships that would affect the course of their lives.
Among the land-owning classes and aristocracy, similar arrangements brought even younger children into the household of a family connection (ideally, one of higher status) to learn manners, household management, and build ties of alliance perhaps including marriage to a scion of the family. We see a deeply emotional bond between two women who likely met in this context in the funeral monument of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in the 15th century.
Marriage and Employment
One topic where class can make a significant difference is in marriage options. Does a person have a say in whether or not they get married? How much choice do they have of one suitor or another? What are their options if they choose not to marry? While historic women might view heterosexual marriage as compatible with same-sex romance, the readers of historic fiction tend to feel uncomfortable around any pairing that doesn’t involve romantic love (at least in the end). So if the goal is to have your character find an unremarkable way to opt out of heterosexual marriage, it helps to know the options that are appropriate to her class.
A woman born into the upper classes will generally have less agency in marriage options than other classes. But this includes a higher likelihood of remaining unmarried if no appropriate suitor is available. During some eras, the narrow requirements for a suitable husband meant that large numbers of daughters of the landowning classes went unmarried. Alternately, a planned marriage might fall through for reasons of social politics. At the same time she’s less likely to have the ability or inclination to simply reject marriage for reasons of personal preference. When there’s no expectation that a heterosexual woman will marry for love, it seems less likely that lack of interest in men entirely would be considered a reason not to marry. And even alternate arrangements like entering a religious life rely on family cooperation, rather than being a matter of personal choice.
Among the working classes, one of the most common reasons for a woman not marrying is insufficient finances to set up an independent household. The most typical method of funding marriage might differ depending on era or region--in northern Europe she might be working for wages to “earn a nest egg” and argue that she hasn’t met her target yet. In southern Europe it might be more expected that a dowry would be provided by the family or through charity. Both of these might fail for various reasons.
The circumstances of a middle-class woman’s life would be affected strongly by era, location, and the precise nature of her family’s status. But it might be a useful generalization to say that she has more agency to refuse a suitor, to choose a self-supporting career, or to remain an unmarried participant in a relative’s household. In the middle ages, middle class women could be independent business women or craftswomen. In the 19th century, the option of a career in social or intellectual pursuits gradually became more available. But conversely, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a middle class woman would find it harder to be economically independent of her family.
Upper class women rarely had the option of working to support themselves. Not only was it simply Not Done, but they often didn’t have access to the skills and training to do anything other than manage a household.
So what about some of the popular literary tropes for getting your woman-loving-woman free of the social constraints of heteronormativity?
One very popular trope in f/f historical romance for allowing your characters a Happily Ever After ending is for one of the women to pass as a man. Setting aside, for the moment, the complicated question of gender disguise versus transgender identity, this option comes with some significant consequences. For one, changing your identity--whether it involves gender or not--means walking away from all the resources, support, and connections of your former life. In our hyper-mobile, individualistic world today, it can be difficult to realize just how drastic an action that would be in past ages.
Remember what I said about wealth being tied to land for the upper classes? You can’t just pick that up and take it with you. Nor can that type of wealth be suddenly bequeathed to a complete “stranger” who suddenly appears with a deed of sale. There’s a place in Anne Lister’s diary where she fantasizes about disguising herself as a man in order to marry one of her lovers. But she recognizes that it would mean walking away Shibden Hall, from any sort of financial security, and from the family heritage that she was so proud of. That’s a major roadblock.
In the pre-industrial era, even middle-class wealth was often in non-portable forms. Making a break with your former self meant starting from scratch, not only in employment, but in reputation and all the sorts of ties that make the difference between isolation and a social safety net. The closer you kept to the places and life you were familiar with, the greater the risk of being recognized by someone from your former life. And across vast swathes of time and in many places, being “not from around here” was a substantial handicap for success. It made getting employment harder and it often brought attention from the local authorities--something that passing women might want to avoid.
Changing one’s identity was easier, in some ways, for a woman who had little to lose: the poor or those who had lost family support and ties for some other reason. But you still needed to be able to support yourself and--since we’re talking about writing romance here--support the woman you love.
There’s a reason why a significant proportion of the early known examples of passing women correspond to the rise of professional military forces in the 17th century. Military recruits were often in short enough supply that they were given little scrutiny, and a military career could easily take you far from your origins. But from the point of view of establishing a same-sex relationship, military life had its own hazards.
One of the reasons for the popularity of gender-disguise plots in the American West--in addition to the simple popularity of the western setting in general--is that most people had the same starting point: they’d left their previous lives behind and were all establishing new identities. In a sense, the westward expansion erased many differences of class. But this show is about when class does matter, so let’s move on.
The concept of Romantic Friendship, which has such lovely potential to be a smokescreen for same-sex relationships, was enacted in different ways in different eras and among different classes. For middle-class women, economic changes in the 19th century made it more possible for two supposedly single women to establish an independent household together. Indeed, the economic savings of combining households offered cover to working women that wealthy women of a higher class didn’t have the same access to.
Aristocratic women of the 17th and 18th century might extol the importance of female bonds, as poet Katherine Philips did with her “Society of Friendship”, but they rarely had an economic basis that would enable them to avoid marriage in favor of their passionate female friends. When they could--as in the case of the late 18th century “Ladies of Llangollen”, it was typically due to family support and might be tenuously dependent on the continuing good will of a relative.
But similarly, before the rise of the “new woman” in the later 19th century, and increased economic options for middle class women, their romantic ties to other women often had to take second place to family obligations that provided a home and livelihood.
Putting Class Models Into Practice
I played on a lot of these class differences in developing the various characters and relationships in my Alpennia series. Jeanne de Cherdillac plays on the archetype of the decadent aristocrat. She is allowed to be entertainingly scandalous, to some degree, but also has a marriage in her past. Margerit Sovitre uses wealth as an excuse to avoid marriage, and balances on the edge of using middle-class respectability to deflect suspicion about her personal life. And Rozild Pairmen, the heroine of Floodtide, is a working-class girl who falls in love in the close quarters of the servants’ hall. No one will brush her relationship off as a pure and innocent romantic friendship because one doesn’t expect her sort to have that sort of refined sensibilities. All three archetypes--and more--co-exist in their own spheres of society. The circumstances of their births and the paths of their lives affect how they are able to establish and enjoy relationships with other women. And yet each has a path to happiness.
I’ll confess that I had higher hopes of relevance to my purposes for this collection. Overall, the articles included here were more narrowly theory-oriented and of less general interest than I hoped. Also, the queer content was overwhelmingly male focused. I’d originally planned to do each article as a separate entry, but found myself skimming through many of them. In the end, it made much more sense to cover this publication as a single blog.
Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz. 1997. Constructing Medieval Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-2829-7
The purpose of this collection is to “think differently” about medieval sexuality without losing the benefits of modern theoretical approaches. The authors address sexuality not in the narrow sense of orientation but as the study of experiences, attitudes, customs, and institutions that are a subjetive human experience and an objective field of “knowledge”. Sexuality was embedded in other medieval systems such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.
Sexuality is not a single phenomenon, and is often internally contradictory, such as the simultaneous view that variant sexual practices can be both “natural” and sinful. The articles share certain approaches: sexuality in relation to gender, ideas about the body as integral to sexuality, sexuality relative to identity/otherness, recognition of the influence of the present on our understanding of the past.
If sexuality is not considered side by side with gender, it risks accepting a conservative and male-dominated understanding of the past. Neither gender nor sexuality categories are entirely stable. Gender may be treated as independent of sex. The instability may come from overlaying different stable frameworks, such as medicine and literature. In literature, gender is established via clothing/appearance, not through the body, and through gendered role relationships. Bodily functions may be viewed both as functionally male and morally feminine (as with the idea of nocturnal emissions representing both an inherently male experience and a feminine loss of bodily control).
A history of the medieval understanding of bodies challenges one to “think differently.” Bodies are not a fixed, knowable substance, nor is sexual difference always assumed to be clearly and easily distinct. Foucault is invoked with regard to the concept of “identities” via his distinction between the sodomite (“acts”) and the homosexual (“identities”). But this strict chronology has been called into question by recent work. Categorization by “acts” is still active today, not solely a feature of the past. And there is evidence--if you look for it--of “identities” in the past. Medieval people might identify “kinds” of people for whom certain acts were natural, without those “kinds” aligning with modern orientations. Furthermore, heterosexuality isn’t a stable category in the middle ages either. Sexuality categories are intertwined with other types of classification.
Can the study of medieval sexuality lead us to different understandings of modern sexuality? Can studies like this collection challenge the myth of a heteronormative past and a queer modernity?
1. Pollution, Illusion, and Masculine Disarray: Nocturnal Emissions and the Sexuality of the Clergy - Dyan Elliott
A discussion of the problem of unconscious/uncontrolled sexual events with respect to men’s sexuality, with special focus on the clergy. [Not of particular interest to me.]
2. Homosexuality, Luxuria, and Textual Abuse - Mark D. Jordan
The article starts with a bunch of wordplay then moves on to consider three related words: luxuria, vitium sodomiticum, and peccatum (vitium) contra natura. The second and third can be read transparently as “sodomitic vice” and “vice/sin against nature. But luxuria is harder to render because it doesn’t correlate directly to “luxury” in the modern sense. One might interpret it more closely as “an inappropriate excess of pleasure,” but in Aquinas (as examined here) it focuses centrally on an excess of sexual pleasure. Though this is the central sense, the concept was considered to give rise to a number of secondary effects.
Like some of the other sins covered by Aquinas in the same text, luxuria is subcategorized into various kinds with different degrees of seriousness, including fornication, adultery, incest, rape, and acts “against nature.” The article closely examines not only how these subcategories are discussed and judged, but how that discussion compares to that of other sins. For example, arguing with Augustine’s position that sins “against nature” are less serious than adultery or rape (because they don’t harm anyone else), Aquinas argues that contra naturem are more serious because they harm God.
This variable evaluation of sodomy is a feature of many medieval theological treatments. Aquinas discusses sodomy as a “vice” not as a medical condition or a habit or an identity. Nor does he bring gender identity into the question (i.e., he doesn't consider men to practice sodomy because they have a feminine identity). But in touching on why people are drawn to this vice, he stumbles into contradiction.
“Pleasure,” he posits, comes from the fulfillment of a natural purpose, but the “anti-natural” vice of sodomy is attractive because it results in an overwhelming pleasure. How can that be, if pleasure only comes from the natural?
The focus on this article is entirely on male same-sex activity falling within the category of “against nature.”
3. Sciences/Silences: The Natures and Languages of “Sodomy” in Peter of Abano’s Problemata Commentary - Joan Cadden
This article looks at the language used to discuss sodomy, and especially the erasure of specific language about it “lest talking about it give people ideas.” The article is particularly concerned with a text by Peter of Abano that offers two conflicting “reasons” for men to engage in sodomy. Cadden briefly acknowledges the different ways such texts approached male and female same-sex activity. Women were considered to engage in it only as a substitute for unavailable heterosexual sex, but men needed a positive reason to explain their actions.
Abano offers two explanations. Some men, he says, have a variant physiology such that they only receive sexual pleasure through (receptive) anal sex. In this, they can be compared to the pleasure women take in being penetrated. But this raises the problem of why there are men who enjoy both “acting and being acted on.” Despite the vague language, it’s clear he’s concerned narrowly with anal sex. For these men, too, he offers a physiological explanation.
Abano’s theories draw to some extent on Avicenna, taken from Arabic sources. In this context, sodomy might be considered a “healthy” way to manage humoral balance in non-normative bodies.
But Abano then turns to those for whom sodomy is “a habit” rather than an innate impulse. Here the language is more negative and condemnatory. Cadden discusses how the two views are differentiated by the vocabulary and references Abano uses, but that the end conclusion is still that vice--whether innate or acquired--should be condemned and resisted.
4. Manuscript Illumination and the Art of Copulation - Michael Camille
An examination of medieval artistic depictions of heterosexual copulation, and how they reinforce a narrow understanding of normative sex acts based on a gendered hierarchy of power.
5. Bodies that Don’t Matter: Heterosexuality before Heterosexuality in Gottfried’s Tristan - James A. Schultz
[Note: to let the casual reader in on the joke, the article’s title is referencing Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter. I have the nagging sense that there may be a publication “Homosexuality before Homosexuality” that is also being referenced, but can’t find a clear candidate.]
Schultz examines how bodies and sexual desire are treated in medieval romances, and how gender is presented as relying on arbitrary superficial appearance, not as an inherent property of the person. Men and women are described as beautiful and desirable in nearly identical terms. Clothing and performance are what create gender. But clothing is also far more connected to class than to bodily sex. Despite all this, desire is assumed to be heterosexual in all cases, even when the bodies involved are of the same sex. There is a brief discussion of how heteronormative gender identities are assigned to couples who both have female bodies, but somewhat confusingly the author does not talk about specific romances with this motif (such as Yde or Tristan de Nanteuil).
6. Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or Lady/Man? - E. Jane Burns
Paired with the previous article, this takes another look at gender “creation” in medieval courtly romances. There are conflicting gender roles/performances in the courtly love tradition, borrowing from the lord-vassel relationship. This is further complicated in representation by the general similarity of male and female clothing and relatively gender-neutral standards of beauty. These conflicting roles and representations are relevant not only for how medieval people interpreted gender signifiers, but how modern scholars can (mis)interpret gender signs in visual representation. (An anecdote is given of an image of a kneeling figure in armor performing homage to a standing figure in a long garment where different historians interpreted it as an image of courtly love with the standing figure as female, versus ordinary feudal homage with the standing figure interpreted as male.)
This article focuses on the representation of Lancelot, especially in relationship to Guenevere, as portraying a slippage of gender roles. There is also a discussion of how clerical rhetoric against luxurious/fashionable clothing simultaneously claims that it feminizes men and masculinizes women.
In literature, armor is the ultimate creator of masculinity. To be armored/protected/covered is to be masculine, whereas to be exposed, uncovered, vulnerable is to be feminine. But the behavioral and sartorial crossing of gender lines is far more accepted for men than for women, who are rebuked if they step outside gender signifier norms. An example is given of a 13th century sermon against women who wear male-signified clothing and accessories as being both too knightly and too seductive at the same time.
7. The Love of Thy Neighbor - Louise O. Fradenburg
This article contrasts two types of love defined in Christian theology: charity, the love of God and the enjoyment of self and neighbor for the sake of God; and cupidity, the enjoyment of anything for the sake of something other than God. The article is a psychoanalytic study of the concept of “charity” in this context. [Note: I found it at the same time too dense and too diffuse to summarize easily.]
8. Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories - Steven F. Kruger
This article looks a tthe intertwining of gender, religion, and race to argue that identity cannot be defined for any of these axes without considering intersectionality. [Note: the article doesn’t use the term “intersectionality” but is clearly talking about the concept generally known by that name.] Anxieties about categories are especially focused on the image of category-transgression (women acting as men, the ”feminization” of Jewish men in Christian mythology, etc.). The article discussions the concept of “conversion” as a locus of anxiety for all of these categories, especially in the context of penalties for cross-religious relationships (both personal and economic) that were considered to create a risk of “pollution”, either overt or symbolic conversion from one category to another.
9. Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies - Karma Lochrie
Lochrie considers the interpretation of mystical experiences in a sexual framework, especially within the concept of “queering” history. But is “queering” a valid study of the gaps and contradictions in the historic record, or an anachronistic projection? Lochrie looks at the often dark and violent imagery of mystical eroticism, with its themes of disease, torment, mortality, and decay. Ecstasy is depicted as a violent, violating experience. There is a discussion of the image of Christ’s wound as a vulva symbol and its relation to (feminine) suffering as a religious experience.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 40c - Book Appreciation with Heather Rose Jones - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/11/16 - listen here)
A transcript is pending.
Show Notes and Links
In this episode we talk about:
It's the official book-birthday for Floodtide! I'm loving seeing all the mentions and recommendations washing through my social media. Such a difference from last time! (More thoughts on that, but not while I'm in the middle of celebrating.)
A brief reminder of logistics:
An even more brief reminder of the part you can play in Floodtide's success:
To celebrate the release of Floodtide, I've been picked as the Featured Author of the month at Bella Books. That means my entire backlist (hard copy and ebooks) is 30% off. So whether you're only just discovering Alpennia through Floodtide or if you meant to get caught up on the series before reading it, this is a great opportunity to fill in the gaps.