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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #83 Campbell 1992 “Redefining Holy Maidenhead: Virginity and Lesbianism in Late Medieval England”


Full citation: 

Campbell, Mary Anne. 1992. “Redefining Holy Maidenhead: Virginity and Lesbianism in Late Medieval England” Medieval Feminist Newsletter, 13: 14-15.

When I started working on systematically combing the bibliographies of articles I've covered for additional references, I knew that the process was likely to turn up some relatively early work ("early" within the context of "the current conversation about queer history") that has been expanded and superseded since then. Above and beyond the simple desire for completism, I think it's important to review these publications in order to trace that conversation, just as it's important to include articles that have discredited or discarded approaches to certain topics (like gender identity) when they cover material that may not have been revisited.

The theme of this week is "Early publications that have been explored in more depth since then" (which isn't going to work well in my twitter links!).

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This is a brief little article--barely more than a squib--and falls more in the category of "queering medieval texts than "queer medieval texts". The text "Holy maidenhood ", written by a man, operates from the assumption that all women want to be married to a man and to bear children, and that therefore they must be persuaded to choose the more "holy" option of perpetual virginity.

Seen in the light of negative attitudes towards marriage (see e.g., Margery Kempe) it reads instead as a polemic against marriage in general, not just as an alternative to holy virginity. The blind spot of assuming that these two are the only options leaves untouched (in the text) the possibility that women rejecting heterosexual marriage for a life committed to a community of women might be viewed through a lesbian lens.

The article acknowledges that it speaks to modern interpretation, not historic experiences, and provides little of real substance to the consideration of same-sex feelings or actions of medieval nuns. This article comes from a relatively early date in the "queering history" movement and no doubt is cited by later authors in the way of giving credit for the idea rather than for providing substantial data.

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