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14th c

LHMP entry

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

While covering much of the same timeframe, Cadden takes a broader and more diverse view than Laqueur, while acknowledging the reality of his two models (the one-sex and two-sex models). In all eras, the “facts” about sex and sexuality are filtered through cultural prejudices. Medieval ideas about sex difference were part of the culture’s assumptions about gender. Medieval society was not a single culture, and the era covered several overall shifts in thinking, so there isn’t a single unified “medieval idea” of sex difference that can be pointed to.

The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands.

Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions.

The legend of the virgin martyr Katherine of Alexandria became immensely popular in the 14-15th century. It presents the fairly standard story of the Christian daughter of a pagan ruler who resists marriage and supports the Christian community despite increasingly violent threats and punishments. With her increased popularity in the later middle ages, there is a shift from the tone of the earlier texts as “passio” (focused on suffering and martyrdom) to a more detailed “life story” (focusing on the details and context of the subject’s life).

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