Ruth Mazo Karras

title.none: Keiser, Courtly Desire & Medieval Homophobia (Karras)

identifier.other: baj9928.9805.007 98.05.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruth Mazo Karras , Temple University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Keiser, Elizabeth B. Courtly Desire & Medieval Homophobia: The Legitimization of Sexual Pleasure in Cleanness and its Contexts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 308. $37.5. ISBN: ISBN 0-300-06923-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.05.07

Keiser, Elizabeth B. Courtly Desire & Medieval Homophobia: The Legitimization of Sexual Pleasure in Cleanness and its Contexts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 308. $37.5. ISBN: ISBN 0-300-06923-5.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Mazo Karras
Temple University

Although this book has the modern coinage "homophobia" in its title and is cataloged under the Library of Congress subject heading "Gay men in literature" (among other headings), it is very far from being an essentialist application of modern categories to medieval literature and ideas. Rather, it is a careful reading of a medieval text and a discussion of its importance in the history of medieval thought about male-male love. It is an erudite work, not intended for a general audience but well worth reading for any medievalist interested in the history of sexualities.

Keiser makes two main arguments in the book. The first is that Cleanness, which by now is one of the canonical texts of medieval queer studies, has fundamentally different reasons than do other medieval texts for rejecting homosexual relations. Most medieval writers equate "natural" with "reproductive" and therefore condemn male-male relations. Cleanness praises heterosexual desire and pleasure without reference to reproduction, and condemns homosexual relations on largely aesthetic grounds. The second, and more interesting, argument is that this unique approach to sexual desire stems from a re-evaluation of masculinity within the courtly ethos.

Keiser begins by discussing the poem's theology, and argues that it connects the divine with beauty, decorum, and purity. "For the form of life he [the poet] calls clene is finally intelligible not in terms of ethical mandates or rationally defined states of virtue or spiritual development . . . but in terms of a bond between God and humanity based on an appreciation of aesthetic possibilities to be enjoyed in the divine order of things" (38). The opposite of this clannesse, which can mean "nobility" or "propriety" as well as "cleanness" or "purity," is not sin or guilt, but revulsion or disgust, and God's greatest wrath is directed at fylthe (filth or foulness).

In her second chapter, Keiser develops the notion that fylthe of the flesch is the worst offense against clannesse. This is hardly surprising to anyone who has studied medieval preaching or didactic texts, where luxuria is so often presented as the worst of sins. However, it is surprising in the light of medieval attitudes toward sexuality generally that the poem has no condemnation of heterosexual lust, which is seen as entirely natural without reference to its reproductive function. Keiser argues convincingly that fylthe of the flesch as used in this poem (though not elsewhere) refers to the sin of Sodom in which "each male makes his mate a man like himself" (46). The poet attributes the Flood as well as the destruction of Sodom to this sin, against which God reacts in a uniquely unmerciful manner. But the condemnation of sodomy is coupled with an unusual (if not entirely unprecedented) valorization of heterosexual pleasure. "The inseparability of the poet's warning against fylthe of the flesch and his legitimation of heterosexual pleasure as God's most prized design makes Cleanness unique in the tradition of polemic against men having sexual relations with men. By polarizing heterosexual and homosexual desire, this extraordinary praise of pleasure which the poet adds to the story of Sodom removes any doubt that the sexual appetite, and its satisfaction, is of God's handiwork one of the most purely delightful achievements" (53). Men who have sex with other men oppose this divine gift. This makes Cleanness's opposition to homosexual relations quite different from other medieval polemics: it is neither the upsetting of the social order through the feminization of one partner nor the surrender to sensuality to which the author objects, but rather the rejection of God's aesthetically pleasing design. As God says of the Sodomites: "Between a male and his mate such pleasure should come/That well-nigh pure paradise might prove no better;/. . . /Now they have altered my design and scorned nature/And adopted for themselves in contempt an unclean usage" (67). God praises heterosexual intercourse without explicit reference to marriage or offspring. "Courtly, passionate language is sacralized, but not allegorized, as God is intensely interested in the paramours' literal and, as such, spiritual pleasures, artfully whetted through loveplay" (67).

In the third, fourth and fifth chapters Keiser compares the attitude toward homosexual relations manifested in Cleanness and three other important texts: Alain of Lille's De planctu naturae, Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, and Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose. She concludes that Cleanness is unique in its construction of "homosexual deviance as a scorning of the Creator's art in nature" (131). For Alain, it is the reproductive nature of heterosexual intercourse that makes it Nature's preferred method of coupling, despite human perversity that prefers other modes. That heterosexual intercourse is described as "immense phallic force applied to a female blank"(90); the mutuality found in Cleanness is absent here. Thomas condemns all non-reproductive sexual behavior, including that between a man and a woman, whereas Cleanness does not express any concern about the latter. (Mark Jordan's The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997] appeared too late for Keiser to have used it, but Jordan's chapter on Aquinas tends to support this contrast: he argues that Thomas does not single out male-male intercourse for condemnation, whereas Keiser makes the point that the Cleanness-poet does just that.) Jean perhaps comes closest to the praise of heterosexual pleasure that Cleanness presents (and, indeed, Cleanness cites the Roman approvingly as the "clene Rose." Yet that praise leads Jean to condemn sexual abstinence as much as the male-male intercourse which Cleanness singles out. The mutuality and beauty of Cleanness's heterosexual play of paramorez are also absent.

Keiser then moves to a discussion of the courtly ethos in which she believes Cleanness's view of masculinity is embedded. In Chapter 6 she reads the story about Lot's hospitality to the strangers in the context of "the decorum of aristocratic male bonding, for this homosocial relationship between lord and servant, host and guest, is a primary component of clannesse" (135). The poet, she argues, is creating a contrast between two types of masculinity: an aristocratic or courtly one which has become in some sense softened or feminized, and an aggressive and boorish one. The former corresponds to clannesse and the latter to fylthe of the flesch. Keiser draws on C. Stephen Jaeger's The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals, 939-1210 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985) to discuss the formation of the courtly ideal of homosocial bonding. The idealization of the male bond goes so far, indeed, that Lot can sacrifice his two virgin daughters without compunction in order to maintain proper relations among men. "There is implicit here a curious interplay between insensitivity to women's vulnerability and dignity, on the one hand, and, on the other, unabashed devotion to a courtly standard of male beauty and genteel deportment shaped by values that are culturally identified as feminine" (161).

A mutual ideal of heterosexual lovemaking like that presented in Cleanness corresponds with the romantic ideals of courtly literature but could also lead to the charge of effeminization because of the erosion of male control. Because Cleanness shows God "shifting the paradigm for masculinity from the father who is both propagator and governor of his family to the erotically desiring male who depends on a female counterpart not as a breeder and nurturer of children but as a pleasing sexual partner"(138), and because sensuality and eroticism, often gendered as feminine, are part of this romantic ideal, it is necessary to reaffirm the masculinity of the aristocratic man. This can be done by stressing the Sodomites' aggressiveness. Keiser points out that a Freudian reading could interpret this as a projection of homoeroticism onto the Other. In this account it is not physical beauty and affective bonding that lead to sin, but lack of gentle behavior. Elegance in personal appearance could thus be taken as a sign of class-linked virtue rather than as a sign of unnatural vice. "This unconventional representation of a homosexually active society as unmannerly and violent may well have offered itself to the poet's imagination in order to remove from the aesthetically sensitive and softened masculinity he considers next to godliness any taint of the negative association with unnatural sexual appetites that the courtly ethos sometimes carried with it" (151). It is the Sodomites who are called womanly, not because they are effeminate, or because they are passive, but simply because they desire men.

Chapter 7 suggests that Cleanness also presents the ideal of homosocial bonding--exemplified by Lot's relationship with the strangers--as the relationship between the male reader and God. Jesus, of course, is the epitome of clannesse understood as courtliness: he displays his elegant table manners when breaking the bread at the Last Supper (189). Keiser argues that some of the language about God's relations with men is erotic. God probes not only men's hearts but also their loins: he is a "gropande God" (166). Sacred and profane interpenetrate not within the incarnate body of Christ but within the human sexual body. These images of contact with the divine become possible because of the explicit rejection of homosexual relations: "By overtly reviling the longing for homoerotic intimacy as the most dangerous of human feelings, the poem effectively protects from any homosexual taint the male reader's intimate identification with his all-powerful Lord" (167).

Keiser argues, finally, that Cleanness lacks "theopoetic coherence" -- that in the story of Nebuchadnezzar, God is angered by unclannesse in general and not just by male- male sexual relations. "[I]n the overall impact of the final exemplum, the continuity the poem has traced between heavenly order and human experiences of festive decorum is problematized . . . . The comforting aura of reciprocity between host and guest, lord and servant fades as God's motives are revealed to be after all closely akin to the epic warriors" (212). The other poems found in the same manuscript do, she argues, exhibit a coherence that Cleanness does not. While Keiser's intellectual honesty here is to be commended -- she does not twist the poem to fit her argument -- the conclusion is somewhat disappointing. If, ultimately, the poem does not give a coherent picture of divine clannesse as an aristocratic virtue, this would seem to undercut the previous two hundred pages as well as the possibility of learning much from this text about the way medieval people understood masculinity and male-male love.

This last comment is perhaps a bit unfair, since Keiser makes no such claims directly. In her Introduction, though, she does establish that she is "participating in a movement to liberate our own and future generations from that heterosexist bias. One piece of this emancipating work is rewriting the history of the desiring self with close attention to the dynamics by which heterosexual pleasure comes to be seen as exclusively and supremely good" (16). In fact the theopoetic incoherence of Cleanness seems to me largely irrelevant to this goal. The poet does not have to view homosexual intercourse consistently as uniquely filthy to raise an important point in the medieval debate on male-male love. Nor does the poem's inconsistency on the courtly nature of God change the important conclusions Keiser is able to draw on the relation between the poem's adoption, in some places at least, of a new model of masculinity and its rejection of homosexual behavior. This deep analysis of one work shows us, not an example of "the" medieval view of "homosexuality," but how wide was the range of medieval views on sexual issues. Any scholar interested in the construction of erotic experience in the past will benefit from reading it.