contributor.author: Anne Gilmour-Bryson

title.none: Burger and Kruger, Queering the Middle Ages (Anne Gilmour-Bryson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.004 02.11.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Gilmour-Bryson, University of Melbourne, annegb@telus.net

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Burger, Glenn and Steven F. Kruger, ed. Queering the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Pp. xxiii, 318. $49.95 0-8166-3403-3. ISBN: $19.95 0-8166-3404-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.04

Burger, Glenn and Steven F. Kruger, ed. Queering the Middle Ages. Medieval Cultures. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Pp. xxiii, 318. $49.95 0-8166-3403-3. ISBN: $19.95 0-8166-3404-1.

Reviewed by:

Anne Gilmour-Bryson
University of Melbourne
annegb@telus.net

The purpose of the collection under review is stated as to "deconstruct the medieval as we have come to know it"..."to present new work from a variety of disciplines...allowing us to see the Middle Ages and its systems of sexuality in radically different, off-center, and revealing ways" (xiii). Queer Theory is obviously central to this collection, defined here as a method which exposes the artificiality of defining heterosexual sex as the norm, thus constructing any other mode of sexuality as perverse or abnormal. Through reading these essays we discover what the authors call their 'preposterous' attempt to discuss medieval sexuality juxtaposed with post-modern thought. An excellent bibliography on medieval women, gender, Queer Theory, and sexuality is given in notes to the Introduction, authored by the editors (xxi-xxiii). One of the most refreshing and intriguing aspects of these essays is the way in which they often draw skilful parallels between their medieval subjects and the position of, or attitudes to, gays and lesbians in modern society.

This essay collection, which consists of ten essays grouped in three sections, each completed by a response, is best read by those not entirely up-to-date in the area after such works as: Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, James A. Schultz, edd., Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis, 1997), especially Steven F. Kruger, "Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious and Racial Categories," pp. 161-2, 164; and Karma Lochrie, "Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies," pp. 180-181, 186, 196. Essays by Michael Camille, Steven Kruger, and Karma Lochrie appear in both volumes. In the case of the present work being used by students new to gender studies, I would recommend Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin, edd., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (New York, 1993), articles by Gayle Rubin, "Thinking Sex, Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality," and David Halperin, "Is there a history of sexuality?," pp. 416-31, John J. Winkler, "Double Consciousness in Sappho's Lyrics," pp. 577-94. A further theoretical background suitable for undergraduate students can be found in Martin Duberman, ed., A Queer World (New York, 1997) especially "Are Modern Western Lesbian Women and Gay Men a Third Gender," pp. 87-99; Jonathan Katz, " 'Homosexual' and 'Heterosexual': Questioning the Terms," pp. 177-80; David A.J. Richards, "Sexual Preference as a Suspect Classification," pp. 405-17.

Article 1, "Queering Ovidian Myth. Bestiality and Desire in Christine de Pizan's Epistre Othea by Marilyn Desmond and Pamela Sheingorn explores the way in which illustrations from one of the manuscripts, when examined with images from Ovide moralise should be interpreted to show that the images do not, in fact, act to control female sexuality but to foreground Pasiphae and her bestial desire (21). Pasiphaw is thus given strength and agency instead of being regarded merely as a victim.

Article 2 "Sodomy's Mark. Alan of Lille, Jean de Meun, and the Medieval Theory of Authorship" by Susan Schibanoff, is a difficult essay because of the philological basis used in the discussion of the relationship between "technical grammatical metaphors" and societal attitudes to the male sodomite in the writings of Alan of Lille. What will undergraduate students make of Alan's statement: "Masculine should be coupled with masculine by the rules of grammar"? The section on Jean de Meun explains how Meun brilliantly resolved some of the knotty problems found in Lille's argumentation against sodomy. To Schibanoff, what twelfth- and thirteenth-century writers were attempting to do was to show as best they could that the ancient views on boy love were incorrect. "Rather than deny or defame same-sex love, the scholastic prologue defends heterosexuality by privileging it as the sole paradigm of creativity" (51).

Article 3, "The Pose of the Queer" by Michael Camille, continues his fascinating work on the interpretation of sexual themes in medieval art found also in "Manuscript Illumination and the Art of Copulation" in Constructing Medieval Sexuality, cited above, pp. 58-90. In the present essay, Camille focuses on the image of Dante gazing at Brunetto Latini in a manuscript of the Inferno. Camille's clear and brilliant description of just what is so extraordinary about this image of what he calls "the first 'flaming' queen in medieval literature" (58) is convincing. I would have to take issue with Camille's statement that "medieval readers saw sodomy as a lesser sin than blasphemy" (61). See my article "Sodomy and the Knights Templar," Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7,2 (1996), especially pages 157-64 in which I stated that "theologians in the period from the sixth to the fourteenth century frequently referred to sodomy as either the most serious sexual sin or one of the gravest of such sins." While, according to Camille's article, some scholars do not link either Dante or Brunetto Latini with sodomy, Dane would appear to portray Brunetto as "sinning against nature" just as the Chantilly manuscript does (63). I am not at all certain that nudity was seen as scandalous in Dante's era, and there is no proof cited of this assertion (68). The article is brilliant, nevertheless, and certainly provides much food for thought.

The response by Karma Lochrie, "Presidential Improprieties and Medieval Categories. The Absurdity of Homosexuality" is a response to the first three essays. It begins with the subject of President Clinton's views on sexual congress, describing his relationship with Ms Lewinsky as "a crisis of heterosexuality derived from a persistent historical incoherence in the category itself, dating back at least to the Middle Ages" (87). In her view, our theories on sexuality can "inform and be informed by the public discourse about sexuality" which that relationship engendered (88). It brought about wide discussion of exactly what heterosexual sexual relations are. Oral sex, she correctly argues, in the public mind refers primarily to fellatio and not to any other sexual act. If we are to investigate "queerness" it must be examined not only in "deviant and excluded sexualities but in heteronormavity itself" (91). It is not in my view correct that as she asserts "all sex was included under the Deadly Sin of Lechery" in the Middle Ages (92). Marital sex including the theoretical possibility of conception was not considered by all theologians as lechery of any kind.

Article 4, "The Sodomitic Moor. Queerness in the Narrative of Reconquista" by Gregory Hutcheson, presents the view that the construction of the Moors as sodomites was, in fact, "the invention of a later age" (101). It was invented by Iberian, and sometimes medieval western chroniclers, as a reaction to what he calls homosexual panic. In the thirteenth century, Iberian authors characterised the Moors as "steeped in luxury and lust" (102). In contrast to assertions by John Boswell, Hutcheson states that Arabic authors too reflected a standard in which only heterosexual congress constituted normalcy. Hutcheson warns us, nevertheless, not to "read[ing] Muslim Iberia as inherently 'homosexual' either" (107). Our difficulty with assessing Spanish pre-modern sexuality derives from "the fault lines inherent in Spanish historicism"(117). Spain then was constructed finally as an "orthodox state" once historians rid themselves of their invented sodomitic Moor.

Article 5, "Chaste Subjects. Gender Heroism, and Desire in the Grail Quest" by Peggy McCracken turns to the subject of the chaste knight in medieval literature. As she states, it appears to have been taken for granted that the chivalrous knight would earn a sexual reward from his lady as recompense for his bravery and prowess. The virgin knight, choosing to remain chaste, is thus an anomaly. Only two knights, Perceval and Galahad, succeed in remaining chaste on their grail quests. McCracken finds Galahad best personifies this ideal: "the perfect knight whose body and spirit are untouched by carnal desire" (127). Perceval finds his chastity in danger "only by the desire solicited by the female body of the devil" (131). The solicitation of men by devils in female form is one that we have already seen in the biographies of the Desert Fathers. McCracken, however, finds these two types of demonic preying on the male hero to be profoundly different. Percival's attempt to remain chaste, his shame after the episode of seeing the demonic female, causes him to perform a type of symbolic castration, "a penance for sexual desire" (137). Castration makes men into a "queer" or non-gendered form, men who have somehow become like women.

Article 6, "The King's boyfriend. Froissart's Political Theater of 1326," by Claire Sponsler moves us ahead to the deposition of Edward II of England. The author points out that Boswell and Goldberg describe "the importance of Edward II for the history of the construction of sexualities and for queer theory" (145). Froissart probably wrote at the time of King Richard II, who like Edward, attracted considerable criticism because of his extreme "reliance on favorite male associates" (150). This essay brings out skilfully the surprising strength and power displayed by Queen Isabella, contrasted with the humiliation wreaked on Despenser who travelled along the same route as the queen mounted on "the smallest, thinnest, and weakest horse that could be found" (151). Froissart's horrendous description of Despenser's genital mutilation and execution, found only in his chronicle, was warranted according to him "because he was a heretic and a sodomite" (152). By this time, as Sponsler notes, penalties for sodomy had become much more public and much more severe. As we know, Edward II's own death, at least according to some contemporary chroniclers, also symbolized his sodomitic behaviour in life. But sodomy, at this time, according to Goldberg, could refer to excessively close male friendship, and not necessarily to a man who had sex with other men (159). The sexual and the political come together when even treason comes to have sexual overtones. It is quite plausible, as asserted here, that the seemingly compulsive repetition of disgusting and scandalous tales in relation to the lives and deaths of famous persons served as cautionary literature whose real purpose was to warn the listener or reader of the awful punishment for such behaviour (160).

The response by Francesca Canade Sautman opens with mention of Judith Butler's essay, "Gender is Burning." It is one of the more difficult essays here including such statements as "one [response] that successfully delineates how the subjectivated can disobey normative performative discourse - can in fact disembody it" (168). And "[A]ll three essays...bring into focus the ways the (male) body is reconfigured to overlap with that complex category "woman," once it sheds much of its abjected biological content" (169). Her analysis of the three essays to which she responds is, nevertheless, relevant, to the point, and very helpful in spite of the some of the difficult terminology. She sees Hutcheson's approach as "a complete fusion of the political, the social, and the sexual" (169). She stresses the refreshingly unusual theme of Sponsler's essay which "brings out this crucial ambivalence in the heteronormalizing of medieval women" (171). McCracken, she finds, enables us to understand the ambiguity existing in the subject of male castration. She concludes her response with a discussion of Arnaud de Verniolle, a cleric condemned at Montaillou as a further illustration of queer desire as causing a rupture in "gender-normative performances of the body in sexuality" (175).

Kathleen Biddick, in essay 7, "Translating the Foreskin. Cutting up History" investigates how eunuchs are written about at times of historical crisis, a time-frame when such writing seemed to occur. The use of Freudian writing on fetish does not seem to fit seamlessly into this essay (194-5). Biddick then discusses the ways in which McClintock and Pietz wrote about the same subject. The essay then moves to an investigation of how Amitav Ghosh handled verbal fetishes. This section on ethnography as it results from archival study is intriguing. The medieval slave trade is "intertwined" with work Ghosh did in Egyptian peasant villages in the modern era. This writing leads us back to circumcision and the foreskin where we began. Ghosh argued that the medieval slave should not be compared with the institution of slavery in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Oddly, Biddick relates, many key historians of global history or medieval history completely ignore this so-called "golden age" of slavery. Other historians merely ignore medieval slavery as though the system had never existed. The major thrust of the rest of the essay is the effort "to open us some gaps in the fetishization of periodization" (206). The essay is difficult but rewarding.

Glenn Burger, "Shameful Pleasures. Up Close and Dirty with Chaucer, Flesh, and the Word" is essay 8. In spite of the title, Chaucer and his work does not really feature at all on pages 215-224 (last paragraph). As Burger stated, "queer theory" and investigating the "queerness" of Chaucer may help "postmodern queer subjects to historicize their present..." (214). This essay, as well as some of those before, is full of trendy word-use as in: "Preston's recognition of the rhizomatic connections between 'literature' and non-literary 'ephemara' disrupts the usual hierarchies established by the literary/non-literary binary, suggesting instead the complex imbrication of both as commodities in a common marketplace" (223). Surely, this can be expressed in a manner comprehensible to undergraduates who are not majors in literature or gender studies? The few pages on Chaucer stress that what Chaucer was attempting to do is to tell "us who we are" (224). We learn that Chaucer and his writing is not centred on marriage, but in a manner surprising to many, on the very queerness of some of his best known characters, the Miller, for example.

Essay 9, Garrett P.J. Epp, "Ecce Homo," concentrates on the anonymous Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge, a fourteenth-century work. Epp argues that lechery is a prominent theme in this work. In fact, according to the author, lechery seems to be closely associated with theatrical works, and so it had been since the time of Tertullian. Epp asserts that even the performance of the Tretise, is a sexual activity (238). Inherent in his argument, is his statement that "any theatrical representation of the body of Christ that does not at some level inspire erotic desire is for me a failure" (238). The potentially sexual and/or erotic nature of representations of Christ has been written about at length by Leo Steinberg and many other scholars. In fact, even Margery Kempe appeared to have added a "specifically sexual dimension" to her vision of Christ (239). Epp then explores "a provocative sixteenth-century anecdote" related by Natalie Zemon Davis. The essay then ventures into the area of the possible implications in men gazing at powerful male figures in hockey games, or scantily clad, in track and field athletics. Toward the end, Epp returns to his primary theme: "all who look at others, or subject themselves to the social gaze, are guilty of sins of the flesh" (245). It is indeed thought-provoking to consider that it was the rise of Protestantism which banned a display of Christ as a fleshly body, a ban not lifted until 1968 in England (247). After all, if Christ appears as too human a figure, he is potentially an object of lustful desire.

Steven F. Kruger, "HIV/AIDS and the Temporality of Crisis" is the tenth contribution, one which focuses on the statement that "normative regimes depend on the very terms they attempt to exclude..." (252). He states that Karma Lochrie, Peggy McKracken and James Schulz have recognised that because we refuse to discuss the Middle Ages when we discuss sexuality, we are, in reality, reassuring ourselves of the "myth of a heteronormative past and a queer modernity" (253). And it is, in my view, precisely to deny this "myth" that the present essay collection was written. The author's dislike of the mainstream of medieval scholars' writing is evident in his statement that such writers write "to support Eurocentric and conservative Christian agendas." While I cannot agree with that statement, I do agree that we cannot logically separate medieval and postmodern [or (post)modern] thought (255). A major section of this essay then looks at the problem of HIV/AIDS, and the fact that it is suggested that HIV/AIDS is in fact a primitive phenomenon which has somehow resurfaced in the modern era. HIV/AIDS is somehow, albeit illogically, connected with things medieval, with ancient plagues like the Black Death. This major section of the essay (255-76) seems not to fit at all well into this particular collection. The purpose of this long segment appears to be that of explaining that if we are to understand any current grave problem, such as that of HIV/AIDS, we need to realise that it may well be connected both to the past, our past, and to the future, our future (276). As Kruger said, and with this statement I completely concur: "A medievalism engaged with the present, too, might make for a very different understanding of the past, recognizing in a preceding and distant period like the Middle Ages not a radical other but a complex world both dissonant and resonant with our own" (278).

The final response section is that of Larry Scanlon "Return of the Repressed," 284-300. Much of this essay is given up to a discussion of Queer Theory, and its application to Chaucer studies. It deftly discusses the main points of the previous four essays and gently chastises what it refers to as Caroline Bynum's "heteronormative assumptions" (295).

In conclusion, I would most definitely recommend this collection to any scholar or student interested in gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, or the interpretation of medieval art and literature. In many cases it expects a fairly sophisticated understanding of the language of post-modern literary criticism. Only two of the contributors are mainstream historians, while nine come from English Literature and/or Women's studies, one each from Art, French and Spanish. A look at the many and varied articles and books on medieval sexuality by Vern Bullough, James Brundage, John Boswell, Joan Cadden, and Jacqueline Murray, to name only a few, can provide some necessary historical context in the area. The essays are fresh, stimulating, and evoke a completely new look at many texts, or manuscript illuminations, which have been studied from a very different point of view for hundreds of years. Not everyone will agree with the conclusions of these scholars, but everyone will have a great deal to learn from reading them.