John Arnold

title.none: Zeikowitz, Homoeroticism and Chivalry (John Arnold)

identifier.other: baj9928.0402.015 04.02.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Arnold, Birkbeck College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Zeikowitz, Richard E. Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the 14th Century. Series: The New Middle Ages, vol. 35. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Pp. xi, 216. $60.00 1-4039-6042-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.02.15

Zeikowitz, Richard E. Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the 14th Century. Series: The New Middle Ages, vol. 35. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Pp. xi, 216. $60.00 1-4039-6042-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John Arnold
Birkbeck College

This is a very smart and imaginative work. It should helpfully advance the conceptual framework of discussion on queer issues in medievalism, and perhaps will also provide all historians of chivalry (whether interested in issues of sexual identity or not) with some productive strategies for interpreting the social and emotional bonds between knights. This is not to say that the book is perfect-- there are some problems to raise a little further on-- but I want to make it plain at the start that Zeikowitz's work is a welcome and important addition to the field. It offers us useful intellectual tools and imaginatively opens up new areas of discussion and interpretation.

Homoeroticism and Chivalry has two halves. Following an introduction that situates the book within modern theoretical positions on sexuality, the first half works to establish the existence in the Middle Ages of "discourses of normative homoerotically charged desire-- discourses that affirm, celebrate or privilege male-male intimacy" (12). It is important to note here exactly what Zeikowitz aims to accomplish. This is not a search for a gay subculture, as in the work of the late John Boswell. Nor is it a search for medieval male queers-- in the sense (as Zeikowitz emphasizes) that "queer" implies marginalized or abjected. It is, rather, an argument that (1) the boundaries of homoeroticism extend beyond-- far beyond-- acts of genital manipulation; (2) that moments of male-male intimacy, particularly when emotionally charged, attract this homoerotic potential; and most importantly (3) that, in this broadened sense of what "homoeroticism" encompasses, chivalric discourses enacted, authorized and indeed valorized a male-male homoerotic intimacy.

The second half of the book examines the countervailing discourse of "sodomy," the rejection and abjection of male same-sex desire. This is, of course, the more familiar and well-worked area: from the work of Michael Goodich, John Boswell, R. I. Moore, and most recently Mark Jordan, we are familiar with the language of medieval homophobia, and the growing discourses of repression in the later Middle Ages. But Zeikowitz places this material into the service of his larger argument, where the discourse of sodomy becomes not simply a generic homophobic reaction by a heteronormative society, but rather a specific discourse for policing the boundaries of the accepted homoeroticism outlined in the first half of the book. As his conclusion puts it, "these two contradictory sociocultural forces-- one affirming and celebratory, the other denigrating and homophobic-- are inextricably linked to each other because a sodomitical discourse can only arise within a society that encourages or, at least, tolerates the formation of male-male bonds" (149).

For the more skeptical of you out there, let me replay this description of the arguments with some examples. The first half, the "valorized homoeroticism" line, examines texts such as Aelred of Rievaulx's De spiritali amicitia, literary tales such as the Prose Lancelot, Amys and Amylion and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and manuals of chivalric instruction. The bonding together-- a kind of marriage-- between male friends envisaged in Aelred's work is enacted, as Zeikowitz sees it, in the friendships depicted in chivalric literature. Amylion tells his friend Amys that they are, indeed, "trowth-plyght." They share extreme emotional intimacy, telling each other their deepest thoughts. To save his friend, following the instructions of a dream, Amys slays his own children in order to bathe Amylion's naked body with their blood. (The children, you'll be relieved to hear, are later miraculously restored to life). When they die, the two friends are buried in one grave, and enjoy eternal bliss together. As anyone who has read the Prose Lancelot will recognize, the relationship between Lancelot and Galehot is similarly intense: in fact, in some ways more so, as Galehot and Guinevere are clearly rivals for Lancelot's affection, and poor old Galehot spends most of the poem desiring but never quite gaining his friend. Only when Galehot dies does Lancelot pour out his passionate feelings, beating his head until he bleeds and crying out, '"Alas, what sorrow and what loss!" ... he wept so sore that there was none there but had pity on him." Ziekowitz further suggests an erotic fashion in which medieval readers might respond to these texts, the ways in which they invite the reader to draw mental pictures of knights and their bodies, to experience the touches, kisses, and intimacies the heroes enjoyed. And, in the rituals of knighthood, such intimate social interactions-- the bathing and dressing of a new knight- - were experienced (and hence perhaps experienced erotically) by real, fleshly men.

Part 2 of the book works out the arguments about sodomy and the denigration of same-sex desire through examples such as the prosecution of the Knights Templar, political attacks on Edward II and Richard II, and a further re-reading of Troilus and Criseyde. The queer elements of the alleged Templar initiation rites-- kissing the receptor on the mouth, navel and anus for example -- are the flip-side of the valorized intimacy and tenderness examined above. Such things (whether real or imagined) are conceivable within medieval discourse only because of the simultaneously available positive conceptions of, for example, the kiss; or the bathing of the initiated knight's naked body by his comrades. "In each case one knight comes into contact with - and acts upon-- the naked body of another knight" (128). In the case of Edward and Richard, there is a similar link between the positive and negative discourses: both "conceived their most intimate male bonds in chivalric terms" (ibid.).

I find much of this pretty persuasive stuff, and certainly usefully imaginative. One should note just how smart the reconfiguration of sexuality performed here is: in essence, working toward a specifically medieval idea of what is normal or not normal, that subtly but powerfully redraws the lines between heteronormativity, homosociality, and the queer. But, as promised above, I do want to raise some questions and problems as well. The first is the most minor, and it concerns translations. When dealing with Latin or French texts, the book follows existing translations. There is absolutely no problem with this in itself-- why let people translate editions if we're not going to use them?-- but there are some particular instances here where, simply on fine points of vocabulary, the author might have been brave enough to depart from his informants. (One should note that I'm only able to make the following points because Zeikowitz is punctilious in providing the original text as well as the translation). At different points the impact cuts both ways, both against and in favor of his argument. For example (78), the translation has Geoffroi de Charny advise that "one should take pleasure in hearing about" the deeds of knights; and that "pleasure" is then used to underwrite a certain eroticism of reading. But another translation of the text-- "l'en volentier oir et escouter et raconter..."-- would be the less charged "one should willingly listen to...." In the other direction, in charges against the Templars (109) we have the translation proffering "kissed on the buttocks" when the "in ano" of the text could be rendered more bluntly and intimately. Since what Zeikowitz is arguing requires that we reconfigure our assumptions about the default positions and structures of medieval discourse, the choices made in translation are perhaps rather important (and occur at a number of other points in the text).

Secondly, I have some worries about the precise application of modern theory to medieval text, particularly when the theory is psychoanalytic or from film studies. This is acutely the case when a prescriptive bit of Freudianism is called into play to authorize a reading. Thus, for example, the fact that Freud thought that brotherly rivalry could be "repressed and transformed into 'homosexual love'" ( 56) is taken as a template for reading the relations between Troilus, Pandarus, and Criseyde. Similarly, in a reading of the Knight's Tale, Rene Girard's theory that "in extreme situations...a transfer of desire from the object to the mediator/rival may occur" gives us Arcite and Palamon becoming "erotically cathected objects for each other" (65). Arguing from this kind of psychoanalytic a priori is not, for me, very convincing. Nor, in its transhistorical prescriptiveness, does it fit well with Zeikowitz's avowed desire to relinquish "modern categories of desire." In the case of film theory, my concern is whether the relationship that a modern viewer has to the screen can necessarily be transported back to the situation of the medieval reader-- or, much more frequently, auditor in a group of other auditors-- of medieval romances. It may well be that the screen hero is "someone the spectator desires to be" (73), but I'm not certain that medieval audiences had quite the same mechanisms of identification, nor that the erotic potential of listening to stories was the same as sitting in the cinema. Show me evidence of someone getting a blowjob in the back seats at a group reading of Le mort d'Artu and I might be more convinced.

Finally, we have the notion of "the erotic." Stretching this term is at the heart of Homoeroticism and Chivalry. As I hope I have made clear, I think it is a good, useful and necessary project. It also sits nicely alongside Judith Bennett's "Lesbian-like" article (Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 9 (2000); one should note that Zeikowitz focuses pretty exclusively on men) and would play provocatively against Julian Haseldine's recent, smart work reassessing medieval discourses of friendship (see, for instance, his article in Journal of Medieval History vol. 20 (1994)). But there are questions about just quite how far one stretches "erotic." As with the term "politics" it would appear to be something that can potentially encompass almost everything-- and if allowed to do so, loses much purchase as a conceptual category. To demand a clear limit is perhaps to miss the point, and may be an unfairly large task for a book that is already breaking new ground. But there are points within the text when some blurring of the boundaries is perhaps unhelpful rather than provocative. We have, for example, the "eroticism or passion" underlying Amys and Amylion's friendship: if these are not the same thing, as the "or" suggests, how should we code the friendship? Where and how is the line drawn? Further on, Zeikowitz suggests that sharing a bed automatically entailed an erotic charge. But surely sharing was very common, between all kinds of folk, and although this does not remove the possibility of eroticism, it does not make it a necessary feature. And, as Troilus falls on his knees and embraces Pandarus, there is a suggestion that mouth and genitals are thus erotically aligned-- which, given the ubiquity of kneeling in medieval ritual, suggestions a remarkable amount of potential public oral sex. Finally, I'm not certain that all the inter-relationships between the positive (homoerotic) and negative (sodomitical) discourses have been worked through. Surely one aspect of "erotic" can be the naughty allure of exactly what is not affirmed, celebrated, or privileged? "Queer" is not only about what is abject; it can also be what is kind of sexy, can't it? In all these areas, I want a bit more thinking through of what the erotic is (and, perhaps, does); and certainly a bit more internal consistency about its implicit boundaries within the book.

But it's the imaginative strength and insight of Zeikowitz's work that prompt, and indeed permit, me to ask these final questions. I find much of Homoeroticism and Chivalry thought-provoking, suggestive and frequently convincing. In imagining a different shape to the essential structure of medieval discourses on sexuality, Zeikowitz advances the argument in a very helpful and original way. The book is also written admirably clearly (with, for this reader, the exception of the psychoanalytic triangle diagrams scattered through chapter 3). The footnotes are admirably polite and thoughtful, indicating a positive engagement with a variety of historiographical positions and traditions. In all, a pleasurable text.