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15.09.05, Mills, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

15.09.05, Mills, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a fascinating glimpse into the visual record for gender and sexual variance in the Middle Ages and a sophisticated analysis of its meanings. Mills sets images--mostly manuscript illuminations, but also some sculpture and frescoes and a few woodcuts--alongside medieval literary evidence, including the stories that many of these images illustrated. To these he adds modern modes of interpretation from cultural studies. The result is new light shed on a field that has enjoyed considerable scholarly attention.

The sources for the book are varied. Legends and illustrations from illuminated copies of the Ovide moralisé are perhaps the most frequently considered, and then scenes of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from the Bibles moralisées. Chapter 4 focuses on the well-known carved column capitals of the church at Vézelay. Chapter 5 uses church frescoes of the Last Judgment with their depictions of the torments of sinners in hell. There are lengthy discussions of the literary and artistic representations of Orpheus in chapter 3, and of Ganymede and Saint Eugenia in chapter 4, among other legendary figures.

The title of the book points to Mills's reliance on artistic evidence. Indeed, his insights into the conjunction of text and illustration are new and compelling. Yet the title is a bit of a misnomer. First, despite his suggestion that "the primary theme of this book is the relationship between sodomy and motifs of vision and visibility in medieval culture" (10), visibility is not so much a running thread as is translation: how visual representations of texts "translate" words into images, and how medieval authors and artists "translated" the stories of antiquity to contemporary audiences even while they "translated" from ancient languages to the vernacular. He shows how often medieval illuminations moved far beyond the written word, changing details and adding new elements. He compares different illustrated manuscripts of the same texts to demonstrate how often artists reconfigured incidental or even basic features of the images they copied. Even the placement of images reveals much: in one of the Bibles moralisées, for example, a depiction of bishops fondling boys is juxtaposed with one of rats gnawing at the genitals of Saracens (the latter itself a mistranslation of a passage from Genesis in which some sort of pestilence attacked the Philistines). Mills thus argues that we must not treat the images of the Middle Ages as straightforward representations of any text but appreciate them for the creative reinterpretations they are. Indeed, "translating the past into the language of the present" in creative ways is precisely the same work as the modern scholar of the Middle Ages does (303).

The use of sodomy in the book's title might also mislead, since Mills tries hard to understand legends told about female homoeroticism together with the more plentiful historical record for male homoeroticism. In a field that has mostly treated these subjects discretely, Mills argues that medieval sexual and gender identities must be considered as parts of a complex whole. He suggests that his book "aims not so much to disentangle gender and sexuality from one another in medieval sources as to emphasize the challenges in prizing them apart" (12). Mills wonders whether modern transgender theory might be more helpful in understanding medieval sexualities than homosexuality. He considers "queer" a bit too overused in scholarly analysis of the Middle Ages, and less useful for that reason. So he "prefer[s] to harness the enabling possibilities of soc-called 'anachronisms' such as transgender, butch and femme, lesbian, or sexual orientation, while simultaneously emphasizing their limitations as interpretive prisms" (21). Chapter 2 explores the parallels between transgenderism and medieval identities, and chapter 5 asks whether the notion of sexual orientation is one that can be properly applied to the Middle Ages. About premodern sexual identities, Mills admits: "I make no claims to have broken the code that seemingly confounded Foucault in his History of Sexuality, volume 1--to have found a way of seeing through all that confusion to the realities beyond." Yet, he continues, "what looks on the surface to be 'utterly confused' turns out, in the last analysis, to be anything but" (11). At the end of chapter 5, he clarifies what he means. Depictions of the sodomite tormented in hell reveal both "a fluid and disorderly category of carnality" that is different from our modern notions of sexual identity and yet also "a particular vision of sodomitical being." "The concept of orientation," he continues, "redefined as the process by which bodies and objects are shaped by repeated and habitual actions, and in so doing assume particular directions toward one another and away from others...cannot simply be understood with recourse to fantasies of premodern Europe as an identity-less utopia" (297).

Mills moves back and forth between these two overarching themes--translation and identity--but he also returns several times to a third important theme. Despite the obvious hostility to homoeroticism and to many modes of gender crossing in most medieval sources, some of the stories attached to them were recast in unexpectedly positive ways. Orpheus who descended to the dead but returned to life was sometimes seen as a Christ figure, for example, and the rapture of Ganymede by Jupiter might be understood as a metaphor for the raising of the soul by God into heaven.

The book is at its best when it pairs the visual and literary evidence in inventive ways, less so when analyzing texts like the Life of Christina of Markyate and the Ancrene Wisse, neither of which is accompanied by illustrations and both of which have been well studied by scholars of sexuality. Both of these come within a larger discussion of virginity as a medieval sexual orientation, also an idea which has also been explored by other scholars.

The writing is engaging, and Mills is often clever with his quips. An examination of sexual temptation in medieval monasteries is playfully referred to as "an epistemology of the cloister" (193, after Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's famous "epistemology of the closet"). The frequent mention of trans-identities--Christine de Pisan's Mutation de Fortune, for example, is said to be "rooted in a concrete experience of FTM [female-to-male] transition" (131)--is glaringly anachronistic, but that is surely what Mills intends, to force us to reconsider our categorizations of medieval personhood. Mills writes: "I am yet to be persuaded of the benefits of developing a 'new philology' in the history of sexuality, one that strives relentlessly to tie analysis to the vocabulary of the texts under discussion rather than deploying a terminology derived from some later period" (302). I noticed only one error: Henry II, instead of Henry III, is named as the husband of Eleanor of Provence (76).

Mills begins and ends his book with a provocative image from the well-known fifteenth-century Belles Heures illuminated by the Limbourg brothers for the Duc de Berry. It is of Saint Jerome in a tight blue dress (and nicely presented in this publication as one of eight pages of color plates). Mills's point is that the incongruity of the representation, at least to modern eyes--Jerome's tonsure and full beard set against shapely curves and a narrow waist--reminds us how little of the Middle Ages we fully understand and how tempting it is to assume we know more than we do. His thought-provoking book goes a long way to adding to our understanding.