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22.03.10 Spencer-Hall/Gutt (eds.), Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography

22.03.10 Spencer-Hall/Gutt (eds.), Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography

People whose lives did not fit comfortably on either side of the gender binary existed, struggled, and thrived in the past; transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary identities are not new, even if some of the associated terminologies have emerged relatively recently. Forces both within and outside of academia regularly attempt to dismiss or suppress the existence and self-expression of living trans people. However, the burgeoning field of medieval trans studies affirms that there is a long and important history of gender non-normative expression to be traced back to the Middle Ages (and beyond). Such work is significant not only because it can offer the sense that modern genderqueer lives have a precedent, although that’s a central concern. It also shows some of the significant changes that the gender binary and its status have undergone over the centuries. Indeed, some might say that if we can acknowledge that the rigid expectations our modern societies hold for “male” and “female” were not always the same, we can imagine that someday those expectations might be entirely different.

Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, edited by Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt, adds to a growing mini-canon of work in this subfield, along with Leah DeVun’s recent and brilliant The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance, and her co-edited issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly on “Trans*Historicities” with Zeb Tortorici. There’s the important special issue of theMedieval Feminist Forum edited by Dorothy Kim and M. W. Bychowski, and a collection working on gender non-normative histories in the ancient world, TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World (edited by Campanile, Carla-Uhink, and Facella), as well as a recent, and brilliant, special issue on “Early Modern Trans Studies” of the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies edited by Simone Chess, Colby Gordon, and Will Fisher. Full disclosure: I am an editor of Trans Historical: Gender Plurality Before the Modern, along with Greta LaFleur and Anna Klosowska, so have a vested interest in this field’s continued existence and thriving. Gutt and Spencer-Hall’s collection focuses on hagiography, and, by focusing on a specific kind of work, does a beautiful job of showing how the trans and genderqueer lens affords a range of important insights. The volume’s focus on sanctity helps it maintain consistency even as it covers a great deal of historical ground. This collection is profoundly important and excellently executed, a landmark accomplishment at the intersection of trans and religious studies.

The first thing one observes about Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography is that it is a beautiful object. The cover image, by medievalist and artist Jonah Coman, is a sumptuous study in gold, like a Book of Hours, with vignettes of both holy images and protest marches in a band that encircles an image of a medieval saint holding a trans pride flag. We do not often talk about the physical form of scholarly books, but this one is a joy to hold. It is also a useful object, containing an appendix on trans and genderqueer terminology, language, and usage that serves as an important snapshot of how to talk about gender in the early twenty-first century and should prove enormously useful to those just coming to explore trans studies. The brief introduction to this appendix could serve as a model for how to write respectfully about the language used by an oppressed minority group to describe itself.

On the subject of language that arises from within a group as opposed to the language that is imposed upon groups from without, once upon a time, when we talked about gender and sanctity in the Middle Ages, we did so using the problematic and derogatory term, “transvestite saints.” Even as the term once helped modern scholars organize knowledge about gender and sanctity, it alienated trans readers and their allies, and also refused to honor what were often the explicitly-stated preferences of the saints themselves. Near the end of the collection, a piece by M. W. Bychowski sets the agenda for how we are going to be dealing with that term in the future. In the essay “The Authentic Lives of Transgender Saints: Imago Dei and imitatio Christi in the Life of St. Marinos the Monk,” Bychowski imagines the study of genderqueer/trans sainthood as one that centers on what is authentic to the saint. Bychowski rewrites the terms of how the genre grouping for the sorts of saints discussed in this collection might be written about going forward. After all, she argues, for saints, “the world” and its insistence that persons marry and procreate, rule and labor, is a distraction from communion with the divine, and seeking an authentic life of faith requires those who seek it also to be authentic in how they inhabit their sex and gender. An important factor in Bychowski’s analysis of the Life of St. Marinos--and this is also evident throughout the collection--is that, for some saints, the requirements imposed by the gender assigned to them at birth are yet more aspects of “the world’s” oppression. As Bychowski describes it, St. Marinos’ authentic life is lived as a man, and such authenticity is the very state that God desires for humans.

Following a truly smart introduction to the volume and the field by editors Alicia Spencer-Hall and Blake Gutt, Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography is divided into three sections: “Following the Traces: Reassessing the Status Quo,” “Reinscribing Trans and Genderqueer Realities; Peripheral Vision(s): Objects, Images, and Identities”; and “Genre, Gender and Trans Textualities.” There is also an Epilogue by Mathilde van Dijk, situating the collection as a whole in the context of the study of hagiography and gender.

“Following the Traces,” the first section, focuses on the lives of individual saints. The section begins with a reassessment of her previous scholarship by Martha G. Newman, a senior scholar of religious life. Having written previously about “cross-dressing” in the life of the Cistercian monk Joseph of Schönau, Newman re-examines the evidence in light of developments in trans studies and re-considers what Joseph’s life was modeling about a spirituality that monks and nuns could share, one that went beyond gender but was also rooted in Joseph’s choice to live his life as a man. This article shows a beautiful ability to rethink what is already familiar in light of a new perspective, and also demonstrates the rich insights available to scholars when they acknowledge their subject’s chosen gender. In other chapters, Caitlyn McLoughlin, Kevin Elphick, and Felix Szabo offer readings of the Life of St. Katherine, the gender theology theorized in the writings of Juana de la Cruz, and Niketas David’s Life of Patriarch Ignatios, respectively--this last being a fascinating and important essay on what it meant to be a saintly eunuch. Each, in its own way, demonstrates the power of reading sanctity through a genderqueer lens.

The section titled “Peripheral Visions” deals with material realities, with art history, archeology, and manuscript studies, with works that could be seen and experienced anew using a different point of view. In it, Sophie Sexon’s article offers a powerful re-reading of the imagery of Christ’s wounds. Not stopping at the visual, Sexon sensitively considers the haptic, acts of touching the past that can feel so tenuous but also so profound, through examining how patterns of wear on Books of Hours show that owners touched those wounds repeatedly as part of offering devotion. Meanwhile, Lee Colwill uses the lens of critical archeology to open up the complexity of classifying the genders of bodies found in burial sites in Iron Age Scandinavia. To simplify their argument a lot for purposes of summary, for far too long, classification as man or woman had been based on observations like whether or not a body had been buried with weapons. Despite its limitations (for gender is certainly not solely or even primarily genes!), DNA testing has complicated that story and opened up histories of possible transgender and non-binary individuals from a long-distant past sometimes assumed to be far more conservative than our own times.

There are two pieces on the Vie de Sainte Eufrosine in the collection, and both are very much worth reading. The one by Vanessa Wright, in the “Peripheral Visions” section, compares illustrations of three different fourteenth-century manuscripts, noting how each illustrator grapples with the complexity of visually representing the gender of a genderqueer saint. In the following section of the volume, “Genre, Gender and Trans Textualities,” Amy V. Ogden examines the Life of St. Eufrosine more broadly, following not only his story but also his father’s narrative trajectory. Ogden’s reading notes how St. Eufrosine’s father models acceptance upon discovering that the child previously considered a daughter had lived their life as a holy monk, and how this father follows his son into a sort of gender transgression of his own. The article also discusses how the rigidities of binary gender were understood by some religious thinkers as connected to sin rather than salvation, a contention that persuasively occurs in other articles as well and strikes me as a major intervention in interpreting some of the complexities of medieval theology’s relationship to thinking about gender.

The final section of the collection features, along with the aforementioned article by Ogden on St. Eufrosine and the article by Bychowski on Marinos discussed above, an impressive reading of the medieval romance Tristan de Nanteuil. Tristan isn’t a hagiography as such, but its narrative sets up the conditions for the birth of a saint, St. Gilles (to accomplish this happy ending, God sends an angel to transform the previously female romance heroine Blanchandine into St. Gilles’ father, Blanchandin). The article uses disability theory to open up the way bodies achieve gender in this romance; indeed, it is a great example of how these approaches can work together. The article’s author, Blake Gutt, had already published what I had appreciated as the definitive trans reading of that romance in Exemplaria, and yet here is an entirely new article with new insights on the same (very complex!) poem, one that also sets the highest of bars for reading Tristan de Nanteuil, for writing about the gender politics of romance, and for literary analysis that thinks about the theoretical, somatic, gendered, and the political at the same time.

At its best, trans medieval studies recuperates lost histories and identities but also opens up fundamentally new ways to understand the world, a trans metaphysics. Cumulatively, this collection accomplishes both: it offers up new ways of doing scholarship, and, because it grapples with the questions raised by faith and sanctity, it offers up new ways for believers to believe, and for theorists to theorize. It asks readers to comprehend the sheer scope and power of what it might mean to let people live as their God calls them to live. This volume’s vision of what saints can be, of the radicalism inherent in what saints always already were, is expansive and generous. It is also generous in terms of the work it nurtures into being, since most of the volume’s articles are by junior scholars. A number of those scholars are not, or at least were not when their biographical statements were being written, in permanent academic positions. I want so much to see more work from these original thinkers, these rigorous and thoughtful colleagues. With this kind of work in the offering, the future of the profession has a chance to be as wonderful as this collection.