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Forbidden Desire, But Forbidden for What Reason?

Monday, October 23, 2017 - 10:00

One of the fascinating and frustrating things about the genre of "transvestite saints," i.e., women (mostly in the early Christian era) who disguised themselves as men in order to participate in monastic devotion, is how thoroughly the stories center and elevate masculinity. One of the repeated motifs is that these gender-disguised women are approved because of the Biblical injunction to "become a man for Christ". That is, they became a more perfect type of Christian by "becoming male". Other female figures in these legends generally play the role of (attempted) seductive temptress or scorned would-be admirer. The saint in question is typically removed from the context of femininity once the change of clothes has signally a category change. So in the legend discussed in this article, there's a valid confusion over whether the forbidden desire that the abbot is trying to prevent with Eurphrosine's seclusion is heterosexual desire for the disguised woman or the equally forbidden homosexual desire for the eunuch she presents herself as.

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Gaunt, Simon. 1996. “Straight Minds/’Queer’ Wishes in Old French Hagiography: La Vie de Sainte Euprosine” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X

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This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history.  As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.

Gaunt 1996 “Straight Minds/’Queer’ Wishes in Old French Hagiography: La Vie de Sainte Euprosine”

This is an examination of gender and sexuality in a “transvestite saint” legend from France. Saint Euphrosine wanted to remain a virgin and so ran away from home. To help avoid being tracked down by her father, rather than entering a convent, she disguised herself as a man and claimed to be a eunuch to enter a monastery. Sight of her inflames the lusts of the monks such that the head of the monastery requires her to live secluded to prevent sexual temptation. The article focuses both on Euphrosine’s “erotic” relationships with Jesus and the potentially homoerotic reaction of the monks to the disguised Euphrosine.  The question is left open whether this desire is forbidden heterosexual desire (because Euphrosine is “really a woman”) or forbidden homosexual desire, based on surface appearances. One of the conclusions is that even when not overtly female, female saints are still sexualized in medieval literature.

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