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Not as Interesting as Medieval Sexuality Ought to Be

Monday, November 18, 2019 - 07:00

I’ll confess that I had higher hopes of relevance to my purposes for this collection. Overall, the articles included here were more narrowly theory-oriented and of less general interest than I hoped. Also, the queer content was overwhelmingly male focused. I’d originally planned to do each article as a separate entry, but found myself skimming through many of them. In the end, it made much more sense to cover this publication as a single blog.

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Full citation: 

Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz. 1997. Constructing Medieval Sexuality. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-2829-7


The purpose of this collection is to “think differently” about medieval sexuality without losing the benefits of modern theoretical approaches. The authors address sexuality not in the narrow sense of orientation but as the study of experiences, attitudes, customs, and institutions that are a subjetive human experience and an objective field of “knowledge”. Sexuality was embedded in other medieval systems such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

Sexuality is not a single phenomenon, and is often internally contradictory, such as the simultaneous view that variant sexual practices can be both “natural” and sinful. The articles share certain approaches: sexuality in relation to gender, ideas about the body as integral to sexuality, sexuality relative to identity/otherness, recognition of the influence of the present on our understanding of the past.

If sexuality is not considered side by side with gender, it risks accepting a conservative and male-dominated understanding of the past. Neither gender nor sexuality categories are entirely stable. Gender may be treated as independent of sex. The instability may come from overlaying different stable frameworks, such as medicine and literature. In literature, gender is established via clothing/appearance, not through the body, and through gendered role relationships. Bodily functions may be viewed both as functionally male and morally feminine (as with the idea of nocturnal emissions representing both an inherently male experience and a feminine loss of bodily control).

A history of the medieval understanding of bodies challenges one to “think differently.” Bodies are not a fixed, knowable substance, nor is sexual difference always assumed to be clearly and easily distinct. Foucault is invoked with regard to the concept of “identities” via his distinction between the sodomite (“acts”) and the homosexual (“identities”). But this strict chronology has been called into question by recent work. Categorization by “acts” is still active today, not solely a feature of the past. And there is evidence--if you look for it--of “identities” in the past. Medieval people might identify “kinds” of people for whom certain acts were natural, without those “kinds” aligning with modern orientations. Furthermore, heterosexuality isn’t a stable category in the middle ages either. Sexuality categories are intertwined with other types of classification.

Can the study of medieval sexuality lead us to different understandings of modern sexuality? Can studies like this collection challenge the myth of a heteronormative past and a queer modernity?

1. Pollution, Illusion, and Masculine Disarray: Nocturnal Emissions and the Sexuality of the Clergy - Dyan Elliott

A discussion of the problem of unconscious/uncontrolled sexual events with respect to men’s sexuality, with special focus on the clergy. [Not of particular interest to me.]

2. Homosexuality, Luxuria, and Textual Abuse - Mark D. Jordan

The article starts with a bunch of wordplay then moves on to consider three related words: luxuria, vitium sodomiticum, and peccatum (vitium) contra natura. The second and third can be read transparently as “sodomitic vice” and “vice/sin against nature. But luxuria is harder to render because it doesn’t correlate directly to “luxury” in the modern sense. One might interpret it more closely as “an inappropriate excess of pleasure,” but in Aquinas (as examined here) it focuses centrally on an excess of sexual pleasure. Though this is the central sense, the concept was considered to give rise to a number of secondary effects.

Like some of the other sins covered by Aquinas in the same text, luxuria is subcategorized into various kinds with different degrees of seriousness, including fornication, adultery, incest, rape, and acts “against nature.” The article closely examines not only how these subcategories are discussed and judged, but how that discussion compares to that of other sins. For example, arguing with Augustine’s position that sins “against nature” are less serious than adultery or rape (because they don’t harm anyone else), Aquinas argues that contra naturem are more serious because they harm God.

This variable evaluation of sodomy is a feature of many medieval theological treatments. Aquinas discusses sodomy as a “vice” not as a medical condition or a habit or an identity. Nor does he bring gender identity into the question (i.e., he doesn't consider men to practice sodomy because they have a feminine identity). But in touching on why people are drawn to this vice, he stumbles into contradiction.

“Pleasure,” he posits, comes from the fulfillment of a natural purpose, but the “anti-natural” vice of sodomy is attractive because it results in an overwhelming pleasure. How can that be, if pleasure only comes from the natural?

The focus on this article is entirely on male same-sex activity falling within the category of “against nature.”

3. Sciences/Silences: The Natures and Languages of “Sodomy” in Peter of Abano’s Problemata Commentary - Joan Cadden

This article looks at the language used to discuss sodomy, and especially the erasure of specific language about it “lest talking about it give people ideas.” The article is particularly concerned with a text by Peter of Abano that offers two conflicting “reasons” for men to engage in sodomy. Cadden briefly acknowledges the different ways such texts approached male and female same-sex activity. Women were considered to engage in it only as a substitute for unavailable heterosexual sex, but men needed a positive reason to explain their actions.

Abano offers two explanations. Some men, he says, have a variant physiology such that they only receive sexual pleasure through (receptive) anal sex. In this, they can be compared to the pleasure women take in being penetrated. But this raises the problem of why there are men who enjoy both “acting and being acted on.” Despite the vague language, it’s clear he’s concerned narrowly with anal sex. For these men, too, he offers a physiological explanation.

Abano’s theories draw to some extent on Avicenna, taken from Arabic sources. In this context, sodomy might be considered a “healthy” way to manage humoral balance in non-normative bodies.

But Abano then turns to those for whom sodomy is “a habit” rather than an innate impulse. Here the language is more negative and condemnatory. Cadden discusses how the two views are differentiated by the vocabulary and references Abano uses, but that the end conclusion is still that vice--whether innate or acquired--should be condemned and resisted.

4. Manuscript Illumination and the Art of Copulation - Michael Camille

An examination of medieval artistic depictions of heterosexual copulation, and how they reinforce a narrow understanding of normative sex acts based on a gendered hierarchy of power.

5. Bodies that Don’t Matter: Heterosexuality before Heterosexuality in Gottfried’s Tristan - James A. Schultz

[Note: to let the casual reader in on the joke, the article’s title is referencing Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter. I have the nagging sense that there may be a publication “Homosexuality before Homosexuality” that is also being referenced, but can’t find a clear candidate.]

Schultz examines how bodies and sexual desire are treated in medieval romances, and how gender is presented as relying on arbitrary superficial appearance, not as an inherent property of the person. Men and women are described as beautiful and desirable in nearly identical terms. Clothing and performance are what create gender. But clothing is also far more connected to class than to bodily sex. Despite all this, desire is assumed to be heterosexual in all cases, even when the bodies involved are of the same sex. There is a brief discussion of how heteronormative gender identities are assigned to couples who both have female bodies, but somewhat confusingly the author does not talk about specific romances with this motif (such as Yde or Tristan de Nanteuil).

6. Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or Lady/Man? - E. Jane Burns

Paired with the previous article, this takes another look at gender “creation” in medieval courtly romances. There are conflicting gender roles/performances in the courtly love tradition, borrowing from the lord-vassel relationship. This is further complicated in representation by the general similarity of male and female clothing and relatively gender-neutral standards of beauty. These conflicting roles and representations are relevant not only for how medieval people interpreted gender signifiers, but how modern scholars can (mis)interpret gender signs in visual representation.  (An anecdote is given of an image of a kneeling figure in armor performing homage to a standing figure in a long garment where different historians interpreted it as an image of courtly love with the standing figure as female, versus ordinary feudal homage with the standing figure interpreted as male.)

This article focuses on the representation of Lancelot, especially in relationship to Guenevere, as portraying a slippage of gender roles. There is also a discussion of how clerical rhetoric against luxurious/fashionable clothing simultaneously claims that it feminizes men and masculinizes women.

In literature, armor is the ultimate creator of masculinity. To be armored/protected/covered is to be masculine, whereas to be exposed, uncovered, vulnerable is to be feminine. But the behavioral and sartorial crossing of gender lines is far more accepted for men than for women, who are rebuked if they step outside gender signifier norms. An example is given of a 13th century sermon against women who wear male-signified clothing and accessories as being both too knightly and too seductive at the same time.

7. The Love of Thy Neighbor - Louise O. Fradenburg

This article contrasts two types of love defined in Christian theology: charity, the love of God and the enjoyment of self and neighbor for the sake of God; and cupidity, the enjoyment of anything for the sake of something other than God. The article is a psychoanalytic study of the concept of “charity” in this context. [Note: I found it at the same time too dense and too diffuse to summarize easily.]

8. Conversion and Medieval Sexual, Religious, and Racial Categories - Steven F. Kruger

This article looks a tthe intertwining of gender, religion, and race to argue that identity cannot be defined for any of these axes without considering intersectionality. [Note: the article doesn’t use the term “intersectionality” but is clearly talking about the concept generally known by that name.] Anxieties about categories are especially focused on the image of category-transgression (women acting as men, the ”feminization” of Jewish men in Christian mythology, etc.). The article discussions the concept of “conversion” as a locus of anxiety for all of these categories, especially in the context of penalties for cross-religious relationships (both personal and economic) that were considered to create a risk of “pollution”, either overt or symbolic conversion from one category to another.

9. Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies - Karma Lochrie

Lochrie considers the interpretation of mystical experiences in a sexual framework, especially within the concept of “queering” history. But is “queering” a valid study of the gaps and contradictions in the historic record, or an anachronistic projection? Lochrie looks at the often dark and violent imagery of mystical eroticism, with its themes of disease, torment, mortality, and decay. Ecstasy is depicted as a violent, violating experience. There is a discussion of the image of Christ’s wound as a vulva symbol and its relation to (feminine) suffering as a religious experience.

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