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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 08:15

Towards a Medieval Transgender Studies

Sponsor: Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS)

Organizer: M. W. Bychowski, Case Western Reserve Univ.

Presider: Micah Goodrich, Univ. of Connecticut

That Detestable, Unmentionable, and Ignominious Vice: Trans Women and Sex Work in Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Perspectives Alina Boyden, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison

The paper will be centering around the case of John Rykener (which the speaker explicitly notes she doesn’t feel the need to review for this audience - but for my readers who may need background try this). The historic examples will be compared with modern anthropological studies of groups like Hijras in India, with a consideration of how self-identity may shift within a stable group, either creating or erasing particular concepts of gender identity. Consider viewing gender identity as a community of practice rather than a community of self-identity. As Hijras shift to identifying as trans women, does that reflect a different identity or simply a different framing a stable identity? If we look for self-identification as “trans women” in history, we look in vain, but if we look for individuals or groups that share a community of practice with modern trans women, then the search is more fruitful. Is this a valid approach? John/Eleanor Rykener shares a number of “practices” with certain modern communities of trans women, such as the self-selection of a relatively unusual name of high status. Rykener lived as a woman for at least a portion of the time and worked in a profession (embroiderer) that is strongly female-identified, in addition to being a sex worker. From Rykener’s court record we can interpret that she embodied other aspects of female behavior than these. But in contrast to modern communities of trans women, Rykener expressed other differences, such as bisexuality. [Note: the paper was presented very rapidly, so I wasn’t able to note down many of the details.]

Trans Knights, Then and Now Ced Block, Independent Scholar

A pop culture look at the representation of transgender knights in medieval and pseudo-medieval contexts. It is only the beginnings of an exploration of the topic. Criteria for including modern stories: must have trans-coded character, “knightly” or more broadly “good-aligned melee fighter”, widely available in American media primarily comics but including video games. Texts include the medieval Le Roman de Silence and Yde et Olive and two modern texts Rat Queens (graphic novel) and Dragon Age Inquisition (game). These characters share the properties of being supremely competent fighters, over-compensation of gender in terms both of performance of gender and of the strongly gendered reaction of other characters to the knight, most of the stories deal with a magical transition, whether of physiological sex (as for Yde) or of gendered physical attributes (as for Silence). This last distracts away from a generally accessible performance of gender to a focus on an impossible standard of physical transformation. The characters also mostly have an anxiety around sexuality and sexual performance, even in a context (Dragon Age) where variety of sexual preference itself is taken for granted. Transgressive elements that are maintained through out the four texts include a joy in living a trans life and choosing one’s own path. So what’s the connection of knighthood? Is it because of being the epitome of masculinity? Only for the trans-masculine characters, whereas in modern pop culture it’s more common for the trans knights to be women. What about knighthood as a high standard of social norms? In this context successful performance of knighthood validates trans identity as a positive non-threatening contribution to the social order. Future directions: want to expand to images of Silence and Yde and add more secondary sources.

Radical Pedagogy and New Medievalisms: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and the Medieval Imaginary Nicholas Hoffman, Ohio State Univ.; J* E*, Ohio State Univ.

[Note: one of the presenters has requested that I not include their name.] The paper focuses on two modern transgender activists in the context of a hagiographic approach. Both women were activists in and after the Stonewall riots, moving on from Stonewall to further trans-related activism. Both have been celebrated by the culture in ways reminiscent of a medieval approach to sainthood. Both women were renowned for the material as well as psychological support given to their communities. Johnson was described in her lifetime in the language of hagiography, drawing from the concepts a variety of religious traditions. Johnson participated in public religious practices, in several different traditions (both Christian and non-Christian). Often she participated in ecstatic performance which was treated as mental illness, resulting in involuntary treatments. Rivera participated in a synthetic liturgy drawing from Santeria and Catholic traditions, with rituals often focused on the everyday protective needs of trans women. The way that iconic saint-like figures strongly echoes a medieval dynamic of folk veneration, as contrasted with the formal liturgy of Catholic hagiography. In summary, the paper calls for using an understanding of a medievalist approach to life narratives as a framework for understanding medievalism in the modern world. As contrasted, for example, with the pop culture framing of medievalism as violent primativism (as in Game of Thrones) that contributes to reactionary and fascist understandings of the past.

The Future of Medieval Transgender Studies M. W. Bychowski

The story of the Loathly Lady (from the Wife of Bath’s tale) provides an allegory for the future of transgender studies: will the relationship between trans studies and the academy go for the loathly or lovely lady, for begrudging truth or superficial entertainment? Must transgender studies be “un-transed” in order to be included in medieval studies? How are transgender studies affected by being primarily filtered through cis researchers? How is the topic affected by the tension between homosexual and transgender readings of the same historical data? A call to action for trans researchers to identify trans readings and trans understandings of the past that may be overlooked or outright denied and erased by cisgender scholars. In support of this, cis members of the academy must support the presence, agency, and security of their trans compatriots. We must embrace multiplicity and diversity because just as there is no one way to be trans in the presence, we must accept that there was no one way to be trans in the past.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22b - Interview with Jeannelle M. Ferreira - (transcript not available)

(Originally aired 2018/05/12 - listen here)

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about

  • The attractions of the Regency romance
  • Jeannelle’s earlier works, especially a novel set in the Vilna ghetto during WWII
  • Jewish influences in her writing
  • Jeannelle’s background as a student of history
  • Sexuality and PTSD in the Regency era
  • The National Trust’s website on queer history in the UK
  • Finding queer-coded characters in childhood favorite books
  • Researching war in Waterloo diaries of British soldiers
  • The path through British historical YA fiction that leads to a study of imperial and colonial history
  • Horses and swords--it always comes back to horses and swords
  • Future projects: more about Nora and Harriet, gender-bending Kit Marlowe, World War I flying aces, and lesbian pirates

Publications mentioned:

More info



  • @JeannelleWrites
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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 13:53

Dress and Textiles III: New Analyses of Old Evidence

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion)

Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF

Presider: Robin Netherton

Scarlet Blue: Elite versus Peasantish Clothing in Nordic Ballads Sandra B. Straubhaar, Univ. of Texas–Austin

Not talking about sagas here but sung ballads, usually used for dancing. They often have connections to rhymed metrical romances. Today’s example is the ballad about Ramund the Young. Ramund is a hero of lowly origins. Before he can go out on an adventure, he must gain a set of clothing from a female figure (mother, girlfriend, queen, etc.). His clothes are depicted as ridiculously large. The general outline of his adventures is: Ramund comes form the countryside to court in “peasantish clothing” and bust be properly outfitted to go out and battle giants or trolls. There are dozens of variants of the Ramund ballad. We now get a catalog and classification of the ballad variants. [We get a Danish rock band illustration of one stanza.] The opening motif is that Ramund must be given better clothes than he has to beome a better man. He is offered rough clothes of “blue bast and leather” and rejects them and asks for better, then he’s offered better clothes (silk and samite). The various sets of clothing are desribed in terms of material and color, though evidently not cut/type. Collating the descriptions, we seem to get the impression that peasants wear coarse blue clothing, while nobles wear scarlet/red. But looking at a variant, “blue” (from “blågarn” blue yarn) may be an adaptation of “blorgarn” meaning “bast yarn” that is, a coarse plant fiber. Other versions specify the poor clothing as “ugly weaving” made of nettles and root fibers, compared to the better clothing of scarlet. Another specifies nettle cloth which is rejected in favor of the king’s daughter making him clothing of silk. In one version, the “scarlet” cloth is expanded to “scarlet red”, for “scarlet” comes in a number of different colors, including blue. (Scarlet blue occurs in other unrelated ballads as a noble fabric.) We also get “scarlet green” for a cloak. And “scarlet white” for a page’s or servant’s clothing. But in general, a combination of scarlet green and scarlet red indicates rich clothing (or maybe they just provide useful rhymes). Or you can add in also scarlet blue with yet another rhyme option. Behind all this, of course, is the origin of “scarlet” as a type of luxury fabric, not a color. The word as used in the Scandinavian languages may have more than one origin, either from Arabic siklat (for a decorated fabric) or for OHG scarlachen for a shaved/shorn fabric. Ramund’s final acquisition after the main clothes are sorted out is appropriate trousers, where he needs fifty ells or more of cloth to cover his frame. So how much information on medieval clothing cut can be retrieved from these ballads? Very little, though possibly some information on color symbolism.

Hemp and Hemp Cloth in the Medieval Rus Lands Heidi Sherman, Univ. of Wisconsin–Green Bay

This speaker was not able to attend due to her department getting a major state award.

The Tree of Jesse and the Royal Adulterers: An Examination of Two Fourteenth-Century German Appliqued Hangings Lisa Evans, Independent Scholar

Late 14th c appliquéd tapestry of the Tree of Jesse, similar to a tapestry in the V&A similar in technique but depicting Tristan. This paper will compare the two to determine if they are connected in origin. Appliqué is well suited to large public display textiles as the labor is much less than for embroidery. The tree of Jesse motif shows the genealogy of Christ depicted as a literal “family tree” springing from the sleeping figure of Jesse. There is a large central rectangle in deep blue with the tree motif itself surrounded by a border in red with floral motifs. The central panel is a single piece of fabric while the border is crudely pieced of multiple pieces. The designs are of multiple colors of wool couched down with thin strips of gilded leather and are lightly padded. The human figures show no signs of embroidered facial features. Among the floral motifs filling in the background there are also captions in blackletter, also done with appliqué. Many of the figures have gold crowns also made of gilt leather. The depicted prophets wear clothing contemporary to the work. The border has enthroned kings associated with the letter S and unicorn head motifs. Except for a section of wear that may represent a fold, the work is in excellent condition and the colors are little faced. The V&A Tristan hanging is cut down from its original size (maybe a quarter of the original size). Despite many stylistic similarities, the author argues that the two works are only coincidentally similar and unrelated. The human figures are shown in arcades, with the scenes distinguished by different color background fabrics. The materials are similar to the Jesse piece (wool with appliqué done using gilded leather strips). The stitching, however, is not quite as fine. The clothing is in a different style, being more fitted. The work is more damaged than the Jesse piece, being faded and worn. Unlike the Jesse piece, very little is known about the Tristan piece due to its ownership history. The previous owner, Franz Bock, was an antiquarian collector rather than a conservator and notorious for modifying or separating pieces for distribution or display. The Tristan piece may have had a twin in different materials but a similar technique and with similar layout, that was described in the 1930s but is now lost.

Teletta: Discovering the Origins of This Late Renaissance Italian Textile Dawn A. Maneval, Independent Scholar

”Teletta” is a type of cloth of gold. This paper is intended to identify the structure and origin of textiles described with this term. Due to trade, silk textiles were often known by “international” names that don’t always indicate origin clearly. Various types of records may provide evidence: account books, inventories, guild regulations. Dictionaries define teletta as a cloth woven primarily with gold or silver. Textile scholarship defines it as a tabby weave of silk with pattern wefts of metal threads. But its unclear how the scholars came up with this definition. Etymologically, the word is a diminutive of “tela”. But “tela” is a general term for cloth. It can mean a tabby weave, but has other meanings. It can mean a lightweight silk, a drawn-wife silk, or a type of a griccia velvet (referring to a type of design). A griccia velvets were extreme luxury fabrics associated with the wealthy and powerful. A griccia refers to an asymmetric design in the weave. There was no symmetric repetition therefore they were more laborious to create. Usually created as a figured or voided velvet. Surviving examples of these have pile and a taffeta (tabby) ground in the “voided” areas. These velvets were also enriched with metal threads (metal lamina spun around a silk core). The metal thread could either be used in loops among the pile, or as brocading wefts. The paper now analyzes how the historical record for the use of the word teletta aligns with the various proposed features/definitions in the academic definition. This analysis eliminates the proposed “ground of the a griccia velvet” definition as not matching the word’s use. The definition as a “lightweight silk”. But again, this does not align with the term’s use. Another possible definition is “cloth using drawn-wire for cloth of gold. This technique can be used in combination with other techniques such as loops and brocading and pile. If teletta refers only to the use of drawn wire in a silk fabric, then it does align with the uses of the word in historic sources. The problem is that we don’t have enough clear correspondences of surviving items and a contemporary description of the fabric as teletta that could confirm the conclusion.

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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 11:57

Dress and Textiles II: Metaphor and Materiality

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion); Pearl-Poet Society<?p>

Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF<?p>

Presider: Monica L. Wright, Univ. of Louisiana–Lafayette

Seeing Beyond the Color: The Green Knight’s Attire Kimberly Jack, Athens State Univ.

Scholarship on the Green Knight’s appearance tends to focus solely on the color itself. This paper looks at other descriptions of the knight’s appearance, clothing, and horse. (This paper and the following one work together to look at this topic.) There is a conventional head-to-toe description when the knight enters the hall, focusing on physique, clothing, hair, horse, and then a “negative’ description or armor, focusing on what he doesn’t wear. At first the description focuses on the knight’s immensity, but then backs off an clearly identifies him as a man. Not disfigured but well-formed. The only “monstrous” aspect is the green color. Then we get the clothing description: a tailored cote, well-fitted hose (all of green). This is high fashion, tight and fitted tot he body and revealing the legs. A fur-lined mantle and hood, Gold spurs on silk, richly barred (unclear if striped or with metal bars), and “shoeless” not meaning with no shoes at all, but not wearing boots, indicating peaceful intention. A barred belt with rich stones. His array on himself and his saddle was worked and embroidered with birds and (butter)flies of green and gold. Butterflies are a symbol of distraction, aimless wandering, and unimportance. The horse’s equipment include pendants, green enamel work on his bridle and stirrups. The horse is green and is enormous like his rider, perfectly suited to him. Now we move to hair, both of the rider and horse. Their hair match: fair, fanned locks over his shoulders, his beard like a bush, both trimmed to just above his elbows. But this is not the description of a wild man: there is an emphasis on how it is well-trimmed and luxurious, falling like a royal “capados” (hood/mail coif). The horse’s mane is then compared back to the knight’s hair, curled, combed and adorned with green bands with precious stones, his docked tail is similarly adorned. Then we have a description of absent armor: no helm, hauberk, plate, spear, nor shield. This is used to emphasize his peaceful intention. All he carries is a holly branch and an ax adorned with ornaments. We now move on to Part 2.

Greening the Knight: Costumes and Defying Social Context in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Kara Larson Maloney, Canisius College

She refers to a previous paper in which she looked at how Gawain’s disrobing depicted the removal of his virtues. Now she looks at the humanity of the Green Knight, while the green color frees him from ordinary limits of humanity. The Knight is also Sir Bertilak who is the tool of Morgaine in a ruse against Guinevere. The Green Knight is not himself a transformer, but has been chosen by Morgaine for her purpose. Green symbolized a variety of perilous concepts. We get a catalog of various supernatural green characters such as the greenman, the holly king, etc. etc. But again the Green Knight does not have the features of a “wild man”, diverging from the usual greenman representation. In this bridging function, he defies the usual rules of representation and exists in a liminal space between the court and the wild. This ties in with the use of the embroidered birds and butterflies. The extended elaborate description scenes overwhelm the senses with contradictory input., not only for the reader, but for Gawain within the narrative, who also represents a dual world of court and wild. We now get a catalog of various theories of what the Green Knight may be intended to symbolize in this context. Much of it contradictory. But overall the knight is meant to be a rebuke to Arthur’s court. There is a digression into the relationship between silk work and prostitutes, that may have some connection with the featured embroidery on the Knight’s garb? Or more neutrally, embroidery as women’s work and women’s authorship (relating tack to Morgaine’s authorship of the Green Knight’s adventure). Many pop culture digressions on green figures.

The Clothing of the Uncorruptible: Examining the Wardrobe of the Pearl-Poet Jessica Troy, Univ. of New Mexico

The various purposes and symbolism of clothing (vs nakedness). Example from Bisclavret wehre clothing is the essence of humanity for the werewolf. In the Pearl, Green Knight, and Erkenwald clothing is used strategically to communicate a variety of characteristics about the characters. Color had symbolic, economic, and personal meaning. Clothing situates the wearer within society. The most outstanding property of the Green Knight is his ability to stay alive after being decapitated, tying in with the symbolism of green for rebirth, life, etc. The green girdle given to Gawain is meant to be a symbol of the same property, except for Gawain’s behavioral failure. Clothing is supposed to match inner reality. St. Erkenwald involves the incorruptible corpse of a pagan judge discovered during building. The corpse animates and tells his tale. Before St. Erkenwald gets involved, we get a description of the corpse: beautiful rich gold, with pearls and gold, a mantle trimmed with miniver, a crown and scepter, his clothes were clean and spotless with no mold or moth holes, the colors are bright as if just dyed and his flesh is still fine and ruddy. St. Erkenwald elicits from him his life showing a just and pure (incorruptible) life, despite being a pagan. This is reflected in the incorruptible state of his body and clothing. But he is in limbo as he died without knowing Christ. St. Erkenwald baptizes him and hi turns to dust, along with his clothing. The clothing would now “hinder him” from moving on to life everlasting. The figure of the pearl maiden in The Pearl is another example of clothing instantiating inner truth, with all the pearls reflecting her purity. But here we have a conflict between earthly rich clothing representing purity of the soul also representing worldliness.

The Spinner in the Macclesfield Psalter Paula Mae Carns, Univ. of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign

The key image is a female spinner with a spindle in a foliated initial in the border of the Macclesfield Psalter. This paper looks at why she is there and what she represents. She might simply represent a common craft. Even after weaving shifted to a male-dominated craft, women still dominated spinning. Other stages in textile production are also represented. Saints are among those depicted producing thread, including the Virgin and St. Margaret. This suggests a possible interpretation of a lone female spinner as a symbol of virtue. Eve is also commonly shown spinning. And spinning can also have negative resonances (as with Eve). But Eve’s spinning is interpreted in multiple ways. Spinning also shows up in images representing sloth, when the spindle is idle. The larger context of the Macclesfield spinner involves the text of the “gradual psalms”. In this MS the psalms often have an elaborate pictorial presentation. Many of the images in this sequence involve musicians including King David, dancers, but also an image of a naked man backward on a donkey, which was used as a punishment for certain crimes or offences including adultery or cuckoldry. We get another example of an ivory writing tablet with courtly images showing a seduction and then a cuckolded man riding backwards while his wife and her lover watch. Going back to the Macclesfield images, there is a woman dressed in red (like the spinner) in several other images, possibly illustrating a narrative of the attempted seduction of the woman, in a musical and dancing scene, but she is turning away from the seducer and toward a well-dressed woman. So perhaps the spinner represents a virtuous woman, the rejects the seducer, but her husband is the one who strays and is punished for adultery with the backwards ride. In later psalms, the illustrations are more generic courtly scenes, but often show women rejecting the temptations of lust. Overall, these women may be intended to speak to a female owner/viewer to encourage her in virtue. Speculation on the commissioning of the book by Isabel Despenser for her son Edmund Fitzalan. Isabel had personal reasons for warning against the dangers of lust and seduction. The spinner may have been intended as a representation of Isabel herself as symbol of the virtuous woman.

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Friday, May 11, 2018 - 08:21

Dress and Textiles I: Representing Textiles and Dress

Sponsor: DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion) Organizer: Robin Netherton, DISTAFF

Presider: Robin Netherton

The Banners in Beowulf M. Wendy Hennequin, Tennessee State Univ.

Among the treasures described in detail in Beowulf are swords, but also three banners: Scyld’s funereal banner, Heorogar’s boarhead banner, the banner in the dragon hoard. Given the unusual detail given to them, banners clearly held a significant symbolic importance. Anglo-Saxon banners do not figure significantly in archaeological finds and are mentioned only in passing in studies of the Bayeaux Tapestry. Other banners are mentioned in Beowulf but without description and in passing. “Segn” or “segen” is the usual AS term for banner, glassed in Latin as vexilla, while “cumbor or “cumbol” is a more poetic reference. Another term not found in Beowulf is “thuf” indicating a feather-decorated banner, as well as “fana” or “fanu” (borrowing?). The variety of words is another indicator of cultural importance. A standard trope for the appearance of banners is for them to be “golden” and even shining. They are typically decorated and may have magical attributes. The “boar’s head banner” is part of a tradition of banners with animal motifs. Banners are consistently described as textiles, an interpretation supported by other textual sources. Banners in Beowulf are always associated with kings. [I have missed a little of the notes while I helped troubleshoot the computer projection.] I think there was something about references to banners in texts being a foreshadowing of victory in battle. We now get a slideshow of depictions of banners in AS art. 11th c MS with square, three-tailed banners with square motifs very similar to a banner shown in the Bayeaux tapestry (panel 68). The BT also shows animal/monster-motif banners that may relate to the textual references.

Meaningful Folds: Reading Christ’s Grave Cloths at the Visitatio Sepulchri Nancy Thebaut, Univ. of Chicago

Ca. 1000 ms from St. Gall shows the Holy Sepulcher, empty except for a draped cloth and a small cloth bundle. The Gospels describe two cloths in the context of this scene. The two cloths in the image are clearly meant to correspond to these two mentions but elaborate on them. This type-scene with grave cloths appears in a number of representations during a short-lived period around this time, in contrast with depictions of a plain empty tomb in other eras. These depictions may be related to a tradition of theatrical reenactments of the event as part of liturgical rituals. The author suggests that the artistic depictions of the cloths relate to the use of actual physical cloths in church rituals relating to the Eucharist. E.g., a description of how the ?host? should be wrapped in a cloth that “shows no beginning or end” matching the “bundled” cloth in the manuscript art. We are shown a variety of MS depictions of exactly this sort of wrapped cloth. The second cloth--the draped one--can be related to descriptions of the symbolic meaning of unfolded cloth as representing faith. In the images, though, the cloth is not a shape corresponding to any specific liturgical cloth. It often hands suspended in mid air, hollowed around a non-present form or body. Both the draped and the bundled cloths may appear in art individually as well as in paired depictions. The draped cloth speaks to the incarnate body of Christ in depicting a presence in absence, representing his humanity. The “endless” bundled cloth represents Christ’s eternal divinity.

The Prime Mover: Translated Textiles in the Architecture of the Global Middle Ages Mikael Muehlbauer, Columbia Univ.

Architecture and textiles are usually diametrically opposed: textile is portable and ephemeral while architecture is monumental and permanent. Islamic architectural ornamentation is characteristically related to textile decoration, while Western ornament more often used actual textiles as decoration. In Christian spaces, textiles represent revelation and transformation. [We are having a comedy of errors with the computer projection where the connection keeps blinking out requiring an assistant to re-set up the ppt display. ] Textile treasures were often a major part of church holdings, and the iconography is often reflected across the textile-architecture divide in both directions. [The AV tech has solved the display problem with a new cord.] We now move from the Hagia Sophia to an Ethiopian church in Tigray that he argues uses decoration drawn from Indian textiles traded along the Red Sea. Examples of other possible sources for Ethiopian architectural decoration in Armenian herringbone brickwork patterns, Indian flower/tree motifs. These designs demonstrate the integration of Ethiopia in extensive trade routes. Moving to a cathedral in Reims, France, we see examples of draped cloth depicted in carved stone. This use of draped cloth in decoration corresponded to other changes in church organization, including the introduction of the rood screen, including the use of textile curtains (actual ones) as part of the division of space.

Medieval Morality and the Paradigms of Redemption John Slefinger, Ohio State Univ.

Considering a formulaic morality plot: common man achieves success, becomes greedy, over-reaches, falls, and discovers redemption through simplicity. The paper looks at the representations of the stages of this plot in clothing in one particular morality play from East Anglia in the 15th century. How does the play’s costuming reflect the realities of common people’s access to various types of clothing in that time/place. The play emphasizes social hierarchy, including in how it addresses the audience. Characters representing vices wear flamboyant high-fashion clothing and torment the character of Mankind, representing an ordinary laborer. As Mankind succumbs to their temptation, his clothing becomes shorter and more fashionable. Reference to sumptuary laws that legislate against coats/jackets that aren’t long enough to cover the “privy members and buttocks.” There is an interplay between the class aspects of fashion and the general moral judgments applied to the clothing. In general high-fashion was only available to/used by the upper classes, but there was a middle ground of wealthy peasants who aspired to more fashionable styles. Thus, the “mankind” character in the play, even as he “falls”, is seen to rise in the social hierarchy through his clothing. How well would an anti-greed, anti-fashion message play to a crowd filled with merchants making their fortunes from the cloth and clothing trade? Furthermore, how would it play to the town leaders whose status was reflected in high fashion clothing? The region was undergoing an economic shift involving a labor shortage: low rents and high wages as landowners scrambled to shift to enclosed pasture rather than cultivated fields. Villages were being abandoned due to enclosures while town elites turned to foreign luxury clothing. This makes the character of the laborer Mankind in the play a bit more complicated. Returning to the quoted sumptuary rule about short clothing, it only applied to those below a certain rank. Therefore the accusation of immorality is not for the clothing itself, but for the claiming of status through clothing. Thus the characters of the Vices are not tempting Mankind to luxury and pride, but to social climbing--something that all ranks could be comfortable in mocking.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 17:49

Had dinner at the usual favorite Indian place with a delightfully cozy group of just four. Dithered about whether to take in an evening session after that, but this roundtable about onomastics was impossible to resist.

What’s in a Name? A Roundtable on Names, Nicknames and Identity in the Middle Ages

Organizer: Elizabeth Archibald, Durham Univ.

Presider: Elizabeth Archibald

A roundtable discussion with Elizabeth P. Archibald [an entirely different Elizabeth Archibald than the organizer], Univ. of Pittsburgh; Katherine Travers, New York Univ.; Laurie Atkinson, Durham Univ.; Kathleen Ashley, Univ. of Southern Maine; and Michael J. Huxtable, Durham Univ.

The running joke of the introductions is that the two Elizabeth Archibalds not only studied the same topic at the same institution (though many years apart) but are sharing a dorm suite at the conference.

We begin with brief introductions on the speakers’ topics of interest

Elizabeth: Names and meanings were one of the first and key concepts of medieval linguistics. The distinction between proper and common nouns (and in Latin, “noun” and “name” are the same word) was a building block of exploring meaning. But there are contexts where the distinction between nouns and names is fuzzier. Examples are given from colloquies (textbooks in the form of a dialogue) where the speakers are identified with labels that are often both descriptive nouns and treated as personal names. The distinction of noun/name illustrates the general/specific contrast that is key in philosophy.

The presider points out that the two Elizabeths are the only two presenters in the conference program who have their affiliations appended to their personal names as a necessary distinction. Which goes nicely with the theme of the roundtable.

Katherine: Discusses women poets of 13th century Italy or at least poems presented in the voice of a woman, under pseudonyms that claim identities of location. This involves a verbal game between the voices of lovers where renaming/claiming names is part of the courtship.

Mike; The tension between sense and reference in the meaning/function of names. Looking at names via heraldic symbolism and its function in literature. Index, icon, and symbol as different modes of reference. Naming as an associative activity. In heraldic/chivalric writing there’s a clear distinction between type and token (category and specific instances). “Pseudo-heraldic names” in chivalric romances, such as “the Black Knight” shift between modes, being descriptive, individual, but also symbolic. As such, these would appear to break the boundaries of the usual categories.

Kathleen: The topic is patrons and name-saints in books of hours. There’s a lovely handout. The images of patrons paired with their patron saintly namesakes demonstrate a multi-faceted identification that goes beyond the link of the name. There are a number of relationships depicted in these images: saint as personal intercessor, as object of worship. But the object of worship can show a range of relationships from intimate to distanced.

Laurie: The fiction of authorship in dream-poetry. Naming the fictitious “author” of the dream-poem, internal to the text but not directly identified with the author of the actual text. This was a mechanism for both revealing and concealing the author’s relationship to the voice in his text. The focus for this discussion is the early Tudor poet Stephen Hawes. The narrator laments his hopeless love, falls asleep, and then interacts with a lady within the dream, explaining his troubles, and is eventually brought to his love (in the dream). It diverges from the usual formula in that within the dream, the author’s (Hawes’) actual book of poetry is brought up between the persona and his lady love. This creates a multilayered equation of the poet and persona, where it’s ambiguous whether the “real” text or only the allegorical in-story text is being discussed.

Elizabeth (the presider): A consideration of the multiple possible “Thomas Mallory”s and the general problem of identity in the context of name duplication. But this is a way of sliding into the Trojan characters in the legendary history of Britain, and the duplication of classical names (and even sets of relationships) transferred from the classical sources to characters in medieval romance. Sometimes this re-use seems almost random, not necessarily reproducing the key characteristics and even relationships of the original figures. When the primary characters of the story of Troy have their names given to secondary/minor characters in Arthurian legend, is this meant to indicate that Troy is now lesser than Britain? To what extent are attributes and stories carried over? Are all the Helen-variants in the Matter of Britain (e.g., Elaine of Astolat) bringing with them the attribute of women who cause trouble because of love? What of the Trojan characters who are borrowed and given a change of gender (as Hecuba who becomes a male knight in Arthuriana)? In general, how does this sort of “recycling” of names speak to the question of meaning/reference?

The session is now thrown open to general discussion. I’m not going to be able to identify speakers here. Connection made between the ambiguity of general/specific in colloquy speakers and the problem of naming women poets, possibly in the context of whether the female “persona” of a poem may or may not represent a female author? Relates to the identification question in the dream-poem. Real identities vs performative identities. In the book of hours portraits, we know these are real people, but they are also performing the role of pious person with artificial attributes brought into the picture for symbolic reasons. Examples of how re-naming with a saint’s name imbues the recipient with attributes of the saint. Discussion of the instability of the “meaningfulness” of names, depending on context or desired function. (It means something when you want it to, not when you don’t.) Relationship to coats of arms as “meaningful” versus arbitrarily referential. A consideration of shifts in the approach to medieval studies in general from the pursuit of a one-to-one correspondence of thing and meaning, to an acceptance of a greater multiplicity of meanings and associations. I asked a question about examples of “dynamic disambiguation” of otherwise identical names, sparked by the double name in the participants. (I mentioned a statistical study I did on name structure complexity in Welsh records tied to common name/patronym combinations.) But clearly not all cultures were concerned about this, e.g., the Pastons who often had multiple children in a generation with identical given names. The discussion is now becoming too wide-ranging to really summarize well.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 13:46

There weren’t any sessions that called strongly to me in the after lunch session, so I went to the book-room and browsed through a bit over half the publishers’ displays. I have another un-planned period Saturday morning when I can finish the shopping. I chose this session in part because I’ve been poking at my 10th century Viking/Welsh romance idea, and in part because of the textiles/clothing-themed paper.

Living and Dying in Viking-Age Ireland

Sponsor: American Society of Irish Medieval Studies (ASIMS)

Organizer: Rachel E. Scott, DePaul Univ.

Presider: Vicky McAlister, Southeast Missouri State Univ.

“Gold and Fine Raiment”: Women’s Work and the Economy of Viking Dublin -Mary Valante, Appalachian State Univ.

Starts with a tongue-in-cheek slide about the “not like other girls” motif in historical fiction. “Without my needle, you would all be naked and dead. Excuse me, I have to go throw a party and negotiate a land deal.” Importance of high-quality textiles as part of Dublin’s trade network. Paper looks at circumstantial archaeological evidence for the importance of textile production in the Viking Dublin economy. We start with a brief survey of the scholarly literature on the topic, then looking at textual references to textile work. The focus will be on everyday textiles, especially wool and linen, though silk was also important. Discussion of various available dyestuffs. Note that actual textile survivals tend to be fragmentary and small: impressions on the back of metal accessories, etc. Other fragmentary scraps have been found in the excavations along Fishamble Street. A survey of the various head-coverings found in Dublin, which demonstrate a wide variety of styles and shapes, many in silk and dyed in colors. Despite the absence of larger clothing remains, some idea of clothing styles can be found in stone carvings. Agricultural evidence for the types of plant fibers used for textiles. Other than clothing, (woolen) sails were an important part of textile production. We are shown a survey of textile tools found in archaeological sites. A discussion of how Viking-era urban centers offer a wider variety of spindle whorls for spinning different types and weights of threads, while rural finds tend to be less varied. Universally: spinning, weaving, and sewing were considered “women’s work” and may have been differentiated with enslaved women doing the majority of the spinning and higher status women doing the weaving. Textile production might be done in specialized buildings with a sunken floor that included not only the loom, but facilities for washing, dying, and fulling. The sunken floor was in order to allow more height for the warp-weighted loom, where a greater working height was an advantage. (She seems to imply that through the 10th century, cloth on a warp-weighted loom couldn’t be longer than the height of the loom. Is this true?) The paper title comes from a description of three great markets in Dublin including “the market of the Greek foreigners where gold and fine raiment” could be bought. But presumably that wouldn’t refer to domestic textile production.

The paper is a bit of a “beginners introduction” survey rather than an in-depth focus on new analysis or data. The data is drawn from the larger Norse sphere in the British Isles, not just Dublin, and there is an emphasis on objects and reconstructions that can be displayed as illustrations.

Searching for an Archaeology of Care in Viking-Age Ireland - John Soderberg, Denison Univ.

Looking at the roles of the church in (medical) care, esp. in the period after the turn of the millennium when the concept of the hospital was being invented. Social shifts created the need for new models of care, as well as creating new means of supporting and endowing those models. As an example, the development of leper hospitals in the 12th century in Winchester, England. The early leprosariums are difficult to distinguish from ordinary secular settlements, rather than being clearly clerical in nature. But certain aspects of care were not reflected in these sites, including a lack of cemeteries. The emerging field of bioarchaeology looks at the evidences for how communities provided and accommodated the care of impaired community members. Looking at the processes of care and how they are organized and integrated within the community. We’re getting a lot of theoretical background on the field and techniques of bioarchaeology of care (with “care” being taken in a very broad sense, not narrowly in the sense of medical care).

We now turn to examples of what archaeological evidence of care looks like in Viking-era Ireland. We have examples of sheep metacarpals with traces of infection, horse foot-bones with evidence of degenerative changes, bit-wear on horse dentition. Examples of implements that cover tending to human bodies from the cosmetic to the medical. We now move on to the archaeology of two monastic settlements. Raystown, started as 5th century burial site, by ca. the 9th century burial is no longer a central element. Interior enclosure with some additional exterior enclosures, lots of evidence of craft working and a multiplicity of mills. All this leads to a narrative of centralization, commercialization and exchange, but the narrative tends to erase the question of non-productive activities and human interactions. Clonfad: the archaeological emphasis is on metalworking activities and crafts, but again the focus distracts from questions of how people gathered and interacted there. We end with a plea to pay more attention to this concept of “archaeologies of care” and what the evidence is for human interactions around the artifacts and sites.

On Vikings and Violence: The Human Skeletal Evidence from Early Medieval Ireland - Rachel E. Scott

Looking at statistical data for skeletons in early medieval Ireland and struck by the low prevalence of signs of trauma. Wanted to do a comparison with Viking era data to see if there is an association of greater traumatic death associated with Vikings. Following the Viking settlement in the 9th and 10th centuries, they became fully integrated into Irish culture and royal politics. Historic Irish chronicles point fingers at the Vikings as being notoriously violent and aggressive, but this image does not hold up. Irish forces, in fact, won more battles against the Vikings than they lost. Skeletal evidence offers a neutral measure of the prevalence of violent trauma. This would include weapon wounds (whether on the skull or elsewhere) or facial injuries (including healed breaks). The data analysis can look at frequency among the population and distribution among different demographics, as well as distinctions in the type and extent of trauma or evidence of post-death mutilation.

We get a large data table from a dozen or so sites from early medieval Ireland. Some conclusions: Insufficient adolescents to draw age-based conclusions. Men are more commonly victims of violent death than women are, with a 3.9% overall level of violent trauma. When compared to a broad survey of skeletal trauma rates across time and space, “pervasive violence” correlates with trauma rates of 20-30%. Early medieval Irish warfare characteristically involved things like cattle raids and did not typically involve direct human conflict. So how does this compare with Viking-era trauma rates? Looking at the Viking burials in Ireland: gender is identified by grave goods and the skeletal remains are rarely preserved, with only 20 skeletons (out of maybe 180 total graves), all adult males. None of these 20 show any evidence of trauma leading to death. Now we look at skeletal remains from Viking towns in Ireland (which may involve individuals of various cultural origins). These skeletons are not necessarily found in cemeteries and may involve unusual circumstances, such as a collection of adult male skulls that all show violent trauma and evidence of having been mounted on spikes. Another collection of 13 remains has 2 individuals with evidence of violent death, but the numbers are too small for useful analysis. So can we compare Irish cemeteries from the Viking era for useful comparison? The problem is that we can’t clearly date the individual burials to pre- and post-Viking groups. Looking back at the (pre-Viking) early medieval Irish burials, two specific sites did have high trauma rates of ca. 22%, though one is based on only 9 individuals. The other site, Owenbristy, had a larger data set and the cumulative analysis of trauma shows “severe trauma” (including one individual with over a hundred individual cuts). Relative position of the bones in the grave indicates he was decapitated and quartered. However this site is very well dated, and the majority of the severe trauma victims pre-dated the Viking era (including the heavily mutilated one). Overall conclusions: there isn’t really enough clear skeletal trauma evidence to say anything about relative violence during the Viking incursions compared to pre-Viking Ireland.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018 - 08:10

NOTE: I'm sorry about the formatting. I'm having some sort of weird interaction with the website display which isn't giving me any control over fonts or formatting. I'll fix it later, but for now, it's a wall-o-text. UPDATE: OK, evidently I have to handcode everything in source code.

Yes, it's that time of year again! When thousands of international medievalists throw me a birthday party in Kalamazoo! As usual, I'll be blogging the (somewhat eclectic assortment of) sessions I attend, as well as listing my book purchases. I may be handicapped by some peculiar things that have happened to my website interface, probably relating to the arcane WMU wifi system and I don't have my font controls. If things look wonky, I'll edit them later. I picked this session in large part because of the second paper on magical manuscripts. (Alpennia research, don't you know.) It does point out one hazard of having broad interests, because the papers often assume a highly specialized audience who not only have close familiarity with the literary and historic texts being discussed, but with the historic languages of the sources.

Sponsor: Ibero-Medieval Association of North America (IMANA)

The Cancionero de obras de burla and Its Valencian Public (Frank A. Dominguez, Univ. of North Carolina–Chapel Hill)

The first presenter is video-conferencing in as he couldn’t attend in person. We’re discussing a hot best-seller of the 15-16th century in Spain (which it seems everyone else is familiar with, as we aren’t given a summary of the nature of the text). It’s a collection of poetry. There is a discussion of the dating of the contents and their possible relation to the relevant reigns in which they were written, in particular relating to Queen Isabella. We are now discussing various networks of family influence intersecting secular politics and the Spanish church at the time. There is a summary of an allegorical poem of over 60 stanzas about a court case regarding a naked woman and a cloak that evidently was considered supremely filthy at the time, and which references prominent political events. (The general context here is shifts in contents of the collection of poems across various reprintings that reflect new material relating to events of the time.) So how do the nature of the poems relate to the work’s startling popularity in Valencia? We move on to issues around the Inquisition, the expulsion and forced conversion of Spanish Jews, and resistance to that conversion including a major secret synagogue. Some of the poems relate to these events, but I’m not quite following the nature and orientation of the poems. Now there is a poem about north African pirates and Spanish anxieties about being captured by (Muslim) pirates. A brief discussion of various minor themes in the poems, generally about various enjoyments/sins but also including localized references relevant to Valencia.

Unprinted: Spiritual and Magic Manuscript Cultures (Heather Bamford, George Washington Univ.)

16-17th c Spanish magical manuscripts found new outlets and uses. This included private networks of distribution, and included the use of manuscripts in talismanic ways as objects, as well as for their contents. Meaning came not only through the words themselves, but through behavioral interactions and rituals. This includes collection practices and marginalia--more traditional interactions--but magical mss also provoked less “rational” uses, such as literal consumption (eating). The acquisition of autograph texts of holy writers are treated as relics with magical powers. Beliefs that actually reading the text on an amulet “uses up” the magic in it. Relates to the use of protective inscriptions on buildings where familiarity with the contents is not necessary for effectiveness. Effectiveness comes from belief of the user, not the inherent virtue of the text. Magical texts were produced in manuscript, not printing, now only due to control by the Inquisition over publishing, but also because of the inherent power of the act of writing. Discussion of the contents of some personal magical manuscripts. Much is focused on healing and on interpersonal relationships, as well as protection against various dangers. Such collections often contain a mix of unrelated contents in several languages, not all of which would have been accessible to the writer. Among Moriscos, Koranic inscriptions often featured among other contents. Example: a spell against a storm that includes a careful pronunciation guide to nonsense words that must be repeated. Spells often involve detailed instructions for actions and behaviors that must be performed along with the linguistic elements. Talismanic texts must be used in physical form, e.g., placed with a deceased person in the grave.

Relegitimizing Trotaconventos (Gregory S. Hutcheson, Univ. of Louisville)

Discussion of the “alcahueta”, a women who acted not simply as a procuress but as a go-between, who appears in courtly love literature (ca. 13-14th century), specifically the Libro del Buen Amor, and derives from an Arabic term found in “adab” literature. This relates to the character referenced in the paper title (Trotaconventos) which, as often happens, the audience is assumed to be completely familiar with. The Arabic term (qawwad) means variously “pimp, procurer, broker, guide, conductor, guard.” It always carries some sort of negative sense in the Arabic-speaking world. But when it first appears in Spanish in the 13th century, it’s clear that this negative sense has carried over. An example is given from 1250 of an alcahueta who provides her house as the location for a tryst, with no need to explain the word or provide context. In a list of “low-life” persons who can’t legally testify, the alcahueta is included among thieves, cross-dressers, hermaphrodites, etc. Additional legal texts supply different angles on how the term was understood and introduces the masculine “alcahuete”, giving five categories of men who fall in this category. (The five categories are presented in Spanish, assuming that the audience will, of course, all be fluent.) The activities that make a man an alcahuete were different from what made a woman an alcahueta but still focused on the exploitation of women sexually. Despite this male version, the texts discussing the female alcahueta was far more widely disseminated in the law codes. (The Siete Partidas.) These legal texts map out the criminalization of the occupation/identity in the 14-15th century. I think we’re now talking about La Celestina (a text by Fermando de Rojas about a bawd that gets mentioned in some of my LHMP material due to homoerotic interactions). I’m not sure what text the figure of Trotaconventos comes from (I think the Libro del Buen Amor) but evidently she is taking part in activities that skirt the edges of the definition of the alcahueta. The speaker suggests that modern academics are the ones identifying Trotaconventus as an alcahueta and thereby “accusing” her of a crime that the original text does not. She acts as a go-between, a mediator, a messenger, a problem-solver, but is not named as an alcahueta.

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Monday, May 7, 2018 - 07:00

There is an unexamined thread in the inclusion of cross-dressing as one of the continuing motifs in the material I cover for the Project. As I've discussed on several occasions, I've included studies on cross-dressing in history and literature both because it provided a context in western literature for the experience or recognition of same-sex attraction, and because it is a popular theme in modern lesbian historical fiction (so it's useful to understand the phenomenon in the historical context). But at its heart, the homoerotic aspects of cross-dressing focus on a specific subset of erotic attraction and experience. Within the context of female homoeroticism, cross-dressing highlights a "difference" model of attraction. The "opposites attract" idea, if you will. It suggests that when a femme woman is attracted to another woman, it will be through the medium of masculine performance and appearance.

While this is one clear recurring theme across the ages--especially in contexts when a "similarity" model of attraction is less available--it is far from universal and is always understood within its specific cultural context. This means that we need to be hesitant about concluding that the female performance of masculinity will automatically result in female homoerotic possibilities. The current article is a good reminder of the complexities of social performance.

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Full citation: 

Rowson, Everett K. 2003. “Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad” in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4

One of the features of medieval Islamic societies, at least among the urban elite, was a strict segregation of the sexes. This might imply a clear distinction in gender roles however the approach to sexuality in these cultures--in particular regarding male homoeroticism--resulted in some approaches to gender roles that contrast sharply to those of Christian cultures. These approaches included significant allowance for specific classes of persons to transgress the accepted forms of gender expression within certain limits. In fact, institutionalized forms of both male and female cross-dressing can be traced in certain times and places. A closer examination of these two phenomena, however, reveals significant asymmetries in their motivation and treatment that revolve around the primacy of the sexual desires of elite men.

The article surveys some more recent ethnographic studies of cross/trans-gender roles in the Islamicate world, including the khanīths of contemporary Oman (men presenting as feminine who work as homosexual prostitutes) and male dancers in 19th century Cairo with feminine presentation. Similar medieval roles are less studied and the focus of this article is something of a catalog of specific identifiable roles.

The male cross-gender role of mukhannath, which can be traced at least as far back as the time of the Prophet (7th century) in Medina, functioned primarily as musicians. After a brief period of government suppression in the early 8th century ending with the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, they re-emerged as court entertainers in Baghdad in the late 8th century.

Moving into the 9th century, there are also references to a female cross-gender role of ghulāmīyāt. Although female cross-dressers can be found in passing mentions earlier, this is the earliest known reference to an established and named role that emerged under the `Abbāsid caliphate. The motivation for the ghulāmīyāt role is given as a strategy of the mother of one caliph, known for his sexual preference for male eunuchs, who presented him with women in male dress and hair styles to entice him to produce heirs. The word ghulāmīyāt means “boy-like” but the aesthetic that developed for the ghulāmīyāt aimed for the transition from boyhood to adulthood, including painting on false moustaches among other cosmetic idiosyncrasies like writing poetic verses on their cheeks.

In general, institutionalized cross-gender roles for both men and women did not aim for “passing” but for a blending of gender signifiers. For a ghulāmīyā, this included license to behave in masculine-coded ways, in addition to the visual presentation, as indicated in praise poetry addressed to them which mentions intellectual, musical, and sporting pursuits more usually associated with men.

Ghulāmīyāt were almost always slaves attached to the court or the aristocracy, though there are rare mentions of free ghulāmīyāt. This means that the role was normally an imposed one, rather than a personal gender expression, and it should not be confused with accounts of “masculine” free women who adopted male attire and pursued martial exploits (a category not associated with same-sex interests), or with accounts of female same-sex behavior (most typically mentioned in connection with enslaved women). There are no references to the ghulāmīyāt being associated with lesbian behavior.

The author now moves on to the male role of lūṭī, a man whose sexual preference is for penetrative sex with adolescent boys, discussing how the existence of this orientation created the impetus for the ghulāmīyāt phenomenon. That is, ghulāmīyāt were associated with same-sex desire but with male same-sex desire, not female same-sex desire. There follows a discussion of the sexuality of eunuchs and how it fit into medieval Islamicate sexual categories.

This leads into a consideration of the male feminine-performing mukhannath, which seems to have represented both a professional and personal expression in some cases. Mukhannathūn seem to have worn a mixture of female and male clothing styles, with feminine jewelry, and were treated as falling outside the category of “male” with regard to gender-segregated spaces. In addition to their traditional profession of musician, where they were associated with specific musical styles and instruments, they commonly functioned as marriage go-betweens.

Although mukhannathūn were assumed to have no sexual interest in women, they were not assumed to take a passive homosexual role. And their relationship to women was sometimes looked askance. Some were married to women, and some authority figures challenged their access to women-only spaces. One caliph during the period of their suppression ordered all mukhannathūn in Medina to be castrated. The class eventually rebounded from this persecution and re-emerged under a new dynasty in their traditional roles as musicians and entertainers. The period of suppression seems to have coincided with the emergence of a public culture of male homosexuality, and the shift back to acceptance under the Umayyads was noted as being surprisingly abrupt even at the time.

The article goes into a great deal of detail about mukhannathūn, their status, and attitudes toward them, which is not relevant to the purposes of this Project. The conclusion of the article reiterates the parallels and contrasts between mukhannathūn and ghulāmīyāt in being entertainers and being defined in reference to fashions in elite male sexual interests, but with differences in the consequence to personal reputation relating to differential gender expectations and voluntary versus non-voluntary membership in the respective categories.

Time period: 
Saturday, May 5, 2018 - 10:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22a - On the Shelf for May 2018 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2018/05/05 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2018.

This is a special month--not because of anything to do with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast or blog, but because I’m having one of those big round-number birthdays. Like most years, I’ll be spending my birthday in the midst of a couple thousand historians at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held in Kalamazoo Michigan. I rather like the idea that they throw this big medieval birthday party for me every year.

If I’m lucky, there will be a handful of papers relevant to the history of sexuality that I can hear presented, along with all the other topics I enjoy following. And I always spend time in the display room where the academic publishers have their books out, and end up bringing home some fascinating books to add to the project’s to-do list. I usually live-blog summaries of the sessions I attend, so you can follow along on my website if you like--though it’s nothing at all like the thrill of being there in person.

I’ve presented papers at the conference several times in the past and there are a few topics based on my reading for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project that I plan to work up into proposals some time in the future. It’s sort of like going to a major science fiction convention except for historians.

Publications on the Blog

In April, the blog presented a couple of articles from the collection Queer Renaissance Historiography. One was about the overlap of personal and professional duties of secretaries in 16th and 17th century England and how female secretaries to important women could create a sort of shadow government. This may seem a bit distanced from the topic of same-sex relations, but at that time close companions often shared a bed as a sign of their intimacy. And though this was not automatically understood in a sexual sense, the overlap of intellectual and physical intimacy was always a possibility.

The second article from this collection tied in with April’s essay on the figure of the goddess Diana in early modern culture as a symbol of marriage resistance and chastity, but a chastity that allowed for same-sex intimacies between women. The essay about the figure of Diana and especially how the myth of Diana and Callisto created a space for the imagining and depiction of sex between women, led sideways into the topic of cross-gender performance by men in historic texts--a topic that can be problematic when viewed through modern interpretations of transgender identity. While that topic was on my mind, I covered the article “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History,” which looks at the contexts in which medieval knights used a female presentation as part of tournament culture or theatrical performance.

The month of May starts off with two articles from the collection Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages and continues the theme of cross-gender performance. A woman cross-dressing as a man--either as a complete disguise, or simply as a way of breaking gender rules--is a very popular trope in modern lesbian historical fiction. But that motif isn’t historically accurate for many times and places. An article by Everett Rowson looks at cross-gender performance at court in medieval Baghdad, where both men performing femininity and women performing masculinity were driven by the sexual tastes of elite men and had nothing to do with female same-sex interests.

The second article in this collection, by Ulrike Wiethaus, is on the very different topic of homoerotic language used between religious women in medieval Germany.

Next we return to the motif of the mannish “Amazonian” women in medieval Islamic literature in an examination of a complex heroic tale that features two strong women and the image of a woman skilled in the arts of war who resists marriage and defeats the men competing for her. There are no overt lesbian themes in the story, but I include it as part of the continuing interest in martial women and cross-dressing.

The month of May finishes up this series of articles on cross-gender performance with a catalog and analysis of women recorded as appearing in male clothing in late medieval London.


This month’s essay will be on the topic of queer women’s communities in history. That is: what are some contexts where women interacted in social groups that were either organized around same-sex desire, or that aligned closely with those desires. There has been a great deal of interest in historical studies of how men created communities and meeting places to pursue same-sex desire, but such studies generally either dismiss the female equivalent as non-existent or blithely assume that women’s experience was identical to men’s. Which, of course, it almost never was.

I originally put together the notes and materials for this essay for someone else who was interested in the topic and wanted to do a show on it, but she never took it further and I recently got confirmation that it was ok to use them for my own show.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Jeannelle M. Ferreira, author of the brand new Regency romance The Covert Captain, which shot to the top of my list of favorite lesbian Regencies. I’d delighted to be able to use the podcast to let more people know about this really fun, yet deeply thoughtful story.

I’ve been trying to get my author guests lined up a bit further in advance so it doesn’t feel like I’m always scrambling. I’m looking for people who are writing within historic settings, though not limited to strictly historical stories. And it’s always a bonus to be able to feature an author around the time they have a new book coming out. If you’d like to suggest someone you think would fit into the podcast’s scope, drop me a note with contact information. I’m trying to reach across genre boundaries and include authors with all sorts of publishing backgrounds. You may have noticed that I’ve featured some people from mainstream science fiction and fantasy lately, as well as authors publishing romance outside the lesbian presses. One of my goals is to expand people’s awareness of the books that are out there--ones that you might not have heard about if you primarily follow one specific part of the market.

There are also opportunities for non-authors or authors who don’t write historicals to feature on this podcast. Usually we have our author guest do the Book Appreciation segment, but not everyone chooses to do so. I’m trying to put together some Book Appreciation shows from readers so that I can fit them in when there’s an opportunity. If you have some favorite historical novels featuring women who love women,--whether it’s your all-time favorites, or favorites within a particular genre--I’d love to have you on the show to talk about them.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

When I first started putting together the forthcoming books list for this show, I had only two titles--well, more like one and a half. I’ve turned up a couple more at the last minute, but remember that I can only announce books if I know about them. So if you’re aware of any upcoming publications that you think would fit the topic of the podcast, please drop me a note.

* * *

The first book was an April release that I didn’t hear about until after it came out. It’s The Potion by R.G. Emanuelle from Dirt Road Books. Here’s the blurb.

Vera Kennedy, widow of Professor James Kennedy, wants to be a scientist, but in Victorian Boston, that isn’t an option for women. Nevertheless, after assisting her husband in the laboratory with his experiments, she has learned everything she could through his unintended tutelage. After his death, she continues his work until she veers off onto a different path with her own experiments, which threaten to consume her to the exclusion of all else.

Georgette Harris, widow of Professor Roland Harris, has been left destitute in the wake of her husband’s death. He had amassed mountains of debt. When a medicinals company wants to purchase a formula that Roland had proposed to them, Georgette searches for it without success, and then discovers evidence that her husband had worked with James Kennedy. Armed with this information, she seeks the help of Vera in uncovering the missing formula.

However, Vera is not one to give up secrets easily, though she is inexplicably drawn to Georgette. Despite her reservations, she considers Georgette’s request, and they soon discover that both their husbands were involved in an experiment layered in deception and danger. Together, they sort through mysterious clues and discover in the process something far stronger between them.

* * *

The second book teeters on the edge of the historical category. The author notes that it’s a vaguely Victorian-ish, somewhat post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy. I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and include it, since this month’s list is so short. The book appears to be the beginning of a series, titled:A Touch of Truth, Book One: Raven, Fire and Ice by Nita Round from Silver Dragon Books. Here’s the blurb:

Lucinda Ravensburgh sees the truth in everything she touches. When Captain Magda Stoner of the airship Verity, asks for her help in a very strange and messy crime, Lucinda cannot refuse. From that moment on, Lucinda’s life is changed forever. She discovers, no matter what the obstacle, nor the troubles they encounter, finding the truth is paramount.

* * *

The author Vanda called my attention to the third book in her Juliana series: Paris Adrift from Sans Merci Press. I can’t find clear information about a release date: the author’s Amazon page says March, in an interview she says April, but as of this writing I don’t see a definite date yet. So at least May, but keep your eyes peeled. Here’s the blurb:

Paris-bound, 1955. Alice “Al” Huffman can’t wait to reach the City of Light. As soon as their ship arrives, Juliana’s singing career will get the spotlight it deserves. Before the SS United States hits land, a stranger approaches Al with a Broadway contract for Juliana. But the offer comes with a threat that can destroy them both. If Al can’t find a way out, Juliana’s comeback will come crashing down around their heads. As she hides the awful truth from Juliana, Al searches for an answer before another obstacle destroys their last chance for happiness…

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The last book for this month is one I just became aware of and again the release status isn’t entirely clear. The author’s website indicates it’ll be available through Smashwords and Amazon, but the links aren’t live yet so I’ve put her website in the show notes. The setting for this book is a lot earlier than our usual listings. The book is Thora: A Spartan Hoplite’s Slave by Red Hope from Little Red Wings. Here’s the blurb:

She is the only female hoplite in Spartan history. She is a royal guard to King Leonidas. She is the Iron Edge. In an age when men rule, Halcyon rises above and is the master of her own life. At home, Halcyon controls her lands and her personal slaves with a strict hand, until the day she purchases an unusual slave. Thora is a fair skinned woman who stands taller than the Greek gods, with hair the color of gold, and blue eyes that rival the skies. Halcyon must own the unusual woman, but she is hardly prepared for the thunder that follows. Step back into the glory of Ancient Sparta when the city-state becomes a formidable military power. Learn about Sparta’s unique social system including women’s dominant roles in both the house and in public affairs, and follow one slave owner’s journey as she learns to accept her slave’s spirit.

I have to confess that, reading this blurb, I’m a little bit uneasy about how this book is going to handle the topic of “romance” between an owner and a slave, even in a historic setting. But it does look like an interesting premise. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Ask Sappho

The “Ask Sappho” segment is where I take questions and requests from readers. It could be a question about some particular historic person or phenomenon. Sometimes I’ve had requests for book lists with a specific setting. It’s a chance for you, dear listeners, to take a hand in shaping this podcast and getting tailor-made content that speaks directly to your individual interests.

This month...this month, I’ve got nothing. I regularly put the word out looking for questions on facebook, on twitter, in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, and of course every month in this On The Shelf show. I can’t do the Ask Sappho segment without your requests. I hope you’ve been enjoying this Question and Answer series, but I can’t do it without you. There are lots of ways to contact the show with your requests and questions: drop by the Lesbian Talk Show Chat Group on facebook, or drop me a note on Twitter, or stop by my blog and leave a comment or email. I hope to hear from you for next month’s Ask Sappho segment.

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