Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
The Wife of Bath gets a lot of exercise as the archetype of the “lusty widow” in Middle English literature. She is the only pilgrim in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is identified by marital status rather than by occupation. (Though ”wife” could also simply mean “woman” at this time.) But she operates, not as a wife, but as an independent singlewoman. Being a widow gives her the freedom to travel that a never-married woman might not have had. She represents an independent woman with agency and power, despite the references in her story to her various husbands.
Medieval widowhood was a strongly gendered concept. Only in the 14th century was a parallel term applied to men whose wives had died. The legal status and protections for female widows differed from those for male widowers. Widows occupied an ambiguous status as a sexualized, but uncontrolled, woman, and as an independent legal/social entity who had “paid her dues” to earn that status. Widows were entitled to 1/3-1/2 of their late husband’s estate and in many cases could continue his business, guild membership, and other economic functions.
As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.
Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).
This is a very brief (2 page) review of references to non-heterosexual erotic orientation in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Parson refers directly to both male and female homosexuality with scriptural context.[*] Other references are more oblique and coy (and primarily address male homosexuality).