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13th c

LHMP entry

The author looks at texts that can be read as homoerotic  addressed between religious women in medieval Germany. She specifically rejects the approach of treating women’s homoerotic experiences as equivalent to, or subsumed under, men’s experiences. After examining this type of literature in general, she applies that understanding to the writings of a specific woman who helped develop the concept of Christian bridal mysticism: Hadewijch of Brabant (early 13th century).

[Note: I originally picked this up thinking that it would cover literary female cross-dressing knights as well as male ones. Although the article is entirely about men cross-dressing as women, it helps to round out the picture of how medieval people viewed clothing as a gender signifier and some of the asymmetries of cross-gender behavior.]

Putter looks at the phenomenon of (male) cross-dressing knights, both in historical records and in chivalric romances and considers how the topic contributes to our understanding of gender and sex categories in the middle ages.

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.

Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

This chapter focuses on the image of “turning” away from right behaviors and objects and toward wrong actions and objects. In both text and image, there is a concept of wrong behavior being “turning in circles” and therefore being unable to follow/enter the desired path or gate. Vocabulary related to this include: deviation, conversion, translation, orientation.

Another story appearing in the “moralized Ovid” manuscripts is that of Orpheus. Orpheus is relevant to the topic of the book via a version of the story in which, after losing Eurydice, he turns away from women to love boys. [As a brief summary for those not familiar with Orpheus: after his girlfriend Eurydice dies, he goes down to the underworld to plead for her return and his singing is so sweet and powerful that Hades agrees, provided he leads her out of the underworld without looking back at her.

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).

In Paris, ca. 1200, there was an increased focus on anti-sodomy literature. One writer considered it equivalent to murder because both “interfere with the multiplication of men.” Sodomy also relates to gender categories because non-procreative sex blurs distinctions and suggest androgyny. Androgynous people, according to this position, must pick a binary identity based on the nature of who they find arousing within an imposed heterosexual framework. The focus in this anti-sodomy literature is not generally on gender ambiguity, but specifically on preserving “active” male sexuality.

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard.

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