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Medieval (general)

This tag is used when a more specific date isn’t available covering very roughly the 11-14th centuries.

LHMP entry

Mills continues his word-play, contrasting the “enclosed virgin” who is trying not to turn away from chastity, with the doomed sodomite, depicted as turning in hell on the spit that impales him in mockery of his sin. The anchorite turns away from temptation and toward God, while the sodomite turns pointlessly in place.

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.

Westphal looks at the motif of the amazon in medieval literature and the fascination and challenge they present for feminist historians. In this short article, she examines the most salient distinction amazons have for patriarchal medieval society: that they presented women as the adversaries of men rather than as their dependents and property.

The category of acts understood under the label “sodomy” in the Middle Ages is confusing and difficult to define. The difficulty of definition is not helped by a tendency among medievalists to ignore entirely how the category might relate to women and to activities that women participated in. The medieval textual evidence adds the further confusion of whether “sodomy” did not apply to women, or whether it did but nobody cared about what they were doing.

This isn’t so much an article about researching lesbianism in history, but about teaching the researching of lesbianism in history. It’s probably a pretty good snapshot of what was common knowledge in the field in 1990. [Compare that to what I’ve been able to find for this blog project and you’ll get an idea of why I call the 1990s “the early years of lesbian historiography.”]


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