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Women Bonding over Sorrow

Monday, October 30, 2017 - 07:00

Margery Kempe seems to be a popular historic figure for "queering", that is, for identifying ways in which her actions and writings (and even her person) disrupted gender and sexual norms of medieval society. I'm not entirely a fan of this sort of approach. Just as the "search and rescue mission" approach (as labeled by Valerie Traub) popular in early gay and lesbian studies framed historic figures in terms of whether they could be "claimed" for modern sexual identities, the "queering history" approach similarly prioritizes the imaginations and interpretations of modern viewers over the historic material they examine. Studies like this that focus on women's social and emotional relations with each other are quite fascinating in their own right, but it seems to me that they do more to show that what we think of as the "norms" of pre-modern society perhaps are wrong-headed to begin with, rather than viewing Kempe as disrupting those norms.

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Lavezzo, Kathy. 1996. “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X

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This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history.  As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.

Lavezzo 1996 “Sobs and Sighs Between Women: The Homoerotics of Compassion in The Book of Margery Kempe

The medieval mystic Margery Kempe wrote her book partly in response to interrogation for suspect religious views. One specific anxiety that was voiced against her was that she would “lead...wives away” to join her in her own personal forms of worship. This article looks at the use of sorrow and compassion for the passion of Christ, but also for the figures of Mary mourning as a form of homoerotic bonding between women. This had the potential to create a female community of religiously-oriented mourning, identified with the Virgin, but with the women’s relationships made acceptable by being mediated through the figure of Christ.

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