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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 424 - Asexuality in Medieval English

Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 10:47

A very intriguing session title…which ended up with only one paper. There were two papers listed in the catalog, and the norm is to start with three papers, so I’m guessing that one was pulled at some point earlier. Fortunately, the paper that was given was great enough to make up for being the only one!

Brides and Bridles: Gower's "Tale of Rosiphelee," Asexuality, and Queer Failure - Lacey M. Wolfer, Western Michigan University

Typically treated as a “carpe diem” story in which the protagonist decides she can’t put off looking for love. But this paper examines the story from an asexual lens, viewing the character as being oppressed by normative expectations.

The story appears in the section of the Confessio Amantis on “idleness” (sloth) in which a lover (with the active lover always framed as male) is “doing all he can” to win the love of a woman who seems to just want him to go away. The tale looks at how “activity” is shown as a means of pressuring others, especially women, to comply with another’s desires. Rosiphelee is accused of being “slothful” with regard to love, but she appears simply to be uninterested.

(Gives a shout-out to the modern definition of asexuality from AVEN.) Identifies Rosiphelee as having “asexual possibility” which encompasses those who may be motivated by asexuality but where we are not given access to motivations, only to actions. Brings in descriptions of asexual experiences from the contemporary era to compare with the depiction of Rosiphelee’s experience. The attribution of Rosiphelee’s responses to “sloth” corresponds to modern medicalization of asexuality. The “refusal to progress to sexuality” is treated as refusal to take on adult responsibilities and roles. Rosiphelee is expected to marry to maintain social and economic expectations. There is a discussion of J. Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure and places Rosiphelee’s experience in the context of “queer failure.”

During a nature walk, Rosiphelee meditates on nature especially paired male and female creatures. She “began a quarrel between love and her own heart.” In a dream-sequence she sees a group of queens, well-dressed and beautiful on white horses. As they pass, she notes a straggler who rides an old black nag, who is wearing a bunch of horse halters around her waist. Rosiphelee approaches the woman and asks who they all are. The woman describes a life story similar to Rosiphelee’s who, due to her life choices, must serve the queens as their groom.  The bridles represent a belated decision to engage with love.

Rosiphelee considers this as a lesson for her own life and is terrified by the supposed consequences for putting off love. This has been treated by some as an act of agency, with Rosiphelee making a decision based on new information. But in context, she is given no viable alternative to marriage. And she is not entering marriage with a positive desire, but from fear of the punishment for putting it off. Her heart isn’t changed, only her decision on how to act.

There is a suggestion of a metaphoric interpretation of the halters as being a means of coercing another to one’s will with regard to the path taken. Wolfer suggests that there are hints that Gower may have been sympathetic to her plight, rather than creating a story that showed an actual change of heart.

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