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Lesbian Literature in the Middle Ages

Monday, June 13, 2022 - 07:00

The chapters in the latter part of The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature seems intended to provide something of a catalog to sources and themes in different eras. In this, the chapters succeed to varying degrees. This one does a fairly good job, first by analyzing the difficulties in defining "medieval lesbian literature," and then in looking at various genres and themes that have a "lesbian-like" resonance for the modern reader. (In other words, a similar approach as this Project uses.) While not exhaustive, and focused specifically on literary works and not the range of non-literary source material, I think it does a very good job. Three of the four chapters I'm blogging individually are written by authors who are esablished experts in the era they cover. The fourth, well, well come to that.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Lochrie, Karma. 2015. “Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Lochrie, Karma. Situating Female Same-Sex Love in the Middle Ages.

Identifying female same-sex love in the middle ages poses challenges in part because it goes against the prevailing stereotype of the era as reactionary and misogynistic. But in some ways, the forms female same-sex love takes in the middle ages poses a challenge to contemporary models in categories of desire.

The sexual fault lines in the middle ages were not defined by heterosexuality but by permitted and prohibited acts that considered procreation the only license for sex (prohibiting many types of male-female acts) and by a valorization of virginity over any sexual activity. Thus the sliding scale of acceptable sexual acts was distinctly different from a heterosexual-homosexual binary.

All this meant that female same-sex desire, as such, was not evaluated simplistically in terms of sex. Female friendship or female communities and passionate love between women could all – in certain contexts – be considered not only licensed, but idealized.

Against this, the question of whether, and to what extent, such relationships might also sexual is difficult to evaluate, given the relative scarcity of texts authored by women, and the general scarcity of candid autobiographical texts.

One must triangulate among women’s expressions of same-sex love, contextual opportunities of the type Judith Bennett labels “lesbian-like,” and authoritative condemnations of sexual activity between women. Relevant genres include penitential manuals inclusive of sex between women, often framed as gender transgression (“acting like a man”). Expressions of passionate friendship may strike the modern reader as erotic in tone, even when there is no explicit mention of erotic activity, the sun may include references to kissing and caresses that cross the line.

A small number of literary tales address female same-sex love either directly, as in various adaptations of Iphis and Ianthe, or more obliquely as in the same-sex bonding at the conclusion of Eliduc.

The genre of cross-dressing saints provides a number of framings of female-female encounters, though primarily of the inadvertent variety. Also, in a religious context, some interpret female devotion to the “wound of Christ” as having homoerotic implications (wound = vulva).

Martial women – either in real life, or represented by the mythical Amazons – also provided a context for gender transgression, potentially creating a site of female-female desire.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)

Time period: 
historical