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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #51 - Holsinger 1993 “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

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Holsinger, Bruce Wood. 1993. “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 19 no. 1: 92-125.

Having made it past 50 individual publications in this project, I'm starting to look ahead to achieving 100. It won't happen for some time, especially now that I'm digging into books (which only count for one publication but may take up 5-6 posts). I think I'll be doing some sort of give-away to celebrate when it happens, probably involving people linking to their favorite entry. It's all rather vague at the moment, since it'll probably be at least half a year before I get there.

Hildegard von Bingen has become something of an entire industry among medieval historians, and the identification of “queer” themes in her life and works is a solid sub-genre of that industry. I can see the value in exploring and playing around with the possible subtextual meanings and experiences of historic data. To some extent, that's what this whole project is about: identifying alternate framings of historic motifs that can be built on to create new narratives. But even though I'm interested in "non-real" data familiar to historic people -- the imaginative literature, the false accusations, the unscientific medical theories -- my focus revolves around how those historic people would have understood and processed that data. This is, perhaps, a very subtle distinction. When, for example, I look at non-sexual "romantic friendships" in the 19th century, I'm less interested in whether modern theorists would classify specific relationships as "lesbian" than I am in whether the existence of those relationships created a context in which lesbians could find a place for themselves. And similarly, when looking at the work and writings of a figure like Hildegard of Bingen, I'm less interested in whether there is some hypothetical homoeroticism in religious devotion to female-framed abstracts such as "Ecclesia" than I am in examples like Hildegard's correspondence to and about actual women that uses the language of desire and emotional attachment (see Schibanoff 2001). I will, from time to time, be including articles like this one that I consider to fall just on the outside of the limits of the LHMP, simply because they help to define those limits.

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The general topic of this article is the use of music and musical imagery in the experience and expression of religious devotion, particularly as an embodied experience. The starting point for the thesis is the establishment of a rhetoric of embodied sensual experience of “divine music” both as a metaphor and as literal sensory perception. The author states: “I will explore just a few of the many ways in which Hildegard’s musical compositions exemplify her own conceptions of body--particularly the female body--and its central role in religious devotion. ...This devotional music sonorously elaborates upon female bodies (both human and divine) and female sexual desire, making sensual physicality integral to religious devotion.” The essence of his position is that a sensual expression of embodied religious devotion to a female figure (such as the Virgin), especially when expressed via feminized allegorical figures (such as Ecclesia) is inescapably homoerotic. [While there are other interesting pieces of evidence addressing Hildegard’s close emotional relationships with women, I feel that this particular article doesn’t contribute much towards a practical approach to understanding, interpreting, and expressing female same-sex desire in a historic context. I include it because the title implies a greater relevance than I found and therefore it’s worth covering.]

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