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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #94 Schibanoff 1992 "Chaucer's Lesbians: Drawing Blanks?"

Full citation: 

Schibanoff, Susan. 1990. "Chaucer's Lesbians: Drawing Blanks?" (Gay and Lesbian Concerns in Medieval Studies, special issue) Medieval Feminist Newsletter 13:11-14.

This article might well have fallen in last week's grouping of "early publications that have been covered better since then" rather than this week's "medieval literature & history". Schibanoff's quest for lesbian or lesbian-like characters in Chaucer relies on two weak premises: a misleadingly specific understanding of the medieval category of sodomy, and a very speculative lit-crit approach to interpreting masculine-coded behavior of characters.

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This is a very brief (2 page) review of references to non-heterosexual erotic orientation in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Parson refers directly to both male and female homosexuality with scriptural context.[*] Other references are more oblique and coy (and primarily address male homosexuality). There is a brief discussion of how to approach such ambiguity in texts when the author is clearly aware of the possibilities, and then the article addresses the question of whether we can identify other references to lesbians in Chaucer that “fly under the radar” due to deliberate vagueness. To search for them, we must first have some idea of how Chaucer would have understood female homoeroticism.

Heterosexual female sexuality gets center stage in tales such as Criseyde and the Wife of Bath. Schibanoff focuses on one medieval writer of the era who follows an early version of the “enlarged clitoris” explanation for lesbianism, though by inventing a new organ (a sort of prolapsed uterus that can function as a penis). This, Schibanoff proposes, leads to a sort of “less and more” symbolism for lesbian-like figures, where their lack of a male organ may be reflected in other lacks, but the presence of masculine function may similarly be reflected in other superior endowments.

Schibanoff focuses on the Amazon Emily in The Knight’s Tale, whose anatomical lack of a penis is mirrored in her Amazonian breast amputation and absence of interest in male desire, but her “endowment” is her superior skill in battle. The second character she examines is the Second Nun and the protagonist of her tale, Cecilia. Here it is the nun (the story teller) who presents the lack -- in this case an absence of physical description of the character in the tale -- while her character Cecilia stands forth by following the traditionally masculine pursuits of teaching and preaching.

Somewhat frustratingly, Schibanoff then postulates that the heteronormative resolution of both stories (although in the case of Cecilia, with a heavenly spouse) proves her point, “uniting the lesbian with what [the story-tellers] think she has successfully striven to be--a man.” [I have to say that I find this argumentation entirely unconvincing. While an Amazon who rejects male desire is certainly a lesbian-like figure, the heteronormative resolution is a common means of neutralizing the transgression, not confirming it. And including the second tale seems to be stretching the concept badly.]

[*] Although Schibanoff indicates that this is a clear reference, the actual text (which is part of a long sermon on sin and penitence) makes reference to “that abominable sin, of which no man hardly ought to speak nor write” and “This cursedness do men and women in diverse intent and in a variety of ways.” Other writers on this particular text point out that the category of "sodomy" to which it refers was quite diverse and oriented around "activities contrary to nature" rather than being able to be understood as referring specifically to homosexual activity. So this “direct reference” is nowhere near as direct and unambiguous as Schbanoff indicates.

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