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Medieval (general)

This tag is used when a more specific date isn’t available covering very roughly the 11-14th centuries.

LHMP entry

Scholarship on medieval Arabic literature has tended to focus on scholarly works or on the specific set of stories that has come to western attention as the Thousand and One Nights. Only recently has the enormous corpus of traditional popular epics begun to receive more attention and analysis. This article looks at one specific episode in a longer epic that illustrates the popular motif of the warrior woman, and how she becomes a force either for disruption or stability.

[Note: I originally picked this up thinking that it would cover literary female cross-dressing knights as well as male ones. Although the article is entirely about men cross-dressing as women, it helps to round out the picture of how medieval people viewed clothing as a gender signifier and some of the asymmetries of cross-gender behavior.]

Putter looks at the phenomenon of (male) cross-dressing knights, both in historical records and in chivalric romances and considers how the topic contributes to our understanding of gender and sex categories in the middle ages.

Introduction

As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.

Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

Mills continues his word-play, contrasting the “enclosed virgin” who is trying not to turn away from chastity, with the doomed sodomite, depicted as turning in hell on the spit that impales him in mockery of his sin. The anchorite turns away from temptation and toward God, while the sodomite turns pointlessly in place.

This chapter focuses on the image of “turning” away from right behaviors and objects and toward wrong actions and objects. In both text and image, there is a concept of wrong behavior being “turning in circles” and therefore being unable to follow/enter the desired path or gate. Vocabulary related to this include: deviation, conversion, translation, orientation.

Another story appearing in the “moralized Ovid” manuscripts is that of Orpheus. Orpheus is relevant to the topic of the book via a version of the story in which, after losing Eurydice, he turns away from women to love boys. [As a brief summary for those not familiar with Orpheus: after his girlfriend Eurydice dies, he goes down to the underworld to plead for her return and his singing is so sweet and powerful that Hades agrees, provided he leads her out of the underworld without looking back at her.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In Paris, ca. 1200, there was an increased focus on anti-sodomy literature. One writer considered it equivalent to murder because both “interfere with the multiplication of men.” Sodomy also relates to gender categories because non-procreative sex blurs distinctions and suggest androgyny. Androgynous people, according to this position, must pick a binary identity based on the nature of who they find arousing within an imposed heterosexual framework. The focus in this anti-sodomy literature is not generally on gender ambiguity, but specifically on preserving “active” male sexuality.

Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard.

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