Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6
This is not fundamentally a book about queer sex in history, it’s a book about the place of sex in the construction of certain historic communities in 14-15th century England, and specifically the place of sexuality in community-identification in relation to Lollard ideas. [Note: it may be useful for the reader to get a brief background in Lollardy from Wikipedia. Basically, it’s a pre-Protestant reformation movement inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe and his translation of the Bible into English.] Some examples involved in this study are queer or have resonance for modern queer communities. And Dinshaw’s approach includes a queer-aligned examination of how people connect with historic communities across time. So it’s not so much a contribution to queer history as a topic, but to the act of doing queer history as a project.
The introduction (as is usual for a book of this sort) provides a survey of the topics and texts that will be discussed. It begins with a late 14th century verse manual for parish priests. In discussing sexual advice, the manual suggests with regard to sexual sins: “Also written well I find, That of sin against kind [i.e., sin against nature], Thou shalt thy parish nothing teach, Nor of that sin nothing preach.” Dinshaw examines how we can understand what “sin against kind” means in a context where its unspeakability was an essential characteristic. This will be explored further in chapters 1 and 2.
The definition and discussion of types of sexual sin--with the understanding that under some theologies, all sex was inescapably sinful--creates an indeterminate understanding of where same-sex practices fell within it. Some sex acts were simultaneously “against nature” and something that people might fall into through innate desire, as in Gower’s version of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.
Dinshaw discusses the theoretical landscape she’s working in, with a review of existing studies, including the uses of cross-historical affective identification as a type of dissidence and agency. That is: the desire of modern people to identify with people in the past as “like them” gives those modern people both a way of challenging the modern narratives they’re forced into, and a way of taking charge of their own transhistorical identities.
Although viewing cultural phenomena (such as sex) as “fundamentally indeterminate,” Dinshaw does not see this as incompatible with identifying a “usable history” for queer people. In terms of providing identification for community formation, connections across time need not be complete or identical to create “community.”
John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” opened an ongoing debate on this topic and is analyzed as a community-building force of its own in Dinshaw’s book. Boswell assembled evidence supporting a conceptual shift in the mid 13th century from a relatively tolerant Christianity and a flourishing self-consciously “gay” urban subculture to a more repressive, intolerant Christianity. Boswell was accused of “white-washing” the church out of a desire for a sense of acceptance (i.e., a desire to find a historic Christian church that allegedly had accepted and embraced homosexuality, as a path to influencing modern Christians to “return” to that state). Boswell’s work serves as an example of the public side of “doing history” in the late 20th century.
Boswell participated in a debate on whether one can say there were “real” gay people in history, or whether sexuality is always an ephemeral cultural construct--the former being an apparent prerequisite for the existence of “gay history.” Apart from the essentially cultural critique, Boswell’s approach has been accused of glossing over institutionalized age-difference aspects of male-male relationships, and of unwarrantedly assuming that his overwhelmingly male data applied to women as well.
Dinshaw discusses Foucault’s reception of Boswell’s work and how it interacted with his own work and approach. She surveys other historians working across the field of the history of sexuality.
Dinshaw uses an analysis of the Lollards as a light on the complexity of identification--how such cultural conflicts are complex, with the sides often having far more in common than not, even while people yearn for simple tests and metrics of truth and deviancy.
One chapter uses the case of John/Eleanor Rykener as an illustration of the elusiveness of categories.
There is much philosophizing to finish up the introduction.
When the Lollards posted their manifesto on the doors of Westminster in 1395, one of the themes was railing against sodomites, especially in the clergy. Given that sodomy was traditionally charged against heretics (such as the Lollards), was this intended as a literal accusation or only a sort of general defaming? The intersection of these motifs--Lollards and sodomites--is the topic of this chapter.
The Lollards, though of diverse nature, were concerned with church reform, especially of clerical privilege and misbehavior. Sodomy is reference in their accusations as a consequence of the requirement for clerical celibacy. (That is, the believed that enforced celibacy resulted in practicing sodomy.) But among the practices they objected to were the concept of the priesthood itself, transubstantiation (i.e., conversion of the Host to the body of Christ), pilgrimages, and prayers for the dead.
Lollards identified themselves as “we poor men” and presented themselves as a community concerned with secular as well as sacred ills. Among their concern, accusations of sodomy are persistent, if not as numerous as concerns with simony and idolatry. There is also a strain of nationalism in Lollard rhetoric that frames sodomy (among other things) as a foreign practice (by ethnic or racial “others”) and as something that could (and should) be eliminated by rejecting foreigners.
Idolatry and sodomy were causally linked in their arguments via Paul’s letter to the Romans, where idolatry is presented as the cause of God “giving them up to same-sex relations.” By similar logical connections, sodomy is linked to murder, simony, leprosy, and heresy.
But opponents of the Lollards, in turn, included sodomy in accusations against them, though it was not a common or universal accusation and may have simply come from a general conflation of heresy and sodomy. In this specific instance, sodomy may be no more than a mocking echo of the Lollards own accusations against the clergy. This sort of “I know you are, but what am I?” rhetoric drains the word of specificity and shifts it to a generalized insult.
The Lollards argumentation is that the requirement for clerical celibacy results in gender-segregated institutions which result in same sex activity due to the need to resolve sexual desire. But they also noted that men who are averse to relations with women (implying that such a--possibly innate--preference existed) are thus drawn to clerical life. But these supposedly logical arguments only raise more complicated questions about the nature of desire and sexuality.
(The chapter moves into discussion of other Lollard concerns such as transubstantiation.)
The Lollard objection to celibacy was not restricted to men, but anxiety about women’s vows takes a different form. Again, the basic concern is that if women do not have a heterosexual sexual outlet, they will turn to having sex with themselves (either in the sense of masturbation, or in the sense of with other women) or with irrational beasts, or with inanimate objects. This is contrasted as being even worse than other female-coded, sexually-related sins such as infanticide and contraception. But the worst such sin is the sort of lechery they “will not name..for it might do harm to clean hearts.” I.e., naming it might give women ideas. For both men and women, lechery was thought to be caused by an imbalance of humors due to indulgence in rich foods, so the urge toward sexual sins was tied up with general railing against “luxury.”
The idea of exactly how women might engage in sex without men is fuzzy. It assumes the need for a penis-substitute and for an “active” partner. For women, the Lollard recommendation to resolve this is to provide a heterosexual alternative (e.g., marrying off widows and nuns). There is no suggestion of a parallel to the “men who are averse to relations with women”, i.e., that some women might be drawn to a cloistered life due to antipathy toward men in general.
Stepping back, the Lollard concerns around sexuality are little different from orthodox ones, differing perhaps only in the suggested remedy. From the point of view of sexual “deviants,” dissent and orthodoxy look very much alike.
The chapter begins with a summary of the legal records concerning John/Eleanor Rykener who was arrested for prostitution and who confessed to having sex with men as a woman, and with women as a man. [Note: The primary publication concerning this historic record is Karras & Boyd 1996] Of particular relevance to Dinshaw’s theme, Rykener specified having sex with both clerics and nuns. (There is no explicit mention of being paid to have sex with women, as there is when having sex with men.) The court records date to two months prior to the posting of the Lollards’ “Conclusions” (their manifesto of principles) and the Rykener case reads as if designed to illustrate their claims about sexual corruption in the church.
Rykener’s story also has echoes in Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale,” involving themes of casual prostitution among London’s working class in the late 14th century. But Rykener holds an unusual position in the English legal record, which is generally devoid of accusations of men for prostitution. Prostitution was understood to be an inherently and essentially female crime.
Although originally arrested for suspicion of prostitution (due to female dress and appearance), the investigation shifted to being for sodomy. And yet Rykerer’s entry into the trade involves feminization not only with regard to sexual activity but in occupation (embroiderer).
Using this jumping off point, Dinshaw uses this chapter to explore the questions Rykener’s interrogation raises, comparing this with Chaucer’s queer character of the Pardoner, and with Foucault’s essay on “the life of infamous men.”
Rykener’s crime is described in the text as “vitium...nephandum” (unmentionable vice) which traditionally alludes to sodomy. Yet there are regular references back to “the aforementioned vice”, highlighting it as unspeakable and yet referenced by previous utterance. The interrogatoin involves many layers of “translation”: an English proceeding recorded in Latin, possibly rendered into the formulaic language of confessional manuals. Our ability to retrieve Rykener's own voice is questionable. [Note: I have been shifting to a practice of using they/them pronouns when discussing individuals whose lives crossed gender lines. However this approach has it's own hazards, especially in flattening the data about how their gender was performed and perceived. The transcript of the trial evidence shifts between male and female pronouns for Rykener in ways that reflect both the speaker's attitude and the interpretive layer of the clerk.]
The emphasis on clerical offenses might come from the concerns of the questioners, or from Rykener’s focus in answering, or from the clerk’s own focus in recording the procedings. Rykener appears to cooperate eagerly, but may have shaped their testimony out of fear of the legal penalty for sodomy. (Technically, the death penalty was called for, but very rarely implemented.)
Rykener presents a category crisis. Despite the initial emphasis on male/male sodomy, the emerging details blur categories of gender and sex acts. Rykener’s description of their own actions strictly follows a heterosexual framing: female with men and male with women, dodging the strict definition of sodomy entirely.
Sodomy isn’t the only queer element present. Why would Rykener choose prostitution as a woman (or even embroidery as a woman) over the more profitable options available to even the poorest of men? Practicality and logic suggest this was not simply an economic strategy. Did Rykener’s male clients all believe themselves to be having sex with a woman? Or did they desire sex with someone falling between categories? Women taught Rykener how to be read as a woman and how to play on gender expectations. To what purpose?
Laws that expected a clear gender binary had no way to address the situation. Despite the detailed interrogation, no formal charges were recorded against Rykener--which doesn’t preclude more informal hazards now that their story was out.
Dinshaw compares Rykener’s categorical indeterminacy with the way Chaucer’s Pardoner is presented (and mocked, in-text) as anomalously masculine (with hints that he might be a eunuch). [There follows a great deal of analysis of Chaucer’s use of language and imagery in general.]
The chapter ends with Foucault’s essay “The Life of Infamous Men” on the context and problems of doing history on persons whose lives emerge only from (often antagonistic) texts. [Note: Foucault seems to be playing on both the derogatory sense of “infamous” and a literal sense of “not famous,” that is, men for whom we don’t have multiple textual sources due to the obscurity of their lives.]
Foucault was struck by the power that such ordinary “real existences” have in contrast to the more mythologized lives of the famous. Although his essay is not specifically commenting on queer history, Foucault’s observation is powerful in the context of trying to document and understand queer lives. Texts such as Rykener’s can create affective relations across time that stand apart from any objective unknowable “truth” of their lives.
When Kempe was required to defend herself against charge that included Lollardy, one of the questions thrown at her by the Mayor of Leicester was that she “went in white clothes ... to lure away our wives from us and lead them off with you.” What did that mean? Why did accusations of heresy and sexual deviance get associated with white clothing? Why would wearing white signal that she had intentions of leading women away from their homes? And what was she leading them away for?
Kempe held that she dressed in white because Christ asked her to, but in her memoirs she treated the act as something of a bargaining point. She would wear white if Christ offered her protection in return. She was aware that the color signaled a type of purity (virginity) that she was not technically worthy of, and that others would criticize her for this, so she needed something in return. The garments regularly stood out as unusual and drew down criticism.
The wearing of white clothing may have been associated in England with specific foreign sects that were considered heretical and accused of deviant sexual practices. [Note: Dinshaw doesn’t name the sects specifically.] From accusations of heresy, it was a small step to Lollardy at that time. Thus her clothing may have drawn accusations of Lollady “by contagion” as it were, even though her actions and beliefs were clearly in contradiction with Lollard principles.
Kempe’s status as a widow who adopted the signifier of virginity provokes a discussion of attitudes toward sexual experience and sexual continence. It can be seen as a type of transvestism to use clothing to cross or blur categories in this way.
At this point, I’m going to skim over the long discussion of Kempe’s behavior under questioning. One of Dinshaw’s points here is that Kempe’s habit of answering back and challenging her questioners raises issues of authority and truth. If two people can charge each other with sexual deviance, who has the right to make such a charge?
On multiple occasions, Kempe was accused of “leading women astray.” But what exactly was she being charged with? The language hints at, but does not outright name, same-sex acts.
There is a long analysis of Kempe’s habit of public crying and lamentation over Christ’s passion and how this was considered disruptive. We then move on to a modern work of fiction that uses Kempe as a touchstone in a queer (male) narrative. And then the discussion goes sideways into debates over modern arts and research grants and the uses of accusations over whether particular projects are absurd and unworthy.
This final section starts with the inspiration for the book’s title in a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. Dinshaw explores the imagery of sodomitical rape in this movie and other films. There is an association of the concept of “medieval” as an out-of-context reference alongside imagery of male aggressive sexuality, contrasted at the same time with male bonding. The same preoccupations, Dinshaw asserts, run through Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1.
The rest of the conclusion both critiques and celebrates Foucault’s work with its contras between identities and acts, and how acts tend to be prosecuted only when they disturb the social order. But since I’ll be covering Foucault’s work separately, I think I’ll leave the details for that entry.