Gender and Difference I: Finding or imposing the queer?

I’m just back from the UK Gender and Medieval Studies Group conference (this year on Gender and Difference), which I found excellent. I want to try and discuss aspects of it in a series of posts, but this isn’t going to be a session by session outline. Instead, since there seemed to me to be a lot of themes that connected together across sessions, I wanted to ruminate on some of those.

My first one arose from a very good keynote speech by Stephen Kruger on ‘Medieval Jewish/Christian debate and the question of gender’. In this he was arguing that gender and queer theorists ought not just to stick to the texts where gender or queerness was flamboyantly present (like the Pardoner’s Tale or the case of Eleanor/John Rykener), but instead examine issues of gender in less obviously gendered texts. He took as his example a late eleventh century text: Gilbert Crispin’s ‘Disputation of a Jew and a Christian.’

I think his paper (and other work by him) is so effective mainly because he is a careful scholar. Too often queer theory approaches seem to me to involve careless, if not downright sloppy scholarship. If you’re going to talk about intertexts or alternative responses by readers you need to do the basic spadework of showing how and by whom a text has been received. If you’re going to do queer readings of lines they shouldn’t require the abandonment of grammatical form. If you can’t be bothered about philology or history, why should historians or philologists bother about you?

In contrast Stephen Kruger did seem to make a reasonable case (based on close readings of this and a number of other texts in the genre) that gender, the problems of embodiment and the threat of violence towards Jews all seep into a debate which is being conducted in dispassionate, respectful and abstract terms. In particular, there was the fascinating, if chilling possibility that the very fact that Crispin has the intellectual honesty to write a debate in which the Jew is not finally convinced may have encouraged a belief in his readers that Jews were intransigent/’blind’ intellectual opponents and that violence was the only answer for them.

But it also raised a wider problem that bothers me: when is it justified in reading ‘queer issues’ into texts that do not obviously contain them? In some ways, gender and religion/race are easier categories here. We know that any particular historical society has a gender system, even if we don’t always know what it was. So there is always a gendered cultural background to a text and it is legitimate to attempt to see whether it influences the text. Similarly, at least in the Middle Ages, there can be no insignificant reference to a non-Christian. There is so much cultural baggage about Jews, Saracens, pagans, heretics in the period that such labels must always be presupposed to be significant in a text and to bring external images with them. (Though intriguingly, the Jewess may come nearer to insignificance than the Jew, as Sara Lipton discussed). Equally, the prevalence of racial stereotypes mean that references to ethnicity are always likely to have some wider significance.

This is a more difficult question, however, for the other main category of queer investigation: the sexual. It doesn’t seem to me at all obvious that there is necessarily sexuality/eroticism behind every text (the way gender is necessarily present). In particular, I am uneasy about the way that homoeroticism often seems to me to be imposed on texts by modern scholars rather than being found in it. (I should say that I also dislike the Freudian tendency to impose heterosexual meaning on every object, but this is now less common). In other words, it does seem to me to be possible to have a text which is indifferent to sexuality in the Middle Ages much more easily than one that is indifferent to religion or gender. I think our culture is much more heavily sexualised than the Middle Ages and that we are danger of reading back our own values into the past.

By this I don’t mean that the Middle Ages was some pre-sexual or even pre-gay past: there are some texts which look clearly homoerotic. But I think that it can be seen as ‘before homosexuality’, a time when there was much less awareness of gay people and very little in the way of a gay subculture (although John Boswell thought one is detectable in the eleventh and twelfth century). In particular, while in modern popular culture people often feel compelled to expend effort in avoiding the threat of ‘gayness’ (particularly school-children), I do not think there was the same need in the medieval world (or the early modern). Moreover, many activities that seem to modern sensibilities clearly fraught with homoeroticism (like men sharing a bed) were obviously unremarkable.

Two papers in a later session seemed to me to provide good examples of how sources might be examined carefully in this way for their sexual content. One was by David Clark, arguing that some of the Anglo-Saxon texts that have been read as referring to male same-sex intercourse may in fact deal with masturbation (though as usual, we are faced with the problem of the penitentials as sources and their sometimes peculiar use of vocabulary). The second paper, by Bronach Kane, looked at how the church courts of York dealt with marriage cases involving impotence. She showed that the assessment of whether a husband was impotent (alleged by a wife seeking a divorce) wasn’t always done by female ‘jurors’ (as has been claimed) and produced examples where both men and women were involved in the process. She quoted quite detailed witness statements where male relatives or friends carried out physical examinations of the husband’s genitals, commenting on his erection and its size.

What impressed me was that Kane did not simply make the obvious assumptions that a) such texts are full of homoeroticism or b) impotence tests were necessarily occasions of ridicule. Instead, as she showed, the statements are couched in a homely language of concern for a friend in trouble, nor do they show a defensiveness about the implications of the procedures involved. Homoeroticism is not obviously being kept at bay here, however much modern scholars may feel it must be lurking somewhere in the situation. If we have to look for the queer in all medieval texts, we all have to accept that in some cases the Middle Ages may actually be queerer than modern imaginations can easily comprehend.


2 thoughts on “Gender and Difference I: Finding or imposing the queer?

  1. Writing as an ill-informed culpable bystander (a portable qualification I carry with me at all times without a license), perhaps it goes without mentioning and it’s only the nature of a professional case of which I can’t be aware, being ill-informed:

    But surely a ‘gay sub-culture’ is likely to exist only in an urban setting? That is, a setting in which an anonymity in crowds is possible, a centre of population large enough for there to exist a group self-consciously alienated from heterosexual norms, seeking its divergent fulfillment.

    This qualification will mean a lesser likelihood of the existence of such subcultures in at least earlier medieval times, (will it not?), also less likely to be remarked upon because less recognized in the wider, largely rural, culture.
    Such assumptions are of course hedged about with qualifiers;
    the most flamboyant being questions about notions of gay and sub-cultural essentialism.

    Hoping not to have unwittingly clogged the arteries of your blog with an ill-formed non-sequitur, I again wish to convey my pleasure in coming upon your well-ordered garden.


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