Queer Theory and Late Medieval England

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University)
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To our twenty-first-century sensibility, it might seem intuitive that there were queer people in the Middle Ages. Historical and fictional examples include Edward II, suspected of engaging in homosexuality with the nobleman Piers Gaveston; Joan of Arc, who cross-dressed; St. Eugenia and St. Marina, religious professionals who crossed-dressed and lived as men in all-male monasteries; and Chaucer’s Pardoner, whom the author famously compares to “a geldyng [castrated horse] or a mare” (Chaucer, 1987, 34, l. 691). However, the specific forms, categories, and names for these premodern queers—such as “man”, “woman”, “homosexual”, “gay”, “lesbian”, or “transgender”, among others—do not always or necessarily coincide with those in our current moment. While it is easy if not impossible to project our assumptions of gender and sexual expressions onto the past, it is equally important to be aware of the reality and limits of our presentism (the uncritical application of present ideologies, beliefs, and structures onto the past).

Queering the Middle Ages is a juggling act that must balance the radical otherness of the past and the persistent continuity from the past to the present. In other words, the critical methodology involves listening to both resonances and dissonances across time. Modern conceptions of gender and sexuality are rooted in medical and psychological discourses that posit biology as the guarantor of an essentialized identity. Contemporary queer studies has worked hard at dismantling the regime of a medicalized subjectivity and at loosening the hold of binarism in models of gender and sexuality (heterosexual vs. homosexual; man vs. woman; cis vs. trans). If gender and sexuality are better conceived as continua—if we do not fit easily into binary structures, and if we find ourselves positioned differently across such continua—then it is no surprise that there is no exact or easy fit between the premodern and the modern, and that the past, too, is a series of continua. Current categories of gender and sexuality are diverse, unstable, and historically contingent. They were no less so in the past.

The earliest articulations of queer studies—though they did not yet assume that name—came within second wave feminism and early gay and lesbian studies (or the history of sexuality studies) in the 1970s and 1980s. Queer medieval studies, as a subfield of queer studies at large, emerged out of the 1990s and continued through the 2000s. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger in the 2000s articulate three areas of inquiry for queer medieval studies: the body and identity; the relationships among pleasure, power, and politics; and the historicization of modernity and premodernity (Burger and Kruger, 2001). Since the 2010s, transgender studies has marked a new phase of, as well as a departure from, queer studies. By the 2020s, early transgender studies (encompassing the medieval and the early modern periods) has begun to distinguish itself from and move beyond queer medieval and premodern studies. Greta LaFleur, Masha Raskolnikov, and Anna Kłosowska, for example, advocate a trans studies that focuses on “the structures, affects, or logics that inform the experience of gender, its social and political performance” (LaFleur, et al., 2021, 7). Running through the critical tradition is the recognition that partial knowledge is only ever possible, and that past (and present) queer subjects are simultaneously moving targets and lingering specters.

The first section of this entry considers the problems of periodization in premodern queer studies and provides an overview of the field since the 1980s. The second section examines Chaucer’s Pardoner as the emblematic queer figure of analysis in the 1990s. The third section broaches the complex project of recovering and theorizing medieval lesbianisms. The fourth section focuses on medieval Christian anti-eroticisms, such as virginity and chastity. Finally, the concluding section looks at the emergence of early transgender studies and its relationship with premodern queer studies.

Queer histories: periodization and identity

A charge sometimes levelled against practitioners of medieval queer theory is that the approach is anachronistic: no medieval reader would have read in this way. But if queering the Middle Ages is anachronistic, this anachronism is the result of the artifice of periodization, which queer medieval studies tackle head-on. The idea of the Middle Ages itself did not emerge until the historical moment had already passed. Periodization is a retrospective construction, always belated and always in hindsight. In fact, historical periods frequently function negatively as the other against which the current moment defines itself. As such, the Middle Ages is an effect of modernity and not its cause; it is what modernity is not or what modernity has replaced.

Burger and Kruger make the question of temporality central to their work. They propose a logic of the preposterous as a queer methodology for medieval studies, the preposterous being that which literally confuses or queers the difference between pre-and post- (Kruger, 2009, 413). Rather than charting a linear genealogy that maps the orderly, sequential emergence of the queer from gays and lesbians or homosexuals, themselves descendants of medieval sodomites, “[q]ueer theory’s ‘preposterous’ historicism, while sharing a politics with other antihomophobic, antiheteronormative projects, provides a different theoretical perspective from which to take up and disturb the question of history and anachronism in the study of the premodern” (Burger and Kruger, 2001, xiii). Queer theory deconstructs, denormalizes, and denaturalizes not only gender and sexuality but also concepts of chronology.

Linked to the problem of periodization is that of recognition of past queer figures either as essentially the same as or as radically different from queers today. Neither extreme is useful, and the best approach is to acknowledge not only similarities or parallels but also differences, or how similarities have been transformed through and by changes in cultural-historical circumstances. As David Halperin has argued, navigating the queer past involves a simultaneous grappling with historical continuities and change (Halperin, 2002, 12). Another difficulty is how to detach queerness from identity- or behavior-based conceptions for categorizing individual beings. Identity as a framework for shaping subjectivity is a modern notion, one that was not the primary means, if any means at all, by which medieval queers conceived themselves. For instance, homosexuality is not an identity category available to medieval peoples. The broad term for individuals who engaged in non-heteronormative sexual activities is “sodomy”, an unstable term that has carried a variety of denotations and connotations.

On the one hand, sodomy refers to anal and oral intercourse; as such, both straights and non-straights, men and women, could commit the sin. On the other hand, sodomy is explicitly understood as perversion and a sin against nature, but what is unnatural is frequently difficult to pin down. Whereas Augustine viewed sodomy as disordered desire, Ambrose in the fourth century CE explicitly linked sodomy, or the vice against nature, with same-sex erotic activities (Evans, 2014, 11). As Mark Jordan contends, the noun ‘sodomy’ (sodomia) was first invented in the eleventh century, in Peter Damian’s rabidly denunciatory Book of Gomorrah (Jordan, 1997). Peter identified four types of sodomy: masturbation, mutual masturbation, frottage, and anal intercourse (Peter Damian, 1982, 29). But by the twelfth century, sodomy had become a broad designation for a range of sexual acts considered unnatural: bestiality, incest, men in a passive sexual role, or women on top during coitus. Sodomy was also conflated with heresy, and masturbation was associated with the devil, the non-Christian other (such as Jews), and apostasy (Evans, 2014, 15).

Because of its capaciousness, sodomy is “a notoriously unstable and unspecific term that cannot be easily accommodated within a seamless history of homosexuality” (Evans, 2014, 12). The intertwinement of sexual acts and religious interpretations renders problematic any attempt to equate sodomy with queerness. In its production and policing of sexual categories, sodomy is one negative articulation of medieval queerness. But in its accommodation of straight people who might engage in unnatural acts, sodomy departs sharply from the modern queer sensibility that does not, for instance, perceive heterosexual oral sex as deviant or sinful but is deeply entrenched in heteronormative practices against which queerness resists.

A focus on transhistorical same-sex desires and activities, especially those between men, defined the early phase of non-heteronormative studies of the Middle Ages. John Boswell’s landmark 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, proposed that the Church’s intolerance of homosexuality was a modern phenomenon. In fact, Boswell claims there was a vibrant gay subculture in the twelfth century, on the basis of a male homoerotic Latin poetic tradition. Hilary the Englishman, for instance, expresses his anxiety over his conflicting feelings for a young man and his commitment to a woman: “Ut te vidi, mos Cupido / Me percussit; sed diffido; / Nam me tenet mea Dido / Dujus iram reformido” [“The moment I saw you, / Cupid struck me, but I hesitate, / For my Dido holds me, / And I fear her wrath”] (Boswell, 1980, 249). Writing at the cusp of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, Boswell attempted to show his readership that the church had not always been hostile to homosexuality. While Boswell has been criticized for essentializing gay identity across time and for his failure to consider women’s sexuality and female same-sex desires, his book is indisputably a watershed moment in historical gender studies.

Moving beyond Boswell, queer medievalists who investigate premodern same-sex relationships are careful to distinguish between homosociality (expressions of affection and intimacy between members of the same sex) and homosexuality (acts of explicit same-sex erotic pleasures), while acknowledging the oft-blurred boundaries between the two. Tison Pugh contends that while male eroticism renders homosocial relationships queer in some instances, it is not always perceived as disruptive of social norms (Pugh, 2008, 5). Medieval chivalry, for example, fostered erotically charged relationships between men but actively policed their expressions to preempt any straying into effeminacy or sodomy. Chivalry’s homoeroticism in fact structures the dominant mode of heterosexuality in the Middle Ages: courtly love (Zeikowitz, 2003).

We see the interplay between homosocial chivalry and heterosexual courtly love in the Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance. There two young knights, Arcite and Palamon, are bound to each other not only by blood (as cousins), but also by a shared chivalric identity and their love of the same woman. A similar male same-sex erotic tension is at work in the popular Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Bertilak proposes to Gawain: “Quat-so-ever I wynne in the wod hit worthez to yourez, / And quat chek so ye acheve chaunge me therforne” [“Whatever I catch in the wood shall become yours, / And Whatever fortune you win give me in exchange”] (Winny, 2011, 188-89, ll. 1106-07). While Bertilak goes on three hunts, Gawain is trapped within Bertilak’s castle and is tempted by Lady Bertilak. Gawain politely declines her offer of sex, ostensibly to preserve his own honor and that of his hosts. But as Carolyn Dinshaw points out, if Gawain slept with Lady Bertilak but wished to honor his promise, he would be forced to have sex with Bertilak (Dinshaw, 1994, 206). Homosexuality may be the logical fulfillment of the intricate web of contracts, but it can only be conjured as a specter and can neither be articulated nor followed through.

Chaucer’s Pardoner and the “touch of the queer”

During the 1980s and 1990s, the shifting critical reception of one fictional character in particular emblematizes the scholarly pivot from gay and lesbian historiographical methodology to queer theory: the Pardoner from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A pardoner is a cleric hired by religious foundations to raise funds by traveling and selling indulgences in local churches (indulgences were official church documents recognized to provide a substitute for the temporary punishment of sins). Chaucer’s Pardoner sells false relics and pardons for monetary gain. His moral ambiguity is mirrored in the unnaturalness of his effeminized, animalized body as portrayed by the narrator: “No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have; / As smothe it [his face] was as it were late shave. / I trowe [believe] he were a geldyng [castrated horse] or a mare” (Chaucer, 1987, 34, ll. 688-91). At the end of the Pardoner’s narrative, the host, Harry Bailly, who is in charge of the storytelling, threatens to castrate him when he invites Harry to kiss his “relics” (a euphemism for genitalia).

The Pardoner has been variously read by critics as a sexual deviant, a eunuch, a (proto-)homosexual, or a gay man. But any construal of the pardoner as gay implicates the reader in Chaucer’s comprehension of his character, which is not unproblematic. As Kruger warns, if we accept the Pardoner as a premodern gay ancestor, then he as a character has been created out of blatant homophobia; it would be difficult to reclaim the gayness of the Pardoner without being implicated in medieval homophobia (Kruger, 1994, 121).

Queer theory provides a way out of this political and interpretive quandary. Indeed, the Pardoner provides one of the key impetuses behind Carolyn Dinshaw’s theory of queer affective historiography. “Affect” refers broadly to bodily states, which could be feelings, emotions, passions, or drives. For Dinshaw, the significance of the Pardoner lies not in his alleged homosexuality but in the ways his presence “touches” both the other characters around him and readers past and present. What the haptic encounter with the Pardoner exposes is that heterosexuality and gender dimorphism (binaristic femininity and masculinity), like homosexuality, are never natural but performative: a pose. In other words, the touch of the queer (the Pardoner) sends a disillusioning, demystifying shockwave through time diachronically and synchronically (Dinshaw, 1995, 77). The touch of the queer, in Dinshaw’s formulation, is never one-directional, from the queer in the text to the reader; rather, it is a traffic in which the queer(ed) reader touches back, thereby making strange what has hitherto appeared normative or unremarkable” (Dinshaw, 1995, 79). Just as the past reaches into the present, the present touches back; and cross-temporal encounters make possible the emergence of transhistorical queer communities.

The touch of the queer is a powerful analytics that facilitates the queering of Middle Ages in both the affective and intellectual registers. Dinshaw’s approach is rooted in a deeply personal desire for queer history, and it requires the reader to follow “a queer historical impulse . . . toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then and, on the other, those left out of current sexual categories now” (Dinshaw, 1999, 1). An affective queer historicism reframes premodern and modern queerness and sidesteps the debates over alterity and continuity, as well as identity and act, that have characterized much of premodern queer studies.

An alternate approach insists that particular elements of the past will always remain alien and strange to the modern age, pushing the denaturalizing and denormalizing impulses of queer theory to their logical conclusions. Karma Lochrie contends that the assumption of a (proto-)heteronormativity in the Middle Ages is anachronistic. Terms like “gay”, “lesbian”, “homo”, “hetero”, and even “queer”, distort the archival evidence and reproduce the logic of normativity. Even the very notion of the normal is a modern one that emerged out of the science of statistics and biopolitics. In lieu of the touch of the queer, Lochrie proposes an approach grounded in “heterosyncrasy”, a word of her coinage “wrought from the ‘hetero’ of heterosexual and ‘syncrasy’ of ‘idiosyncrasy,’ meaning a ‘mixing together.’ The word opposes a unified, monolithic, and presumptive understanding of heterosexuality in favor of a more idiosyncratic, diversified, and even perverse take on heterosexuality” (Lochrie, 2005, xix). Heterosyncrasy, as an inflection and a subset of premodern queerness, contains a myriad of affects, acts, technologies, and ideologies that are both recognizably queer and those less obvious to the critics’ eye or the touch.

Medieval lesbianisms

Lochrie’s approach derives from her work on women’s sexualities, a topic that has often been neglected by historians of gender and sexuality, notwithstanding the archival presence of medieval lesbianisims. According to Ruth Evans, the first known use of the term lesbiai was by the Byzantine commentator Arethas in the tenth century, while Tertullian in late antiquity had referred to frictrix (female rubber) (Evans, 2014, 13). Court records and other documents also harbor medieval lesbianisms. For example, an early fifteenth-century court record from York describes how a widow named Agnes Grantham was observed by servants to have shared her bed with another widow, Dame Christiana, while naked (Evans, 2014, 14). 

Judith Bennett has coined the term “lesbian-like” in order to expand the social category of medieval lesbianisms to include women who resisted heterosexual marriage and supported or loved other women without explicit physical eroticism (Bennett, 2000). As Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt observe, “[t]he term ‘lesbian’ is widely regarded as essentialist, historically redundant, and limiting” (Giffney, et al., 2011, 1). For Lochrie, “lesbian” as a category is another example of modern sexual construction inextricable from normativity and compulsory heterosexuality. However, Lochrie concedes that lesbian historiography is never strictly concerned with the recovery of a documentable lesbian, or lesbian-like, past but more broadly with temporal relationships among sexualities, genders, and ideologies (Lochrie, 2011, xv). In its interrogation of modes of historical queries into the past, premodern lesbianism is in a sense always already doing queer work, more so than the more visible male same-sex desires and affiliations. That is, the touch of the premodern lesbian is the touch of the queer, in Dinshaw’s terms.

One productive way to consider premodern female queerness is through Jack Halberstam’s notion of “female masculinity”, which detaches masculinity from essentialized male bodies (Halberstam, 1998). Masculinity is therefore something that could be deployed by all sorts of gendered bodies. The Amazons in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, for example, evoke one premodern configuration of female masculinity. Theseus, the lord of Athens, “conquered al the regne of Femenye [land of the Amazons] . . . And weddede the queene Ypolita” (Chaucer, 1987, 37, ll. 866-68). In Chaucer’s rendition, Amazons appear as conquered subjects forced to assume heteronormative roles and functions, such as maidenhood and wifehood.

Christian anti-eroticisms

As Bennett’s work establishes, premodern queerness does not always need to be attached to sexual desires and acts. In his reconsideration of the “queer paternalism” of both Chaucer and the English literary tradition, Pugh conceives of a contrapuntal traffic between medieval eroticism and what he terms ‘‘anti-eroticism’’. Specifically, Pugh disentangles ‘‘the privileges and privations of heterosexual desire’’ (Pugh, 2014, 4). He seeks out the queer potential of human sexuality at the nexus of the self and society and identifies a queer narrative tension. What is anti-eroticism? For Pugh, anti-eroticism can take several forms: virginity, chastity, bachelorhood, widowhood, among others. In contrast to the modern West, the Middle Ages upheld religion as a crucial site where non-erotic and non-reproductive forms of premodern queerness resides. In all-male and all-female spiritual communities that disavow explicit heterosexual relations or secular familial bonds, queerness uncannily defines the spatialized experiences of gender and sexuality. Though it might seem strange to us today, religion informed, shaped, and maintained non-secular practices or embodiments. According to Albrecht Diem, religion is a gender category, and we can speak of medieval “Christian genders” (Diem, 2013, 433). Having surrendered their gender to God, the religious professionals acquire new gender identities and expressions in the divine.

Virginity and chastity are two important forms of premodern anti-erotic queerness. Frequently associated with female saints and religious professionals, virginity is neither an unnatural state nor the repression of erotic desire. Medieval virginity is a category of sexuality, Lisa Weston contends (Weston, 2003, 23). Valued by the Church as signifying the highest and purest state of human embodiment, virginity is ”militantly active, egregiously sensuous, disruptive and transgressive” (Weston, 2003, 23). In medieval hagiography, virginity is frequently linked to female martyrdom and sainthood. St. Margaret of Antioch, for instance, was tortured and decapitated by a pagan Roman governor when she refused to marry him. In a famous episode, Margaret was swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon but escaped alive due to the power of the cross she carried. In The Lyfe of Seynt Margarete, John Lydgate refers to Margaret as “The chaste lely of whos maydenhede / Thorugh martyrdam was spreynt [sprinkled] with roses rede” (Reames, 2003, 148, ll. 27-28). The white lily symbolizes chastity, and red roses, the martyr’s blood.

For medieval wives and widows, however, virginity is no longer an option. The next best thing would be to remain chaste or celibate during marriage or widowhood. At the end of the fourteenth century, Margery Kempe, a Christian female mystic living in England, was successful in negotiating marital chastity with her husband after giving birth to at least fourteenth children, and after she had promised to pay his debts. She bargained with her husband: “Grawntyth me that ye schal not komyn [coming] in my bed, and I grawnt / yow to qwyte [repay] yowr dettys” (Staley, 1996, 38, ll. 566-68). Kempe had visions of the divine, wore white clothes, went on pilgrimages, and preached in public. Though she is neither a lesbian nor a genderqueer subject in the modern sense, Kempe became a premodern queer by opting out of compulsory heterosexuality, by embracing chastity and celibacy as her chosen gender expression, and by destabilizing male authority in the Church and in her household. In Dinshaw’s analysis, Kempe embodies an affective queer subjectivity in her willful disruption of and protest against normative institutions of power (Dinshaw, 1999, 153). Her chaste marriage further affirms Burger’s thesis that marriage is not the bastion of heterosexuality per se but a space for non-normative, queer figurations of gender and sexuality (Burger, 2003; Burger 2018).

For cisgender and male-presenting men, anti-erotic queerness is also possible through religion. Richard Rolle, for instance, was an English hermit and mystic active in the mid fourteenth century. When Rolle was eighteen or nineteen, he asked his sister to bring two of her tunics to him. He then “straightway cut off the sleeves from the grey tunic and the buttons from the white”, and refashioned them into “a certain likeness to a hermit” (Comper, 1928, 301-02). As Christopher Roman argues, Rolle’s becoming a cross-dressing hermit might also be read as his coming out as a queer (Roman, 2017, 3). Rolle’s mystical text, Incendium Amoris (c. 1343), was widely distributed in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In it, Rolle deploys the metaphor of the Lover and the Beloved from the Song of Songs to represent the relationship between God and the soul of the Christian believer. For the male mystic, to practice imitatio Christi is to enter a state of homoerotic union with the divine (Mills, 2002, 158). Queerness here is non-reproductive but is not without erotic charge.

Finally, Rolle’s queer mysticism is not unlike that of Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress from the fourteenth century, who refers to the Trinity as “the properte of the faderhede, the properte / of the moderhede, and the properte of the lordhede” (Crampton, 1994, 120, ll. 2397-99). The feminization of God parallels the feminization of Christ and his punished body in the late Middle Ages, as affective piety (a mode of devotion rooted in emotions) became dominant in religious writing and art. The crucified body of Christ is not only in pain but covered in bloody wounds; his side wound is frequently depicted as female genitalia (Lochrie, 1997, 194). Julian similarly worships “Moder Jesus . . . who beryth us to joye and to endles lyving” (Crampton, 1994, 122-23, ll. 2492-93).

Trans histories and queer* futures

The feminization of the divine, the cross-dressing of the hermit, and the anti-erotic forms of queerness such as female masculinity and virginity, demonstrate the need for critical approaches that can engage more directly and thoughtfully with matters of transgender embodiment and expression. As trans studies scholars point out, queer studies and trans studies are related but distinct fields; “transgender” may be a subset of “queer” historically, but it cannot be adequately categorized or analyzed by “queer” alone (Spencer-Hall and Gutt, 2021, 12). Queer studies has had a symbiotic if not parasitic relationship to trans studies, with which it is neither self-identical nor overlapping (LaFleur, et al., 2021, 5-6). Moreover, the designation “queer” may have become too broad and capacious to have any critical purchase, for if (almost) anything counter-hegemonic is potentially queer, what does “queer” truly signify? Worse, queer critique may sometimes fail to recognize transness and gender nonconformity.

Perhaps no other late medieval figure has attracted the full gamut of critical apparatus, from gay to queer to trans, than Eleanor (“John”) Rykener, a sex worker in late fourteenth-century London who was assigned male at birth but lived as a woman. According to an arrest record in Latin, Rykener and John Britby, a former chaplain, were brought before John Fressh, Mayor and Alderman of London, for “illud vitium detestabile, nephandum, et ignominiosum committentes” [“committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice”]. The record indicates that Rykener wore women’s clothing, called herself Eleanor, and performed sex services “as a man” (“ut vir”) and “as a woman” (“ut cum muliere”) for men and women, mostly religious professionals (Boyd and Karras 481-82). Rykener has been variously read as a male gay transvestite (Karras and Boyd, 1995), as an undefinable queer (Dinshaw, 1999), as a lesbian transman (Karras and Linkinen, 2016), as a “transgender-like” person (Karras and Linkinen, 2016), and as a transwoman (Henningsen, 2019; and Bychowski, 2021). Rykener continues to operate as a flashpoint for the productive conversations among and the theoretical divergences of premodern gay and lesbian, queer, and transgender studies. Putting the name “John” in quotes, in parentheses, and struck through not only reflects the diverse range of readings possible but also acknowledges the written but unrecorded voice of Rykener, as well as the state’s privileging of perceived male embodiment over a self-named female identity and presentation.

Like “queer”, “trans” too has been undergoing an expansion beyond the strictly human, the bodily, or the animate. Marking the fluid and capacious potentialities of trans is the asterisk. “Trans*” with the asterisk, as Jack Halberstam points out, underscores both the non-hegemonic condition and a complex set of identities that cannot be rendered adequately by the delimiting use of “trans” meaning strictly a complete transition from one essentialized sex to another, a symptom of the insufficiency of the binary classificatory system of gender. The asterisk is a diacritical mark that exceeds the politics of recognition and challenges the seeming stability and permanence of its prefix (Halberstam, 2018, 50). Along with Avery Tompkins and Reese Simpkins (Tompkins, 2016; Simpkins, 2016), Halberstam affirms the inclusive, liberatory potential of the asterisk, which opens the term “trans” up to a broad set of conditions of signification and possibilities of embodiment in flux. The asterisk signals the wildcard function in data research, draws attention to the term in front of it and pushes beyond the prefix. On the theoretical capaciousness of the asterisk in trans* studies, Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein speculate that trans* “foregrounds and intensifies the prehensile, prefixial nature of trans- and implies a suffixial space of attachment that is simultaneously generalizable and abstract yet its function can be enacted only when taken up by particular objects (though never any one object in particular)” (Hayward and Weinstein, 2015, 196). The asterisk functions as a splitter and a joiner, an amplifier and a placeholder, revealing both the polyvalence of signification and the work of attachment. Like the fingery starfish, it is haptic and indexical, touching and pointing. What the asterisk reveals is that the crafting of gender and of sexuality is fundamentally a technology of the human.

Behind “trans*” lies “queer*.” The asterisk signals not only bodily and identitarian attachments, but also multiple lines of intersectionality. If queer and trans studies are premised on the recognition that categorization can never fully capture the range of gender and sexual expressions and experiences, then the queer and the trans are always already imbricated in other differences. In the late medieval West, key socio-cultural differences included matters of race and religion (especially Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), for instance. Kruger has drawn attention to the parallels and differences between contemporary narratives of gender transitioning and medieval conversion narratives, especially the crisis of identity in relation to gender and sexuality that religious conversion often entails (Kruger, 2009, 427).

Another important critical intervention is the theory of queer inhumanism, as formulated by Dana Luciano and Mel Y. Chen, which examines the queer resonances between the human and the non-human, the animate and the inanimate (Luciano and Chen, 2015). For example, in the Middle English romance The King of Tars, a Christian princess gives birth to a lifeless lump of flesh after her marriage to a Muslim sultan. The monstrous, stone-like lump, marking religious and racial differences, is decidedly queer in the sense that it is a literal and figurative manifestation of a nonreproductive (and thereby nonheteronormative) sexual union.

Reflecting on the state of queer studies at large and on the scholarly and creative afterlives of the Rykener archival document, Dinshaw observes how Rykener’s staying power and prestige within medieval studies demonstrate both “the limitations or liabilities of queer analysis . . . [and] the need for more precision and suppleness regarding gender and embodiment” (Dinshaw, 2019, 6). What seems a paradoxical goal—being flexible and capacious while being precise and singular—in fact speaks to the field’s vibrancy and resilience. “We’re queer; we’re here,” so goes the queer activist slogan. The catchy chant signals not only the queer presence in the contemporary moment but in the past and the future. Insofar as matters of gender and sexuality continue to be crucial foci of political and representational struggles in the twenty-first century, the shock of the past is necessary to all LGBTQIA2+ minoritarians, for it is by encountering and reclaiming the unexpected in the past that we could seek more liberatory forms of embodiment, being, and sociality.


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Citation: Kao, Wan-Chuan. "Queer Theory and Late Medieval England". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 July 2023 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=19668, accessed 28 September 2023.]

19668 Queer Theory and Late Medieval England 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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