How About Them Fightin’ Binaries?

“False Accusations” in Anita Guerreau-Jalabert’s Motif-Index of French Arthurian Verse Romances XIIth-XIIIth Cent. lists two entries under K2119(G), “Man Falsely Accused of Homosexuality”: Escanor 1636-1858, and Lanval 221-326. I don’t have Escanor handy (nor have I ever read it), but for convenience’s sake I can at least give you a bit of Lanval. When Lanval spurns Guinevere’s advances, she famously accuses him of preferring something other than women:

Vus n’amez gueres cel delit. Asez le m’ad hum dit sovent Que des femmez n’avez talent. Vallez avez bien afeitiez, Ensemble od eus vus deduiez.You don’t much like this delight. Men have told me often that you don’t like women. You prefer to please yourself with a group of well-hung (or “well-bred,” “well-trained,” or even “well-dressed”: see See the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, s. v. “afaiter”) servants (or ‘young man of noble birth (serving a lord).’ ‘boy, male child,’ ‘(young) gentleman (below the rank of knight),’ ‘man of rank below squire and above craftsman,’ &c. s. v., “vadlet”).

The accusation in Éneas is equally well-known. Upon learning of her daughter’s love for Eneas, the queen of Latium tries to scare her off her love by reminding her of Dido and by declaring “il n’a gaires de femme cure” (he doesn’t care at all for women), but that he rather “prise plus lo ploin mestier,” that is, that he prefers “garcon.” (Yunck does this as “he prefers the opposite trade,” which, with James Schultz in mind, I’m not convinced is a good trans. But I can’t quite figure out how to translate “ploin,” even with the Godefroy dictionary (available online through the BNF). Help? Does anyone have Simon Gaunt’s Gender and Genre handy to compare his translation of this passage?) Here’s what’s troubling me: last weekend, I saw Karma Lochrie speak, and I learned about the ahistoricality of “heteronormativity” as a category for doing medieval studies. This morning, I read the James Schultz essay Eileen transmitted to us through James Paxson’s suggestion (see here, and for another discussion of Schultz, see Nicola Masciandaro here), where I read that Thomas Aquinas, for example:

arranged the species of lust according to their relation to reason (children must be raised by married parents) and to nature (the natural end of sex is procreation). Best are those “venereal acts” that respect reason and nature (the union of husband and wife desiring children), worse are those that violate reason, since they are outside marriage (fornication, seduction, adultery, rape), and worst of all “is the vice against nature, which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow” (masturbation, sodomy, bestiality).

In other words, Aquinas did not arrange sex–or nature for that matter–on a hetero/homo continuum, but predominantly along one oriented or disoriented towards reproduction in marriage, which, as Schultz takes great pains to emphasize, does not equal heterosexuality. I remember how many ways there were to being sexual in the Xian Middle Ages. Sex acts need not determine sexual orientation. Certain objects–young boys–inspire samesex acts in certain situations without, however, demanding that the sexual actor possess a sexual identity. Furthermore, as Kłosowska demonstrates, Lanval does not defend himself by declaring himself “straight”: nothing in his language distinguishes his own love as not samesex (135). Masculinity might require that the clothes of a man be bedecked with flowers “as it were a meede” or even that a man be “meeke as is a mayde,” while in Bérinus handsome King Agriano banishes all women from his kingdom and ‘presents his men with a hundred good-looking men’; the realm eventually fails, not due to some feminine lack of prowess, but for lack of children (see the discussion in Kłosowska at 88 and elsewhere). Some ways of being sexual were of course not being sexual: refusing sex in marriage; refusing to get married; refusing to get remarried. There were erotic unions with Christ. We should think, too, of alternate familia in the Xian Middle Ages: communities of hermits, of nuns, of beguines, of monks, of Christina of Markyate, who becomes head of her own family after setting up a kind of family with Abbot Geoffrey. All these family arrangements looked in many ways like the reproductively oriented family of opposite sex couples, but they also presented a variety of challenges to the presumptive naturalness or superiority of that model. With all this in mind, of course it’s ahistorical to think in terms of medieval sexual binaries. Yet I’m troubled by the accusations of loving garcon or vallez. I’m troubled that Guerreau-Jalabert has no entry on “Man falsely accused of being a vowed widower” or “Woman falsely accused of being a beguine.” I’m troubled, in short, because when push comes to shove, the spurned women of medieval romance often resort to accusations of, well, let’s not call it sodomy, but they never (?) select a charge from any of the other medieval ways of being or not being sexual. Is there, in other words, a binary at work? Certainly compared to Eileen and Jeffrey, and also certainly compared to some of our readers, I’m woefully under-read and underthought in both gay and queer history and thought, so I may be asking a foolish question. Better I be foolish here than someplace I can’t thank you right away. Yes? == Interesting note (to me) on Lanval: in the Middle English “Sir Launfal,” Guinevere says only this:

Fy on the, thou coward! Anhongeth worth thou hye and hard! That thou ever were ybore! That thou lyvest, hyt ys pyté! Thou lovyst no woman, ne no woman the – Thou were worthy forlore! (685-90)

Can we make a good guess to account for the change from Marie? — (ps: a scene from my youth)


Part of what’s troubling to me is that I fall into the language of sexual binaries even as join others in putting them under question (e.g. [guilty example]: “looked in many ways like the reproductively oriented family of opposite sex couples”). Sloppy and sad! == Re: NM, Of course there is a binary at work, given the fundamentally dual nature of sex. Not convinced. And whether or not sex tends in many? most? medieval writing and practices to resolve into male and female, sex acts do not, in many cases, resolve into male or female or even into passive and active. And, following Eileen, medieval genders could be a great deal more complicated than a mere binary (see Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, where she writes, “we need to…follow the examples of feminists of color and post-colonial feminists [by] analyzing medieval gender categories within the hierarchical ‘grids’ of difference that medieval people constructed” (41), for example, in the class difference by which “propertied individuals–both male and female–where strong in virtue than [poor] men” (42), but even though the poor were thought more embodied (or, better, differently embodied) than the propertied, it would be epistemologically clumsy to see embodiment here necessarily map onto male/female). So what I wonder, again: defined in terms of nature and reason such that the absence of one introduces the possibility, the felt absence of contradiction (whence grounds for false accusation) of the other. But why this particular other when there were so many other ways of being sexual, including not being sexual, including the ways that Aquinas describes (pace, of course, JJC, I actually see Éneas and Lanval as more sexually constrained than Aquinas, at least insofar as Aquinas arranges binary/binaries along something more complicated than the single het/homo line)? One could say it’s genre, that most romance is oriented toward het couplings, but it’s not as if even romance doesn’t include other ways of being sexual. What’s a romance without a hermit? And surely hermits, some of them former knights, spurn women, but this spurning doesn’t open them to the accusation of desiring men. Is it because no one (unless we’re in Boccaccio) desires hermits sexually, so no one thinks to accuse them? And why not the (likely more accurate?) accusation, namely, that the knight (Guigemar for instance, and many, many other knights) prefers to hunt rather than to woo? The privileged binary in these works, at least, is samesex sex vs opposite sex sex (but again, this is NOT the privileged binary in Aquinas). Also unsure about this: Heterosexuality is not “straight” in this sense, as sexual love of the other always already encompasses a sexual love of oneself through the other. Does it? Well, yes, there’s the reference to the mirror in Erec and Enide that you cite over at the Medieval Club blog, but I tend to think that narcissistic love (say, in the Roman de la Rose) is emblematically love of the same, and if not queer, at least homo. Which I suppose is just your point! That there’s a homo element in so-called het love, and that desire itself can undo or at least remap the boundaries of persons, and so is in that regard, queer. This is surely an important consideration! I do know that romance does not always resolve sex acts into het/homo binaries. Yonec, which I’m teaching on Friday, arranges sexual desire along a binary of desire and disgust, along youth and old age, and it is aware that this desire can come from anywhere and attach itself to anything, so long as that thing is young and beautiful. Remember that the old man keeps his young wife from the company of all young people, men and women both. To be sure it does seem a tale that privileges reproductivity (which again, does not equal heterosexuality). Nonetheless, I think of the scene in which the hawkman, Maldumarec, demonstrates his bona fides by receiving the Eucharist. To trick the chaplain, he takes on the appearance of his lovely girl lover. After “li chevaler l’ad receü” (187; the knight received it), he and his love are left alone: la dame gist lez sun ami: unke si bel cuple ne vi. quant unt asez ris e jüé e de lur priveté parlé, li chevaler ad cungé pris (191-95) (the lady lay beside her love: a couple so beautiful has never been seen. When they had laughed and played enough, and spoken intimately, the knight took his leave [hilariously enough, I planned on doing my own translation, and it ended up pretty much the same as Hanning and Ferrante’s]). Two things strike me: that the girl is besides and not beneath (or on top) her lover, which itself suggests a certain equality (or uncertainty) about her gender position (would need to supplement the dictionary with a concordance here); second, we don’t know what form the knight has. By referencing him with male terms (“li chevaler”; “sun ami”), Marie seems to fix him as fundamentally male; similarly, when the old woman spies Maldumarec later in the lai, he’s “hume..e pus ostur” (l. 278, a man…and then a hawk). But hume might mean merely “human being” (see Anglo-Norman Dictionary, s.v., “home”), and, more notably to me, during the first meeting with his love, we never see Maldumarec resume a male form. With that in mind, I think we can reread Marie’s “unke si bel cuple ne vi,” turning it from a romance cliché, a mere space filler, into a (possible!) version of the invisibility, the unclassifiability of samesex sex acts between women in, uh, dominant taxonomic systems. Here at least is a tale in which nothing like heteronormativity obtains, and in which sex acts take place that might very well be something other than simply samesex or hetsex, in which we might be witness to the unseeability of gender fucking But I’m afraid my question still stands: even in romance, we see a lot of ways of being sexual, but the spurned female lover always (?) reacts in a way that privileges hetero-sex, where the opposites are not chaste/married, vowed to God/vowed to marriage, or even sodomitic (in the terms Aquinas spells out)/reproductive, but rather male/female. Why is that? But I should be more careful, here with JJC’s warning in mind, to remember that generically Yonec (a Breton lai) is not the same as Éneas (“national?” romance?) is not the same as Eric et Enide (a romance) is not the same as the Summa Theologica. While accounting for the difference genre makes, we can nevertheless track the accusation of the spurned woman through a variety of works and genres, yes?, and the accusation seems to assume two forms only (the Potipher’s Wife accusation–rape–and the charge of preferring boys). You know else is hilarious? In my continuing effort to transform my mind into an amalgam of Jeffrey’s and Eileen’s (or at least in my continuing effort to understand them), I received today, through ILL, Cary Howie’s Claustrophilia. It looks like it’s going to be a great read. Especially because he and I have arrived at a reading of Yonec that points at some of the same things, maybe. I’d like to say that his is better because it’s been refracted through years of reading and editing, and mine’s only a few days old, but, well, here’s part of it: Howie cites Stephen Nicols’ reading in which Maldumarec and his lover fuse in a version of the Eucharist. “Yet what must complicate such a reading is the crucial preposition ‘delez’ or ‘lez,’ beside or alongside; on two occasions here it spatially configures the relationship between the knight and the lady as one less of identity than of contiguity. Their adjacent, proximate bodies do somehow get inside each other–and they will get inside each other sexually as well, in the lines that follow–but not without Marie’s insistence on their simultaneous separateness” (127). He goes on to say that “they are not fused so much as immediate to one another in the strongest sense, the sense of im-mediacy, what is most internal to mediation, the simultaneously shared and continually negotiated difference according to which it is possible to speak of identity and alterity at all. There is between them only that fraught, tenuous ‘vus,’ opening up the space between as and to, articulating identity as address. It is the smallest, slightest, most crucial space” (127). – See more at: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2007/10/how-about-them-fightin-binaries.html#sthash.ww0GeXvV.dpuf

Advertisements