Lisa M. Bitel, Felice Lifshitz, eds. Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives. The Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 158 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4069-6.
Reviewed by Christopher LeCluyse (Westminster College [Salt Lake City])
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Performing Medieval Sexuality
The notion of gender as performance has enabled scholars to examine the constant and consequential work that people put into constructing their sexual identities. Rather than treating the roles of women and men as biologically determined absolutes, gender theorists stress the social forces involved in establishing and maintaining gender norms. Two recent additions to this ongoing discussion approach the performance of gender in the Middle Ages at different levels of detail. While the articles collected in Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives address large-scale questions of how gender and religion intersected in medieval Europe, those in Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook scrutinize specific medieval treatments of gender-in-performance, in public as well as in the bedroom. In so doing, both collections challenge Michel Foucault's contention that sexual identity is a distinctly modern concept.
Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe presents a cohesive series of five articles intended to address the frequent exclusion of religion from discussions of medieval gender and of gender from discussions of medieval religion. Co-editor Lisa M. Bitel treats both aspects of medieval people's experience as "professions," sharing with the authors the belief that "medieval Europeans chose how to be women and men or some complex combination of these, just as they chose whether and how to be religious" (p. 10). Because all of the articles deal with professionally religious men and women--monks, nuns, and priests, as well as consecrated virgins--a central concern is where a consciously chosen lack of sexual activity placed medieval men and women on the gender spectrum. For Tertullian, according to Dyan Elliott's "Tertullian, the Angelic Life, and the Bride of Christ," female virgins could never stop being female, a problem in his view since they risked drawing the lustful attention not only of earthly men but of fallen angels. To shield themselves from such defilement, he urged women to become "brides of Christ" in the first attested use of that appellation (p. 17). Similarly, Ruth Mazo Karras argues in the cleverly titled "St. Aquinas's Chastity Belt: Clerical Masculinity in Medieval Europe" that celibate male clergy did not reject a masculine role by living outside medieval norms of sex and aggression but rather presented their chastity as a manly battle against temptation. In "Women's Monasteries and Sacred Space," Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg looks to the architecture and descriptions of early medieval convents to show how female monastics negotiated requirements to remain cloistered while accommodating the pilgrims who were so vital to the support of their religious communities.
In counterpoint to views of distinct and set sexual identities are those articles that argue that celibacy made medieval clergy a "third gender." In "One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?" Jacqueline Murray contends that "chastity was a distinct sexual orientation" (p. 49) shared by male and female religious. Like other supporters of this notion, she cites examples from medieval medical literature and saints' lives that present sexual characteristics as fluid: given the right combination of humors, temperature, and humidity, a man could become a woman and vice versa. Particularly extraordinary examples of this concept are the stories Murray cites of several female saints who manifested their sanctity by growing beards! Felice Lifshitz likewise emphasizes the mutability of gender in "Priestly Women, Virginal Men: Litanies and Their Discontents." Considering the standardized category of virgo (virgin) in medieval litanies, she shows that while religious women were denied the multiplicity of roles afforded men, they were encouraged to identify with a model, the Virgo Mary, who herself embodied a more powerful and sexually complex identity than the traditional understanding of the term "virgin" would allow.
Rather than expressing a monolithic view, the articles in Gender and Christianity are clearly in dialogue with each other. The overall impression is nevertheless one of coherence, aided by references in every article but Schulenberg's to others in the collection. Such a thorough consideration of chastity and celibacy as part of the gender continuum is itself a significant contribution to the discussion of medieval gender, which often focuses on the identities of sexually active men and women. Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook is more typical in that respect, since the articles it contains focus largely on the sexual behavior of lay people. The term "sexuality" operates more narrowly here, referring in most of the chapters to sexual acts rather than a more general sense of identity.
Despite this more conventional approach to the topic, several standout articles are included in the collection. Philip Crispin's "Scandal, Malice and the Kingdom of the Bazoche" looks at the alternatingly misogynistic and empathetic portrayal of female figures in plays staged by law clerks of the French parliament--those rare moments of empathy aided, Crispin argues, by the transvestitism of the male actors playing these female parts. Hugh Kennedy's "Al-Jāḥiẓ and the Construction of Homosexuality at the Abbasid Court" scrutinizes a remarkably frank ninth-century Arabic debate poem on the relative virtues of having sex with female vs. male slaves. Finally, the only other article that substantively treats homosexuality, "'They Do Not Know the Use of Men': The Absence of Sodomy in Medieval Accounts of the Far East" by Kim M. Phillips, reveals the stark contrast between medieval European views of Chinese sexuality and those of later periods. Phillips's provocative hypothesis is that Europeans had no reason to attribute homosexual behavior to the Chinese until Europe was in a position to attempt large-scale conversion and domination of China.
The disparate content of Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook, which ranges from the sexual behaviors noted by Paul the Deacon in his "History of the Lombards" to connections between food and illicit sex in Old French literature, makes it more likely that the work will be used piecemeal by scholars seeking information on a particular topic. This ad hoc nature is understandable since most of the articles were first presented as papers at the 2004 conference "Sex: Medieval Perspectives" at the University of St. Andrews. Compared to Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, however, the articles seem to offer less a dialogue on medieval sexuality than a serial monologue, compounded by the editors' choice in the introduction to describe the articles in isolation rather than attempting to synthesize them. Still, common themes do emerge in reading across the collection. Most of the authors show that attitudes toward sex are seldom only about sex. Rather, they index social and political relationships: desert monastics are warned "that the dangers of sexuality lay in society" (Joyce E. Salisbury, "When Sex Stopped Being a Social Disease," p. 52), a Lombard duke castigates a local official who had failed to fend off the Slavs with a term that may (or may not) mean "homosexual" (Ross Balzaretti, "Sexuality in Late Lombard Italy," pp. 16-17), and Richard III tries to consolidate power by issuing a proclamation against the perceived sexual excesses of his brother and predecessor, Edward IV (David Santiuste, "'Puttyng Downe and Rubking of Vices': Richard III and the Proclamation for the Reform of Morals"). A number of topics emerge that may be remarkable for modern readers conditioned by both lingering Victorian mores and the gay-rights movement, including examples of a laissez-faire attitude toward prostitution, even among church officials; the promotion of sex as necessary for health in the medical writings of Maino de Maineri; and the coupling of pro-homosexual stances with misogyny.
Taken together, these books capture a moment of transition in the historiography of sexuality as scholars move beyond the Foucaultian dichotomy of sexual acts vs. sexual identity. The latter, Foucault contended, was an entirely modern construct; as a result, it would be anachronistic to speak of premodern people as having sexual identities. More recent notions of identity as performance have helped break down that dichotomy. If identity is performed, or "professed," as Lisa M. Bitel would have it, sexual identity is constructed from various "sex acts"--having and not having sex as well as putting on the daily act of gender. Since medieval people engaged in such acts with all the enthusiasm or social coercion that we do, the authors suggest, we can allow them to have sexual identities, too.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Christopher LeCluyse. Review of Bitel, Lisa M.; Lifshitz, Felice, eds., Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe: New Perspectives and
Harper, April; Proctor, Caroline, eds., Medieval Sexuality: A Casebook.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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