Queering the Middle Ages

Queering the Middle Ages

Queering the Middle Ages

Queering the Middle Ages


The essays in this volume present new work that, in one way or another, "queers" stabilized conceptions of the Middle Ages, allowing us to see the period and its systems of sexuality in radically different, off-center, and revealing ways. While not denying the force of gender and sexual norms, the authors consider how historical work has written out or over what might have been non-normative in medieval sex and culture, and they work to restore a sense of such instabilities. At the same time, they ask how this pursuit might allow us not only to re-envision medieval studies but also to rethink how we study culture from our current set of vantage points within postmodernity.

The authors focus on particular medieval moments: Christine de Pizan's representation of female sexuality; chastity in the Grail romances; the illustration of "the sodomite" in manuscript commentaries on Dante's Commedia; the complex ways that sexuality inflected English national politics at the time of Edward II's deposition; the construction of the sodomitic Moor by Reconquista Spain. Throughout, their work seeks to disturb a logic that sees the past as significant only insofar as it may make sense for and of a stabilized present.


Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger

History and a logic
of the preposterous

Analyzing “the single and noteworthy exception of male-male sexual relations” in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Lee Edelman calls attention to the ways in which a logic of normative gender and sexuality is called into question by Fanny Hill's “scientific” description of the sodomitical scene—“His red-topt ivory toy, that stood perfectly stiff shewed, that if he was like his mother behind, he was like his father before”—summarized by her as a “project of preposterous pleasure.” Edelman focuses particularly on that last phrase

Because it signally condenses the disturbance of positionality
that is located in and effected by the sodomitical scene; sodomy,
that is, gets figured as the literalization of the “preposterous”
precisely insofar as it is interpreted as the practice of giving
precedence to the posterior and thus as confounding the stabil
ity or determinacy of linguistic or erotic positioning.

The pursuit of such a logic of the preposterous in the relations between sexuality and culture has been a persistent tendency in the work of queer theorists more generally; for queer sex disturbs the normative logic of a missionary position—man on top, woman on the bottom—that depends, as the work of Judith Butler would suggest, not on some natural law but instead on the performative citation of a norm, constructed as a cause or natural origin, that is nonetheless an effect of its very citation. Queer theory, in exposing the fictionality of such constructions—the ways in which supposed causes do not precede their effects but are instead themselves the (ideological) effects and justifications of certain normative behaviors—has developed a politics that allows it to claim such previously disallowed sexual positions and desires as both powerful and meaningful.

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