Academic journal article German Quarterly

Constructing Medieval Sexuality

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Constructing Medieval Sexuality

Article excerpt

Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, eds. Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 205 pp. $ 18.98 paperback, $47.98 hardcover.

The collection of essays under review originated at a conference on medieval sexualities hosted by the Newberry Library in Chicago, March 4-5, 1994. By the time this review appears considerable time will have passed since the conference and the publication of the proceedings (1997). By now, the issues addressed by the contributors have moved from the margins into the mainstream of what is now called Cultural Studies, whether the object of critical attention is contemporary or medieval literature. Having emerged as an important mode of criticism during the eighties, this cultural turn enthusiastically embraces the many different research directions (feminism, gender, masculinities, ethnicities, and race) that continue to greatly enliven literary and historical studies. Just how much has happened in this area of research is reviewed by Bruce Smith in his article "Premodern Sexualities," PMLA 115.3 (2000): 318-29.

In keeping with the cultural studies approach, the contributors have each chosen texts that go beyond the medieval literary canon drawing on a great variety of clerical and lay materials. In the introduction, the editors review the basic assumptions of the conference and of this volume, to wit, how medieval sexualities are constructed and what the historical and cultural forces were that brought them forth, influenced, suppressed, and fostered them. The editors pay their respect to but also declare their difference from Michel Foucault, who has dominated our thinking about sexuality, gender, and power during the past decades. This gesture signals a growing independence of medieval cultural studies from the man who has helped launch a new way of looking at so many cultural preoccupations and phenomena, but whose judgments on earlier texts and periods, upon closer inspection, have been found in need of further investigation.

The contributors investigate paradigms of gender, sexuality, and culture from many different vantagepoints. In the end, they bring to light numerous textual aspects and visual clues that, heretofore, have remained hidden or ignored. Dyan Elliott's look at sin, the devil, and (sexual) pollution in the very early Middle Ages, specifically in the works of St. Augustine, convinces us that not only can the devil read minds (almost a commonplace in medieval demonology), but we, thanks to her, can read much more clearly between the lines of ostensibly traditional texts. James Schultz does the profession a similar service by unfolding the clothing that covers the male and female bodies in the Middle High German version of the classic love/death tale of Tristan. While research into the various aspects of love and desire has kept Tristan scholars busy for decades, in his modest yet profoundly knowledgeable and engaging way, Schultz sheds new light on the medieval construction of gender and, in this case, class. He notes that, for all their unisex qualities, medieval clothing and, by extension, courtly behavior, do always play on gender (differences), and on relationships of power, domination, and submission.

Making the text speak to us through its silences, Joan Cadden turns to Peter of Abano, who, normally not shy about stating his theological or medical opinions, does withhold, by his own admission, information about sodomy, and about who practices it and why. According to Peter, nature's rules fall victim to transgression in the form of discordant and irregular behaviors; these rules are also broken by seemingly monstrous occurrences that are, upon closer inspection, very much part of this same nature. …

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