Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature
Lim, Gary, Arthuriana
TISON PUGH, Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Pp. xii, 220. ISBN: 1-4039-8487-5. $74.95.
In contrast to his focus on the disruptive and radical potential of queer identities in Queering Medieval Genres, Tison Pugh's new study explores how 'restrictive ideologies [...] bear obfuscatory powers to wield queerness in furtherance of their own ends' (13). After a brisk introduction that defends the value of terms such as 'heteronormative,' 'heterosexual,' and 'homosexual' while stating caveats against the dangers of their anachronistic use, Pugh turns his attention to the narrator of Pearl, Harry Bailey, Walter of the 'Clerk's Tale,' and the eponymous protagonists of Amis and Amiloun and Eger and Grime. His argument proceeds by showing how normative masculinities are produced through acts of queering in each of these cases.
Pugh's book is strongest when it takes up well-worn concepts of queer theory, places them in an interesting context, and shows how they can be used to complicate notions of medieval masculinity. The chapter on Pearl, for instance, takes the ubiquitous erotic triangles of queer theory and then asks an inventive question: What happens when one of the homosocial competitors for the loved object's affection is God himself? In Pugh's analysis, while the Dreamer ends up abandoning his desires to God and attains normative Christian masculinity, it occurs by 'experiencing the instructive lessons of compulsory queerness along the Christian path to spiritual normativity and sexual subservience as a Bride of Christ' (28). His chapters on Pearl and the Chaucerian material also emphasize the way these texts queer the audience through sensitive readings of how the narratives are framed. For example, after observing that the Clerk makes an apostrophic plea to 'noble wyves' despite his overwhelmingly male audience, Pugh argues that a hermaphroditic reader is constructed as a result: 'To whom is this repetitive direct address speaking, then, if not to the male pilgrims of the pilgrimage, now hermaphroditically created in the image of women they seek to control? …