Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

By Gutt, Blake | Medium Aevum, July 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages


Gutt, Blake, Medium Aevum


Robert Mills, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (Chicago, Ill., and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2015). xiii + 398 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5. $55.00.

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills's second monograph, was the deserving winner of the Society for French Studies' R. Gapper Book Prize for 2015. This is a brilliant piece of scholarship, a complex and intricate analysis of the ways in which the diverse sexual, sexed, and gendered acts which fell under the sign of sodomy in medieval Europe emerged in varying degrees of visibility and invisibility through the mediation of literature and visual culture. Mills's sensitivity to nuance, and his strategic employment of anachronistic terminology such as 'butch', 'femme', and 'transgender', serve his project well. He mobilizes the trope of translation to explore the movements of the intensely overdetermined category of sodomy across borders of language, culture, period, and medium, as he works to ease apart its Foucauldian 'utter confusion' and to demonstrate its potential for manifold signification. The examination of both textual and visual sources provides an impressively wide range of case studies which illuminate the interactions and intertwinings of sodomy's cultural representations; the volume includes seventy-eight monochrome figures, and eight full-colour plates.

Mills begins his introduction, 'Jerome in a dress', with an analysis of a striking fifteenth-century miniature depicting the accidental cross-dressing of St Jerome. This image serves as a rich focal point from which to tease out the many questions of sex, sexuality, gender, social and religious roles, visibility, interpretation, and representation which the monograph addresses. The first chapter, 'Translating Sodom', focuses on portrayals of sodomy in thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Bibles moralisées. Mills examines how the 'unmentionable crime' is visualized in these lavishly illuminated texts, and how the discourse of sodomy radiates outwards from the Fall to take on numerous guises and implications. Sodomy, he demonstrates, is always conceived of as derivative in structure, a translation or a counterfeit of 'natural' sexual practices.

Mills's innovative second chapter, 'Transgender time', employs the modern concept of transgender identity as an interpretative framework, analysing Hildegard of Bingen's twelfth-century Scivias; Christine de Pizan's fifteenthcentury Livre de la mutacion de Fortune; and the narrative of Iphis and Ianthe, from medieval adaptations and moralizations of Ovid to Ali Smith's 2007 novel Girl Meets Boy. …

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