Date of Degree
Francesca Canade Sautman
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval History | Medieval Studies
Medieval Studies, Transgender Studies, Medieval Literature, Queer Theory
This dissertation considers the genres of historiography, romance, hagiography, Chaucerian poetry, and court transcripts. While there are no extant manuscripts depicting transgender-like people’s accounts of themselves, literature of the Middle Ages is replete with fictionalized depictions of ambiguously or transgressively gendered individuals who are meant to symbolize or represent something other than themselves. By investigating how a variety of genres depicts sensationalized and transgressively gendered embodiments, I examine the presentation of transgender-like subjectivity as a manipulation of rhetoric. Viviane Namaste critiques theory such as Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests, claiming that it reduces the transvestite figure to a rhetorical trope and flattens readings of the possibilities for embodied subjectivity. Indeed, many of the medieval texts depicting transgender-like characters also reduce them to rhetorical tropes, symbols of something other than themselves. Accordingly, I simultaneously follow Garber to consider the effects of such symbolization and Namaste to consider the possibility the world of the text also partly reflects embodied subjectivity.
While the treatment of sodomy and the location of alleged sodomites in societies have long been subjects of inquiry, the existence and treatment of transgender-like subjects have been relatively unexplored, particularly in pre-modern periods. To address this aporia, I begin with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, the subsequent revisions by Wace and Layamon, and the later-written prequels Des Grantz Geanz and De Origine Gigantum; the giants imagined to inhabit originally the island that would become Britain are hypertrophically gendered, functioning as uncanny doubles of the humans who are to colonize and eradicate them. The romances of Sir Gowther, Richard Coer de Lyon, and the Roman de Silence all depict various journeys through transgressive masculinities to form eventually idealized gendered subjects. The various hagiographical accounts of the “cross-dressing” Saint Eugenia depict a person who, through spiritual discipline, transcends female embodiment and becomes a man in the eyes of God and fellow human. Geoffrey Chaucer’s account of the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales famously represents a person of ambiguous sex and gender; by participating in a perverse christomimesis, the Pardoner utilizes ambiguity to perpetuate the system of desire, capitulation, and absolution that fuels the economics of his sale of indulgences. The fifth and final chapter turns to two court cases of the fourteenth-century, those of Eleanor or John Rykener and Rolandina or Rolandinus Ronchaia. The charges brought in these cases seem to be either prostitution or sodomy, yet the complicated gender presentations of the accused—generally but not always female, having been assigned male genders at birth—lead to far more invasive questions about the details of their early lives.
I investigate the persistence of fantasies about non-normative or ambiguous gender, both in literary and historical texts; as such fantasies fuel transgender and transmisogynist stereotypes today, I work to read against the grain in examining the construction and lineage of those myths and fantasies, to expose the history that feeds into fantasy. As such, reading through the subjects of these texts intimates queer possibilities for the future.
Baldassano, Alexander V., "Bodies of Resistance: On (Not) Naming Gender in the Medieval West" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies Commons, Literature in English, British Isles Commons, Medieval History Commons, Medieval Studies Commons