Amy Hollywood

Get Paid To Write Online

Get Paid to Write at Home

Get Instant Access

You can reduce religion to sex only if you don't especially believe in either one. (Michael Warner 1996)

In the face of what the social historian Judith Bennett refers to as "the virtual absence of actual women from the sources of medieval lesbianisms," a number of literary and cultural scholars have recently turned to texts by and/or about women to uncover homoerotic possibilities within the metaphoric structures of their writings or in the practices ascribed to women or female characters within literary and religious documents (Bennett 2000: 7).1 Karma Lochrie, for example, looks to a number of medieval devotional texts and images in which Christ's bloody side wound becomes a locus of desire.2 According to Lochrie, not only is Christ's body feminized through its association with women's (and particularly the Virgin Mary's) nurturing breasts, as Caroline Walker Bynum famously argues, but religious representations also "genitalize" Christ's wound, associating it both imagistically and linguistically with the vulva.3 When women mystics write about eagerly kissing the sacred wound, then, their relationship with Christ is queered, for the body they desire and with which they identify is both male and female.4 For Lochrie, "neither the acts/identity distinction nor the focus on same-sex desire is adequate or desirable as a framework for queering medieval mysticism" (Lochrie 1997: 195). Rather, Lochrie argues, the complex interplay of gender and sexuality in medieval texts and images effectively queers simple identifications of sex, gender, and/or sexuality.

Bennett describes the work of Lochrie and other cultural and literary critics with care and enthusiasm, yet worries that while "as literary criticism, these readings reach plausible conclusions ... as guides to social history, they are considerably less convincing" (Bennett 2000: 8).

It's great fun, for example, to read Lochrie's impressive exploration of the artistic, literary, and linguistic ties between Christ's wound and female genitalia, and to speculate, therefore, that the kissing of images of Christ's wound by medieval nuns somehow parallels lesbian oral sex. Yet Lochrie very wisely does not claim that any medieval nun who contemplated Christ's wound ever, in fact, was thinking about last night's tumble in bed with a sister nun. (Bennett 2000: 8-9)

Bennett's worries about "actual people" and "plausible behaviors" (Bennett 2000: 8) lead her to argue that queer readings like Lochrie's are "intriguing-but-not-fully-historicized" (Bennett 2000: 9). Bennett's argument depends, however, on assuming that the history of lesbianisms is and/or should be centrally concerned with same-sex acts or identities derived from the pursuit of such acts, precisely the categories of analysis questioned by Lochrie (and, she would argue, by at least some medieval texts and images).

Bennett herself introduces the notion of "lesbian-like" in order to broaden lesbian history beyond its focus on "certifiable same-sex genital contact." Where she differs from Lochrie is in her focus on "broadly sociological" affinities between contemporary lesbians and women in the past - "affinities related to social conduct, marital status, living arrangements, and other behaviors that might be traced in the archives of past societies" (Bennett 2000: 14-15; see also Bennett and Froide 1999). The pursuit of these affinities is certainly important historical work, both for women's history and for what Bennett calls the history of lesbianisms. Yet Bennett's argument is problematic if she means to suggest that these sociological categories give access to "real women" in a way that attention to the religious imagery and desires found in texts written and/or used by medieval women do not. Some medieval religious women did use intensely erotic language and imagery to talk about their relationship to the divine. No matter how implausible it might seem to us to understand Christ's side wound as a bloody slit that feminizes and eroticizes his corporeality, this is in fact what some medieval women (and men) did.5

Lochrie and Bennett are surely right to resist an easy movement from the relationship between the woman believer and Christ to sexual relationships between women (or between men and women).6 Yet why shouldn't the complex interplay between sex, gender, and sexuality in representations of relationships to the divine have as much significance for contemporary lesbian and/or queer history as the marital status of late medieval women -especially when the fluidity and excess of categories within discussions of divine desire may work to undermine the seemingly unquestioned supremacy of heteronormativity within medieval Christian culture (a heteronormativity itself also often seen within devotional language and imagery)?7 Sociological questions might seem more "real" to us in the early twenty-first century, but for many Christians in the later Middle Ages, one's relationship to Christ and the language and images through which one attempted to achieve and convey something of that relationship had equal, if not greater, reality. So while Bennett and Lochrie no doubt pursue different kinds of historical question, I think it is important to recognize both as historically valid and of significance for contemporary discussions about sexuality and gender.

At stake here is not just the question of what constitutes reality, but also how we are to understand the relationship between the often highly erotic and sexual imagery used by late medieval religious writers to describe the soul's relationship to Christ and human sexuality. Caroline Walker Bynum's magisterial work on late medieval religiosity has set the tone here, for she argues against what she sees as a modern tendency to equate the bodily too quickly with the sexual. In an attempt to refute the widespread reduction of late medieval religiosity - particularly that of women - to sex, Bynum is in danger of denying even the metaphorically sexualized nature of many women's - and men's - religious writings. Her explicit aim, both in Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987) and the essays collected in Fragmentation and Redemption (1991), is to expand the meanings that we ascribe to corporeality in late medieval texts and practices. Yet as Lochrie and Richard Rambuss convincingly show, Bynum "herself can be quick to delimit the erotic - and especially the homoerotic - potentialities of her own devotional polysemy of the medieval body" (Rambuss 1998: 48).8 When Catherine of Siena writes of "putting on the nuptial garment," Bynum explains, "the phrase means suffering" and so is "extremely unerotic." She goes on to argue that in:

Catherine's repeated descriptions of climbing Christ's body from foot to side to mouth, the body is either a female body that nurses or a piece of flesh that one puts on oneself or sinks into. . . . Catherine understood union with Christ not as an erotic fusing with a male figure but as a taking in and taking on - a becoming - of Christ's flesh itself. (Bynum 1987: 178)9

Bynum makes many contentious (and, not surprisingly, vehemently anti-Freudian) assumptions about sexuality and erotic desire - most crucially, that erotic desire can be clearly distinguished from suffering, the maternal, and identification - yet as Rambuss suggests, perhaps the most salient point of Bynum's interpretation is her refusal to see same-sex desire as potentially sexual. If Christ's body is feminized (and so becomes a point of identification for women), Bynum assumes it cannot also be the locus of female sexual desire (or even of a desire for the divine analogous to sexual desire). Her insistence on the femi-nization of Christ serves two functions, then, both providing a locus for female identification with the divine and protecting the divine-human relationship from even metaphorical sex-ualization.

What I want to show here is that some late medieval women did use explicitly erotic language to discuss their relationship with Christ and they did so, often, in ways that challenge the prescriptive heterosexuality of the culture in which they lived. This challenge occurs not only through the feminization of Christ's body discussed by Lochrie, but also through an intense, hyperbolic, and often ultimately self-subverting deployment of apparently heterosexual imagery. This excess often involves a displacement of Christ as the center of the religious life and emphasis on a feminized figure of divine Love. Among the beguines -semi-religious women who flourished in thirteenth-century Northern Europe and are most well known for their so-called "bridal mysticism" (and hence, it would seem, for a resolutely heterosexual, non-queer sexual imaginary) - we find accounts of insane love and endless desire in which gender becomes so radically fluid that it is not clear what kind of sexuality - within the heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy most readily available to modern readers - is being metaphorically deployed to evoke the relationship between humans and the divine.10 Rather, as Richard Rambuss argues with regard to early modern male-authored religious poetry, the absence in these texts "of a polarizing system of sexual types tends to open these works in the direction of a greater plasticity of erotic possibilities, possibilities not entirely containable by our own (often only suppositiously coherent) sexual dichotomies" (Rambuss 1998: 58). This very inability to contain medieval divine eroticism within modern categories points to its potential queerness.11

Religious desire and sexual desire are not the same, as Bennett usefully reminds us, but if "religion makes available a language of ecstasy, a horizon of significance within which transgressions against the normal order of the world and the boundaries of the self can be seen as good things," as Michael Warner argues (1996: 43), religious writers often use the language of eroticism to express that ecstasy, excess, and transgression. Perhaps this is because erotic language is able, in ways that devotional language both exploits and intensifies, to engender affective states that push the believer beyond the limitations of his or her own body and desires (see Rambuss 1998: 11-71; Bataille 1962 and Hollywood 2002: 36-119). At the same time, the intensity of divine desire forces sexual language into new, unheard of configurations. Hence the emergence in the later Middle Ages of what Lochrie aptly calls the "mystical queer." These religious representations do not reflect, nor even legitimate, particular configurations of human sexual relations - they often indeed seem to involve a movement beyond sexed and gendered bodies, even that of Christ, as the locus of pleasure and desire - but they do de-naturalize and de-stabilize normative conceptions of human sexuality in potentially radical ways.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment