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Representing the Negative: Positing the Lesbian Void in Medieval English Anchoritism

Representing the Negative: Positing the Lesbian Void in Medieval English Anchoritism

By Michelle M. Sauer

Thirdspace: A journal of feminist theory and culture, vol.3:2 (2004)

Abstract: The medieval vocation of “anchoress” included women who dedicated their whole lives to contemplative prayer by dwelling in small cells attached to churches. Ostensibly this provided complete solitude, yet in truth, the women lived in a liminal world of mediated solitude. The Rules for recluses all provided for the existence of at least one female servant who was also partially enclosed. The day-to-day contact with the outside world, the purchase of necessities, and the general upkeep of the household fell to them. Moreover, the anchoritic cell provided something that the majority of medieval households did not have – a private space. This space was specifically female, specifically female-controlled, and specifically eroticized. I suggest that in the early Middle Ages, the anchoritic cell provided the necessary space and conditions necessary to create a “lesbian void,” in which the anchoress could explore woman-woman erotic possibilities. This void was supported not only by the cell’s configuration, but also through the religious Rule for anchoresses as well as by medieval theological concepts about “lesbian” acts. Thus, the two women – anchoress and maid – could create an interior society, presumably one in which class rules were somewhat suspended, and perhaps sexual rules as well.

Introduction: While the growth of gender studies has resulted in a proliferation of works on the queering of texts, moments, and readings, relatively few of these studies focus on early representations of woman-woman eroticism. Even fewer address woman-woman eroticism in the Middle Ages. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero touch on the complexity of this issue: “we have had at our disposal the resonant notion that the history of the ‘premodern’ […] might, when viewed from the standpoints of the ‘othered,’ take on some uncanny shapes” (xviii). This view is, in turn, echoed by Francesca Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn, who state that “Writing about female same-sex desire in the Middle Ages requires [radical] acts of interpretation […]” (34). I propose one such radical interpretation in my reading of the texts and architecture of medieval anchoritism. Anchoresses were women, either vowed or non-vowed, who desired to dwell in solitude in order to devote their entire life to contemplative prayer. Yet, theirs was a mediated solitude that allowed, and, to some extent, encouraged interaction with other women within the confines of the anchorhold. It is within this liminal space that I suggest investigating the queer possibilities of medieval English anchoritism. The foundational paradoxes of the anchoritic lifestyle foreground these possibilities – the anchoress was simultaneously dead and alive; the cell was both secular and sacred; the life was both mundane and glorious. Thus, I posit that in the early Middle Ages, both the regulations for and the structure of the anchoritic cell could provide the necessary space and conditions to create a “lesbian void,” in which the anchoress could explore woman-woman erotic possibilities. Further, this void was supported not only by the cell’s configuration, but also through the religious Rule for anchoresses as well as by medieval theological concepts about “lesbian” acts.

Click here to read this article from Thirdspace

See also our feature on Same-Sex Relations in the Middle Ages

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