GAY STUDIES AND FEMINISM: A MEDlEVALIST’S PERSPECTIVE
Medieval Feminist Newsletter, Volume 13, Issue 1 (1992) Spring 1992
Simon Gaunt and Carolyn Dinshaw, reflecting on the nature of compulsory heterosexuality in the Middle Ages, suggest that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s concept of a spectrum of possible sexualities can be very helpful. Sedgwick asserts that a variety of culturally-constructed possibilities for sexual definition arises within each social context, on a spectrum with, and often in opposition to, dominant norms of official heterosexuality. I agree that this is a useful perspective, one which takes us out of the trap of the false dichotomy of essentialism and social construction.
From this perspective, we can only find “medieval lesbians” among the landmarks of medieval culture, on that particular continuum, not ours. This portrait in a landscape will have to consider uniquely medieval, and sometimes idiosyncratic, social constructions: constructions of male and female, marriage and the religious life, roles, definitions, and hierarchy. It will also need to come to terms with the fact that there is very little extant evidence for the type of relationship between women that we are looking for. We will, indeed, have to learn to read the blanks. It will have to bear in mind the fact that the overwhelmingly patriarchal nature of medieval culture significantly modified the evidence for, or even the experience of, women whose primary emotional and erotic relation was to other women. But this research will doubtless be driven by our twentieth- century perspectives on gender and sexuality, and by our own idiosyncratic categories of historical inquiry: gay, lesbian, heterosexual, feminist. This is obvious and needs no apology. Otherwise, why would we bother to do it?