Medieval Queerness

It’s June! If you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community (and maybe even if you aren’t), you know what that means: it’s pride month! 

Seeing as 2022 has been a terrible year for trans rights (and will almost certainly get worse), I’ve decided that this month (and perhaps longer) I will write about aspects of medieval queer culture. I will cover primarily European medieval queer history as that is what I am most knowledgeable about. (If you know good sources for other areas of the world, please let me know! I want to broaden my knowledge.) 

Before I go further, if you aren’t familiar with terms like “cisgender” or why I choose to use the word “queer,” I recommend that you read my article “Queer Saints: An Important Preface.” I wrote it back in 2020, so there’s some statements I’ve changed my mind on, but it’s still a good little introduction to anyone new to queer history. 

And if you are new to history, it may surprise you to discover queerness was prevalent in European medieval culture. Contrary to popular belief, being not straight/gender non-conforming was not invented in the 1960s. 

While the words heterosexual and homosexual were invented in the 1890s, and the word transgender was invented in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean everyone was straight or subscribed to traditional gender roles. They either didn’t have the words we do now, or called themselves something different.

I’ve complied a list of the queer medieval things I know about. Obviously as I learn more, I will add on to this list. Certain topics I will write about further in the future (or have already written about). Today’s list will simply name the item and provide a very brief description of it. The depictions vary from positive to negative. 

The items are divided into categories to make it easier for readers to find specifically what they are interested in. The categories are art, anecdotes, literature, people, poetry, and theology. Each category will include a brief explanation about it. 

Queer Medieval Anecdotes

Anecdotes include miracle stories, exempla, excerpts from chronicles, letters, memoirs, etc. Basically, any sort of story medieval audiences were told really happened or they were supposed to pretend it really happened. Some anecdotes here may seem fantastical to my modern audience, but I’m not going to argue the validity of each story. 

Dialogue on Miracles

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s two volume collection of miracle stories, Dialogus miraculorum, (AKA The Dialogue on Miracles) is filled with tales about people who do not conform to traditional gender roles and sexualities. The depictions vary from somewhat positive to negative. 

There are over 700 stories in the work, so I will list a few notable examples for brevity’s sake. More will be added in the future.

Gender Non-Conforming Demons

The Dialogue on Miracles is filled with stories about demons who switch between masculine and feminine forms to seduce and tempt humans. There are so many examples in the text it would take too long to list them all. 

Brother Joseph: Volume I, Book I, Chapter 40

After being orphaned on the way home from a Jerusalem pilgrimage, a young trans man experiences many shenanigans and near death experiences before finally becoming a monk. The shenanigans and near death experiences include transporting secret messages, accidentally helping a thief, being hanged and saved by an angel, and dealing with a bunch of horny monks. 

Queer Medieval Art 

Art is pretty explainable. Any motifs/subjects in medieval visual mediums. This does have some overlap with theology.  

Jesus Christ’s Side Wound

It’s not a vagina. It’s a side wound, I swear.

MPreg Jesus

Yes, you read that right. There are depictions of Jesus giving birth. It’s from His side wound and He’s giving birth to the Church, but it’s still a depiction of childbirth nonetheless. 

Satan Birthing Sinners

Yup, Mpreg Satan is also a thing. However, in the artistic depictions of this, he’s also eating the sinners before birthing them. (Arguably you could interpret it as Satan defecating the sinners but the way it’s portrayed looks more like childbirth.)

Queer Medieval Literature

In contrast to the previous category, Queer Medieval Anecdotes, Literature lists stories that are intended to be fictional/have an over arching narrative tale to tell. Some of these items are technically poetry, but they tell a narrative story with fictional characters, so I’ve put them here.

Le Roman de Saint Fanuel

Saint Fanuel, a cis gender man, accidentally gets pregnant from a magic apple. He gives birth to Saint Anne. (The Virgin Mary’s mother.) It’s not biblically canon, but someone wrote it.

The Monk’s Ordeal

A German story about a naive cis gender monk who thinks he’s pregnant after misinterpreting how sex works. 

Yde and Olive

A poem about a princess who turns into a man.

Queer Medieval Miscellaneous

This category includes things like social norms, words, laws, etc. They all go in miscellaneous as I don’t want this list to get too overly complicated. Plus a lot of concepts here have a lot of overlap.

Ergi

An Old Norse slur for being the passive partner during sex between two men. Quite literally fighting words as if you called someone else this, they were in their legal right to fight/kill you. And if the person called this didn’t do anything about it, they could be outlawed.

Hares

Hares symbolized sodomy in the Middle Ages. (At least, it was one thing hares symbolized.) But why were hares associated with sodomy? Well, animal folklore was a popular genre in medieval European literature. However, folklore was misconstrued as scientific fact. And a crucial piece of hares’ folklore was that each year they were alive they grew, well, another bottom (to put it politely). Comparing someone to a hare meant that you were implying they participated in sodomy.

Queer Medieval People

Personally, I don’t like giving real historical people labels as I don’t know exactly what they would call themselves if they were alive today. However, based on observable behaviors, we can safely guess that some people certainly would not call themselves straight or cisgender. Depending on the historical figure and primary sources available, they may have already told us how they identify. 

Aelred of Rievaulx

A Cistercian abbot who wrote about the love he felt for other men. Lots of homoerotic language in his work “Spiritual Friendship.”

Eleanor Rykener

A 14th century trans woman who worked as an embroideress and sex worker in southern England. Unlike others on this list, the only reason she wasn’t lost to time is because of the surviving court records regarding her arrest for sodomy. 

Joan of Arc

While she did refer to herself as “Joan the Maid” she’s on this list as she is famous for her gender non-conforming style of dress. 

Marinos the Monk

A trans man who became a monk with his father. He was known to perform miracles and was accused of fathering a child with a local woman. I’ve written about him in detail as part of my Queer Saints series

Queer Medieval Poetry

While some of the queer medieval literature is in a poetical form, they are fictional stories with characters. Here, I have put poems that don’t necessarily have a fictional narrative, per se. Rather, they are poems that discuss the author’s personal thoughts. There is some overlap with Literature. 

Monastic Love Poetry

Monks wrote a lot of love poetry to other men, including their fellow monks. Some poems are rather tame and arguably are for a best friend. Other poems not so much.

Prayer for Transformation, an Excerpt from “Evan Bohan” by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir

This section is part of a larger poem by the Jewish philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus. In it, Kalonymus laments being born a man instead of a woman. In the past, this excerpt was interpreted to be satire and “humorous.” 

However, as any trans person could tell you, the poem is a heart wrenching depiction of extreme gender dysphoria. Prayer for Transformation is distressingly relatable for anyone gender non-conforming. 

Queer Medieval Theology 

I’ll mostly be discussing Christianity as that is what I am most familiar with culturally. I don’t know enough about other faiths to speak with any sort of confidence about their religious practices or beliefs. 

However, if you aren’t Christian and there’s queerness in your faith dating back to the medieval era, feel free to reach out!

Jesus as Mother

This relates back to Jesus’s side wound and giving birth. 

Sources:

Abbouchi, Mounawar. “Yde and Olive.”  Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/mff/vol53/iss4/1/

(transcription), Aharon N. Varady, Aharon N. Varady (translation), Nir Krakauer (translation), Isaac Gantwerk Mayer (translation), Steven Greenberg, and Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus ben Meir. “תפילה להפך – מאבן בֹחן: Prayer for Transformation, from the Poem ‘Even Boḥan’ by Rabbi Ḳalonymus Ben Ḳalonymus Ben Meir (1322 C.E.) • The Open Siddur Project ✍ פְּרוֺיֶּקט הַסִּדּוּר הַפָּתוּחַ.” the Open Siddur Project . the Open Siddur Project, August 31, 2020. https://opensiddur.org/prayers/civic-calendar/international/transgender-day-of-visibility/prayer-of-kalonymus-from-sefer-even-bohan-1322/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Joan of Arc and the Lord Have an Understanding: She’s on a Mission from God.” The Mediaeval Monk, June 4, 2022. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2022/06/04/joan-of-arc-and-the-lord-have-an-understanding-shes-on-a-mission-from-god/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, a Transgender Saint.” The Mediaeval Monk, April 25, 2021. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2020/09/12/queer-saints-marinos-the-monk-a-transgender-saint/.

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, MS W.218 Book of Hours (Cistercian) fol. 28v: https://www.thedigitalwalters.org/Data/WaltersManuscripts/html/W218/description.html

Boswell, John. Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 

“Caesarius of Heisterbach.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarius_of_Heisterbach.

“Ergi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 27, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergi

Gutt, B. (2019). Medieval trans lives in anamorphosis: Looking back and seeing differently (Pregnant men and backward birth). Medieval Feminist Forum, 55 (1), 174-206. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/7/

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of heterosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/heterosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of homosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/homosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of transgender,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/transgender.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp.

Heisterbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n4/mode/2up.

“John/Eleanor Rykener.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 16, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John/Eleanor_Rykener.

“Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, April 18, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalonymus_ben_Kalonymus.

M.W. Bychowski, M.W. “Eleanor Rykener.” The Lone Medievalist. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://lonemedievalist.hcommons.org/women-of-the-middle-ages/eleanor-rykener/.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 270b, fols. 6r: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/4cf7e9d2-c06e-4029-a3b1-152736320897/

“Poetry 101: Learn about Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices with Examples – 2022.” MasterClass. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-learn-about-poetry-different-types-of-poems-and-poetic-devices-with-examples#15-types-of-poetic-forms.

Stehling, Thomas. Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. Garland Pub., 1984. 

Swan, Emily. “Jesus’s Vagina: A Medieval Meditation.” Medium. Solus Jesus, November 8, 2019. https://medium.com/solus-jesus/jesuss-vagina-a-medieval-meditation-ef78367ac2af.

“The Monk’s Ordeal by Der Zwickauer.” Short Story. In German Verse-Couplet Tales from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries. S.l.: SCHWABE AG, 2020. 

Tova Rosen. “Circumcised Cinderella: The Fantasies of a Fourteenth-Century Jewish Author.” Prooftexts 20, no. 1–2 (2000): 87–110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/prooftexts.20.1-2.0087.

Joan of Arc and The Lord Have An Understanding: She’s On A Mission From God

Note: I wrote this paper back in 2018. I haven’t edited it since then.

When studying specific people in medieval history, we rarely hear about the lives of the Average Joe. Instead we tend to focus on the lives of the upper class, royalty especially. It is not hard to see why. Due to their wealth and power, the upper class had the ability to influence the outcome of history as well as the contemporary writings of their day. However, there are exceptions. One such exception was Joan of Arc, or Joan the Maid as she called herself. If it had not been for her courage and determination she would have been lost to history. Instead, Joan of Arc, a mere French teenage peasant, went from watching her father’s livestock in the fields to meeting the dauphine of France and helping him become king, as well as leading the French army against the English.

The reason Joan of Arc was determined to meet and help the dauphine, Charles VII, was due to the voices she heard and interacted with starting in the summer of 1425. However, “at first the voice simply advised her…to be good and go to church” and it was only later on that the voice ordered her to ‘“go to France”’ (Gies 23) and to help Charles VII become king. Now, according to Joan, at first she was not exactly thrilled with this plan. Apparently “she pleaded that she was ‘only a poor girl who knew nothing of riding or of leading in war’ but the voices insisted” (Gies 30). Needless to say, in the end Joan listened to the voices. 

It should be noted that hearing voices in the fifteenth century was not exactly unusual. However, it was necessary to figure out if the voices a person heard were divine or demonic (Castor 5). For Joan of Arc, her voices came from saints, specifically St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Because Joan of Arc was not the only medieval woman to hear voices from divine sources, what made her voices special? For one, when other “female visionaries…had experienced their revelations…they were already under the care of a spiritual advisor” and these spiritual advisors “could testify…the nature of their claims” (Castor 95). Joan, however, did not have a spiritual advisor. Instead she “had appeared alone, apart from her escort of armed men” (Castor 95). Joan’s voices were also exceptional because of what the voices were telling her. Unlike other “mystical theologians”, Joan of Arc was not told “sublime truths” (Wilson-Smith 213) like religious doctrine or the upcoming apocalypse (Wilson-Smith 12). Instead, she was told “simply what to do or not to do, and what would happen” (Wilson-Smith 213). And Joan was told to go save France (Wilson-Smith 12) and she would do just that. 

However, Joan of Arc was correct to be concerned when the voices told her to go to France, “raise the siege of Orléans” (Warner 146) and make sure that the dauphine was crowned king. After all, she was a teenage peasant girl with no experience in warfare and at this point she could not even read or sign her own name. She knew that no one was going to take her seriously. However, the voices told her to “go to Vaucouleurs and find Robert de Baudricourt, who would give her men to accompany her” (Warner 146). After all, if she had supporters she would look more creditable. Unfortunately for Joan, Baudricourt did not take her seriously either. But due to the fact Joan refused to go away until she got what she wanted (Castor 89) and that Baudricourt started to realize Joan was not mentally ill (Castor 91), he eventually obliged and gave her men so she could go to the royal court. It also helped Joan’s case considerably that she was able to “correctly [predict] the outcome of the Battle of Rouvroy well before any messenger could have conveyed the news” (Margolis 259) to Baudricourt to convince him that she really was sent from God.

Another way Joan of Arc was exceptional was how she dressed. Now, while she certainly was not the only holy woman to have dressed in men’s clothes, the way she dressed was quite different. Instead of dressing “like her models, that of a monk” (Warner 144), Joan dressed as a knight. This is significant for several reasons. The first reason is because she was dressing above her station. It was extremely expensive to be a knight and Joan “had nothing to her name” (Warner 146). Luckily for Joan, the wealthy and influential people she told her plan to believed in her so much that they donated the items she would need to fulfill her role as one of the leaders of the French army. Wearing armor and men’s clothes also gave her creditability when she led the army in battle. This is especially true when you take into consideration the idea that “clothes were capital” and that “apparel signified social position” (Warner 156). Joan of Arc was dressing for the social status she needed, not the social status she had. 

Joan of Arc was also exceptional in terms of her military prowess. She had no experience, but she still excelled in battle. After all, it was God’s will, so why would she fail? This reasoning convinced others as well. And the fact there were several old prophecies that applied to Joan did not work against her cause either. One prophecy reported “that France would be ruined through a woman, and afterward restored by a virgin” (Gies 31). Another prophecy reported “that a Maid” would put on armor “and deliver the kingdom of France from its enemies” (Gies 31). The third prophecy, which dated back to “King Arthur’s Merlin” said that “from the oak forest in the marches of Lorraine a virgin would come who would perform marvelous acts and save France” (Gies 31). Even though there were several prophecies, the main theme was always the same: “a virgin would save the kingdom” (Wilson-Smith 31). However, the dauphin was not about to let a teenage peasant girl lead his army without solid evidence she could actually do it, prophecies or no prophecies. After passing many tests, including one to make sure she was a virgin (Castor 94) and another one where the dauphine pretended that he was not actually the dauphine (Quintal & Rankin 18), it was eventually decided that if Joan could raise the siege of Orléans, then she had actually been sent from God. After all, the English already captured Orléans and if Joan failed, the French had nothing to lose (Castor 96). 

So on March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc dictated a furious letter to the English forces including Henry VI, who I will note was about six or seven years old at the time. In the letter Joan warns that she has “been sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to drive you out of all France, body for body” (C. Taylor 75). The rest of the letter can be summed up as ‘get out of France or I will slaughter you all. You are not only fighting against me, but God himself.’ Naturally the English did not take this letter, or Joan, seriously. However they would regret dismissing her. Joan of Arc might not have had any military experience, but “after six months of siege [at Orléans], and with the kingdom of Bourges in disarray, Joan the Maid had freed Orléans in just four days…of fighting” (Castor 112). Joan of Arc was able to do ‘“something that 5000 men could not have done”’ (Wood 142) as Christine de Pizan would later write. Not only did Joan raise the siege, she also led the French army in other assaults against the English. Even if the French did not win all of these conflicts, she caused enough damage that the English thought she really was sent from God (Castor 112) and consequently were frightened of her. 

In hindsight, it was probably a good thing Joan had no prior military experience. She “attacked when and where she could, without concern for the ‘rules’ that had often hampered and defeated French armies in times past” (L. J. Taylor 221). Because she ignored the rules of war, the English and their allies no longer knew what to expect. And when your enemy is doing the unexpected, you cannot prepare properly. However, because she disregarded the rules, that meant she also disregarded the wishes of “the king, his counselors, and some of her fellow captains” (L. J. Taylor 221). This would be the cause of her downfall when the English captured her. Charles VII made no effort to rescue her, “claiming himself too destitute” while in reality he was “jealous of her popularity” and was “convinced by scheming courtiers that she had outgrown her usefulness to him” (Margolis 263). 

Needless to say, Joan of Arc was an incredible woman who turned the Hundred Year War in France’s favor. However, the most exceptional thing she did was after her death: influencing other women, including queens and other female politicians, to get their hands dirty and fight for the things they believe in, even if it was dangerous and they were not likely to win. While Joan of Arc certainly was not the first “woman who bravely takes armed action against her people’s enemy—a woman with blood on her hands” (Warren 103), the women she inspired were likely to reference her while they went into action themselves. One such woman was Margaret of Anjou, who “compared herself to Joan in a speech to her troops” (Warren 66). According to reports she said ‘“You who once followed a peasant girl, follow now a queen”’ (Warren 66). Needless to say, Joan of Arc set a precedent for other women, especially when they were about to do something considered traditionally masculine. Joan of Arc is an obvious example for why representation is important. It shows that if one person can do it, why not others? 

Nancy Bradley Warren argues that, “during her lifetime and afterwards, Joan of Arc challenged…gender identity and national identity” (58). This is especially true regarding gender identity. Over the course of her short career, Joan of Arc proved that the traditional ideas of gender can and will be broken, or at the very least bent into a semi-recognizable shape. She also proved that one’s social class does not determine what you can accomplish. As previously stated, Joan was a peasant, but when given the chance she was able to succeed and do things that were beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Joan of Arc is exceptional because she is the poster child for not judging a book by its cover and that everyone, no matter their age, gender, race, social status, etc., should be given a chance to learn and succeed.

WORKS CITED

Castor, Helen. Joan of Arc: A History. Faber and Faber. 2014.

Gies, Francis. Joan of Arc: The Legend and The Reality. Harper and Row. 1981.

Margolis, Nadia. “Joan of Arc.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. edited by Carolyn Dinshaw. 2003, pp. 256-266. 

Quintal, Claire & Rankin, Daniel, translators. The First Biography of Joan of Arc. University of Pittsburg Press. 1964. 

Taylor, Craig. “The Life of Joan of Arc.” Joan of Arc: La Pucelle. Manchester University Press. 2006, pp. 68-136. 

Taylor, Larissa Juliet. “Joan of Arc, The Church, and The Papacy, 1429-1920.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 98, no. 2, April 2012, pp. 217-240. 

Warner, Marina. “Knight.” Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Oxford University Press. 2013, pp. 144-167.

Warren, Nancy Bradley. Women of God and Arms: Female Spirituality and Political Conflict, 1380-1600. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005. 

Wilson-Smith, Timothy. Joan of Arc: Maid, Myth and History. Sutton. 2006.

Wood, Charles T.. “Joan of Arc”. Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints and Government in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press. 1988, pp. 125-151.