Are we invisible mothers? Same-sex parenting and the straight gaze

Last weekend, the Guardian published a lovely piece written by an adoptive father, Ben Fergusson, describing his experience of raising his baby with his husband. It’s currently one of the Guardian‘s most-read pieces, and it’s both thoughtful and interesting, as the author teases out the ways in which his experience illuminates what we as a society think about gender and parenthood. Like Fergusson, I’m raising my child in a same-sex relationship; like him, I am not the biological parent. Unlike him, though, my partner is the biological mother – we don’t have experience of adoption. But what I think is perhaps most different is how heterosexual gender roles and expectations shape my experience of being a lesbian mum. I never read much about this topic until I had a baby; even now, searching hard, it’s not easy to find accounts that resonate with me, and so I thought it might be useful to share my own experience here.

I found myself nodding along to the experience Fergusson describes when he first became a parent. Expecting comments about his sexuality, he encountered something rather different:

When we ventured gingerly on to the streets of Berlin, what seemed to strike people was not that we were both men, but that we were both there. Why? Because all the other dads had gone back to work.

The default assumption is that the parent who is exists in the daytime, the parent who doesn’t go back to work, is a woman, and she’s on her own. As Fergusson points out, actually sharing the parenting of a small baby is both quite unusual (as he says, ‘Mothers we knew often told us that they were splitting things 50:50 with the father. When they described their weeks, it turned out that they meant 50:50 in the evenings and at weekends; and usually mothers did all the feeding’) and also quite useful: neither of you becomes ‘default parent,’ the only one who can settle the baby and the one who’s carrying the mental ‘load’ of favourite bibs or toys or signs of illness or current tantrum triggers. My partner Emma and I both (for reasons not entirely to do with choice and quite a bit to do with job markets) ended up doing a lot of overlapping parenting; we were often ‘both there’. We still are, and even though our daughter is three, I do notice other parents struggling slightly to negotiate the social interaction: do they invite us both for coffee? If not, which of us? We don’t quite fit, and it’s not so much about sexuality as about the expectation that there’s only room for one mother.

Yet, though this experience resonated with me, the rest of Fergusson’s article surprised me. Throughout, the author refers to himself and his husband in an uncomplicated plural sense: we, us. The responses he records are responses to ‘dads’. The fraught interactions he and his husband experience arise exclusively from social and bureaucratic failures to ‘read’ a relationship without a female primary care giver. There’s no mention of distinction between the two men.

This seems to me to be where Fergusson’s experience really, profoundly differs from mine. It could perhaps be that this is an effect of the difference between adoptive parenting and our combination of biological and chosen parenting. But, unlike Fergusson and his husband, we rarely find everyone treats us as ‘the mums’ – two people with indistinguishable roles and experiences. Instead, there’s a scramble to figure out how we map onto a heterosexual male/female couple – or even, how we map onto a more stereotypical butch/femme lesbian set-up, which lots of people (including lesbians) still seem subconsciously to expect. We have both, in different ways, felt suddenly invisible, slipping out of the expected role of the ‘mother’.

Everyone, but everyone, but everyone, wants to know why I didn’t carry the baby; if I’m lucky, there will be an explicit rider ‘now I would have thought, with your [awkward gestures at my actual human female body] … you know … I would have thought you’d be the one to get pregnant?‘ It’s tempting to make up responses. ‘You know, you’re right, I don’t know how we didn’t think of that!’ ‘Oh this? Yes, they make me wear a full-body condom to the fertility clinic so I don’t slip and get pregnant’.

My partner, who isn’t especially butch at all, is fed up with it. You can tell that our experience is a little like Fergusson’s, in that people automatically and always look for ‘the mother’. At a glance, they notice a woman in a dress in proximity to offspring and conclude that any other warm human body in the vicinity must be ‘the dad’. This perception isn’t based so much on looking at my partner and noticing what she looks like (or, memorably, whether or not she is in fact, at this very moment, breastfeeding). It’s a more dismissive and automatic interaction, which simply rests on the premise that, once you’ve identified an obvious ‘mum,’ you needn’t look further.

The results can be funny. Last autumn, I went to the first meeting of a local playgroup and chatted to a woman who said her sister was about to undergo fertility treatment with her wife. ‘Oh, that’s our situation,’ I said, nodding. She was bemused and spluttered ‘but … I’m sure I’ve seen a man going in and out of your house?!’

They can also be quite sad, or a bit startling. At a conference this January, I brought my daughter along for the break and a colleague I don’t know well reminisced happily ‘oh, she’s getting so big, I remember when you were pregnant!’ I jumped: very, very few people know when I have or haven’t been pregnant, and she wasn’t one of them. It took a minute for me to recover, join the dots, and explain gently ‘I expect you actually remember my partner’s pregnancy?’

And they can be quite hostile. Like Hannah Gadsby, who describes the experience of being perceived as male and then revealed as a ‘trickster woman,’ I grew to dread a certain kind of interaction, as casual conversations rapidly somersaulted into awkward territory. Sleepless nights? Us too. Breastfeeding with formula top-ups? Yes, we had to, she was tube-fed early on and kept losing weight. Oh, so how did you deal with your cracked nipples? By the time you’ve explained that the lactating body in question wasn’t yours, you feel as if you should have somehow flagged this up before the conversation started, or at least had the decency to indicate your status as a fraudulent, non-biological mother at some point before your interlocutor arrived at the difficult intimacy of describing her nipples.

It was difficult for us to anticipate how much this would impact on our own relationship, and our own identities as mothers. When society expects one mother in a relationship, it’s hard not to feel redundant if there are two of you. Whether you are constantly presumed to be ‘the dad’ or treated as a fraud for not being the biological mum, it’s easy to feel knocked off balance; out of place. I remember a quite impressive number of kindly friends sending me Finn MacKay’s interesting article about her experiences of being a gender nonconforming lesbian non-bio mum, and feeling quite unexpectedly resentful of the ease with which she wrote ‘I am what is called an “other mother,” a same-sex parent to my son who I did not carry’. For her, the term – the cutesy rhyme, the neat and pleasing snappiness of it – seemed to fit, to work. For me (and especially when bewildered friends wondered why I wouldn’t necessarily identify with MacKay’s gendered experience of parenting), it was a bit a slap in the face.

A lot of people will rush to tell you that same-sex parenting is accepted these days; that everyone is ‘past’ being discriminatory. In some ways I think this is on the way to being true (right-wing backlashes notwithstanding). But what being a parent has taught me is that, if we’re becoming more accepting of same-sex sexuality, we’re still struggling with gender. Like Fergusson, I expected to get comments about our sexuality in relation to our parenting; that barely happens. It may be that, if we were two women who performed distinct ‘gender roles’ akin to ‘daddy’ and ‘mummy,’ we’d notice less of a response; it might even be that if we were two women who both wore dresses or both wore jeans, that we’d avert some of the assumptions and knee-jerk reactions. I don’t know.

It’s funny how things stay with you. Reading Fergusson’s article, I was aware of how often it’s the smallest comments – the ones speakers probably imagine to be mere slips of the tongue – that sink into the memory and come back to niggle at you.

When my daughter was a few weeks old, I ran into a former neighbour as I walked down the street on which I’d lived before I moved in with my partner. We went through the usual two-step of congratulations, goodness, I had no idea, how old is she, wow, you look amazing, when did you give birth? At this point, I hadn’t had to answer that question often, and my reply was matter-of-fact. ‘Oh, she’s not biologically mine – my partner gave birth.’ The poor woman froze for a moment, then said brightly ‘well I’m sure it doesn’t matter at alldoes it?’

She meant it nicely. She meant, I am sure, to communicate her tolerant views; to stress that my lack of biological maternity was irrelevant; unimportant. But I wanted to say, yes, actually, it does matter. We need to start recognising and making visible, and accepting, that parental roles outside that of biological motherhood do matter.

‘A Pretended Family Relationship’: Chaucer, Lesbians, and the Long Shadow of Section 28



London, British Library MS Stowe 955, f. 13r. Just two women, lots of hearts, nothing lesbian at all (genuinely).

I found this post hard to write.

It used to be that I struggled with academic writing. I think most academics do, when we first start writing. We familiarise ourselves with the terms. We warily excavate a few phrases from The Scholarship and try to adapt them. It feels dry, uneven, monotonous. We feel clumsy, as if we’re pretending.

But when I finished writing my forthcoming book, last year, I felt a huge sense of triumph about the writing (I still do). That book is, amongst other things, about language: specifically, the brilliantly risqué and unexpected profusion of innuendos about deviant female desire that I found in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and in medieval English romances that respond to the Legend. So I knew from the start that I wanted my own language, my own writing style, to be more than just functional. I wanted to capture the way my medieval texts slip in suggestive verbs and smutty puns and unexpected ambiguities that make you second-guess yourself. What was that I just read? Did she mean that to be a pun?

Whether I’ve succeeded or not I don’t know, and probably I won’t ever know, but I’m pretty happy for now. The strange thing, though, is that as it’s become easier and easier for me to write this book, it’s become harder and harder to write the non-academic; the personal. A recent experience made me think again about this, and since it’s relevant to Pride Month, I thought I’d share it here.

Way back when, in December of 2019, before the world went to hell in a handcart, I applied for one of those Holy Grail jobs that don’t come up very often – a permanent job, in a department that felt like a good match. Time rumbled on, and longlisted turned to shortlisted, and eventually I interviewed for it, last week. And didn’t get it. As rejections go it was the ‘good’ kind – I placed second; they liked me; they had nice things to say about me. But, as always, it felt like a body blow. Before the interview, I kept thinking back to a blog post my friend Rachel Moss wrote, about the weird experience that is academic job hunting. You lay out the pieces of yourself as teacher, scholar, writer, administrator, colleague, and present each in a slightly new and polished way for the specific criteria of each post, and then rebuild yourself in the narrative of the cover letter, framing yourself as the person they need. … And then, when the answer is no, you will unpack yourself again, wondering what can still be sifted and refined, so that the next time the answer is different.

Rachel captures, perfectly, how very personal (even bodily) it can feel to reconstruct yourself over and over for interviewing committees. She also made me think about what is at stake in this process of sifting and refining and rebuilding your professional self, when things don’t go to plan.

When I closed the zoom link to the job interview that I’d been preparing for since December, one question hit me over and over – that one question that makes you stumble (though my best understanding is that it wasn’t a stumble the panel saw) – and lose your place. As I talked about my work on female same-sex desire, one of the panel asked how I knew I was not reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective.

How did I know I wasn’t reading into medieval texts from a modern perspective?

During my PhD, I worked on medieval reading culture. I would look at manuscripts, examining the ways in which texts were laid out on the page and how books were put together, and I would try to understand how medieval readers would have responded. I don’t think anyone ever asked me if I were imposing a modern perspective, which is strange when you think about it. We know that reading is a culturally-conditioned practice; that the very verb ‘to read’ did not mean the same thing in the Middle Ages that it does now. But we do not call into question the very fact of reading. We take the reader as read.

Sexuality generates a much more anxious, much more fraught debate. The issue is precisely the same: ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t mean the same thing (indeed, doesn’t really mean anything) to medieval readers and writers that it does to modern ones. The tangle of activities and emotions and desires that might go towards a definition of ‘same-sex desire’ patently does not hold steady across times and cultures. I’m familiar with this. As academics, we are supposed to be distanced and objective. This question gave me an opportunity to perform scholarly distance, scholarly objectivity, to cite all the places where I’d trawled through the medieval archive to support my arguments for same-sex desire in the texts I discuss. It gave me an opportunity to show that I was not just playing a game with the text, dressing it up with a distorting modern reading, turning it into a bad imitation of modern culture.

So why did this question stick in my mind? After the interview was over, I realised as I waited to hear from the panel that my feelings had to do with a much more recent history. I grew up during the tenure of Section 28. For those unfamiliar with it, Section 28 enacted a ban, stipulating that local authorities should not ‘promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. This meant that state schools were banned from ‘any teaching … of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. Independent schools, like the secondary school I went to, where teachers could discuss the subject, were very much in the minority. Section 28 caused a particular, pervasive kind of harm. The language is particularly, skilfully, cruel. Homosexuality is a ‘pretended family relationship’. Not a moral outrage or a transgressive perversion (would it be too cynical to observe that teenagers often enjoy to be thought outrageous or transgressive?). But a pretence Pretending is what children do; pretending is play; pretending is an imitation done for fun. So homosexuality is displaced from the adult world, relegated to the childish world of make-believe. Yet, simultaneously, homosexuality is precisely what children must not be permitted to discuss. For teachers, the safest thing to do was to avoid the subject; at worst, to ignore homophobic bullying in fear of being seen to ‘promote’ homosexuality. Implicitly, the silence around homosexuality sent a message that it was exclusively an adult topic. Children expressing interest in it would be inappropriate, out of place. You don’t need to know about that yet. It instilled a weird kind of denial. The easiest official response to awkward student questions was evasion. You must be mistaken. It’s probably a phase. Just wait until you’re older … Homosexuality evidently existed; gay sex was legal. Yet gay adults apparently emerged, fully formed, on their eighteenth birthdays, their history up to that point a blank.

Section 28 came into force in 1988, when I was four years old, and it was repealed in 2003, just after I started university. In ghost form, it lingered on –  in 2011, Michael Gove attempted to include a recommendation that schools should promote the ‘benefits of marriage’ (still then, by definition, a heterosexual institution); in 2013, a survey found more than forty schools still voluntarily using the terminology of Section 28.

Meanwhile, in 2001, when I started studying English Literature for A Level, our set texts included both The Color Purple and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, both of which explicitly reference lesbianism and both of which would (I imagine) be nigh-on impossible to teach without making some reference to the fact of lesbian sexuality. Looking back, that seems an almost surreal contrast. Pretending to talk about these texts must have allowed an awful lot of students to talk about what they weren’t able to talk about openly and personally. You could discuss a lesbian relationship, or same-sex marriage, so long as you did it with reference to the characters written by Alice Walker or Jeanette Winterson. There must be a whole generation of children who became students who became academics (or authors, or artists, or …), who had to learn to speak about same-sex desire obliquely, in displaced forms, at a distance, from an angle, in a removed context. Yet the language of ‘pretence,’ the second-guessing, self-doubting language of displacement, follows us.

Rachel’s description of that process of laying out the pieces of yourself, unpacking them, sifting and refining yourself, reminds me that, in the process of sifting and unpacking, something is always sifted away; lost. I could stop, reframe my work, demonstrate my good scholarly objectivity even more carefully, pull further away from any suspicion of ‘reading into’ a text. Or I could make peace with it. Yes, we’ll never know exactly what medieval readers and audiences did or didn’t see of the innuendos of same-sex desire I find in Chaucer and medieval romance. But perhaps a solution would be to pretend less about ourselves, to try to resist that unpacking and sifting and refining to fit what doesn’t fit. The truth is, I know I’m not reading in to Chaucer’s Legend, or any of the medieval English romances I study, because I can see those subtexts, those displaced, disoriented, sideways, oblique snippets of language designed to have a conversation in a culture that silences conversations. I was taught to do it, from 1988 to 2003.

The View from the Tower

When they first put me in this tower, sometime early in the twelfth century,
I was what everyone expected of a Saracen princess. Yielding, obedient, characterless …Soft as a mollusc, in fact.

The sea that lapped around my tower was full of red weeds, wine-dark;
And I should have been dark too. The poets extolled the whiteness of my skin
In language so flowery
It was clear they needed room to equivocate.

When Charlemagne’s knights came, clashing their lances under my father’s ramparts,
I ignored them. There was a garden on the tower roof.
With time on my hands, I became a healer, gathering flowers in the early morning
Before the sun burnt off the dew from the petals. Drops
Ran down my arms and chilled my skin.

As the centuries wore on, more stories accreted around me,
(like nacre around grit, or rings on a snail shell)
That I kept poisons, circled my waist with magic, kept Christian relics in my Muslim bed.
I hardened myself to them.

When the Christians came, offering rescue, conversion, the most romantic of marriages,
I barred the door. For my tower
Had become a fortress.

The Angels of the Roof


In the sixteenth century, reforms first under Henry VIII, then under Edward and Elizabeth, resulted in the removal of Catholic images and objects of veneration from churches. A more thorough programme of iconoclasm was carried out under Cromwell; one of its most energetic proponents was William Dowsing, who visited hundreds of churches across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, recording what he ordered to have removed, defaced or destroyed. Amongst his favourite targets are the so-called ‘angels of the roof’ popular in East Anglian churches.  


In the church at Binham Priory, under a new layer of whitewash with fresh-painted Bible verses in gothic blackletter, the saints lay buried lay with their eyes still open and their mouths solid with plaster-dust. Katherine and Apollonia, Michael, Zita and Roche waited patiently under their pall of lime until such time as the world outside should remember the established faith. At times the wait seemed very long and the black letters very heavy. Strange voices from the pulpit roared and boomed in increasingly strange varieties of English; there were no sounds of sacring bells or chanting processions, so it was hard to measure the passing of time. But the saints waited, and eventually the whitewash faded (though the blackletter remained, like prison grills over windows), until the saints could peer through its thin remains.

Their painted eyes frozen in horror, at first the saints saw only whiteness. The world was gone. Blank walls faced them. Sharp light slanted against bare stone. There were no candles burning. No smell of incense. No God.

Meanwhile, in St Nicholas at Lynn, the angels waited grimly for their turn. Staring furiously down from their ranked roof beams, they held their wooden wings outspread, like divers preparing to fall. They had watched, disbelieving, as men carried out rood screens and painted over images; as soldiers smashed windows with their pikes and slashed the statue of the Mother of God. They had seen how the cold grey light of the new windows fell harshly on the white-painted rood screen with its blackletter English prayer, beginning to wear through the flaking layers of the whitewash. Now they saw more men, with saws and chisels and ladders. Mouths open, the roof angels breathed a silent liturgy of St James, their voices roaring above the reach of human hearing, an endless song of mortal flesh, trembling in fear. As they watched the men tramp in and out, they heard each other’s wordless thoughts as those thoughts rose to a chant of vengeance. Messias. Sother. Emanuel. Sabaoth. Adonay. There was the faintest shifting sound, as if of old, brittle, light wood were splintering from the pins that might hold it in place.

Down in the nave, the men huddling around their ladder paused for a moment, as if hearing something. A dislodged spider dropped, suddenly, on its thread and hung, scrambling, in mid-air. The men shook themselves, remounted the ladders.

The angels’ silent voices rose in agreement.

We fall.


Another contribution to the Decameron project

They say that the library of Alexandria burned to the ground. All the lost books of the Western world have been imagined to be in that lost library.

But what if there were another story?

While the library burned, what happened?

In the harbour, boats dipped and rode low in lurid water as men scurried back and forth with armfuls of books and scrolls pulled from the fire. Smoke rose up to block out the stars; light from the flames glowed copper across the sky. They boarded boats. Writings were clutched under arms, sheltered under cloaks against the spray, tucked into pouches and rolled tight. Frightened men heard the sounds of the riot receding behind them and tried to forget the screams of a woman dragged through the streets with her hair on fire.

An elderly librarian described the route, tracing a crude map with charcoal on the back of some papyrus. Then dark sea lapped around the boats and the smoke gave way to clear night sky. The men who carried the books nodded and dozed with their heads slumped on their chests. It was close to morning by the time their sails dropped and the oarsmen dipped their blades into shallow waters. They moored at the crude makeshift harbour and slept in the boats, rocking on the pale pink waters of the morning tide.

The island was remote. Ships rarely passed, and then only at a distance. It had been chosen by the librarians many decades ago as a place of refuge in times of need. Once, there had been custodians here, too: once, it was rumored, it had been intended for a second library. No one knew why those plans had been abandoned, but now – with the smell of the acrid cinders still in their noses and the sounds of screams in their ears – the librarians agreed to begin again.

They planted gardens. An untended grove of olive trees was hacked back, pruned, and began to give out fresh new silver shoots. The scriptorium, intended to be temporary, was roofed over, then extended. Plans were laid for a tall building to contain all the volumes that other scribes were still bringing in from the debris of Alexandria, from the satellite libraries at Heliopolis and Constantinople. White marble stone was brought in on trading vessels and winched up the steep sloping incline above the harbour. A proportion of the older men began to talk of ‘our library’ as if it were home.

The ship’s captain who had navigated the ragged fleet of boats across from Alexandria went out on trading missions to Tyre and Tarsus and Lebanon. The traders brought news of the death of ‘Amr ibn Al-as. Alexandria was being rebuilt, they said, in the shape of a Muslim city. Christian missionaries had begun to convert the pagans at the barbarous Western edge of the world, at a place called Medicata Insula, a peninsula off the coast of the Celtic lands. Ships came back with their hulls full of cargo and their lockers full of writings, wafting the smells of oregano from Crete and orange blossom from Morocco and pine-wood from the forests of Juteland and Scandinavia. The elderly librarians spoke of building a marble colonnade to walk in during the heat of the day, as they had at the Alexandrian library.

But then …

In the last days of winter the second-eldest librarian died of a lung fever. They buried him in a plot dug out beside the new white marble chapel where the wet dark tree branches tangled in the rain. One of the passing traders murmured darkly about the lack of a priest. Fragments of parchment that had been torn blew in the wind and caught in unexpected crevices in the rocky paths. The sound of pages fluttering in a draft echoed under the noise of the wind blowing through the pines on the headland. The younger scribes began to pester traders to take them on their voyages, to tell them of the new cities to the north and the west, where men had better things to do than scratch dry words or breathe in the dust of books. Another year, and still no priest could be enticed to come. Another year, and the olive trees still did not produce ripe fruit.

Oregano wove through the salt-toughened bluegrass and showed purple stems over the thrift on the cliffs at the headland. As the librarians stood to look out to the horizon for ships, they noticed that the sun-baked herbs smelled bitter as ink. The ships returned each year with thinner, older thinner sails and sparser crews. Imperceptibly, the carefully tended vines were threaded with vetch and hops and rosebay willowherb. The ships in the harbour came and went, went and ceased to return at all.

In the space of a year and a half the island was emptied ship by ship, carrying cargoes of lonely grim men who had had enough of books. The ships rowed out past the breakwater one by one, in the cold half-light before the dawn, when the mist comes off the water. The slap of oars and the keels creaking, between one June and another September. Two generations later, and no one remembered the remnants of the old library. No one came back to see what had been left behind.

After the men left, the books whispered amongst themselves and spread their whispers over the island. The gardens took on the appearance of the texts that were read in them. The marble benches seemed to bear the imprints of the men who had once sat there, turning pages and slowly unscrolling rolls. The slow breezes that stirred the trees, the rustle of birds and the scuffles of dry leaves seemed to contain voices, as if the garden were quoting to itself from memory all that it had heard.

In the world outside, fragments of Aristotle’s unfinished works were copied and amended and re-copied. Writers reconstructed the lost plays of Sophocles. Teams of archaeologists pieced together poems by Sappho from tiny scraps of papyrus, and published editions marked with careful scholarly elipses. These texts pulled further and further away from the versions that lay in the library, and the library listened to the voices of its own texts. Over time books warped the space in which they were stored, pulling it inwards. Their physical weight caused shelves to bow and foundations to sag. The books seemed to whisper with vague inaudible voices, as the shelves creaked and floors of the library swayed on their foundations.

Here, Aristotle’s Poetics was never destroyed by fire and poison and madness in a chill northern monastery. Here, Sophocles told of Helen’s demand; here the tablets inscribed with the story of Troy’s ruin were kept, unbroken, since Priam’s order commanded them to be made. Here Sappho was never buried in Egypt, wrapped dryly around a mummy and falling into dust as she mourned for Atthis. Around her, the musky scent of amber and pine and rotting spinal tissue. Here are the unknown books, the tablets of Enkidu’s Song for Gilgamesh and the scrolls of the Book of the Battles of Yahweh; here are the books we have never read or written, waiting to be heard.

The papers whispered and muttered to themselves, as heavy manuscripts sat patiently on their shelves, waiting ready for the day when a new ship should blow off-course and discover the ruins of the library of Alexandria, quietly reading to itself.

Waiting, until today.

Learning from ‘Bad’ Writing

I am easing back into blogging, after a long period where I wasn’t so much writing as editing, and it feels right to start with a post about, well, writing itself. In my experience, in UK academia (and now lately in Ireland), we’re seldom explicitly taught how to write. Writing is treated as the transport system that gets us from A to B. We might feel as if we’re plodding along on a very slow bus or whipping past gorgeous scenery in a fancy car, but we seldom know very much about the mechanics of the car or the bus, and we don’t really expect to learn. We might expect to correct a few spelling errors on a student’s essay, or some grammar; we might, if that student really struggles with these issues, try to pack them off onto a writing course for undergraduates, or a study skills session that might include some tips on the basics. But a lot of academics struggle to recognise a particular kind of ‘bad’ writing for what it is. 

An early career academic (whom I won’t name) shared a quotation from her student’s work on twitter, accusing the student of pretentiously trying to ‘look clever’ by using big words and long, dense sentences. The tweet was subsequently removed, after various people pointed out the pretty egregious ethical issues relating to publicly shaming students/sharing work you’re not authorised to share, but it’s actually the second time in a couple of weeks that I’ve seen an academic quoting student work and making the assumption that big words, convoluted syntax or long sentences must indicate that a student is trying to be ‘impressive’ or ‘clever’ – and failing. Implicitly, these complaints presume that if a student can use big words, they can also use small, simple ones – so they’re simply overreaching, trying to do something more complicated than they can manage.

In my transport metaphor, it’s a bit like catching a glimpse of a car roaring past, all tinted windows and neon underlights and a giant spoiler up its arse, and knowing it’s a clapped-out ford fiesta from 1999. (I promise I will stop flogging this metaphor very, very soon.)

We’re not very nice about writing that is both fancy and bad – like this – but it is wrong to think it’s pretentious rather than a potential part of a learning process. Every time I learn my way around a new set of critical theories (or revisit ones I don’t know as well as I’d like), I keep finding myself falling into the same trap. I’ll come across a new buzzword or phrase – maybe it’s ‘epistemic’ or ‘identity machine’ or our old favourite ‘queer’ (as in queer theory). Do I understand it? Weelllll … maybe not completely. I mean, I’ve got a vague sense, I think to myself. I might look at someone writing about ‘epistemic injury’ and figure out, from the context they give, that this is something different from a physical wound or an emotional assault. So it’s mental as opposed to physical, I conclude. I can probably gain a good-enough understand of what the writer is saying, without being precisely sure why they’re using that specific word. But, I’m really excited about the ideas I’m reading. I can tell they’re stretching at my mind in the right ways. Perhaps that phrase ‘epistemic injury’ comes in the middle of an article about rape, which is telling me that rape is about far more than just a physical kind of harm.

When I start writing for myself, I feel pretty sure I want to talk about this writer’s argument … but I know I don’t understand exactly what their terminology is doing. So, instead of translating it into my own words, I’ll just carefully repeat ‘epistemic’. I hope, guiltily, that this repetition will make sure I don’t lose some of the important meanings I know I haven’t quite grasped.

The problem, of course, is that this is a high risk strategy. The word ‘epistemic’ means ‘relating to knowledge’ (so I was half-right when I guessed it was to do with the mental rather than the physical). But it also has to do with what mental processes are trusted, believed, and validated by a community or group. So, a person who is being gaslit by an abusive partner is suffering epistemic cruelty (they come to believe they can’t trust their own mind). A woman who reports a rape and isn’t believed because the rapist is her husband, is suffering epistemic injury. If she lives in a time and place where marital rape isn’t considered a crime (as, for example, was the case in England prior to 1991), we might say she’s experiencing an institutionalised epistemic injury.

If I don’t understand this, I’m liable to use ‘epistemic’ as a quick-fix solution. I hope, nervously, that it’ll signal to readers that I’ve been working with This Critical Theory, The One Where They Talk About Things Being Epistemic. It’s an anxious placeholder, a reminder of all the background reading I need to do but haven’t yet done. Chances are, once you’ve learned to spot the anxious placeholder words in your own work, you’ll also have become more adept at spotting how to avoid them. It won’t seem so important to keep using that word ‘epistemic’ if you’ve taken on board the wider argument about what it means. You might perfectly well find you write something far simpler. Maybe, Rape survivors are often disbelieved. This disbelief has its own traumatic effect. Or maybe, Rape survivors are often made to feel like liars; this can make them doubt their own memories. You might well follow these statements up with a footnote to the original article; you might, certainly, use the word ‘epistemic’ or the term ‘epistemic injustice’ later in the essay. But, meanwhile, you’ve opened up a whole new set of possible directions for the rest of the essay. Is it ‘disbelief’ that you’re really wanting to think about? Or ‘memories’? These could be two quite different lines of approach. ‘Disbelief’ might have you thinking about social interactions and conventions; about rumour or myths or fabrications; whispers and insinuations. ‘Memory’ might start you on quite a different path, looking into cognitive theories of the mind or studies on the importance of memorials and records of the past. The richness of these terms could feed back into the essay, letting it expand beyond the debt to the original scholar who used the term ‘epistemic’.

None of this is quick. It’s obvious why students might fall back on ‘fancy bad’ writing to cover the gaps and uncertainties. But there are ways to turn this sort of writing’ into an opportunity. Teaching students (and ourselves) to recognise when we’re using a word as a placeholder teaches them (and us) to spot the weak points in the argument. Sometimes, I’ve asked students to annotate their essays with captions or footnotes commenting on what they wish they’d known before handing it in – for example, they might add a comment saying they’re not quite sure they’re using a word correctly, or they’ve actually only read the introduction to this book, so they might not have grasped the whole argument. Other times, I’ve had them highlight which words they think might need defining for a general audience – and provide a footnote to do that. Students need to be shown that good writing isn’t simply the thing that gets an argument from start to finish: it’s an integral aspect of how we think. Writing that is not yet quite at home with certain words or certain phrases, writing where the syntax is slightly twisted because the writer has had to incorporate a verbatim phrase from a critic, is often writing that is trying to learn more. We can all benefit from that.

Consuming Brown Bodies: Paul Feig’s ‘Last Christmas’ and Medieval Mummy Medicine

Screenshot 2019-11-13 at 09.18.46

In the above tweet, Rachel Moss is talking about the much-hyped film, Last Christmas, starring Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding (and at this point, if you want to avoid spoilers, click away).

As quite a few people already figured out from the not-too-subtle trailers, the film’s love story has a twist. It turns out that the mysterious (Asian) love interest who swoops in and out of Clarke’s life with the perfect blend of romance and feel-good emotional intensity, is in fact, well … dead. To be precise, he’s her organ donor. ‘My heart … was always going to be yours, one way or another.’ I feel faintly nauseous, and it’s not just Brexit repeating on me.

I expect the film is, as we are assured in the article to which Moss links, still enjoyable, light-hearted fun. Except for those pesky racist undertones, which she quite rightly identifies. Even before the trailer starts, we sort of know that this isn’t going to be a conventional pairing. We’re allowed Asian love interests on mainstream film (Always Be My Maybe), but we’re not really allowed to see (sexless! un-macho! no stereotype withheld!) Asian men as love interests for white women. It seemed to me, though, that there’s something even more creepy about this narrative, which was thrown into sharp focus by the research I’ve recently been doing. At the moment, I’m looking at medieval English treatments for gynaecological problems, in particular treatments that have to do with fertility and childbirth.

You might imagine this subject would be all herbs and charms and chubby-cheeked baby Jesus and people praying to the Mother of God to help them in their travail. And you would be right. But what it also is, is a lot of quite deeply racist rhetoric about how Christendom holds the key to the future and is destined to be blessed with generation upon generation, while all of those infidel races are doomed to wither on the vine, decayed and impotent as their false scriptures, sterile as the barren fig tree of the gospels … you can imagine the genre. And you can probably imagine how eagerly it’s recycled contemporary white supremacists, too. And amid all of this rhetoric, there’s a medical remedy that stopped me in my tracks.

If you want to stimulate a woman’s fertility, help her deliver a placenta or treat a missed miscarriage, you feed her a medication containing several dozen different exotic herbs, resins, spices, roots … oh, and the ground up human flesh of dead brown people.


London, British Library, MS Egerton 747, fol. 60v.

No, really, not kidding. Mumia or mummie is a vital ingredient in one of the best-known medieval cure-alls. Its history as an ingredient is long and complicated (and I’m working on publishing something about this), but by the later Middle Ages medics had agreed that mumia – as in, the substance recovered from the wrappings of Egyptian mummies – was the best thing to dose patients with. As a result, generations of white Western women obediently swallowed down fragments of human remains, in the hope of perpetuating the future of Christendom and Europe.

Like the later ‘archaeologists’ and ‘explorers’ who ransacked Egyptian tombs, or the Victorian mummy-unwrappers who turned the destruction of an entire country’s ancient history into a spectator sport, medieval English people apparently saw nothing particularly wrong with treating human remains in this way. After all, as one manuscript clarifies in its list of ingredients, the human remains are ‘Saracen’s flesh’: not white people.

Obviously, there are substantial differences between organ donation (voluntary; life-saving; requiring informed consent) and grave-robbing. And equally obviously, organ donation is something more of us should be considering doing, and if a feel-good film can help encourage people to make the decision to go on the donor list, that can only be a good thing. But the thing is, Last Christmas is a fiction. And in fictions, writers make choices. There was no need to make the character of the organ donor an Asian man (unless you want to clock up shallow diversity points without, as we have observed, following through and giving us a genuine interracial romance). There is no need to construct what is, essentially, new clothing for the old familiar stereotype of the ‘sacrificial person of colour’ – that wise, noble, secondary character whose role is to die so that Our White Protagonist can live.

All of this is a long-winded way of observing that when Last Christmas sacrifices an Asian character’s human remains to a white woman and dresses it up as a great love story, it is playing into much older ideas about which bodies are disposable, consumable, expendable, and which lives deserve to continue on to the future.


Lest you imagine the trade in mumia as a medication must have stopped far back in the murky mists of time, consider the fact that a German apothecary in the early twentieth century still carried ‘mummy’ on its ordering list. For more on mummy and historical medication, see:

Dannenfeldt, Karl H., ‘Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth-Century Experience and Debate,’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 16: 2 (1985): 163-80.

Evans, Jennifer, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014).

Green, Monica H, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

Not Only Now: Recovering the History of Pregnancy Loss in the Sixteenth Century


A silence often surrounds the topic of pregnancy loss.

The reasons for it are many. People do not know what to say. People do not know how common pregnancy losses are; do not want to think about pregnancy loss; do not realise that a pregnancy has been lost. In the many accounts and articles I have been reading this week – which is Pregnancy Loss Awareness Week – one theme predominates. The emotions surrounding the loss of a wanted baby are not better for being kept under wraps. It is, as Katy Lindemann writes in the Guardian, arguably cruel that women are still expected not to talk about losses that occur within the first trimester, the twelve weeks during which it is most common to lose a pregnancy.

Not everyone, of course, wants to talk, but one of the persistent fears I hear in accounts of pregnancy loss is the fear that, without talking, there is so little to keep a baby lost during pregnancy present in memories. It is especially hard to bridge the unimaginable gap between an expectant mother’s intimate knowledge of her baby’s movements and growth, and the relative unknowability of that unborn baby – even in our age of sonograph technology – to everyone else. There are painfully few ways to mark the existence of these babies. There may be no birth certificate; there may be no legal record of life at all, even in the cases where a baby is born below the point of survivable prematurity and yet lives for several hours. Such rituals as there are, are few and tentative, often not quite adapted for purpose. One of the things that is taken away from parents suffering pregnancy loss is a sense of their baby’s place and presence in the world.

The project I am currently working on is an attempt to recover an unspoken history of pregnancy loss in the long past. For many years, the dominant historical view of medieval parenting was that, at a time when small children died often and all too easily, parents could not spare the emotional pain to grieve for them. The view comes from a book published by Philippe Ariès in 1960. Ariès argued that childhood is a modern construct, and that parents of the past did not become emotionally attached to their small children and infants. For decades now, scholars have been aware that Ariès misunderstood or misinterpreted many of the sources he was using to draw his conclusions. However, his idea caught popular imagination, and it’s still something you hear quoted as fact.

We might imagine that in an age when such a high value was placed upon women as mothers, grief for a lost baby would be a gendered emotion; that fathers would not or did not grieve for babies they barely knew. We might imagine pregnancy loss, in particular, to be a secret, even shameful or covert feminine experience. Before I began this study, I expected to find accounts of men blaming, or even mistreating, their wives for ‘failing’ to bear living children; I suspected that emotions of grief or sorrow would be largely confined to the same hushed domestic sphere as the birthing chamber itself. And, even while I did not subscribe to Ariès’ rather callous assumption that a family experiencing multiple losses would somehow ‘get used to it,’ I presumed – as many people still do today, of contemporary losses – that the birth of other children might lessen the pain of a pregnancy loss.

Yet, the evidence shows it was not so. A will from 1534, written by one Robert Duckett of Sibton in Suffolk, describes the testator’s intentions for the money he wished to donate to his parish church of St Peter. The will is piercingly immediate in its emotional intimacy and affection for family. It describes plans for a new side-chapel in the parish church, where saintly figures evoking the Holy Family of Christ would be juxtaposed with a memorial to Duckett’s own family. The will lists the images to be included, beginning with the Virgin Mary and her mother St Anne. This is quite a conventional pairing, testifying to the increasing popularity of St Anne in later medieval England. Yet, though Anne is often portrayed as an affectionate grandmother to Christ and a loving, careful mother to her daughter Mary, she is also associated with the pain of infertility. In medieval accounts, Anne was understood to be an older mother when she miraculously became pregnant with Mary; she had believed herself to be unable to bear children.

This emphasis on a longing for children is magnified in the other images Duckett wanted to have made. The same stained glass window that was to memorialise his family was also to feature an image of the Holy Trinity, with St Elizabeth on one side and St Joachim on the other. The older cousin of the Virgin Mary, St Elizabeth commonly features in medieval images of the Visitation, the scene in which the two cousins joyously greet each other, the one pregnant with the infant Christ and the other with St John the Baptist. Yet this, too, is not only a scene celebrating fertility and new family life. Like the Virgin’s mother St Anne, Elizabeth was long past the age of childbearing when she became pregnant with the future John the Baptist; like Anne, she believed herself to be unable to conceive a child.

The husbands of these two seemingly infertile women, Anne and Elizabeth, were also venerated as saints. Zachariah, like his wife Elizabeth, appears in Luke’s gospel: it is he who first speaks the Benedictus, the canticle of thanksgiving that plays a prominent role in medieval liturgy. Before this sacred song, he features in a dramatic episode of doubt transformed, as an angel appears to tell him his wife will bear a son. An early echo of doubting Thomas, Zachariah refuses to believe in what must come to pass, insisting (with a remarkable lack of sympathy for his elderly wife) that Elizabeth’s childbearing years are long over, and she cannot be pregnant. Struck dumb as punishment for his lack of belief, he spends the later months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in silence, only regaining his power to speak when he sees, acknowledges, and names his son. By contrast, medieval tradition gives Anne’s husband Joachim a far less significant, dramatic and prominent role. One of three successive husbands of Anne, he dies during the Virgin’s childhood. He makes no powerful, canonical, liturgical speech. His only role is to be a man longing for a child. Yet, whereas Zachariah speaks harshly of his wife’s age, Joachim offers only kindness to Anne, sharing in her pain. It is not Zachariah the priest and prophet whom Robert Duckett wanted to see pictured alongside St Elizabeth in his memorial window, but the sympathetic Joachim. His incongruous pairing of these saints suggests an emotional and religious connection to the nexus of ideas about longing and childlessness, which they represent.

tn_sibton7933                                  tn_sibton7932

Despite what we might expect from this unusual combination of images, Duckett and his wife were not unable to have children. Their family was large, even by medieval standards, but it was also marked by a loss that takes a prominent place in the will’s description of the memorial that is to be included in the stained glass window:

I will some token shall be made whereby the souls of me and my wife may be the better remembered and prayed for, with all our children 6 sons and 8 daughters. Whereof one son to lie along [to be depicted lying horizontally] for he was quick in his mother(s) womb, and all her time, yet dead born’.

These instructions have a practical role: specifying exactly how the window should look. Yet, there is a poignant gap between the detail Duckett offers and the inarticulacy of the medium through which he seeks to have his son commemorated. The medieval stained glass has not survived (indeed, as Judith Middleton-Stewart notes in her discussion of Duckett’s will, the rapid onset of the Reformation in England may mean it was never even made). But we can easily imagine by looking at other medieval examples: a line of children standing by their parents, probably distinguished from one another only by gender, represented not naturalistically but symbolically. The posture Duckett specifies for the image of his stillborn son is, therefore, only the barest indication of that son’s death: it can do nothing to convey the intimate particularity of this experience of loss.  As if straining to bridge the cruelly small distance between foetal liveliness and stillbirth, Duckett emphasises the former, giving details that could not possibly have been represented within the medium of a stained glass memorial. As if pleading for his son (a child who died unbaptised in utero would have been considered ineligible for salvation and for burial in consecrated ground), he stresses the liveliness of the baby throughout his gestation.

As the number of their children demonstrates, Robert and his wife must have been well aware of the normal processes of pregnancy. They were obviously fertile. The insistent detail of Duckett’s account recalls the ways in which modern survivors of pregnancy loss run over and over the facts of their experience, almost obsessively recalling what happened and what went wrong. The wording of this bequest breaks away from the standard, formal language of wills, to express centuries-old bewilderment and grief. How is it that a baby who seemed so lively in the womb, so full of movement all through the pregnancy, could be born dead?

In envisaging his chapel and its family memorial, Duckett could draw on little recognisable convention for mourning a stillbirth. As today, the subject is often shrouded in silence; the usual rituals are conspicuous in their absence. Instead, his will draws together a combination of saints associated with the emotions surrounding a rather different kind of longing for a child, and in their midst, he remembers his stillborn son.


We still don’t have a good medical understanding of why some babies are stillborn. The medical advances that have made huge differences to other areas of pregnancy loss (such as prematurity) simply haven’t happened here. The charity Tommy’s notes that around 60% of stillbirths are unexplained. In the UK, the rate of stillbirth is around 1 in 200 or 225 pregnancies; it is, disturbingly, much worse for women of colour than for white women, a pattern replicated elsewhere in the world.

The images in this post are all from the church of Sibton St Peter, where Robert Duckett hoped to memorialise his family. The first image comes from a memorial to Edmund Chapman and Mary Barker, who lost a son and a daughter, both in early infancy. The second shows the children of Edmund and Maryon Chapman. I am grateful to Simon Knott (to whom the copyright belongs), for these images and for his excellent descriptions of St Sibton on the Suffolk Churches site.

Duckett’s will is discussed and quoted in Judith Middleton-Stewart, Inward Purity and Outward Splendour: Death and Remembrance in the Deanery of Dunwich, Suffolk, 1370-1547 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001).

Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ Doll: On the Cynicism of Cheap Gestures towards Change



No, the definition of ‘gender neutral’ is not ‘a short haired woman’.

The American toy company Mattel has just launched a new product, a so-called ‘gender neutral’ doll. I am sufficiently irritated by this news that, instead of making worthy and sensible corrections to my book, I’m writing this post.

Why so? You might imagine this is a praiseworthy initiative, and certainly there are reasons why it could, potentially, be so. Dolls are, overwhelmingly, coded as ‘girls’ toys,’ and we know that restricting certain kinds of toys to one or other gender can be damaging and limiting. Yet, there’s still a stereotype that boys who play with dolls will become ‘girly’ or – worse! – gay. A recent meme, pointing out that little boys playing with dolls might be preparing to be caring fathers, dedicated teachers and nursery workers, and expert paediatricians, sums up the problem. Perhaps if more toddler boys got to play with dolls, we’d have less toxic masculinity in the world?

The idea of the ‘non binary’ doll also – and this is its explicit purpose – promises good things in terms of communicating to children that the visible proof that, if they feel as if binary gender roles exclude them, they are not alone. Yet, here the problem lies.

The press release in Time describes, in starstruck tones, the benefits of this revolutionary doll for a crowd of young would-be buyers aged 7 and 8. Approvingly, it describes how these young children use the doll to reflect either themselves or their younger siblings (as children often do). This role play works so well, gushes the author of this piece, because:

The doll can be a boy, a girl, neither or both … Carefully manicured features betray no obvious gender: the lips are not too full, the eyelashes not too long and fluttery, the jaw not too wide. There are no Barbie-like breasts or broad, Ken-like shoulders. 

Let’s pause and read that last bit again, shall we? Here is a doll that is marketed as being gender neutral, and suited to all children, because it betrays ‘no obvious gender’. This doll, which children are encouraged to use to represent themselves and their prepubescent siblings, has ‘lips … not too full … eyelashes … not too long and fluttery … jaw … not too wide’. It has no breasts or broad shoulders.

I had two, intimately related, issues with this. Firstly, the more prominent placing of stereotypically feminine attributes (enlarged lips and eyelashes) and the greater emphasis on feminine bodily parts implies that femininity is the primary site of artificial constructions of gender. That is: the doll is claimed as ‘gender neutral’ because its feminine vanities of lipgloss and mascara have been stripped away, and the nastily censorious phase ‘too much’ is mobilized to imply there’s something inherently wrong about a doll (or a woman) whose body is ‘too much’. More, too, the phrase conflates gendered attributes that are simply a matter of anatomy – broad shoulders, or breasts – with attributes that are not biological at all, but conditioned. ‘Fluttery’ eyelashes are no more natural to women than men; yet here they stand alongside square jaws as if they were immutable evidence.

This is all bad enough, but what concerns me more is the second issue. The characteristics singled out here are all unique to adulthood, and several of them are associated with adult sexuality. Forensic archaeology acknowledges that it is virtually impossible to tell the sex of a prepubescent subject, without DNA testing or genital remains. There is absolutely no reason why a child who is looking to play with a gender neutral doll needs to see a doll lacking in (adult, stereotyped, patriarchally-conditioned) sexual characteristics. That child already exists in a world of gender neutral bodies, which the majority of us call childhood. The only visible exception to this gender neutrality, for prepubescent children, are the external genitalia … which, famously and enduringly, have from time immemorial been quietly excluded from children’s dolls. Ken has no male parts. Barbie is smooth as a bean.

So is this new doll somehow more obviously gender-neutral? Does it somehow manage to surpass nature (which has already constructed 7 year olds to be remarkably free of the trappings and restrictions of the gender binary, if only we’d let them be)? The quick answer is no. The dolls against which Mattel’s ‘Gender Neutral’ toy defines itself are those sexualised figures – symbols of a brand of capitalist gender enforcement against which feminism frequently defines itself – of Barbie and Ken. As is often stated, Barbie’s teetering high-heel-deformed feet struggle to balance without a stiletto; her implausible bodily measurements leave her struggling to resit the gravitational pull of her enormous mammaries.

Yet, Barbie – sexualised as she is – is sexualised in a particularly prudish, non-sexual way. She has breasts, sure, but no nipples; her partner Ken is reciprocally ill-equipped, with only a smooth plastic landing-strip between his muscular thighs. As if in a darkly humorous nod to these sexual absences, both figures typically lack belly buttons, those most innocent physical signs of human gestation and linkage to a maternal body. To make up for this lack of primary sexual characteristics, Barbie features an abundance of qualities stereotypically – and misogynistically associated with femininity, from her long white-blonde hair to her spiky eyelashes and wide, child-like eyes, tiny facial features and delicate long limbs.

Mattel’s doll – to enormous publicist fanfare – loses a few of these tropes. It does not have the porn-fantasy Barbie body with its exaggerated waist-hip ratio; it does not possess the sculpted abs of the Ken doll. Much is made of the fact that this doll is available with multiple wigs (like, erm, dolls for literally hundreds of years) and that its skin colour need not be restricted to Aryan Pale. Lego has long made dolls with interchangeable accessories, including physical parts such as long hair or mustachioed faces. There is, then, nothing new to a doll that can be made to play different gender-stereotyped roles. One might hope Mattel’s doll would offer something truly new, truly freeing for children seeking to escape a world of binary gender stereotypes and the limitations those stereotypes convey. But Mattel’s doll remains sexualised and – despite the possibility of brown skin – racialised. The unvaryingly wide, almond-shaped eyes with their long, mascara-ed lashes, suggest all the popular caricatures of femininity, and of a femininity that has no space for epicanthic folds. Such eyes, enlarged in relation to the face in which they belong, pointed at a corner, and framed with long spiky lashes, are one of the most basic and reliable symbols of femininity in books aimed at infants and toddlers. Though the doll appears to wear mascara and (despite the lack of comedy boobs) does not have the bodily proportions common to prepubescent children, there are no signs of adult masculinity, such as stubble. The most ‘masculine’ of the many available hairstyles (dominated, you’ll be shocked to learn, by long, flowing locks) is a blonde quiff, which my partner characterised as ‘lesbian 101′.

I love the idea of toys that support children to keep on thinking imaginatively and creatively, to stay away from adults’ restrictive stereotypes for as long as possible. I don’t love the idea of cynically jumping on a bandwagon for sales purposes, especially when that act leads to absolutely no introspection or change of pre-existing stereotypes whatsoever.


A ‘Queer Medieval’ Reading List

Update: I’ve had some great suggestions about more texts to include, so am adding those. Obviously I’ve not taught all of these, but will have to do so now. Thanks all! I’m also putting in my own publications, in best ‘confidence of a mediocre white man, appropriation thereof’ fashion. Original post below:

Recently, several people have asked if I have a reading list for teaching a ‘queer ‘medieval course or a course on medieval gender and sexuality, so I thought I would put some material up here, where it’s easy to access. I’ve included brief notes about why I like to teach these particular primary texts; the secondary material is mostly chosen to complement the primary material and isn’t intended to be exhaustive. There are a few quirky choices in there, simply because I’ve found they made sense to me. With one exception (Blake Gutt’s recent article), I have taught students using all of these secondary materials (not all at the same time!).

If you’re still reading, I hope this is useful to you – and if you feel like commenting to share your own favourite texts/combinations of texts, that’d be great!

Primary Texts

The following represent a completely personal selection, which I happen to think work well with the secondary scholarship here; they also work quite nicely with each other. Two further primary sources (putatively historical rather than literary) are incorporated into articles by Puff and by Boyd and Karras, listed under secondary material.

1). Le Roman de Silence. A thirteenth-century Arthurian verse-romance by Heldris de Cornuälle, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge, W. Heffer, 1972) or Silence: A Thirteenth-century French Romance. A facing page translation by Sarah Roche-Mahdi (East Lansing, MI: Michegan State University Press, 1992).

This is brilliant for packing in a lot of talking points: a debate between Nature and Nurture on the subject of gender; multiple transformations and disguises that cross gender categories; various forms of same-sex or atypical desire.

2) The Squire of Low Degree, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, ed. Erik Cooper (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2005). Online at

My favourite teaching text ever. Enormous amounts of sexual and romantic weirdness, necrophiliac activity, tongue-in-cheek homoeroticism, etc. etc. etc. Plus it looks as if everyone from Shakespeare to Spenser was reading it in the sixteenth century. Great to read in combination with Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval or (she writes, modestly) with my forthcoming book, publication date TBA.

3) Alan of Lille, De planctu Naturae, ed. Nikolaus M. Häring, Studi Medievali 19 (Spoleto: Fondazione CISAM, 1978) or The Plaint of Nature, trans. James J. Sheridan, Mediaeval Sources in Translation 26 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980).

I tend to set this in extracts, because it’s so often discussed in the secondary scholarship. Lots of quite vituperative depictions of same-sex desires and/or gender nonconformity. This works well with the Roman de la Rose and the work of Dinshaw and Lochrie.

4) Gower, John, Confessio Amantis, ed. Russell A. Peck with Latin translations by Andrew Galloway, 3 vols (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2004).

Masses of same-sex desire, gender nonconformity, bodily diversity going on here. Obviously, it works well with Diane Watt’s Amoral Gower, but is also good with Alan of Lille and anything touching on Classical literature (since that’s where Gower’s getting most of his material).

5) Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Felix Lécoy, 3 vols, Societé des Anciens Textes Français (Paris: Fermin-Didot, Champion, 1914-24) or The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, 3rd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

I can’t begin to sum up the Roman, but it was one of the most enormously popular books of its day, with a huge influence. It stirred up enormous controversy, is arguably thoroughly misogynistic, and has heterosex at its core, despite a healthy ongoing interest in all sorts of broadly queer desires. Good to read with the Roman de Silence‘s debate between Nature and Nurture.

6) Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

The Pardoner is the obvious go-to place, but the Parliament of Fowls teaches nicely with Susan Schibanoff’s (brilliant) book and with the French tradition and is a bit more lesbian-ish. Lawrence Warner puts in a vote for the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (and see his article below).

7) Yde et Olive, ed. Mounawar Abbouchi, Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018).

I’ve not taught this specifically, though it’s come up in passing, and Diane Watt recommends it. Definitely lesbian-friendly. There’s an English version (see Watt’s article, below), in sixteenth-century print:

Lee, S. L., ed. The Boke of Duke Huon de Bordeux. Done into English by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, and printed by Wynkyn de Worde about 1534 A.D. 3 Parts. Edited from the unique copy of the first edition. Early English Text Society. Original Series 40, 41, 43. London: N. Trübner, 1884; New York: Kraus Reprint, 1975, 1981.

Secondary Texts

Arthuriana 7.1 (1997) and 12.1 (2002) are special issues devoted to studies of the Roman de Silence.

Postmedieval Volumes 9.2 and 9.3 (2018) are special issues devoted, respectively, to the medieval intersex and to queer manuscripts.

Akbari, Suzanne Conklin, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

Allen-Goss, Lucy, ‘Transgressive Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Thisbe,’ The Chaucer Review 53:2 (2018): 194-212.

– ‘Queerly Productive: Women and Collaboration in Cambridge, MS Ff.1.6,’ Postmedieval 9:3 (2018): 334-348.

Blud, Victoria The Unspeakable, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature 1000-1400, Gender in the Middle Ages 12 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017).

Boyd, David Lorenzo, and Ruth Mazo Karras, ‘The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,’ GLQ 1:4 (1995): 459-465.

Burger, Glenn, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Burger, Glenn, and Steven F. Kruger, Queering the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

Burgwinkle, William, Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050-1230 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Burns, E. Jane, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).

Bychowski, M. W., Howard Chiang, Jack Halberstam, Jacob Lau, Kathleen P. Long, Marcia Ochoa, and C. Riley Snorton, ‘“Trans* Historicities”: A Roundtable Discussion,’ Transgender Studies Quarterly 5: 4 (2018): 658-85.

Butler, Judith, Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004).

– Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex,’ 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2011).

Cadden, Joan, Nothing Natural is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

Clark, Robert L. A., ‘Jousting Without A Lance: The Condemnation of Female Homoeroticism in the Livre Des Manières,’ in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women, eds Sautman and Sheingorn, pp. 143-77.

Dinshaw, Carolyn, ‘Eunuch Hermeneutics,’ English Literary History 55.1 (1988): 27-51.

– Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989).

– Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1999).

– How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero, eds, with the assistance of Kathy Lavezzo, Premodern Sexualities (New York and London: Routledge, 1996).

Giffney, Noreen, and Myra J. Hird, eds., Queering the Non/Human (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer and Diane Watt (eds), The Lesbian Premodern, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Gutt, Blake, ‘Transgender Genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil,’ Exemplaria 30:2 (2018), 129-46.

Halberstam, Jack (Judith)*, Female Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998).

–  In A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005).

Haraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-81.

Heng, Geraldine, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

Karras, Ruth Mazo, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto others, 2nd edn (London and New York: Routledge, 2012).

Lochrie, Karma, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken and James A. Schultz (eds), Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

McDonald, N. F., ‘Desire out of Order and Undo Your Door,’ Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 247-275.

Mills, Robert, Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Murray, Jacqueline, ‘Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible’: Lesbians in the Middle Ages,’ in The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, eds Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 191-222.

Neimanis, Astrida, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Puff, Helmut, ‘Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldofer (1477),’ Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30. 1 (2000): 41-61.

Pugh, Tison, Sexuality and its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Roberts, Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Rollo, David, Kiss My Relics: Hermaphroditic Fictions of the Middle Ages (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Sauer, Michelle M., ‘“Where are the Lesbians in Chaucer?”: Lack, Opportunity, & Female Homoeroticism in Medieval Studies Today,’The Journal of Lesbian Studies3/4 (2007): 331-45.

– Gender in Medieval Culture (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

Sautman, Francesca Canadé, and Pamela Sheingorn, Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Schibanoff, Susan, Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio (Toronto, Buffalo, NY and London: University of Toronto Press, 2006).

Schultz, James A., ‘Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 15: 1 (2006): 14-29.

Warner, Lawrence, ‘Woman is Man’s Babylon: Chaucer’s “Nembrot” and the Tyranny of Enclosure in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’ The Chaucer Review 32:1 (1997): 82-107.

Watt, Diane, ‘Read My Lips: Clipping and Kyssyng in the Early Sixteenth Century” in Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender , and Sexuality, eds. Anna Livia and Kira Hall (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997).

Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

– ‘Why men still aren’t enough,’ GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3 (2010): 451-64.

Acknowledgement: I’ve drawn from reading lists compiled while teaching Texts, Contexts and Methods at Cambridge in 2016, from teaching Paper 3 (1300-1550) to undergraduates at Cambridge 2014-2017, and from a workshop session I prepared for doctoral candidates for the CHASE group of universities in 2019. I’ve also included material I’ve used with individual undergrads, and things I think are just interesting and worthwhile.

* I refer to Halberstam under Jack, with Judith in brackets, in accordance with this writer’s stated preferences concerning continued use of names.