Like the Virgin Mary, only Hairier: Why Patriarchy likes a little Lipstick Lesbianism

In my previous post, I got halfway through the Roman de Silence, the story of the woman Silentius who was brought up as a man by her parents. Silentius is so successful as a man that hordes of women end up swooning over her, and Nature finally gets so furious about this that she descends on Silentius and insists she should act more like a woman instead of tempting women into same-sex attraction. This form of ‘correction’ is pretty familiar to us in the modern world, and it’s not just aimed at cross-dressing women. Like Silentius, we might think what we’re doing has nothing to do with sexuality – after all, in the romance, all she’s doing is training to be a knight – but, to the patriarchy, that’s a problem in itself: women must be reminded that everything they do is to do with sexuality. And if it’s not overt heterosexuality, it needs to be set straight. And this is what Nature tries to do with Silentius. Unfortunately for Nature – and I’m honestly not making this up though it sounds like something written in 1972 – Nurture then turns up and shouts Nature down. Silentius goes off to the court, where King Evan (yes, really. I picture him in a nice turtleneck) is holding a tournament.

Codex Manesse by Waither von Klingen, Zurich, c.1310—40.

Codex Manesse by Waither von Klingen, Zurich, c.1310—40.

As you can see from this image, tournaments weren’t just about men fighting, they were also about women watching. Some scholars reckon that, just as a few women (not me, of course!) watch Game of Thrones not purely for the intellectual pleasures of George R. R. Martin’s plot devices, so too some women might have read about tournaments not just because they wanted to be sure men were being properly trained for war. The positions of these women’s hands certainly seem to suggest they were comparing notes on a very important six inches. Anyway, in the Roman de Silence, one of the women watching is King Evan’s wife, Queen Euphemia. Being unwomanly and lustful and all sorts of other inappropriate things, Euphemia toddles off to proposition Silentius and is shot down by our heroine. In revenge, the queen tells her husband she’s been raped and that Silentius must be punished. This delightful ‘bad woman cries rape’ plotline isn’t unprecedented in medieval romance – Guinevere does it too – and it allows the narrator to turn Silentius’s cross-dressing into a positive moral force. Inevitably, in the process of proving that women cry rape to the satisfaction of the court, Silentius is outed as a woman. Barely has she whipped off her false ‘tache before King Evan sweeps her off her re-feminized feet and marries her. It’s a speedy turn of events that leaves us with the strong suspicion it wasn’t only the queen who went to the tournament to eye up cute young things with muscly thighs.

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, England (St Albans), 1235-1259, Royal 14 C. vii, f. 124v. Henry III marrying a glum-looking Eleanor of Provence

Matthew Paris, Historia Anglorum, England (St Albans), 1235-1259, Royal 14 C. vii, f. 124v. Henry III marrying a glum-looking Eleanor of Provence

The story of Silentius isn’t unusual in the way it represents women cross-dressing. In King Arthur’s court, a woman knight called Grisandole gets on nicely with her career until Merlin decides to ‘out’ her. Blanchardine, a woman who converts from Islam to Christianity, dresses as a man to protect herself. She marries a woman and is ‘rewarded’ for her piety by being magically transformed into a man. The best of all is the Princess Yde, who isn’t just turned into a man when she marries a woman – she also impregnates her wife and becomes patriarch of a dynasty of Emperors of Rome. The common theme in all of these stories is that the women are successful cross-dressers; they’re convincing men. To put it another way, the speak the language of their oppressors. They understand how to ‘man up’. That’s what makes these women  dangerous to a misogynistic culture. Inevitably, the narratives end by showing us heterosexuality restored once more – ideally, fertile heterosexuality. To us as modern readers, it could be disturbing to see this presented as a ‘happy ending’. But it’s not a story about masculinity triumphant and heterosexuality the undisputed winner. The king who insists only boys should be able to inherit is aggressively pro-male, but his politics seem to be more than a little bit personal. At best, he’s a cuckold; at worst, he’s been eyeing up the young men while his wife looks for sex elsewhere. And I think it’s this sexist stereotype that the romance is really bothered about. Just to end, I wanted to think about why medieval stories are (almost?) always about women dressing up as men. And there’s an image, and an anecdote, that shows us why: NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress I found this picture of St Jerome cross-dressing on an amazing tumblr account. As the story behind the picture goes, the eminent saint and star misogynist of previous posts was considered a bit of a stick-in-the-mud by his fellow clerics. While he slept, they dressed him up in women’s clothing. When he woke up, he made his way to church as normal only to discover belatedly that he was, in fact, got up like the Virgin Mary only hairier. Apparently, the dire shame accounts for his bitter demenour. Jerome is, needless to say, not a successful cross-dresser, any more than King Evan is allowed to toy with the idea of a little homosexual fling with his knights. Medieval romances, like modern tabloids, enjoy playing with the idea of a little temporary lesbianism or a touch of sexy cross-dressing from the women in the narrative. It’s tempting, as an academic, to read these romances as safe spaces for women to explore sexuality, or places where gender can be ‘performed’ in different and exciting ways. But it’s also to ignore a more serious issue. In our cultural narratives (now as in medieval England), there is space for women to play at being a little bit masculine, a little bit lesbian, so long as that play is ultimately resolved. This doesn’t give women greater freedom. It erodes the idea of female identity and sexuality as equal to and as important as male identity and sexuality.

How to Man Up, Medieval Style: Cross-dressing Women and the Perils of Accidental Lesbianism


The Luttrell Psalter. London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 202v. England, c. 1330

Appropriately, since I’ve gone quiet on this blog for a couple of weeks, this post is about a medieval French story called the Roman de Silence, the Story of Silence. I came across it while I was busy fuming about the recent Sky Sports twitter chat with Beth Tweddle, which Laura Bates has written up for the Guardian. Now, I happen to think Beth Tweddle is amazing. But, predictably, you put a woman on twitter to talk about sport (ie., not about men! Imagine!) and you find a load of wankers bombarding her with innuendo and making hilarious jokes about child rape (no, really).

So, when I’d finished smoking from the ears, I started thinking about why women who take part in something we still stupidly see as ‘masculine’ – ie., sport – there’s always someone who tries to bring the subject back to women and what they’re really good for: heterosexual innuendo. And I reckon you can see the roots of this quite nicely in medieval romances.

As you can see, the picture above is a page from a medieval prayerbook and it shows a knight – the owner of the manuscript, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell of Irnham in Lincolnshire – attended by his womenfolk. It is a completely hierarchical image: there’s Sir Geoffrey, mounted on horseback, bending down to the women who gaze up at him. One of these women is his daughter-in-law, the focus of all Geoffrey’s hopes of a son to carry on the male line.

This picture is probably not too dissimilar to what you visualize when you think about knighthood in medieval England. Men charging around on horses; women in trailing sleeves waving them off to battle or sitting at home waiting to get pregnant and have the next heir. The essential role women play in this narrative is to procreate successfully. But that doesn’t mean everyone was happy to imagine things this way. A story I’ve recently come across gives us a way to imagine medieval women (and men?) kicking back, or at least questioning why these gender roles existed.

Although it’s written in French, the Roman de Silence is set in England. The story begins by describing how the king of England passes a new decree, that only boys will be able to inherit property in England. Now, you might think that was pretty standard for the medieval period, but it wasn’t. Women could inherit and own property and – rather more importantly for medieval aristocrats – you could also marry a woman and hold lands and titles in her name.

Anyway, the king’s decree enrages his nobles, especially those who happened to have daughters. The romance comments ‘cil qui na mais une fille’ (those who had only a daughter) were filled with ‘rancure’ (bitterness) at the decision. You can see, by the way, that the French isn’t completely different from modern French.

The Roman de Silence. Nottingham, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

The Roman de Silence. Nottingham, WLC/LM/6, f. 203r

So, one couple – Lord Cador of Cornwall and his wife – decide they’re not putting up with this. They name their daughter ‘Silentius’ (‘Silence’) and raise her as a boy. This is very successful: she learns all the knightly arts better than her male peers. Over a hundred years before Joan of Arc, she’s already walking the walk.

 Painting, c. 1485. An artist's interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490)

Joan of Arc. Painting, c. 1485. An artist’s interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490)

At age 12, though, Silence is visited by Nature. Nature is furious, telling the young woman she’s selfishly wasting all the lovely feminine gifts innate to her (where have we heard this before?), and shouldn’t be dressing like a man. Nature tells Silence that hundreds of women are falling in love with her left, right and centre, “for you are so convincing as a man – they think you have something that you don’t”. Nature finishes up by commanding Silence:

“Go to your chamber and sew!”

The place for women is the bedroom and the activity that defines them is sewing.

Nature then tells Silence that she’s not much of a catch as a woman because she’s rubbish at sewing. So, she’ll have able to use her gender-neutral skills of playing musical instruments to entice men. Cos that’s the really important bit, enticing men.

You notice that what really pisses Nature off isn’t just that Silence is engaging in traditionally masculine types of behaviour. Her crime is that she’s avoiding her proper role as the target of male sexual attention, and worse than that, she’s now leading other women astray by getting them to fall in love with her. That’s right, the problem here isn’t just gender roles, it’s the devious threat of accidental lesbianism. And you thought the Christian Right were paranoid.

Italian Women, c. 1380. Yes, I'm sure they're not really twiddling their nipples at each other, but it did give me pause for a moment.

Italian Women, c. 1380. Yes, I’m sure they’re not really twiddling their nipples at each other, but it did give me pause for a moment.

Anyway, this leads me back to the nature of the comments against Tweddle and other women in sport. They’re effectively a form of heterosexual ‘correction’ presumed necessary to remind these women that, though they may temporarily be allowed on our TV screens doing something that doesn’t involve playing audience to adoring men, they shouldn’t get uppity about it. What I noticed in the comments under the Guardian article was something I’ve seen again and again. Some person, probably some well-meaning person, always comments ‘yeah, but love, it’s just trolls innit. They’d be the same for men.’ I’m not quite sure how it’s supposed to be comforting that you’re the victim of equal-opportunities trolling when you’re listening to people talking about sex with your seven-year-old self, but there we go. The point is: it’s bollocks. I have never yet seen a male sportsman talking seriously about his childhood training be interrupted by other (straight) men making cracks about what a slut he was as a kid. Even medieval writers of romance knew that.


I’m always amazed at how precarious the survival of some medieval manuscripts is. The only manuscript of the Roman de Silence was discovered at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham in 1911 … in a box marked ‘unimportant documents’!

Taking the Tory out of History: Gove, Again.

Like a glutton for punishment, I’ve been reading another piece by Michael Gove, lamenting the shit job history teachers did with my generation and the rubbish educational policies of Labour. As one of those sadly undereducated fools, I have what we might call a vested interest in this whole debate, so I clicked on the dreaded Daily Mail link and I found they’ve actually reproduced his entire piece. So I read it.

You know what gets me about this piece? It’s his phrase ‘after proper study’.

Apparently, ‘after proper study,’ aspects of WWI history have been reassessed. Oh, that’s good then. Time to shut up shop, folks. Gove has spoken and History is Ended.

This is the perspective of a child who just wants to be right. We all go through this stage (god knows, my parents would no doubt believe I’m still in the middle of it). But as you learn history – or English, or actually really any discipline – you learn that there’s more than being ‘right’.

It is impossible to say, for absolutely certain, whether or not WWI could have been averted. It’s impossible to know how much blame to apportion to different figures, who might have acted differently had they chosen to, had they known something else, had they (dare I suggest?) been taught history in a less jingoistic fashion.

But what history does is to bear witness to all these differing viewpoints. We form arguments, sitting in class. The teacher does not, thank goodness, give little Eleanor a big tick for concluding in her essay that Britain Was Right. Of course, Gove hastily adds in some nice platitudes about how we need an ‘open debate’. Except, you know, it’s the kind of ‘open debate’ where you label everything you don’t like as ‘not proper study’ and you decide you personally have insider info on the Regius Professor of Cambridge and why he’s wrong.

Now, I haven’t studied WWI since GCSE. I study and teach English Literature. What I’m researching at the moment is, basically, how fiction works: how do people respond to narratives that we know are stories, not facts. And so, Gove’s point about Blackadder really hit home for me. I know he’s cited this series because, well, it’s TV innit? Lowbrow. Timewasting. Not something that should feature in a Proper History Class with a blackboard and lined paper and solemn black-and-white pictures of generals on the walls.

Like most people who did History GCSE in my generation, I saw this episode sitting in class. I’ve never yet met someone who didn’t say they were moved by it, even shocked by the ending. It taught us a powerful lesson because it made us confront the history we were studying as something real.

Blackadder works because it plays with our expectations of fiction. We know it’s not documentary; we know it’s comedy, or farce. If we’ve seen other war films, we know that the ending is required to be tragic or uplifting, a miraculous display of bravery and escape or minutely-observed death.

If we’ve seen other final episodes in the Blackadder series, we have another expectation: we know that the in-joke here is that they all die, perhaps in some fairly comic, ahistorical manner (I’m thinking of the ending of Blackadder II, which reveals that Queen Elizabeth I was in fact usurped by a German male impersonator). So, when you see Blackadder muttering to himself as he tries to scrape together yet another cunning plan, you think you know what’s going to happen.

That ending – which cuts, mid-laugh, from Blackadder’s final joke to a slow-motion charge over the top, to a field a poppies and birdsong – is shocking because it doesn’t give us what we expect from fiction. We don’t see them die. We don’t see either a comic, clever ending or a noble, glorious finish. All our nice fictional certainties are shattered.

And that’s the point. In WWI itself, millions of stories were left unfinished. Thousands of soldiers ended up as ‘the remains of eight unknown soldiers’. Thousands more are still being picked out of fields in France and Flanders. The crushing arrogance of assuming that anything like ‘proper study’ can yet assess the role of WWI generals is appalling. You can’t write an ending to this one, not yet, and maybe not ever.

Obviously, historians are going to keep going over this story. It isn’t finished and set in stone. But that’s how it should be taught: as a conflict where both sides thought they were right, and people on the same side could disagree passionately about whether what was happening was carnage or a just, noble war.

There’s an agenda to Gove’s claims (god forbid I suggest even the right-wing sometimes has an agenda). I know people who are currently in Afghanistan, probably so do you, reading this. Gove would like to pretend that anyone who historicizes WWI differently from him is failing in their patriotic duty to recognize the ‘nobility and courage’ of soldiers. He calls this ‘Britain’s special tradition of liberty’. He’s setting up Haig and the generals of WWI as the natural predecessors of our current troops, and hoping the comparison will guilt us into accepting both wars as just, noble endeavours fought by intelligent, visionary leaders.

I was going to end this post by question how on earth Gove’s vision of history could be taught without excluding, say, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon from the curriculum. But you’ve probably already thought of that.

So I thought about all of the other voices that are tacitly erased from Gove’s version of WWI, voices whose account of the war doesn’t tally with what Gove would like – at a distance of nearly 100 years – to believe. I couldn’t help noticing the discrepancy between the upper-class men Gove sees as the heroes of WWI, and lots of the men and women who’re currently serving in Afghanistan. And since Gove believes all lefties are motivated entirely by nefarious agendas (like, you know, the wish for equality or common decency), I will now show off my leftie feminist agenda.

Here’s just a few of the voices from WWI that I suspect don’t feature on Gove’s list of favourites. Catch them quick. 

Bedford, ‘Munition Wages’

Collins, ‘Women at Munition Making’

Bristowe, ‘Over the Top’

Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’