Browsing in the Fitzwilliam Museum shop last week, I found this image in the selection of upmarket Christmas cards. It’s charmingly medieval and vaguely reindeer-like, and no one else seemed to think it was out of place in the nice display of highbrow Christmassy gear. But I’d like to believe that the sinister cult responsible for the rainbow over Dublin last May was in on this one, because these, as you see from the matching masculine antlers, are queer deer.
Let me explain. Way back in the summer, I went to the EEBS conference in Oxford, where Kathleen Tonry showed parts of the illuminated manuscript now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335. It features a pair of be-antlered deer who seemed to be whispering intimate secrets to each other as a hunter hidden in the bushes peeked at them like a fifteenth-century flasher. Since only male deer have antlers, I figured this was a particularly subversive homoerotic and cross-species take on the romantic trope of pursuit, and I got halfway through planning out a very erudite paper on the idea of queering the objectifying gaze that was studded with references to Wyatt and George Boleyn, Dame Juliana Berners and the genderqueer hawks of medieval lyric, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s steamy hunt-and-homosexuality subplot.
Then I came to my senses.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of queer deer. On the quiet, I enjoy the way they’re hidden in plain sight, in the middle of a fairly conservative, William Morrisey, white middle-class Christianity type of display. I also like the surprise factor that you get from thinking about a medieval image from a modern perspective. There’s a long-standing popular belief that medieval culture is a mish-mash of chastity belts and sighing ladies, kneeling knights straight out of pre-Raphaelite painting and a vague sense that them Dark Ages folk were illiterate, superstitious and dull. This popular belief doesn’t have room for the idea of queer deer – let alone queer humans, or even any kind of sexual activity not heavily policed by church and state – because it suits us to imagine medieval England as a particular kind of oppressive, sexually repressed regime, a neat historical parallel to Islamic fundamentalism.
A recent bit of news demonstrates how tightly we cling to that image of medieval England.
Someone recently proposed a new candidate for the first English usage of the f-word – it’s a hot topic – in the name of one Roger Fuckbythenavel, who was outlawed in 1311. Dr Paul Booth, suggests, perhaps rather wishfully waving one hand towards the REF impact agenda, that the epithet might have come about as a form of medieval ‘revenge porn’, put about by a fed-up ex-girlfriend wanting to mock poor Roger’s clumsy technique. I quite like this discovery, not so much for the swearing or the tendentiously topical gloss, but because it lends weight to a homoerotic reading of a romance I work on, where men are constantly thrusting things suggestively at each others’ middles. I’ve been suspecting for some time that the word ‘navel’ had a whole lot more euphemistic connotation than it ought to, in that text. Euphemism is hard to prove in the absence of suggestive eyebrow-raising from a live audience, and so I’d like to think this discovery might be a tiny hint about fashions in innuendo, as well as formative fucks.
Yet, there is a special circle in Hell for people who dash into the comments sections of articles to dribble their confidently-asserted idiocies all over the internet, secure in the belief that the world is waiting with bated breath for those same urban myths every other idiot has just posted, and I knew this discovery would bring them out. Kate Wiles, who’d shared the link on twitter, had also linked to her old post ‘On the Origin of Fuck’, which rattles through the common misconceptions about the term:
“One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.”
She includes a discussion of the term ‘windfucker’, a nice Anglo-Saxon-influenced name for a kestrel unaccountably overlooked by Hopkins when he was writing The Windhover, and points out that the term originally meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to beat’. But, despite reeeaaallllly detailed and patient explorations of different uses of the word and different theories, her comments section is full of people falling over their keyboards to rush in and reinstate the myths she’s just busted. When that article went viral, Wiles reposted it on the Huff Post, and, delightfully, some idiot zoomed in to accused Wiles of ‘stealing’ a published piece and reblogging it. Commentators who accept the idea of male-dominated, officially-documented authority that lies behind the F.U.C.K. myth don’t seem to recognise any professional expertise behind a blog by a young female historian like Wiles.
I mention all of this because – predictably – the same thing’s happening on the new article. There’s the classic pompous idiocy (“I guess the author has never read the Canterbury tales (@1387) wherein Chaucer used the word (The Miller’s Tale) …”), which manages to be wrong in at least two ways as well as pretty funny (the Canterbury Tales, that arcane and little-known text). There are a couple of comments by people who obviously haven’t realised reading medieval handwriting is something you get trained to do, and not a matter of squinting hard and making things up (well … ok …). And obviously, there’s a zillion repetitions of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge bullshit (and its variants), of which my favourite is this:
“Fornrication Under Consumation of the King !!! Only the King could give permission to fornicate. Women wore Chastity belts when the spouse went to war and was gone for long periods of time. Then the King would have the belts removed.”
It’s unfair to pick on random people, I know. But I am picking on it, because the issues with this persistent set of confidently-asserted myths are pretty revealing. Chastity belts are one of the images of the medieval that never seem to die. At best, they’re literary devices or symbolic objects, until the Victorians come along and decide that the image of maidens locked into iron belts perfectly fits their somewhat fetishistic idea of medieval womanhood. There’s a strange, nursery-rhyme innocence to the idea that the king would relate personally to each of his subjects (all 2.5 million of them), and a rather more worrying lack of anatomical plausibility (hundreds of women, locked into metal belts for months and years, might just possibly struggle with basic biological functions, not to mention getting gangrene from metal rubbing against skin). Suffice to say, these are misconceptions that aren’t just implausible – they’re downright absurd.
But it’s what they say about ideas of authority and freedom of expression that I’m interested in. In this re-writing of medieval England, the king is absolute ruler, literally and physically controlling his subjects’ sexuality. His surveillance is so complete, so meticulously recorded in writing, that it has given us our foremost swearword. It’s an image of medieval England that couldn’t possibly have existed, one that draws on immensely more powerful and overt methods of control and legislation than any medieval king ever had. People cling tenaciously to this image of masculine totalitarian control.
Medieval practices of gender and sexuality undoubtedly were policed, just as ours are. But much of that policing was – just as ours is – carried out indirectly, through habits of thought and action far more subtle than a king’s command and far less visible than a written order. My ‘queer deer’ are so unthinkable – so incomprehensible to whoever selects the cards for the Fitzwilliam – that we assume, automatically, that they must be a modern interpretation imposed on medieval imagery. And yet, we accept the ahistorical – multiply ahistorical – idea of the medieval woman, bound into her chastity belt and constrained by the order of her king – because that image of controlled feminine sexuality fits our image of the medieval period, as an image of queer sexuality cannot. Why is that?
My ‘queer deer’ are currently sitting on my desk, and I’ll definitely send some of them out as Christmas cards this December. Sadly, the reason for their paired masculine antlers is most likely quite mundane. As the repetition of the image across several manuscripts shows, it’s not unusual Fitzwilliam MS 254 is a bestiary, written in Latin in the early years of the thirteenth century. It illustrates the word ‘cervus’ (‘deer’), which is related to the word for ‘horn’ – so etymologically-correct deer have to have antlers just like snails have knights and lions have St Jerome. We moderns – thinking of couples of animals as automatic sexual pairings, like Noah counting creatures into the Ark – are probably alone in reading a bit of cervine neck-nuzzling as quasi-sexual. But – as penalties laid down for lesbian nuns, as records on medieval women seeking divorce, as stories of medieval men marrying forbidden women indicate – we’re not alone in suspecting medieval England of being more than a totalitarian regime, and perhaps even a place where queer deer could roam free.
I am now even more delighted by the queer deer cards, because the fantastically learned G. H. Finn (@GanferHaarFinn over on twitter) has this brilliant update. When I saw the card, I figured the modern card-maker must have thought these looked vaguely like reindeer, hence, Christmassy. But I put that thought mostly to one side, as I know for the medieval artist, they’re not probably not reindeer.
Finn points out, though, that unlike the common British species of deer the artist might have seen, horns aren’t a marker of sex difference in reindeer – except during the winter, when male deer lose their horns but female deer do not. As he sweetly puts it, this means ‘Rudolph must be female’.
And it also means that my Christmas-card identically horned deer may not have been queer deer for etymologically-minded medieval artists, but they’re certainly lesbian reindeer for us.