The Sisterhood of Philomela and Christine Ford: Women’s Interpretative Communities and the Power of #MeToo

Last summer, I wrote a conference paper, later extended into a journal article, on the subject of a late fourteenth-century story of rape and its aftermath. My article, which you can read here, was published a few days ago in a special issue of Postmedieval Journal, edited by Diane Watt and Roberta Magnani. Despite the lengthy gap between writing process and publication, I realised with shock that I wrote the bulk of this article before the #MeToo campaign came into being. Just as the article came out, I listened to Dr Christine Blasey Ford give evidence of her rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in a hearing that resulted in waves of sympathy and horror and anger expressed on Ford’s behalf by millions upon millions of listeners.

It’s fair to say that Dr Ford’s testimony sent shockwaves through much wider and angrier audiences than her Republican aggressors expected. Women lined up to bear witness to the validity of her emotion, to signal boost her points, to give context to the way she told her story. In particular, I saw many women acknowledging – both in mainstream media and in general conversation – that Ford’s constant, anxious, polite concern to be helpful was agonisingly familiar to rape survivors, survivors of other abuse, and those who have worked with them. I’m not keen to put one single interpretation on all of these responses, as they were very diverse and came from many difference places and perspectives. But I couldn’t help feeling, repeatedly, that these women commenting on Ford’s testimony were providing a sort of interpretative community around her, a sort of sisterhood of witnesses. Yes, that IS how women talk about rape. Yes, that is how my friend (or my sister, or my student, or I) found myself responding to questions. Yes, those fears she has sound like the fears we had. Yes, this is credible. 

So often, when rape cases come to court (not that this was a trial, despite the antagonism directed at Ford), the public response is dominated by another, much louder and rougher, kind of interpretative community, cutting into women’s testimonies to cast doubt, to sidetrack into aggressively-phrased ‘what if?’ questions asking us to speculate about the mitigating circumstances, the good character, the appalling stigma, that really ought to make us think twice before judging a good man guilty of rape. In academic circles, the equivalent is the male scholar – no specialist on historic rape cases, but certain that they require no special expertise, too – sitting in the front row of a conference paper and muttering ‘it’s not rape’ while a woman expert explains her findings. This community is the patriarchy pulling together, presenting an united front. It is rare – very rare – to see its feminist opposite number, the interpretative community of women standing together to echo a woman survivor’s emotions and nod, quietly but cumulatively, ‘me too’.

In my text, this interpretative community of women spreads across one particular manuscript of a story by Gower, concerning the rape of the Athenian princess Philomela by her brother-in-law Tereus. In most versions, Gower’s narrative roots itself in respect for the authority of men – the more solidly part of the establishment, the better. Repeatedly, we are urged to listen to what has been done before, to direct ourselves backwards to the wisdom of venerable men, to perpetuate the establishment. Even when Philomela has been raped, she is not given a voice to describe her own experiences. Transformed into a bird and mutilated, she can only twitter a song. Instantly, with the brash speed of mansplainers everywhere, a community of ‘old wise’ men interrupt to lay down the law about ‘what she meant’ by her song.

But one manuscript – a small and inexpensive book, but one that contains an almost unprecedented number of women’s names written into its margins – adds a few deceptively subtle, startling twists to the old tale. Instead of a community of ‘old wise’ men around the singing rape survivor, we find here ‘old wives’: a sisterhood of women, whose interpretative community forms a protective circle around Philomela.

As I wrote my article, I was not only thinking about Gower and his narrative, nor only about the women whose names appear in my one manuscript with its fierce feminist twist. I was thinking about the ways women respond to rape and its aftermath today. We often talk about ‘solidarity’. The word has connotations of massed presence, of standing firm – and these are powerful. But what I see happening in response to Dr Ford is not merely solidarity, but something more mobile, more interactive, more dynamic. Women are providing an interpretative community, simultaneously standing firm in support of each other, and also mobilizing, strengthening and diversifying her voice and her emotion with testimonies that chime in with what she says. One of the most exhausting things, in the wake of a much-reported rape case, is the experience of repeating over and over, the same arguments, to men convinced of their absolute right to sound off about the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘have you considered …,’ the ‘but maybes’ and the ‘I’m not being politically correct buts …’. And therefore one of the biggest reliefs is to feel, like a safety net, a community of women all already speaking in symphony to drown all of that out.

Yes, that IS how women talk about rape. Yes, that is how my friend (or my sister, or my student, or I) found myself responding to questions. Yes, those fears she has sound like the fears we had. Yes, this is credible.

Yes, we believe her. 


Anne Lister and a Theology of Naming Lesbians.

There are many things about the current kerfuffle over Anne Lister that make me reach for a facepalm gif, but it’s one particular comment that tipped me over into writing this blog post.

In case you’ve never heard of her (and if so, you are missing out), Anne Lister was a Yorkshirewoman, born in 1791. She inherited the late-medieval house at Shibden Hall, where her manner of dress and her habit of seducing women earned the nickname ‘gentleman Jack’. Lister kept a diary, in code, which tells us a lot about her sexual exploits, but she was also devoutly Christian and in 1834 she organised a wedding ceremony to her partner Ann Walker, in Holy Trinity church in Goodramgate, York. Delightfully, Holy Trinity recently agreed to put up a blue plaque in honour of Lister and her marriage, which is both charming and rather daringly polemical, given the Church of England’s current stance on gay marriage. Here it is:


Now, I have no issue with the term ‘gender-nonconforming’. In fact, I am wholeheartedly behind it, and I use it a lot. Patently, Lister had no truck with the idea she ought to choose how to dress, how to behave, and whom to marry, based on society’s prescriptions for ladies. Patently, too, she had enough money (and I do think it comes down to this) to get away with flagrantly disregarding such prescriptions, too. But, as a recent petition has pointed out, ‘gender-noncomforming’ doesn’t necessarily denote sexuality, and one can’t help wondering if the people who chose the wording thought the term sounded a bit, well, nicer, more acceptable, than a word like ‘lesbian’.

Lest you think these are the ravings of paranoia, take a look at the way the Guardian reports the issue. Referring to the controversy over terminology, it introduces its own preferred term, likewise no doubt more acceptable, and with a whisper of Canal Street, feather boas and Judy Garland whirled up into a rainbow-colour parcel, christens Lister a ‘gay icon’.

No. No, I do not think so.

Now, you can spend hours reading the fors-and-againsts of how you apply contemporary terminology to historical figures (and I have; in fact the debate is starting to seep out of my ears at the moment, because I’m writing a book introduction on the subject)*. In general, I tend towards caution when using labels we know people couldn’t have used for themselves. It’s a risky business: you never know whether that label would have struck the person in question as inappropriate, inadequate, or even offensive. Lister was pretty explicit about her sexual desires for women, but she was writing in a diary in code, which suggests a certain level of covert caution. She lived together with Walker at Shibden Hall, but this wasn’t remotely unusual for an unmarried woman and I doubt it would have raised the slightest surprise in and of itself.

So why should I think it important to use the term ‘lesbian’? One reason is rooted in Lister’s own actions. She could simply have enjoyed her relationship on her own terms, like thousands upon thousands of women in same-sex sexual and intimate relationships before her (cos, sorry to the woman quoted here describing Lister as ‘one of the early lesbians,’ but no). But she wanted that relationship to have some form of recognition before God. She wanted it named. In Christian theology (and I simplify; I acknowledge), names are important. Language calls creation into being. A thing unnamed is inconceivable: the whole order of the world was named by God. The ceremony between Lister and Walker in Holy Trinity church responds to this theology: it recognises the relationship as a named thing, a reality.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, and that naming of a relationship before God is still not something open to all of us. It is still very difficult to bring the word ‘lesbian’ into the Church of England. We have women priests, a revolution that broke down some of the most ingrained ideas about gender conformity in the Church, but we still balk, I would suggest, at the idea of a blue plaque that does not take refuge in nice euphemisms when it comes to sexuality. Anne Lister named her relationship; she referred to it as marriage. Legally, as the blue plaque points out, it was not; theologically, she was streets ahead of herself. In the same way, it may not be strictly ‘accurate’ (whatever that means, in whatever dry legalistic terminology you might choose) to call Lister a ‘lesbian’. But, in the same way that Lister felt it was right to call the relationship she recognised in church a ‘marriage,’ I think it would be right not to shy away from calling Lister a lesbian.

*Note: if you want to read more about this debate, I recommend the introduction to the excellent and groundbreaking The Lesbian Premodern, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt, which brilliantly makes the case for using ‘lesbian’ in a polemical sense that is both academic and (for me, anyway) personally resonant.

What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter.

A few days ago Dr Fern Riddell, a historian (who, like me, works on sex and gender), was involved in a nasty twitter conversation with a man who poured scorn on her expertise and – gasp! – what he considered to be her arrogance in defending her qualifications. In response to her refusal to be patronised, storms of women academics have been changing their twitter handles to include ‘Dr’. The negative responses are predictable. What does one word matter? What do these women think they’re proving to anyone? Who cares how you talk about yourself? And so on.

For a lot of women academics I know, Riddell’s is a familiar story. Outside academia, ‘Dr’ is a man. Despite the fact that increasing numbers of women are going into medicine, ‘Dr’ is also a medic. Academic woman come in for a double dose of slapdown for advertising their qualifications as a result, and the scaremongering hits in at full force. Use ‘Dr’ on your passport? You’ll endanger the lives of millions as you are forced, coerced, into performing an emergency tracheostomy in a Boeing 747, since your doctorate almost certainly required the removal of your common sense and your ability to say ‘no, I’m not a medic’. Other academics – I leave you to guess their typical gender – will tell you condescendingly that they have no need to use ‘Dr’ with their students. I prefer to be Dave. They respect me just the same, and by the way, did you see how my teaching evaluations didn’t contain a single comment on my clothing or my tits? Amazing. A woman who pretends to academic expertise is presumed to be overreaching or posturing, and if she points to her qualifications, she’s insecurely boasting.

I grew up with parents who both had doctorates. My father used his. My mother didn’t – except on her child benefit book, because she’d got so bloody fed up with people patronising her on the assumption that being pregnant makes you really, really stupid. I later found out that it’s pretty common for women with doctorates not to use the title, especially if they’re not working in academia (and, of course, far more women than men are being pushed out of academia). So, when I got mine, I used it: I went to the bank; I put it on my work email signature; I ticked boxes and filled in forms with it. But I didn’t put it on my twitter handle. And, like Cinderella at midnight, I retreated nervously from the idea of using it beyond the magic circle of inner-city Cambridge.

A couple of months ago, I moved from Cambridge to rural Yorkshire, with my partner and our daughter; at the same time – inevitably – I went from being Dr Allen who works at Cambridge University to being Dr Allen, excuse me, is he there, or could you take this parcel in for him? I can see that it could be arrogant – and it’s certainly unwise – to have too much of your sense of self bound up with where you work and what you call yourself. But, for me as for an awful lot of women, it’s a real issue. A lot of us won’t get permanent academic jobs – we’ll find other things; we’ll decide to take it slowly; we’ll go part time, and for most of us it will be fine, but it will also be a much commoner experience for us than for our male peers. A lot of us will write theses, but we won’t write the books that could have come from those theses. A lot of us will write a first book, but not a second book. You might say it doesn’t matter. I certainly won’t pretend I’ve got something tucked away in a drawer that’s going to change the state of the cosmos or cure a rare disease. But, it’s still a loss, and a loss I’m very conscious of at the moment, as I wait in vain for someone to publish that brilliant paper I need to cite for my book, only to discover she gave up on academia after that conference, or check to see if someone else ever got their thesis off the ‘forthcoming, CUP’ lists only to find she’s taken a career change. These are literal ways in which female academic expertise is lost or removed from circulation; effort wasted. For me, using my title – on twitter, on everything else – currently feels a bit like an act of faith, a promise to myself to keep my work from being erased, to keep on going against the nagging worries about academic career safety and its gendered challenges.

As I’m writing this, I’m revising chapter 4 of my forthcoming book. In it, the fantastic heroine Floripas – who shatters gender stereotypes across the board – offers a neat illustration of the power of describing your most forceful and expert self. In a coolly outrageous act of violence, Floripas breaks into a jail to free imprisoned knights, snatching up the metal bar holding the keys to the jail and braining the unfortunate jailor with his own property. Excusing her violence to her father, she calmly transforms this moment of impetuous rage into one of warrior-like decision, declaring: ‘I slew him with a mace’. I love this moment, not only because the narrator lets us glimpse how Floripas pictures herself, as she slams the keys into the jailor’s head, but also because the real weapon here is not the block of keys, nor the mace, but the word, which transforms a woman’s outburst into a warrior’s triumph. I don’t suggest we rise up, en masse, to club our opponents with whatever the twenty-first century digital-culture equivalent of a mace might be, but I do think we might stand to benefit from Floripas’ example, and to channel her as a woman never shy to represent herself as expert in a male-dominated sphere.


When Stag Dos Go Wrong: Excuses for Toxic Masculinity in the Observer

This morning, a friend of mine drew my attention to an article in the Observer, in the Men’s Health section, promisingly titled ‘When Stag Nights Go Wrong‘. ‘Is it just me,’ she asked, ‘or is there a glaring omission in the list of things that can go wrong on stag dos?’ Why yes, Wendy, there is. Wendy (for twas she) gave me permission to exercise my irritations (which I suspect chime with hers) on this blog, and so I shall.

The article begins with a sad story. In 2016, a young British man on a stag do in Ibiza died, in police custody, after a plastic truncheon was pushed into his neck, asphyxiating him. The cocaine and ecstasy that prompted him to jump, ‘frightening and hallucinating,’ from his hotel balcony and into the street where the police apprehended him, contributed to the asphyxiation. Horrific, and as the author of the article, Sirin Kale, sympathetically observes, made more horrific by the fact that many people seem to have dismissed the evidence of police brutality precisely because this was a young man, on drugs, on a stag-do.

An alarming number of young men die on such trips, Kale continues, for reasons ranging from alcohol poisoning to drink or drug-fuelled accidents, to, erm, completely unrelated and unforeseeable events such as heart attacks. I have to say, if I were the sister of a man who’d had the bad luck to die of a heart attack, I’m not sure how I’d feel about his death being lumped together with the story of a group of young men who thought it was really funny to stand around a telegraph pole chanting to egg on the groom-to-be to climb 30 feet into the air while pissed out of his mind.

But what’s really irritating about this article is the way it attempts, with pseudo-anthropological bullshit, to justify these stupid exhibitions of toxic masculinity. The language is cod-military, halfway to presenting the various men interviewed in the piece as role models. Kit is described as a ‘veteran’ of more than 20 stag dos, as if we might expect him to appear in combat fatigues and just back from Vietnam. We’re required to ask ‘tough questions’ about the meaning of life and death (but all the while, ‘sipping’ drinks and maintaining a manly display of humour in the face of peril). We end on the sort of high note that practically causes the credits to roll in front of a panoramic sunset: the bereaved Stag whose best man’s death was described at the beginning of the article declares his new stupid hobby: racing moterbikes. “I don’t even know why,” he explains, with oh-so macho inarticulacy, “People say it’s stupid, but life is short.”

Lest you think the article is all about glamorising the behaviour it purports to worry about, be reassured there is a sociological angle to explain it all. Dr Thomas Thurnell-Read is wheeled out from his position as lecturer in cultural sociology at Loughbrough University. The stag do is a ritual, witnessing the momentous change from unmarried man to married man, and “The cultural urge to mark that transition causes all the hedonistic and ostentatious behaviour you see on stag weekends.”

Of course it does. The ‘cultural urge,’ that is. Not the men themselves. Indeed, there’s plenty more mansplaining where that came from. It’s quite clear, from the article, that the stag dos we’re talking about involve, at the very least, the sort of antisocial behaviour that is an almighty pain in the neck to everyone else in the vicinity. Oddly, drugs and alcohol are mentioned in a casual tone that suggests they’re merely to be expected (“Obviously, he was under the influence of alcohol quite heavily, as anyone would be on a stag do”). But one thing is conspicuous in its absence from the article. There’s almost no mention of women. Not the brides (for whom, presumably, these men go through with the whole thing in the first place – unless, it’s hinted, male bonding is actually rather more important than a mere chick in a white dress). Nor (god forbid) any other women. That wouldn’t be part of the bro code, you see, to describe what Dave and Jonty paid for in the strip club, or gangbanged in the hotel, or catcalled in the street, or just were fucking rude to in the pub while she brought them drinks – because it’s women, often, who’re employed in what we’ll euphemistically call the ‘service industries’ that populate the sorts of places where pissed-out-of-your-skull stag dos happen.

Women aside, then, the justification for all of this behaviour has to be found. It wouldn’t be right, clearly, to suggest that there are hoards of young men travelling to foreign countries to do drugs, get pissed, and cause criminal damage, unless there were a reason. That, the article suggests, might be ‘victim-blaming’. You know, that trendy thing that the women keep claiming in relation to something called rape. It’s probably totes appropriate to excuse what’s going on here, too.

What’s also appropriate, it seems, is a line of argument one can imagine swelling the hearts and biceps of the most gormless MRA-in-training ever. ‘Many cultures,’ we are told reassuringly, ‘have rituals by which boys become men. In Brazil, male initiates to the Sateré-Mawé tribe plunge their arms into gloves full of stinging bullet ants. Afterwards, they are welcomed by the tribe, as men.’

So too, Steve from Leicester has drunk 16 tequila shots and paid 300 euros for a Polish prostitute to go down on him in his hotel room, and now he, too, is a real man.

The racist imagery of ‘tribal’ culture – so much more purely masculine, so much more primal – is pretty popular with stag dos, so far as I have seen. I’m trying to imagine a parallel article on the subject of the increasing incidence of brides plumping for pre-wedding labiaplasty: Like the women of Somalia, Brits are expected to demonstrate their femininity through a complicated and often costly ritual. Sarah is having her mons pubis surgically reshaped, just as Somali twelve-year-olds undergo infibulation in a remote desert location [I’d write, in a backgroom in their parents’ suburban house right here in the UK, but that doesn’t have the same ring, does it?]. After, they are welcomed into the tribe as women. Can’t see it on the Entertainment pages? No, nor me.

Before the Owen Jones disciples of this world start shouting that FGM is a distasteful example and women are their own worst enemies – that’s the point. What the article completely ignores is the fact that there’s a fundamental asymmetry in the practices we ascribe to ‘masculinity’ and to ‘femininity’. What these men are doing on stag dos (both what the article stresses, such as drink and drugs, and what it delicately omits even to suggest) is not happening in isolation. It’s part of a wider culture of toxic masculinity, where we’re supposed to celebrate the acts of vandalism the article passes off as ‘laddish behaviour,’ because damaging things is the mark of a real, true man.

Reading this article, in its section on Men’s Health, I couldn’t help thinking of the self-centred apologetics of men like Tim Lott, or indeed our own Owen Jones. For them, masculinity is an intensely fragile identity, constantly embattled by the modern world. Men do suffer from toxic masculinity, of course. Indeed, most violence against men is carried out by other men. But there’s a particular type of man who claims as issues of ‘men’s health’ practices that are, patently, also or primarily damaging to other people who are not the nice, privileged, British men in question. Analyses of toxic masculinity have become very popular, because they have become a way to concentrate on the manifold sufferings of men, without ever identifying the wider structures of harm in which those men perpetuate violence even as they suffer from it.




Stony (Butch) Femininity and the Watery Female Body: Why Women Want Bounded Bodies


‘Stony Woman’: St Barbara with her tower (Met Museum 08.35.2)

‘Woman [Latin: mulier] takes her name from “softness” [mollities], or as it were “softer” [mollier].’ (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies)

‘the most stone butch of them all … a woman everyone said “wore a raincoat in the shower”‘ (Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues).

In her novel Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg imagines a brutal police raid on an underground club full of butch/femme couples. The character of whom she writes the lines quoted at the beginning of this post is, so we are told, subjected to deliberate humiliation by the local police, stripped naked in a bar, her female body opened up to a public gaze. ‘Later she went mad, they said. Later she hung herself’. For Feinberg (or, at least, for her novel’s protagonist), the quality of stoniness encapsulates a certain lesbian identity, an identity deeply conscious of its embattled ‘otherness’ and characterised by a magnetic resistance to touch. Intimacy might ‘melt’ this stoniness, her novel suggests, but to outside eyes it is a target for violence because it appropriates masculinity, because it insists upon boundaries between the stony body and the world, to which female bodies are not traditionally considered entitled.

The juxtaposition of a semi-autobiographical novel by an eponymous ‘stone butch’ with the encyclopaedic work of a seventh-century bishop (and, weirdly, Pope John Paul II’s choice of patron saint for the internet), might seem incongruous. Yet, for the medieval writer too, watery permeability represents normative femininity, as well as sexual openness, and stands implicitly opposed to women of stone.

For Isidore of Seville, writing more than a millennium before Feinberg, the association between female masculinity and stoniness would have seemed obvious. As he writes, the natural, biological disposition of women is to be ‘soft’ – and not only soft, but liquid; watery. Medieval medical theories, on which his work draws, argued that women’s bodies must be moist and soft, like melted wax in its semi-liquid form, so that they could be impregnated. Like that soft wax, imprinted with the form of whatever was stamped into it to make a seal, a woman’s womb needed to be able to hold the imprint of a harder masculine form. By logical extension, stone symbolises obdurate refusal to melt, to yield, to conceive.

These quotations were in my mind as I read Astrida Neimanis’ book, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. The books argues that water offers us a way to think beyond the idea of human beings as discrete, bounded individuals, and it’s a lovely, would-be convincing thesis. The same water that fills our bodies, Neimanis points out, also circulates through flora and fauna, minute watery organisms and also storm drains, filtration tanks, rivers and seas. It brings us into contact with organic and inorganic structures and – we’re reminded – with structures of thought that might challenge Western Enlightenment-style philosophy and spur us on to a more ethical engagement with the world. But the watery permeability Neimanis so enthusiastically urges us all to celebrate in our own bodies is a concept that comes with some murky gendered undercurrents. One reviewer (generous and thoughtful about the book as a whole), writes that, as ‘a female … mother and feminist,’ the ‘porosity of the body’ can feel ‘terrifying, and the fantasy of individual transcendence rather appealing’. After all, it’s most male – and white, and Western, and wealthy – individuals who have been most inclined to discourse about their magnificent individuality, most likely to contribute to the ethical/ecological problems Neimanis identifies, and least likely to suffer as a result of bodily penetrability.

An interesting contrast to Bodies of Water is Cohen’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. The two books share an ethical interest in locating (or dislocating) the human in relation to much wider ecological systems and subjects, as their titles make clear. (Side note: why is it that cutting-edge theorists sound so much like Thomas Browne in their titling practices?) Yet, reading Cohen’s book alongside Bodies of Water, I found myself wondering how differently that book might have turned out had Neimanis written, not about watery embodiment, but about stony bodies. After all, we’re also made of mineral; stone carries the fossils that remind us of the prehistoric seabeds teeming with watery life, from which we ultimately originate. Cohen reminds us that medieval philosophers understood stones to be admixtures of water and earth. They considered that, as the proportions of water to earth varied, so too did the properties of the stones themselves, from lumpen rocks resembling mud solidified, to translucent, crystalline structures of water held in fixity. Jewels – precious stones – were understood to be water transmuted, hardened, organised into its most impenetrable form.

The metaphors clung in my mind, because the chapter I’m writing engages with the same issues of women, sexuality, water and stone. My text begins life as a French chanson de geste in the eleventh century: a story of the wars between Saracens and Christians, filled with images of bloody battles and besieged castles, black-skinned giants and mysterious, miraculous relics, and – of course – dramatic images of Saracen men and women converting to Christianity to reassure medieval English and French readers of the truth of their faith. The central female character is Floripas, the beautiful daughter of the Saracen Sultan of Babylon, who falls in love with the French knight Guy of Burgundy, and betrays her father in order to protect the French.

In most versions of the narrative, Floripas is not only beautiful, but also fiery: violent in her anger, and resolute in her fierce convictions. Her character is shaped by contemporary Western European stereotypes of women from the Middle East, by the belief that such people – exposed to hot suns – were correspondingly ‘heated’ in their dispositions, governed by the element of fire and given to anger and passion. However, because Floripas is also represented as beautiful, noble, and a perfect subject for conversion to Christianity, she displays a more yielding, melting, ‘watery’ side to her nature, too. Ultimately, she accepts Christian baptism, stripping off her clothes to reveal a beautiful female body that stirs the admiration of all male onlookers, and submerging herself in the water of the font.


Baptism of A Saracen Princess (the mother of Thomas Becket) in London, BL MS Royal 2 B. vii, f. 289r (detail).

Floripas’ watery incorporation into Christianity is part and parcel of her final performance of sexualised femininity: her baptism happens only once she has forgone the final visual boundary to her nakedness and revealed herself to the crowds of peering French knights.

That’s the usual version of the story, anyway. In the version I’m interested in – a relatively late retelling, written sometime in the early fifteenth century – there’s a marked shift. Instead of being portrayed as a passionate, fire-and-water woman, who blazes with heat and melts with desire for Christian baptism and for her Christian beloved, Floripas is emotionally cold, even chilling in her casual violence and lack of compassion. Her body repels sexual advances and sexualizing gazes – it is never revealed, naked, prior to her baptism – and it resembles nothing so much as the stony tower she commands. That tower is a literal bulwark against the ocean, battered by seawater, an impenetrable fortress. Protected by its stony bounds, Floripas rebuffs unwelcome Saracen suitors and would-be Saracen rapists alike.


Piri Reis’ map of the Gulf of Venice (Walters Art Museum, W.658, fol 185b, detail)

It would be tempting to celebrate this rewriting of Floripas’ character as a proto-feminist victory: the construction of a strong, empowered woman, who might even have a touch of the ‘stone butch’ about her. But that simple reading is too easily muddied. Romances about Christians and Saracens – like this one – invariably play out against a backdrop of anxiety about cross-cultural or cross-racial unions, graphically expressed in terms of fears of monstrous births. And it is impossible not to recognise that, when Floripas is rewritten into a stony woman, capable of repelling sexual violence, she is also rendered symbolically infertile. The romance sterilises the threat her fertile, non-Western body might represent to the Christian community into which she is ultimately incorporated. At the same time, and despite these anxieties, Cohen’s work reminds us to see Floripas as more than a stony woman, but as water in stone, water as stone, a character hardened and solidified from watery origins into crystalline fixity. Meanwhile, Feinberg’s formulation – and, I’d suggest, the women who have embraced the idea of the ‘stone butch’ – offers us the tantalising possibility of interpreting ‘stony’ femininity as a positive image, a deliberate way of constructing a diamond-hard, impenetrable, imperviously bounded self.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to reconcile these differing potential readings. But the sheer endurance of these watery, stony ideas of women’s bodies convinces me it’s important to keep trying, or at least to keep trying to understand how that binary opposition of stone and water might be split apart or interposed, to offer us a more realistic view of women’s own desires to remain watery, fluid, and unfixed, yet also controlled, bounded and contained.

Sore-footed camels and Unfocussed Thoughts: A New Year’s Resolution to Procrastinate More


I never managed to write a pre-Christmas post this year. You can probably see why. According to the New Year’s Resolutions I see anxiously discussed by friends and colleagues, I’m not alone. Christmas is a disorienting time to be a woman academic. Our analogues in the Biblical texts are the Magi: old men poring over the stars and consulting prophecies, who nevertheless manage to miss the deadline everyone else met, to blab angelic unpublished material to a rival research unit, and to bring the most impractical and tediously symbolic gifts ever to grace a newborn’s crib. T. S. Eliot’s Wise Men speak in an absurd echo of Four Yorkshiremen Do Christmas, moaning with would-be stoicism ‘A cold coming we had of it/Just the worst time of the year … And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory‘. Like pampered dwellers in the Ivory Tower, they soon let slip the perks of their lifestyle (‘the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces/ And the silken girls bringing sherbet‘).

I’d like to imagine it’s only Magi – or perhaps senior professors – who presume they deserve a research lifestyle smoothed around the edges by the silent attentions of feminine bringers of drinks (and, presumably, preparers of astrolabes and wrappers of boxes of myrrh). But there’s a wider academic culture that functions on these expectations. You see it at conferences, in senior common rooms, in libraries. Sitting in Newnham Senior Common Room the other week, I overheard the tail-end of a conversation between two (youngish) men. As one made to pick up his cup and return it to the tray, the other casually instructed him ‘you don’t need to do that’ – even though a female colleague was, just then, doing exactly that piece of clearing up. After all, some unobtrusive non-academic person would soon pop by, with fresh coffee, to tidy the papers and pick up cups left on various surfaces.

The entitlement of this little episode, which casually presumes that someone else will do the clearing so long as we do the hard thinking, makes me rather uncomfortable with the trappings of academia. It also makes me think again about the reasons why hard thinking has become synonymous with freeing oneself from distractions. I have seen several articles recently that claim, approvingly, that good researchers are those who stick at a problem longer than everyone else, who become single-minded in pursuit of an answer. This concentration is, obviously, an awful lot easier with a certain kind of freedom from other obligations. The pram in the hall is the enemy of promise, Cyril Connolly helpfully claimed; Virginia Woolf equally helpfully suggested that a women needs ‘a room of one’s own’. I would find these quotations less annoying had I heard them less frequently over the last few months.

I think that, especially for women writers and academics, the rhetoric of freedom from distractions has been internalised, and has turned in on itself as a means of self-flagellation. We express guilty regret for insufficient productivity and efficiency, for too many hours spent in procrastination, too many dead-end tasks, too few publications. We need to be more focussed, more single-minded, more concentrated, say my friends and (mostly female …) colleagues. As we balk at leaving the coffee cups on the table, we tell ourselves we need to stamp down on the day-dreaming and the wasted time. While we meet with upset students or respond to distressed colleagues or pick up crying babies, we resolve to be less easily distracted.


Given the all clear from the midwives. May.

I kept telling myself these things too, as I wondered why I hadn’t written as many papers as I believe I ought to have done. I sat down to work out where the year went. In March this year, my daughter was born. I submitted and received the contract for my first book (forthcoming from Boydell and Brewer). I had my first article accepted (forthcoming in The Chaucer Review in April 2018). I wrote and submitted my second article (Postmedieval). I organised a series conference sessions with Emma Bérat for our project on Women’s Strategies of Memory at Leeds IMC 2018. I started a new job at Newnham College as affiliated lecturer and Director of Studies while my lovely colleague is off on maternity leave, and I found a home for a third paper in an edited collection put together by the fabulous Carissa Harris, Liza Strakhov and Sarah Baechle. Before we quite get to the end of 2017, I’d like to finish writing my paper for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in early January.

This past term, my partner went back to work 3.5 days a week. I had 12 hours teaching for my first and second-year medievalists at Newnham and Murray Edwards, which fitted into the remaining 1.5 days she was at home with the baby. My marking (22 essays, so around another 11 hours), teaching prep, admin, and all of my own writing and research, happened around the baby. She learned to stand up grabbing onto the chairs in my office, and babbled through a lot of phone meetings with the Senior Tutor in one especially fraught week. Midway through term, in November, I had surgery to remove a 20cm cyst in my ovary, and after term ended, I came back for another week of admissions interviews (and felt devoutly thankful that my colleague, the other Newnham DoS, was doing most of the admin!).

During this past term, I followed my friend Rachel Moss’s posts (here and here) as she movingly and thoughtfully discussed the ways in which our bodies and our physical circumstances shape our academic work. Her posts made me gratefully aware of how lucky I am, but also made me think about my own changing ways of being productive. In a sense, being very busy with a baby seems to be a highly concentrated state of thinking. You have no option but to focus on one strand of thought. You don’t have time to daydream. It looks awfully like what high-achieving scholars piously claim is the ideal … only, funnily enough, it doesn’t quite feel as stimulating and efficient as they suggest.

Big, speculative tangents that take you from Chaucer to the Heroides to the Middle English Dictionary to Bourdieu aren’t going to happen if the second priority in your mind is always ‘can I pin this paragraph down before the baby crawls off the edge of the sofa?’ Like the Dreamer in Pearl, more elusively rounded thoughts tended to slip through my fingers ‘from grass to ground,’ and get lost.

I thought, wistfully, about the way in which medieval dream-visions operate on multiple levels, constantly throwing up speculative possibilities and inviting us to fellow tangents and digress down unexpected paths. I thought about St Augustine, calmly dissecting the processes of his own memory as he ponders the experience of reciting a psalm, all the while conscious of the remarkable way the text winds itself through the reciting mind from anticipation to memory. I thought, and I began to doubt, somewhat, that what these ideal academics are doing when they free themselves from distractions really is single-minded, concentrated thinking.

I am not suggesting we should all equip ourselves with climbing babies, still less that we should be martyrishly positive in the face of unethically busy workloads or crises with student mental health, or (god forbid) our own health issues. But I would like to see a version of academia in which we could take the time to consider how these things shape our thoughts, where we could acknowledge that being single-minded and concentrated is, in fact, a poor way of thinking. Perhaps if the Magi had bothered to make the sherbet themselves, the break from star-charts might have stimulated a new approach to a problem. Perhaps they would have arrived on time. Perhaps if the men in Newnham Common Room had picked up their coffee cups for themselves, they would have found themselves chatting (as I have) with a chance-met colleague who offered a completely unexpected new perspective on a piece of work.

Speculative, open-ended, seemingly ‘trivial’ conversations led to some of the work I’m most excited to be settling down to for the next year. Many of these conversations were ‘distractions’ from work – chats about babies and health issues, jokes about fertility clinics or surgical wards. But they turned into serious thoughts about how the printing press changed the available ways for thinking about (queer) reproductivity, about how Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women is interested in the sterility of inherited Classical narratives; about how the pardon Langland’s Piers Plowman rips in fury is, in a sense, also the textual body of the infant Christ, both mutilated and brought to birth.

My New Year’s Resolution won’t therefore be to be more productive or more driven – but to celebrate the speculative, thoughtful, unfocussed moments we need to value more in our own work and in each other.


‘Queerly Invisible’: Medieval and Modern Fictions of Lesbianism

Tomorrow – December 14th – I’m going to be giving a talk at Goldsmiths, University of London, for their new Queer History MA. It starts at 5pm, and there are more details here. The talk is open to everyone, so please come! I’ll talk for about 40 minutes, and then there’ll be lots of question time.

I’ll be talking about medieval lesbians and public history. There’ll be quotations from the delightfully censorious finger-wagging accounts of medieval clerics, speculating (in somewhat implausible detail) about the activities of deviant women, and details from a fabulously bizarre Middle English romance. But I’ve also been trying to think about how I approach the task of researching something as nebulous and personal as sexuality, something that leaves so little mark on the ‘historical record’ as it’s generally understood. It’s hard to find historical accounts of women’s desires for other women. It’s hard to find texts where women reflect on intimacies with other women. We end up piecing together narratives from the tiniest hints, or reading between the lines to catch a glimpse of something that looks familiar. And – so I believe – we end up exaggerating not only the silences of the medieval record, but also the certainties of our own contemporary ideas of sexual identity. In my paper, I make brief mention of a modern novelist whose work helps me to think about both those silences and those contemporary (un)certainties: Barbara Trapido.

Trapido’s first novel focuses on Katherine, a young woman growing up in the 1960s and 70s, who’s acutely conscious that her rather innocent suburban childhood makes her an outsider amongst her more confident, cultured peers. This novel isn’t overtly about lesbianism at all – in fact, you’d initially think it was far more about Katherine’s entanglement with a gorgeous and rather arch older man – but it has a lot to say about attitudes to sexuality at the time. Katherine tells us:

My mother coincided only once with John. … “He’s queer,” she said, priding herself on her instinct for nosing out sexual deviance. “The world is full of nice young men. Why do you go out with an old queer?”

In the mildest and most socially acceptable of teenage rebellions, Katherine ends up studying philosophy at a London university, under the guidance of the paternal and opinionated Jacob, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany who specialises in Marxist philosophy and who makes space for Katherine as a visitor in his chaotic family home. We learn that Jacob shares at least some of the conclusions previously drawn, as Katherine tells us:

I had cried into my pillow the night my mother called John Millet queer, but I perceived a world of difference between that and Jacob’s calling [him] an old faggot. For one thing he said it so loudly it filled the air without shame. It had none of the same prim moral censure. 

I love this, because I can relate to the way in which Katherine is industriously persuading herself that there’s a rhetorical – and ideological – distinction between her mother’s unabashed homophobia and the equally derogatory language of her newly-found father figure. I enjoy the way we recognise – via Katherine –  that despite his patina of intellectual respectability and his profoundly sobering history as a childhood escapee from Nazi Germany, Jacob is still something of an enfant terrible, indulging a juvenile enjoyment of flouting conventions. But I also love this exchange because it sets the scene for something much more interesting to me as a scholar of same-sex desire, and that’s the innuendo that Jacob (unwittingly) contributes. Warning Katherine away from John, Jacob advises:

“Tell him to use his own house, lovey, and don’t you venture into the bedroom without taking a spanner with you.” 

Obviously enough, Jacob has in mind nothing more subtle than a swift metallic thunk, to be applied to a more-than-desirably amorous suitor, but Katherine claims innocently:

“To this day I don’t really know what he meant by it, but he made me laugh a little, which was a gratifying release.”

As a fig-leaf for the violent implication, then, we’re given the assurance of humour, which neatly links this episode with Katherine’s own recycling of the same image, much later on in the novel. Arguing with her Petruchio-like Italian boyfriend, she is faced with a sudden (unfounded) accusation of lesbianism:

“You spend your evening with Janice,’ he said. ‘How does it feel to go to bed with a woman?”

“You should know,” I said.

“Is it that the woman is too ugly to find a man, that you do this for her? Or do you want to be a man, my Caterina?” he said, pityingly. “You are lacking in important respects.” I found this so absurd, not to say distasteful, that I could not take it seriously. … I said we used spanners, Janice and I. This was a mistake, because he believed me, I think.

In many ways, this is the most nebulous, most elusive evidence relating to female same-sex desire I could possibly cite. The text casts shadows around lesbianism rather than writing about lesbianism. Its lesbians are invisible – hypothetical, counterfactual – and they are mentioned only to construct the punchline of an innuendo-heavy joke directed against a paranoid man.

Later on, though, Trapido revisits the topic. Her novel Temples of Delight (1990) features Alice, a bright, isolated and mildly rebellious daughter of conservative and conventional parents, who falls under the spell of a brilliant, bohemian schoolfriend adept at quoting Mozart and skipping school. It’s clear enough that this is a ‘lesbian’ encounter – at least on Alice’s side – because later, in the sequel (Juggling, 1994), we meet a grown-up Alice who eventually leaves her husband and comes out. Despite this, the juvenile Alice’s inability to name her own feelings is convincing, that any suggestion this was a potentially lesbian relationship completely passed over my head when I first read it, aged about 14. All I noticed was that Alice expressed a perfectly rational and normal (so it seemed to me) reluctance to sleep with the handsome, thoroughly decent, but heartily and oppressively masculine young man who was keen to pressure her towards him. Certainly – and I like to think Trapido would appreciate the irony – it didn’t occur to me we were supposed to draw any conclusions about Alice’s sexuality from that unexpressed reluctance. Alice is an ‘invisible’ lesbian, a character who (in the first book) never names her sexuality or identifies herself unambiguously.

It’s a vital story that Trapido is telling, when she tells us about Alice. Yet it’s a narrative that never seeks to name Alice’s sexuality, never suggests she has a ‘self conscious’ understanding of that sexuality. It flies in the fact of popular understandings of what it means to be lesbian, in our sophisticated post-Foucault world. And what Trapido tells us about Katherine is even more elusive. We’re given to understand that sexuality is not a binary matter – else why include John, a ‘queer’ who is clearly not exclusively interested in same-sex relations? – but we’re also invited to understand sexuality in terms of innuendos that will rapidly slip beyond the understanding of historians (‘what is this word “spanner”‘? What did it mean in twentieth-century English?).

The very subtlety of these texts has a lot to tells about perceptions of sexuality. Much of what we communicate about sexuality – and especially ‘alternative’ sexualities – is conveyed through unspoken implications, through silences, through moments that need to be reinterpreted in the light of a later story, through innuendos and suppositions and hypothetical examples. Much of this won’t leave a mark on the historical record; much more of it might be hard to decode within a few hundred years. But, because these texts construct such fleeting, tacit and tangential images of same-sex desire, they maintain a space in which sexuality can be about unexpressed possibilities and unspecified impetuses. It’s a space in which we might be able to imagine a meeting with the distant past, and an understanding of a period that didn’t have a terminology to describe, much less name, same-sex desires. But it’s also a space that should remind us how fictional – how hypothetical, how tacit – our own certainties regarding sexuality can be. It’s a space to remind us how easily our own sure identities might be disrupted in a future historian’s interpretation, and how cautious – and generous – we need to be in reading between the lines of the past.