Articulating Premodern Male Homoeroticism

  • Richard E. Zeikowitz
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Three chivalric texts from the fourteenth century describe intimate interactions between knights. In his Book of Chivalry, Geoffroi de Charny describes the ritual bathing and dressing of novice knights who are about to be knighted. After the knights bathe and cleanse themselves of sins and lie down on a bed (presumably naked), “Puis doivent venir les chevaliers au lit pour vestir yceulz…. Puis les doivent vestir li chevalier de cotes vermeilles…. Et puis leur apportent les chevaliers chauces noires et les enchaucent” [Then the knights should come to the beds to dress those to be knighted…. Then the knights should robe them in red tunics…. Then the knights bring black hose and put them on those to be knighted].1 In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus, who is grateful to Pandarus for his help in wooing Criseyde, “with al th’affeccioun / Of frendes love that herte may devyse, / To Pandarus on knowes fil adown.”2 On the third night of the exchange of winnings in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain “acoles…the knyght [Bertilak] and kysses hym thryes, / As saverly and sadly as he hem sette couthe.”3 In none of these three scenes does the narrator qualify or explain the intimate interaction between knights that he is describing. Apparently fourteenth-century readers would know how to read these scenes. But, do we? Because the narrators do not appear to be uncomfortable describing male-male intimacy, twenty-first-century readers who assume that late medieval chivalric society is heteronormative may conclude that these encounters are not erotically charged.


Historical Narrative Fourteenth Century Medieval Text Heterosexual Relation Male Reader 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Richard W. Kaeuper and Elspeth Kennedy, The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny: Text, Context, and Translation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), pp. 168 and 169. All English translations are by Elspeth Kennedy.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) 3.1590–92.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, ed. A. C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson (London: Dent, 1976), 11. 1936–37.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Allen J. Frantzen, Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angles in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 6. Frantzen goes on to note that “[t]he view that sexual identity is an effect of discourse might be said to be the most distinctive assumption of queer theory” (p. 7). See also, Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1996) and Teresa de Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities—an Introduction,” Differences 3.2 (Summer 1991): iii–xviii.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Glenn Burger, “Queer Chaucer,” English Studies in Canada 20.2 (1994): 156 [153–70].Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, “Introduction,” in Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. xvi.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Karma Lochrie, “Mystical Acts, Queer Tendencies,” in Constructing Medieval Sexuality, ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 180 [180–200].Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Chaucer’s Pardoner has been the focus of some excellent studies that articulate queerness as an indeterminate threat to heteronormative society, see Glenn Burger, “Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107 (1992): 1143–56; Carolyn Dinshaw, “Chaucer’s Queer Touches/A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 75–92, and Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Steven F. Kruger, “Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale,” Exemplaria 6.1 (1994): 115–39; Robert S. Sturges, Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 10.
    Bruce R. Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England: A Cultural Poetics (1991; repr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 18.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Roberto J. Gonzalez-Casanovas, “Male Bonding as Cultural Construction in Alfonso X, Ramon Llull, and Juan Manuel: Homosocial Friendship in Medieval Iberia,” in Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, ed. Josiah Blackmore and Gregory S. Hutcheson (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 161 [157–92].Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 22.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Bruce W. Holsinger, “Sodomy and Resurrection: The Homoerotic Subject of the Divine Comedy,” in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 246 [243–74].Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, “A Kiss Is Just a Kiss: Heterosexuality and Its Consolations in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Diacritics 24.2–3 (1994): 206 [205–26]. See also, Carolyn Dinshaw, “Getting Medieval: Pulp Fiction, Gawain, Foucault,” in The Book and the Body, ed. Dolores Warwick Frese and Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), pp. 116–63.Google Scholar
  14. 20.
    Sheila Fisher, “Taken Men and Token Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings: Essays in Feminist Contextual Criticism, ed. Sheila Fisher and Janet E. Halley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989), p. 86 [71–105].Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    David L. Boyd, “Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Arthuriana 8.2 (1998): 88 [77–113].Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    Alan Bray, “Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England,” History Workshop 19.1 (1990): 2 [1–19].Google Scholar
  17. 25.
    Robert Matz, “Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello,” English Literary History 66 (1999): 262 [261–76].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 32.
    John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 44. For historians’ response to Boswell’s study, see Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell’s Work (New York: Scholarship Committee, Gay Academic Union, 1981); James A. Brundage’s review in Catholic Historical Review 68 (1982): 62–64; Jeremy Adams’s review in Speculum 56 (1981): 350–55.Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    John Boswell, “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1989), p. 35 [17–36]. For Boswell’s further elaboration of his position, see “Categories, Experience and Sexuality,” in Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy, ed. Edward Stein (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 133–73.Google Scholar
  20. 36.
    Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (1978; New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 43.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    David M. Halperin, “Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality,” Representations 63 (Summer 1998): 99 [93–120].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 43.
    Louis A. Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance: The Poetics and Politics of Culture,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 20 [15–36]. Other key “New Historicists” who, like Montrose, work on texts of the Renaissance include Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Goldberg, and Jean Howard. Brook Thomas questions the “newness” of the “New Historicists”; see his essay, “The New Historicism and other Old-fashioned Topics,” in The New Historicism, ed. Veeser, pp. 182–203.Google Scholar
  23. 47.
    Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 62. For Patterson’s detailed discussion and commentary on the New Historicists, see pp. 57–74.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    Gabrielle M. Speigel, “History, Historicism, and the Social Logic of the Text In the Middle Ages,” Speculum 65 (1990): 77 [59–86].Google Scholar
  25. 51.
    Paul Strohm, Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 4.Google Scholar
  26. 54.
    David Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360–1430 (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 4.Google Scholar
  27. 58.
    Marilyn Butler, “Against Tradition: The Case for a Particularized Method,” in Historical Studies and Literary Criticism, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p. 45 [25–47]. This is actually the fifth and final point Butler makes in outlining her proposed method. For points 1–4, see pp. 43–44.Google Scholar
  28. 59.
    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 1.Google Scholar
  29. 62.
    Gregory W. Bredbeck, Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 24.Google Scholar
  30. 64.
    Valerie Traub, Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 104.Google Scholar
  31. 65.
    Two texts I examine, the French Prose Lancelot and Ramon Lull’s Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry were actually written in the thirteenth century. I include them because they were both very popular in fourteenth-century England. William Calin maintains that the Prose Lancelot was “the most important single romance of the Middle Ages” and notes that “[w]hen Chaucer and Gower allude to Lancelot or Tristan, they allude to the prose cycles of the thirteenth century, not the verse classics of the twelfth, which had gone out of fashion” (The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994], p. 139). Richard W. Kaeuper notes that Lull’s work “was undoubtedly the most popular medieval vernacular manual for knights” (Kaeuper and Kennedy, The Book of Chivalry of Geqffroi de Charny, p. 25). It was translated into French in the fourteenth century and into English (by William Caxton) in the fifteenth century.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard E. Zeikowitz 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard E. Zeikowitz

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations