Introduction: Sexuality and its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature

  • Tison Pugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


To adapt an immortal line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, some are born queer, some achieve queerness, and some have queerness thrust upon ‘em.1 In this book, my interests lie with those who have queerness thrust upon ‘em—the male agents and actors who, through their interactions and affinities with others, become marked with and/or compelled to embody queerness before being identified as normatively (hetero)sexual males.2 The construction of normative masculinity depends upon the possibility of the queer, as queerness provides the binary Other that normativity hierarchically opposes. Rather than flip sides of the same coin, queerness and normativity oscillate in respect to each other in the construction of sexual and ideological subjects. In this manner, queerness often constitutes a necessary tactic in disciplining certain male subjects into the prevailing ideological order.3


Sexual Desire Sexual Identity Normative Masculinity Male Friendship Queer Theory 
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    William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: Norton, 1997), 653–713, at 2.5.126.Google Scholar
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    Men and women have historically faced different forms of social construction in relation to ideological normativity, and this study focuses on men to uncover the ways in which social privilege is granted and taken away from the privileged sex of patriarchal society. Queerness presents unique barriers to social privilege depending upon a wide array of social and cultural factors, and these conditions shift based upon the biological sex and its concomitant engendering of the agent in question. By addressing the ways in which men metamorphose through queerness into normativity, I hope to expose how ideologically sanctioned masculinity, in some instances, depends upon the enactment of queerness.Google Scholar
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    For a theoretical conception of discipline, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Richard Sheridan, 2nd edn. (New York: Vintage, 1995), in which he observes, “Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. It is not a triumphant power, which because of its own excess can pride itself on its omnipotence; it is a modest, suspicious power, which functions as a calculated, but permanent economy” (p. 170).Google Scholar
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    Describing medieval masculine normativity in regard to gender and (hetero)sexuality presupposes its existence, and such a phantastic construction of masculine identity calls forth deep debates about the nature of sexual identities in the medieval past. Studies of medieval sexuality, homosexuality, and queerness include Christopher A. Jones, “Monastic Identity and Sodomotic Danger in the Occupatio by Odo of Cluny,” Speculum 92 (2007): 1–53; James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Susan Schibanoff, Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others (New York: Routledge, 2005); Karma Lochrie, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005); Anna Klosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); William E. Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050–1230 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Glenn Burger, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Richard E. Zeikowitz, Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger, eds., Queering the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn, eds., Same-Sex Love among Women in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999); Allen J. Frantzen, Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Mark Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, eds., Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Theresa Tinkle, Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996); Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, eds., Premodern Sexualities (New York: Routledge, 1996); and my Queering Medieval Genres (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). This list is by no means exhaustive, but it points to the variety of discourses addressing intersections of sexuality and the medieval past. For a casebook of primary sources on medieval gender and sexuality, see Martha A. Brozyna, ed., Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages: A Medieval Source Documents Reader ( Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2005).Google Scholar
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    Of these films, Some Like It Hot offers perhaps the queerest ending. Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and Joe (Tony Curtis) end the narrative in heterosexual bliss, but Jerry (Jack Lemmon) must still fend off the advances of Osgood (Joe E. Brown). Jerry gives a litany of reasons why he cannot marry Osgood, declaring finally, “Well, you don’t understand, Osgood. I’m a man,” as he takes off his wig. Osgood cheerily responds, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” The queerness of this moment dilutes the otherwise heteronormative ending expected when a man returns from drag to “straight” attire, as depicted in the storyline of Sugar Kane and Joe.Google Scholar
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© Tison Pugh 2008

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  • Tison Pugh

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