Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


When Medieval Silences Speak

David Townsend

By the time I wrote Queering Medieval Latin Rhetoric: Silence, Subversion, and Sexual Heterodoxy, I’d spent thirty years loitering at the margins of medieval texts–squinting in the half-light, as it were, for signs of mutual recognition, like the sodomites of Dante’s Seventh Circle.

But it’s the guesswork of cruising that’s most engaging. It took me a long time to realize that, on the subject of same-sex desire and expression, I find what medieval authors don’t say–and how they don’t say it–even more fascinating than what they make clear.

Very near the beginning of the field that came to constellate as queer theory, Eve Sedgwick pointed out that the dialectic between recognition and deniability made the closet a uniquely powerful ideological tool for the repression of queer sexualities. Yet like all ideological tools, the classical rhetorical device of preterition may well at some point backfire. Calling attention to what you claim is so shameful that it can’t be mentioned doesn’t just rely on your audience to get what you’re not talking about. You also expect them to react with a condemnation they tacitly share.

But audiences are multiple and diverse, never the audience. What if some readers have their own dodgy ideas about Alexander the Great mixing it up with Persian toy-boys? Or about monks at Aelred’s Rievaulx falling in love with each other? Or about Amazon queens and their co-parenting proposals? What if the discursive closet constituted by the rhetorical strategy of preterition turns out not only to abject but also to entice a sexually heterodox imagination? And further, to offer the queer reader an imaginative possibility that there are other queer readers out there as well, a silent potential community of the abjected?

Paradoxically, a lot of queer historical scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s was deeply invested in driving a definitive wedge between pre-modern texts and the desire of modern readers for a queer past. In the shadow of Foucault–with his magisterial sweep and his sometimes infuriatingly oversimplified takes on medieval evidence–the heresy of Essentialism was for nearly two decades rooted out with an unhelpfully inquisitorial zeal. Since no one could have named homosexuality in modern terms in the twelfth century, or the fifteenth, or indeed before the word’s mid-nineteenth-century coinage, it wasn’t there, tout court, so the argument ran.

At least two things were sacrificed in the more reductionistic versions of this critique. First, an awareness that silences, like audiences, are multiple, and have multiple functions. And second, any effective acknowledgement that sameness and alterity always stand in a productive tension as we confront the past. Medieval otherness came to be prized with a fetishistic rigour, while interpretive desire to find one’s own queer experience reflected, albeit in a glass darkly, was dismissed as naïve–from the left by queer theorists, but also by socially conservative scholars invested in shutting down any serious consideration of deviant medieval sexualities.

Sedgwick herself argued for a more capacious understanding of the complex hermeneutic interlace of sameness and difference–as later did Carolyn Dinshaw, near the other end of the nearly interminable dogfight over essentialism and constructivism.

What I set out to do with this book was to look at preterition as more than a tool of repression, but rather as a sort of master trope for the articulation of desires that couldn’t be directly named–as indeed in many quarters they still (or, as in the American state of Florida, once again) cannot. My approach required an understanding of the device broader than its brief Roman textbook treatments, by way of an emphasis on how preterition functions more than on how it’s defined.

Once we accept that preterition stands near the apogee of classical rhetoric’s destabilizing reliance on what the audience reads into the text, it turns out that the modern queer reader’s response may share more than a little in common with that of one’s medieval predecessors. And neat historicist pieties about the medieval past’s otherness become harder to police.

Queering Medieval Latin Rhetoric By David Townsend

About The Author

David Townsend

David Townsend is Professor Emeritus of Medieval Studies and English at the University of Toronto. He is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Latin Literature (2011) an...

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