The final element of this [group of posts] takes up the strands of the argument in the previous to underline how sexual categories in late antiquity were very different in late antiquity not only from those of today but also from what one might initially have expected.
At this point I want to mention what is known as Queer Theory, something to some extent associated with Judith Butler, whom I mentioned [in the last blog post]. Again I am going to have to be brief. What queer theory is – extremely basically – is a theory that seeks to challenge the automatic assumptions of heteronormativity in order to flag up instances where such norms are troubled or subverted, where they don’t fit into the usual narratives of love, sex, marriage, reproduction and the family. Some thinkers have pointed out the knots that scholars – especially medievalists – have tied themselves in to deny that the evidence really suggests same-sex love or desire. Some people have extended the notion of queerness far beyond that; others say that that’s not really queer theory. I am going to use it in quite the narrow sense.
I want now to talk through some cases, which are all from sixth-century Merovingian Gaul, that might make the theory just discussed a little more concrete, in a late antique context.
My first example takes us back to the issue of young men and concerns graves 6 and 8 of the sixth-century cemetery of Ennery in modern Lorrain, just north of Metz. This was a double-burial (in spite of the separate grave numbers) containing one skeleton accompanied by some weapons and costume accessories – a belt set – and one without but with some other objects. The two bodies had been placed with the arm of one resting on the arm of the other. The initial excavator thought it was a burial of man and wife, but in fact it is the grave of two young men, one around 20 and one in his late teens. Their different grave goods reflect that; Frankish men weren’t generally buried with weapons until they were 20. Artefactually both are masculine, though, nonetheless. So what did the double burial mean, with the linked arms? There is a huge range of possible answers and there’s no time to go through them all. Ultimately, we don’t know – although there are a number of burials like this, of two men known from Frankish Gaul. The linked arms surely represent some sort of bond, possibly familial but also very likely emotional. We’ve seen that the bonds between young men in a household could be very close, emotional, loving, sexual. More interestingly, perhaps, though, is the possibility that even if this meant something quite different, it might have nevertheless been read like that by the people watching at the funeral, opening a different reading, perhaps a subversive reading, by people excluded from the world of warriors. We’ve seen that the likelihood of sexual relationships between young men was well known and apparently generally tolerated. Even if the ritual was meant to say something quite different, it might be read a different way, and the space between those readings – the space of deconstruction – would be the space of discourse about masculinity and male sexuality.
Developing that, we might note the story of the feud of Sichar and Chramnesind, recounted by Gregory of Tours in his Histories. It’s a story well-known to students of medieval violence but at one point Gregory says that Sichar and Chramnesind became great friends, so close that they often dined together and shared a bed. Now there’s a raft of po-faced medieval scholarship that argues that men sharing beds in the middle ages was perfectly normal and there was nothing funny going on there. No siree. They were all men. Well ... yes. But at the same time, maybe no. As we have seen, sexual relations need not define an identity; there was a huge flexibility in the interactions between sex, sexuality and gender.
My second example concerns a holy woman called Monegund, whose life is also told by Gregory of Tours. Monegund lived an enclosed life but she had a little garden that she used to attend. One day while she was there, says Gregory, a woman was able to watch her from a neighbouring rooftop: “she gazed upon her importunely, filled with worldly desires”, and consequently went blind until Monegund healed her. It was interesting when I discussed this at a conference, to see how determined people were to dismiss any suggestion that there was anything Lesbian going on here. Oh no. They didn’t do that sort of thing back then. Maybe there wasn’t, but also, maybe there was. That reading of the text was surely as available to Gregory’s readers as it is to us. The other interesting thing about that story is its implication that women shouldn’t be doing the looking and desiring. As we’ve seen, the emphasis on female clothing in Monegund’s day seems to suggest that they were supposed to be the people being looked at.
Another interesting story, also from Gregory of Tours’ work, this time from his Histories relates to the tribunal that was held at the suppression of the Revolt of the Nuns of Poitiers – an interesting tragicomic story but one which I will have to leave to one side. Several bishops, including Gregory, tried the leaders of the rebellious nuns who levelled various charges against their abbess. One was that she kept a man in the cloister, dressed up as a woman, so she could have sex with him when she wanted. Then one of the rebels’ leaders says ‘there he is’ whereupon, says Gregory, a man stepped forward, dressed in women’s clothing. He said, though, that he only wore women’s clothing because he couldn’t do man’s work, and had never even met the abbess. The bishops accept his story and move on to the next charge. This is strange story and I have written about in three articles, because I keep changing my mind about it. What do we make of it? Bishop Gregory makes no comment on the man’s choices; how significant is that? What did he mean when he said he couldn’t do manly work? Did he mean that he was impotent, which is how the modern translator understands it? Or something more general? The term he uses, opus virile, usually means men’s work in the fields. But it has to be interesting that a man who thought he couldn’t live up to some sort of masculine standard – that might very well not have been sexual, felt he had to dress up as a woman. And people seem to have been fine with that. And that’s suggested by a burial (no.32) from the Frankish cemetery of Ennery, of someone in their 40s, with the sorts of grave-goods that would be typical for a woman in her 40s, but who, according to the skeletal data, was a man. Again, what do we make of that? The person was buried in the communal cemetery just like everyone else suggesting that if she had been a biological male who lived their life as a woman, people were happy enough to recognise that in her funeral.
What I hope I have demonstrated in this [blog post], as in the others in this [group of posts], is that a lot of what you might think of as natural categories or ways of categorising didn’t always apply in late antiquity. The late antique world can be very unexpected.