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Transforming Language

As I send bits and pieces of my burgeoning dissertation out into the world, it is becoming clear to me that the central topic of my thesis – the way writers use language to mediate fluid or non-binary gender – is likely to be a source of concern for readers of my own writing. This is as it should be, since I aim to argue that searching for the right words to express the intricacies, evolutions, and surprises of gender is fundamental to the process of understanding and enabling it. This being said, I am also aware that words have just as much power to shut down the possibilities of gender and have a destructive effect on those whose experience of gender exceeds the normative categories of “male” and “female.” Ordinarily, I do my best to defer to writers and theorists whose lived experience informs their discussion of gendered language, such as Susan Stryker and Jack Halberstam. In order to build upon their work and consider the ways in which people tried to answer these same questions in a different cultural and historical moment, however, it is necessary to adapt some of their terminology for use in a different semantic environment. This puts me at risk of anachronism or reductivism, and my readers will highly sensitive to the potential pitfalls of this fraught topic.

Though some of the most contentious words in the literature I discuss will be the monosyllables “he” and “she,” other words that will require careful attention in my prose will be the more recently coined and etymologically complex terms of “transgender,” “transvestite,” and “cross-dresser.” Each of these terms can be plausibly included under the umbrella term “trans*,” but more specificity is sometimes necessary. These terms also come up in the work of other scholars, and it is crucial for me to understand the stakes of choosing one term over another when engaging with other criticism.

The first decision I have to make relates to the distinction between “cross-dresser” and “transvestite” when it comes to figures who wear clothing that conflicts with the gender norms of their communities. Though “transvestite” is simply a Latinate version of “cross-dresser,” long usage has forged a semantic difference between the two terms. Each term has been used in a wide range of contexts and can hold a variety of meanings, but in the cultural imagination the word “transvestite” tends to conjure an image of Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show, and “cross-dresser” invokes a suffragette in bloomers. Both of these images offer rich and wonderful possibilities for the subversion of normative gender identities, but neither are quite right as comparisons to a range of medieval English texts that narrate the exploits of women (and a man) who alter their gender performance in service of God.

Though one still sees “transvestite” and “cross-dresser” being used interchangeably to discuss saints who don gender atypical clothing, I have opted to use “cross-dressing” as a broader term. In his review of Paul Szarmach’s “Aelfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia,” Theodore Leinbaugh takes objection to Szarmach’s use of the word “transvestite” because “[his] dictionary defines transvestism primarily as the abnormal desire to dress in the clothing of the opposite sex” (56), whereas Eugenia’s cross-dressing seems purely pragmatic to him. I differ from Leinbach’s 1992 suggestion that Eugenia’s behaviour has nothing to do with gender variation, and would offer instead that we in 2015 should move away from thinking of cross-dressing as abnormal, but his objection is a prime example of the difficulties that a word like “transvestite” might raise before I have had a chance to discuss the nuances of each gender-fluid circumstance on a case-by-case basis.

I have taken a cue here from Susan Stryker in Transgender History. She defines “cross-dresser” as “a term intended as a non-judgmental replacement for “transvestite,” [as] it is usually considered to be neutrally descriptive of the practice of wearing gender-atypical clothing rather than associating that practice with an erotic impulse” (17). Though some have reclaimed the term “transvestite” as a way to indicate that there may in fact be an erotic impulse or broader implications for the gender identity of the cross-dresser, the term “cross-dresser” is useful for its neutrality prior to deeper examination or the possibility of self-identification. As Stryker points out, there can be a rich variety of personal, social, and cultural reasons for cross-dressing, and “cross-dresser” allows me to preserve some of this complexity.

Similarly, I will not use the term “transgender” to refer to any of the figures in my study. Though I have no doubt that the distant past was inhabited and enriched by people with diverse gender identities, I have no wish to designate medieval figures by using a modern term for a particular way that people may differ from the gender position they were assigned at birth. Furthermore, most of the figures in my study can be more accurately described as gender-fluid or non-binary – while the term “transgender” has come to refer primarily to “those who identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned to at birth” (Stryker 19), the cross-dressers in my study move through different gender identities in different circumstances.

I hope that my use of gendered terminology will evolve and become more refined as I work through some of these issues, and I look forward to benefiting from the perspective of anyone who I can persuade to read my work. For now, however, I hope I can express myself in a way that will be deferential to gender-variant people of the past and present and allow me to further explore the opportunities and challenges that language poses for gender identity.

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Against Hate: Why the study of medieval literature is vitally important

All of this controversy going on in Indiana with Mike Pence and the Religious Freedom bill has reminded me yet again that social justice is not something that we can (or should) separate from anything else we do as academics or human beings. Even when it seems like we are in the “bubble” of academia, not paying much attention to anything that has happened since 1500, we are reminded that some of us are not safe or welcome inside the bubble, and could be told to leave without fear of legal repercussions at any time. While the likelihood of me losing my brilliant colleagues in a mass discriminatory firing is probably pretty low, the fact that it is legal in the state that has otherwise been a great home to me makes me angry, as I know it does many others. It reminds me that the work we do is situated in a cultural environment that is exerting pressure and affecting our perceptions and those of our students all the time. As literary scholars, people who devote our lives to studying the expression of thought and feeling in the midst of cultural and historical forces, it is our duty to take an interest in our own historical moment, and show our students that there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the kind of attitudes that cause social injustices today.

In the midst of this anger, I have been asked to talk about why it is important to study Old English literature in my oral exams. Within the academy, it is easy enough to forget that the value of studying medieval literature is not self-evident. Students might find it esoteric and irrelevant to contemporary concerns, or feel that learning a dead language in order to read a bit of poetry is not worth the effort. Even worse are the people out there who do want to learn and study Old English, but for a terrifying reason. They celebrate Anglo-Saxon England as a time and a place where white heterosexual men were completely in charge, and any difference either did not exist or was not given any value within the heroic society. These people are out there on the internet, making comments on YouTube videos under Anglo-Saxon usernames.

Though we had mentioned this unpleasant element in passing during some of my Old English literature classes, I had not thought much about them other than feeling saddened by the fact that the literature that I spend my life studying was being made ugly by a group of people who wanted something that could use as rallying point for ignorance. Later, when I was reading the Early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale for the first time, I encountered it personally. The delightful Owl and the Nightingale contains elements of ‘flyting,’ a literary insult contest especially popular in medieval Scottish poetry in which the combatants use particularly creative and humorous language and imagery to hurl abuse at each other. The result is remarkably similar to a modern-day rap battle, and I decided to browse the internet for comparisons between the Owl and the Nightingale and rap battles, thinking that someone out there must have written a blog post about it, or made a funny video as part of a class project. What I found were the comments on this video, which implies that the predominantly African American genre is a poorer derivative of the work of earlier white artists. The comments section goes the extra mile by making this attitude explicit with a great deal of hate and racial slurs. I was crushed – I had been hoping to find some creative responses to the ways in which these two genres celebrate a similar impulse to engage in verbal combat in culturally specific ways, and what I found was sickening.

If the internet white supremacists simply kept to themselves and did not inflict their hate on the rest of us, it would be one thing. The nature of internet hate, however, means that it exists to spread itself around. Whether it is people like me who are just trying to study the Owl and the Nightingale or someone who wants to catch up on clips of the episode of Vikings that they missed, anyone who engages with Anglo-Saxon or other medieval literature on the internet is going to encounter it sooner or later. This is the environment our students are probably exposed to before they ever learn about medieval literature in an academic setting. They may already have an association between people who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England and hate, which saddening and disappointing if this turns them off, and so much worse if it encourages them.

It is up to us, then, to do something about it. As the people who study and teach Old English literature with an eye to the humanity of both the Anglo-Saxons and people of 2015, it is our job to show our students and everyone else that to study literature is to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others, not to promote hate of any kind. This is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses in Anglo-Saxon England – the experiences of women, people who loved others of the same sex, religious minorities, people with disabilities and many others show that there was plenty of hate in medieval Europe. There are also, however, ways in which we can uncover the voices of these people and share the humanity of their experiences. In addition, we can historicize the negative responses of medieval people and show how they were different than those of contemporary people. This may seem like little consolation, but it helps us understand that people do not hate each other for ‘obvious’ reasons that remain constant across different periods.

Instead of focusing on hate, we can also highlight the things that we love about medieval literature, and celebrate the excellent medievalists out there on the internet who are combatting hate. We can look at things like People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr shows that there were plenty of people of colour in medieval Europe, and examines the ways they were represented in Art. We can read the many volumes of good work published by scholars who aim to explore the concept of same-sex desire in the medieval period, starting with John Boswell and continued by people like Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Michael Camille, and many others today. We can also just read the literature itself with an eye to the experiences of those who are underrepresented, and show our students that we can find these people if we look for them. In Old English literature, we can hear the voices of women as an oppressed class in The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and listen to a man who cares about and identifies with a victim of rape in Deor. We can read accounts of people who were not content to conform to their prescribed gender identity in the Lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Euphrosyne, and see scribes who reinforce their gender non-conformity by using pronouns that match their performed gender instead of their biological one. We can show our students that when we celebrate and respect the culture of medieval Europe through its literature, we do so with an understanding of the more problematic elements and the people that were hurt by them, and that we can transfer our skills in understanding others to our engagement with other people today.

So, when it seems like our work on medieval England has very little to do with the hate and discrimination that we encounter in our twenty-first century lives, it’s important to remember that they are still intimately connected. Hateful attitudes infringe on the study of medieval literature, but we also have an opportunity to combat that hate through our research and teaching. Civic and political engagement are important ways to have a tangible effect on the legal aspect of our society, but we can still have an impact on people’s attitudes by doing what we do best: studying Old English literature.

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Annals, Chronicles, and Histories, Oh My!: Hayden White’s [The Content of the Form] and Narrative History

Recently I have been reading and thinking quite a bit about medieval English chronicles, especially the Middle English Prose Brut and its predecessors. The text is translated from the Anglo-Norman Brut, which in turn drew material from sources such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, but many versions eventually continue into the historical present of their recorders. The Brut texts, which give accounts of King Lear and King Arthur, as well as containing their fair share of giants and dragons, trouble the divide between history and literature. As I consider this distinction further, I have been reading Hayden White’s The Content of the Form.

In White’s first chapter, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” he considers the drawbacks in the use of narrative in the discipline of history. He points out that taking historical events and weaving them into a grand narrative that fits into a modern conception of a neat story is not a very “scientific” way of doing history. For White, the narrativization of history “is intimately related to, if not a function of, the impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (14). In order to gain more perspective on how narrative affects the way we understand the discipline of history, White proposes to examine types of historical writing that involve less narrative, or else use narrative in a radically different way. For this, he turns to medieval historical writing, in a rare example of a contemporary theorist using medieval texts in a thoughtful and judicious way. His objects of analysis are the annal and the chronicle, which he treats

not as the imperfect histories they are conventionally conceived to be, but rather as particular products of possible conceptions of historical reality, conceptions that are alternatives to, rather than failed anticipations of, the fully realized historical discourse that modern history is supposed to embody. (6)

It is rather refreshing to see that White is not intending to affirm the supremacy of the history preferred by the privileged subject. Though he ultimately comes out in favour of narrative history, he stresses that it is only one form of historical discourse.

The most radically different form of narrative discussed by White is the annal, which he exemplifies by reproducing an excerpt from the Annals of Saint Gall. This text, which records events occurring in the eighth century in what is now France, is concise in the extreme in its list of events corresponding to the years in which they occurred. As can be seen below, the deeds of great men are recorded alongside the health of crops.

  1. Hard winter. Duke Gottfried died.
  2. Hard year and deficient in crops.


  1. Flood everywhere.


  1. Pippin, mayor of the palace, died.
  2. 716. 717.
  3. Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction.


  1. Charles fought against the Saxons.
  2. Theudo drove the Saracens out of Aquitaine.
  3. Great crops.



  1. Saracens came for the first time.






  1. Blessed[1] Bede, the presbyter, died.
  2. Charles fought against the Saracens at Poitiers on Saturday.


734.                                                                                         (White 6-7)

White acknowledges that this record is not entirely without narrative, as it is indeed “‘referential’ and contains a representation of temporality” (6). It does, however, resist many features that we might normally attribute to a narrative history. Most importantly, it lacks any “suggestion of any necessary connection between one event and another” (6) – Saracens come and go, but there is no indication that these comings and goings have anything to do with each other, as the historian has not felt the need to posit any retrospective notion of causality. The fact that they are mentioned as coming for the first time indicates that there is retrospective knowledge of the Saracens coming more than once (8), but the annalist still declines to impose an explanation. Another feature of narrative history that the annal eschews is the assignation of relative importance of the events it records. There is no distinction made between the health of dukes and grains, or between the deaths of local government officials and far off churchmen. To be sure, it is a curated list of events that seem important to this particular annalist – just looking at the blank years is enough to convince us that there must have been events that did not capture the interest of this writer. But the lack of relative importance still gives the effect of flattening the value attached to the entries. The reader of this document is left to their own deductions about how these events might fit together, and read the events in terms of their own particular values – anyone involved in the planning and execution of the annual planting season will use this annal very differently than someone who is more politically minded.

The chronicle is a form of history that contains a few more elements of narrative, but still does not look exactly like what we might call a narrative history. This is not to say that there is a teleological connection between these different forms – the annal is not slouching towards the modern history, picking up narrative elements along the way. The chronicle is simply a form that uses narrative in a different way. It, like the annal, is organized chronologically and comprises a list of kings, queens, and events that are of interest to the chronicler, but it is comprised of the sorts of sentences and narrative progression that we are used to when reading history. It lacks other features of retrospective historical interpretation, however, partially by virtue of its lack of temporal distance – chronicles often lead right up to the chronicler’s present. It does not present a neat story with a beginning, middle, and end, because neither the author nor the audience knows the end yet. Unlike the annal, chronicles can contain explicit moralizing, and often assign historical importance to different figures by devoting a different amount of text to each one. Geoffrey of Monmouth, for example, devotes a significant portion of his text to recounting the life of King Arthur, but breezes through many of the kings before and after him. The chronicle does not, however, self-consciously attempt in many cases to propose a meaning for the events that it relates, as later narrative histories tend to do.

White argues for the value of considering these alternative forms of history as more “scientific” forms of history, as has been upheld by the Annales school of historiography. The act of envisioning a way of doing a history that makes a more sparing use of narrativization also allows the historian to think more carefully about how narrative is used in his or her own work. He does not, however, call for a return to this type of historiography in modern historical practice. Instead, he turns to Paul Ricoeur and emphasizes that while historians should always be self-conscious that the narrative they present is in no way self-evident, “it is because historical events possess a narrative structure that historians are justified in regarding stories as valid representations of such events and treating such representations as explanations of them” (171). He defends this conception of historical events as narrative objects by taking the agency of historical figures into account. Unlike a phenomenon that occurs independently of human interference and must be empirically after the fact, historians deal with data that has been enacted on purpose. Yes, historians are often interested in things that are beyond human control, but their ultimate object of study is the way humans choose to react to such things, and how they interact with one another. White contends that since humans have some awareness of the past and the future, they live their lives according to some sort of narrative, at least to some extent: “historical agents prospectively prefigure their lives as stories with plots. This is why the historian’s retrospective emplotment[2] of historical events cannot be the product of the imaginative freedom enjoyed by the writer of fictions” (173). In other words, narrative history is essentially a collaborative enterprise between the historical agent as author of his own life and the historian as its retrospective editor.

While this notion is a very comforting image of human agency, it seems a rather anthropocentric and idealistic concept. It would be nice to imagine that historical agents have such control over their lives that they might be considered the authors of history, but it may be foolish to be so confidence in the power of the historical agent. Instead, it may be better to consider a weaker version of this theory that relies on the collaborative history-making of a network of people and peoples that have been culturally saturated in narrative. Though it may be too egotistical to suggest that individual historical agents can follow through with a well-designed plan for the events of their life, the sum total of agents’ interactions with each other can be said to be guided by a collective cultural sense of narrative.

In this case, the chronicle and history itself can be said to have a chicken-and-egg[3] relationship. Do historical events create the larger (albeit imperfect) narrative that the chronicle constructs as history progresses, or does the cultural narrative posited by the chronicle influence historical actors (either individually or collectively) to produce results that fall in line with the overarching narrative?



[1] “Blessed Bede” is here a translation of “Beda Venerabilis,” an epithet that was applied to Bede about a century after his death (which actually occurred in 735). It became a common place title, rather than a value judgment.

[2] The word “emplotment” was coined by Paul Ricoeur, and refers to the practice of turning a series of historical events into a narrative, thus bestowing a “plot” on the events.

[3] My thanks to Angel Matos for this notion.

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