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“Response to ‘Using Literary Texts in a History of Sexuality’”
Jean Dangler, Florida State University


A renowned medievalist in English was once asked what he thought about Foucault’s remarks on the frequent blurring of historical and literary discourse. He maintained in an unmistakable way that to equate a literary work with a historical document was disrespectful and offensive to people in the past.

Since I have never wanted to offend or disrespect subjects in history, I’ve thought long and hard about his response. I don’t think that Foucault and other contemporary theorists mean to say that all texts are the same, whether in the present or in the past. Instead, these critics show that discourses often overlap, and that separations between textual categories are not always absolute. As we know, many of their ideas have contributed to recent revisions of the categories and values that modern scholars traditionally apply to medieval writings. So like many of you here today, I imagine, I’ve come to the conclusion that the effort to glean knowledge about medieval people and cultural values from what we have come to call “literary texts” does not denote an irreverence or discourtesy towards medieval subjects. Rather, it can uncover information and knowledge about topics otherwise thought to be difficult to derive, such as the history of sexuality.

This is, in part, what our three diverse presenters have shown today, with topics and materials spanning the medieval and modern periods. Louise Vasvári has demonstrated that the language of Juan Ruiz’s Libro de buen amor conveys significant meaning about medieval sexuality. In her essay in Queer Iberia, she focused on the lascivious and often obscene game of dominance and submission enacted with that language. Here she has centered on philology’s obstruction of issues about sexuality, and on the orality of the written text. In his contribution to Queer Iberia, Daniel Eisenberg argued that the mad or crazy love in the Libro de buen amor was love between men, and that Juan Ruiz was heterosexist in his silence about it. He framed these observations within a larger social and political context, namely, the late medieval effort to distance Iberian Christian kingdoms from hybrid, multisexual Al-Andalus. Today he has shown in greater detail the historical ramifications of that connection. And finally, in her study of the camp aesthetic of two contemporary Spanish writers, Carlos Varo and Lluís Fernàndez, Leora Lev has shown that queer medieval Iberia continues to impact the ways in which artists in post-Franco Spain envision and create modern queer identities.

Each of these presenters relies on an intimate link between literature and historical events. But one of the elements that most connects their talks is the implied political, cultural, and linguistic significance of Al-Andalus. These panelists have directly or indirectly shown that the Andalusi region was as important for its cultural contributions and ideology as it was for its status as a religious and political rival for Christians to fight against, especially from the fourteenth century on. Eisenberg has made the provocative claim that the Iberian expulsion of Muslims and Jews by the Reyes Católicos and later monarchs was based, in part, on the effort to differentiate between the heterosexuality of Christians and Christianity and the queer sexualities of Muslims and Islam. I have always been fascinated by this most apt concept, and have been drawn by Eisenberg’s application of it to the Libro de buen amor. However, I find it difficult to reconcile the Libro’s supposed anti-queer project with the ways in which it accommodates itself to different readers. The notion of the Libro as heterosexual propaganda positioned against sexual “others” seems incompatible with its lack of definition and fixedness in so many other areas. I wonder how to resolve this doubt.

Al-Andalus significantly affects the Libro de buen amor in other ways, such as in the linguistic game of domination and subjugation that Vasvári mentions here and describes more fully in her essay in Queer Iberia. This game is similar to the sexual model Steven Oberhelman identifies in classical Arabic poetry, a model in which lowly, inferior boys, women, and pathic males are penetrated by powerful men in an expression of erotic dominance. Vasvári argues today that the Libro de buen amor inverts the expected power relationship and “screws the mester de clerecía” with sexual parodies of authoritative discourses. She demonstrates that inferior and lowly discourses win out over their traditionally more forceful, discursive rivals. This is further evident in the battle between the armies of don Carnal and doña Cuaresma, in which carnality and lust win out over the purity and abstinence of Lent. Don Carnal inevitably defeats doña Cuaresma as time marches on, Lent’s rebellion is postponed for another year, and order is restored. Juan Ruiz suggests that what appears to be the victory of the abject is, in effect, the restoration of normal organization and order. In other words, the Libro implies that the grotesque is not anomalous, but ordinary and routine. I wonder, again, how to reconcile Eisenberg’s thesis of the Libro’s heterosexism with the suggested conventionality or “routineness” of the lowly and inferior.

The Libro indicates that the lusty, the sensual, and the inferior predominate and are most desired; it also implies that the base and inferior may not always have been considered deserving of expulsion in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the authority and predominance of what we regard as “high culture” was not so authoritative or predominant in the medieval period. And perhaps the idea of the grotesque or carnivalesque as negative is a modern invention used to describe a medieval society in which, as Juan Ruiz suggests, the lowly reigns. Along with parodying the “straight” discourses (as per Vasvári reading), the Libro seems to respond to a kind of conflation of the high and low that blurs their limits. To what extent are the homogeneity, cleanliness, and authority of “high” medieval discourses, such as the legal or the philosophical, a fiction of our own making? Were the works of a single discipline truly so homogeneous? Maybe different discourses, and human bodies for that matter, were not in an antagonistic struggle before the later Middle Ages, but instead coexisted. If this is so, then perhaps the Libro’s parody refers to a new struggle between high and low language and discourses rather than to an old one.

Thinking about the connections between the Libro de buen amor, medieval sexualities, and Al-Andalus has caused me to question just how “other” or disparaged non-heterosexualities were in medieval Iberia. Lev suggests that medieval Iberia was organized in part by an Inquisitional logic that resembles the modern ideology and practice of the Franco regime. Yet I question whether a malicious body comparable to the militaristic Franco command really existed in medieval Iberia before the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As many historians have shown, Al-Andalus and Christian Iberia were often diverse and accommodating places, even as late as the fifteenth century. The almost anachronistically queer fifteenth-century reign of Enrique IV is a clear example.

The link that Lev makes between the queer identities of medieval Iberia and the camp, heterogeneous identity constructions of Varo’s and Fernàndez’s novels suggests that queerness has always been. Just as Juan Ruiz’s Libro implies that the inferior and the lowly have always reigned, Lev shows us that queerness certainly repeats itself over time. Maybe the world has always been queer and it is the Inquisitors, the philologists, and the modernists who try to make it seem otherwise. While the study of codices, manuscripts, and language continues to serve a crucial purpose in medieval studies, critical methods and approaches that focus on cultural issues rather than exclusively on manuscript-oriented ones now accompany philology. Philology no longer wields critical, hegemonic authority. Its influence today clearly is shared.

I opened with the idea of the discursive blurring of disciplinary limits. In a sense, this blurring is precisely what the Libro de buen amor suggests, that positions and categories are not absolute, but interchangeable or difficult to distinguish. One kind of discourse, value, or text permeates another in the same way that the sexual penetrator enters into a body in a lower position. To return to the sexual model in classical Arabic poetry, in the muwashshaha poems of Al-Andalus the poet often degraded himself in order to win a patron’s favor. The ultimate goal in that poetic relationship was not to remain in a debilitated position, but rather to earn something from the more powerful patron. The subjugation resulted in the poet’s betterment, potentially altering the power relationship between poet and patron.

Perhaps Juan Ruiz recognized this complex and inconstant power relationship in the Arabic model and used it in his book to demonstrate the significant medieval value of the lowly. Perhaps we can consider medieval Iberia a meshwork of overlapping and “underlapping” elements, like a cloth or a text, and so question the predominance of fixed and hierarchical categories in the daily life of medieval Iberia.


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A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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