Welcome back to Queer History 101!
This week we’ll continue to explore the medieval world with art historian and curator Bryan C. Keene. After receiving his Ph.D., Keene worked as the curator in the Department of Manuscripts at the Getty Museum for almost a decade, and he now teaches Art History at Riverside City College.
In our discussion, we explored many of the ways in which the Middle Ages have been “straight-washed” throughout history. “Erasure is one of the oldest forms of human response to the creative output,” Keene explained, “Re-reading or revisiting the archives is important. You often have to look again at something that a previous scholar didn't feel was worth noting because you may actually come with a new angle or find that detail that's been overlooked or deliberately erased in some cases.”
Sometimes this erasure is purely accidental. “In the medieval period, touch was so essential to Christian devotion. There are works of art that have been rubbed just because people have touched them so many times, not out of an act of trying to erase, but actually of having contact.” He cited an example of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, where the foot has been touched so many times that there's no evidence of toes as it has been so rounded from rubbing.
This “rubbing out” as Keene refers to it, has always been a part of human history, but in the medieval period, it often had to do with what was sacred and what was profane. “This idea of humans being ashamed of our nudity goes back to creation itself,” Keene explained. He referenced the story of Adam and Eve, who, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, had their eyes opened to realize that they were naked. Afterward, God had to sacrifice an animal to clothe them and relieve them from their nakedness. “The term in Greek for “sin” is the term “flesh” (sárka),” Keene added. “So there’s this idea that our flesh is sinful and when the body is represented nude, it is inherently corrupt.”
“And yet artists in the Middle Ages had no problem representing nude individuals,” he continued, “from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, to couples involved in all kinds of sexual activities, orgies, incest, extramarital relationships, and especially saints.” Some of those scenes of intimacy were rubbed out by the artists and later centuries. “In one manuscript, the one act that wasn't rubbed out was incest, which I find really unusual” Keene added, “but those other acts were perhaps seen as so sinful, so egregious that for whatever reason, the owner rubbed them out.”
In addition to a literal rubbing out, history has also been altered through the processes of translation and interpretation over time. “People generally think that history is a set of fixed events or some kind of truth,” Keene explained, “They don't always look at the role that historians or many other people play in writing down or recalling these events.”
We can find one striking example of these historical alterations in the tales of Alexander the Great. Alexander was known to have male lovers, including Hephaestion, and the handsome eunuch Bogoas. Yet when a Portuguese humanist translated his story into French in the late medieval period, all of the male lovers were deliberately regendered to female. In the words of the author, they were regendered “to avoid a bad example”.
“In re-gendering, he starts to cast these individuals amid a number of medieval stereotypes about powerful women,” Keene elaborated. “Anything bad that happens in the book after that is because of his regendered eunuch (Bagoas) turned female courtesan (Bagoe) coercing him or seducing him. Then the book ends with a lengthy prayer to God, and it’s done. So the entire thing is cast in this lens of Christianity. And yet, for a medieval reader, that was history, nobody would have questioned it.”
Despite this propensity for erasure, examples of queerness seem to populate the Middle Ages. One such story is that of Gillion de Trazegnies, a knight who went on a Crusade to the Holy Land until he was captured and imprisoned in Egypt. A disloyal companion told him that his wife and family were dead, so he ended up falling in love with the Sultan’s daughter and marrying her. Eventually, his sons found him and told him that their mother was still alive, thus placing Gillion in an unintentionally bigamous relationship.
“When his wives meet, they have this really intimate dialogue about neither one of them wanting to have carnal unions with Gillion anymore and instead decide to live together as sisters in a convent,” Keene explained. “Their language becomes beautifully queer, not perhaps queer by contemporary standards, but it is a narrative of an individual having fluid sexual boundaries and relationships.”
Much of Keene’s work has been dedicated to discovering little known narratives and preserving them to show just how queer the Middle Ages were (follow along on his Instagram). This notion of “queering” the medieval period has also been used by several contemporary artists. Robert Mapplethorpe, the renowned queer photographer, was known to combine imagery from his Catholic upbringing with queer iconography. Ron Athey, Catherine Opie, Kehinde Wiley, Kent Monkman and many other artists also combined medieval imagery and their lived experiences in North America.
One such homage is that of St. Sebastian. “The third-century Roman soldier-martyr was believed to protect individuals and communities from pandemics symbolized by the arrows that pierced his body,” Keene writes in his article. In the 80s, Mapplethorpe and Athey were reminded of this Saint while contemplating the devastation of the AIDs epidemic on their communities and the impact of the lesions on their bodies. “In one Polaroid series, Mapplethorpe created images of individuals, bound in S&M poses, that evoke the image of St. Sebastian without the arrows. Athey similarly has been bound and pierced as Sebastian on multiple occasions. In doing so, one of the greatest Christian martyr saints becomes a queer icon.”
Queering the Middle Ages is hard work, especially since so many popular narratives draw from this time period without accurately representing queer individuals and narratives. Drawing from experiences of abuse in the academy and museums, Keene is completing an article about how to teach and curate topics of sexual violence toward LGBTQIA2+ individuals of the past as part of a call to equity and justice. Currently, Keene is also working with fellow curator Larisa Grollemond on a book called The Fantasy in the Middle Ages: Imaginary Journeys through Epic Medieval Worlds, in which they examine how people of color, powerful women, and queer and trans individuals have been erased from most versions of fantasy.
Keep an eye out for their podcast, too, which will explore fantasy from the Grimm Brothers and Game of Thrones to Disney and Harry Potter.