Erik Wade on Scholarly Erasure of Queer and Trans themes in Early Medieval English Texts
In his recently published paper “Skeletons in the Closet: Scholarly Erasure of Queer and Trans Themes in Early Medieval English Texts,” Erik Wade examines how early medieval English studies have treated queer and trans themes, finding it necessary to "defend" the heterosexual masculinity of both historical and fictional characters. His research was published in the July 2022 issue of the journal ELH. We are grateful he took some time with Hopkins Press to discuss his work in more detail.
Can you tell us a bit about your "academic origin story"? What is your specific area of research? What brought you to your area of academic focus?
I study how medieval English authors used texts and genres with global origins to make claims about sexuality and race. Early in my work, I became interested in tracing where ideas in literature originated, something that often revealed how previous scholars had ignored non-European influences on European literature. I’ve written on the influences of African and Byzantine theology on early medieval English texts about sex, on racism and Islamophobia in fifteenth-century drama, how people started thinking of same-sex desire as being “like” bestiality, and even on medieval riddles about pig butchery.
The research for this ELH article emerged from my endless encounters with homophobia in medieval scholarship. One overt moment of scholarly homophobia stands out in my memory.
About a year before I began this article, I borrowed an anthology of scholarship on Old English literature from my academic library. One article had a description of the famous story of Pope Gregory the Great and the enslaved Angle boys: Gregory encountered these enslaved English boys being sold in a Roman marketplace and laments that such beautiful boys were pagan.
He resolves to convert England to Christianity. It’s a story where homoeroticism bumps against colonialism and Christian imperialism, as well as race: the boys’ beauty—in some versions of the tale—is attributed to their whiteness.
In the margin of the article, by the story, I found someone had written “faggot!” in neat, elegant cursive. Now, this anthology was pretty obscure and scholarly; I suspect no undergrad had ever touched it. Sometime between the anthology’s late 1980s publication date and the present, a medievalist scholar had picked it up and labelled Gregory with a slur I’ve mostly heard shouted at me out of passing cars.
What does it mean to “shout” that slur at a dead pope in an academic anthology? What people are policed by doing so? The incident reminded me how much academia is no more “progressive” on issues of homophobia or racism than the rest of the word. I wrote this article to show how those scholarly attitudes have shaped our image of the past.
Your paper details medievalist scholars' attempts to "protect the masculinity of long-dead Englishmen", specifically, research on King Alfred the Great. You note that "no academic publication claimed Alfred was homosexual, however, so the scholarly defenses of Alfred's heterosexuality were unprovoked". Why do you think scholars have felt the need to "defend" the sexuality of someone who died in 889?
The European Middle Ages provide a powerful source of racial identity for white people, a racial identity that depends on an image of “proper” gender roles and masculinity. Early medieval England underwrote the ideas of “Anglo-Saxon” superiority that teemed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Medievalists repeated claims that the age of Alfred offered the first proof of English superiority. One medievalist started his 1862 biography of King Alfred with a long chapter about how Alfred’s life and medieval history proved the superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon” race by showcasing their superior sexual morals.
But the historical Alfred has never fit into the mold they built for him. A particular sticking point has been a biography of Alfred that he himself commissioned. It described him praying for God to send an illness to prevent him from indulging his sexual desires. God answered Alfred’s prayer with hemorrhoids. Scholars have not liked this.
So, when the AIDS crisis began, there was a flurry of scholarly attempts to free Alfred from being associated with a disease that could indicate he was a “passive homosexual.” What’s striking is that nobody repudiated these scholarly claims. Instead, they’re accepted and cited, while scholars continue to seek a heterosexual explanation for Alfred’s swollen anus (something they do despite the fact that nobody has offered a homosexual explanation for it). Similar attempts to free Beowulf (a fictional character!) from claims of effeminacy or homosexuality continue to this day. It’s clear that there’s an investment—a racial investment—in these dead (or fictional) men’s masculinity.
You argue in your work that scholars "outright state that studying same-sex themes in the Middle Ages is anachronistic, even when medieval texts describe those themes". Despite there being extensive evidence to the contrary, why do scholars continue to argue this?
It’s because the medieval European past matters to a certain modern image of white masculinity. Scholars are as invested in that image as anyone.
What I argue is that we’ve become increasingly silent on medieval same-sex themes. Earlier scholars acknowledged them but claimed that their very existence was harmful. Prof. Norman Cantor, famous historian of the Middle Ages, stated in his 1960s and 1970s textbooks (some still in print) that homosexuality led to the fall of Rome and caused the degradation of civilizations that tolerated it. Even in 2004, he was arguing that homosexuality was common in Ancient Greece because “there was no AIDS in those days.” His textbooks—some of which were standards in undergrad classrooms for years—depicted queer or trans people as a threat to society.
Nowadays, a lot of medieval histories don’t have queer or trans people at all, and medievalists often suggest that scholarship depicting them is anachronistic. Most people now represent the Middle Ages as intrinsically homophobic. Scholars (and the public) imagine medieval sources as thus incapable of containing queer possibilities. Even big books supposedly presenting “new” histories of the European Middle Ages—like Profs. Matthew Gabriele and David Perry’s 2021 The Bright Ages—don’t discuss queer or trans people, other than in passing references to medieval homophobia.
What’s striking is how scholarship has produced a set of shared assumptions about the past that ensure that explain away almost any act that might strike a reader as queer. Men kissing, embracing, declaring their love for each other? “It was a homosocial society and those acts didn’t mean any romantic or sexual.” (Of course, when a man and woman do the same things in a medieval text, scholars assume it’s romantic or sexual). Men sleeping in the same bed? “That’s just what was done.” And so on and so on.
Scholars often dismiss even explicit references. Handbooks for confessors cover a wide variety of same-sex sins that a priest might hear confessed, but scholars have often asserted that these sins did not occur. Old Norse sagas overflow with Viking men who claim to have penetrated each other, but we dismiss this as a homophobic insult convention. It’s very hard to find a major text that scholars agree contains same-sex desire.
You detail the work of a queer graphic designer who published comics in the early 1990's using the pseudonym "Beowulf Thorne". Why do you think they chose this name to write under? What, if anything, do you know of their "real" identity?
I spoke to Arion Stone, an AIDS educator and activist, who was one of Beowulf’s friends. Arion told me that a lot of queer people in their circle took new names, as a way of claiming new identities. Beowulf took the name after reading the Old English poem Beowulf and the DC comic books about a superhero named Beowulf. Adopting the name of this sort of masculine traditional hero was a playful way for Beowulf to assert himself.
After being diagnosed with AIDS, Beowulf dropped out of college and dedicated himself full-time to activism. He illustrated and designed an AIDS zine called Diseased Pariah News (DPN) until his death in 1999. DPN was a radical counter-culture zine that tried to bring humor and sex to AIDS. It featured naked centerfolds of people with AIDS, discussions of how to deal with the symptoms, and biting satire of conservatives and political centrists.
After Beowulf’s death, his copyright transferred back to his family and remained there until I was able to contact Arion, who got in touch with the family and persuaded them to sign over copyright to the GLBT Historical Society. You can view all the issues of DPN, as well as Beowulf’s papers, at the University of California website. Reading through them, I was struck by Beowulf’s humor and sharp political determination, as well as how he and other AIDS activists writing for DPN often drew on the Middle Ages as a symbol and a place to contend with dominant narratives.
It's hard for me not to think about how at the same time that Beowulf Thorne wrote back against all of these homophobic, ableist cultural narratives, medievalists were writing articles insisting that King Alfred couldn’t have been a “passive homosexual” or that the fictional Beowulf could not have been “homosexual” or “effeminate.” These two different groups—AIDS activists and academics—used the Middle Ages as a way of talking about the AIDS crisis, but academics just wanted to shield their idea of the past from contamination.
Why is the study of sexuality and race in medieval and other historical eras important?
Because history itself is under siege from the far-right. In the US, projects like the 1619 Project and basic discussions of slavery, colonialism, and LGBT history are being banned by law. Conservatives seek to shape the past through legislative fiat. Meanwhile, they draw on tortured understandings of the past in judicial decisions like SCOTUS overturning Roe v. Wade, a decision that depended on a claim that there’s no historical support for abortions.
Likewise, scholars frequently represent the analysis of race in the Middle Ages as ahistorical. White medievalists have railed against “Critical Race Theory” and described scholars of color doing anti-racist work as the “radical left” in the pages of newspapers this year. Scholars of color and their supporters have been targeted with racist and homophobic slurs.
Since white western authors apply the label “medieval” to the global south and to people of color, it’s troubling that medieval studies has often fed Orientalist ideology the narratives it wants: that the past was a restrictive time and that historical progress means more freedom for queer sexuality and women’s sexuality. This allows the larger modern Euro-American culture to call the Global South and Muslim-majority countries “medieval” or “trapped in the past.”
My point in the article on this is simple: about a hundred years ago—when Euro-American authors described the global south and people of color as sexual, permissive to women, and a hotbed of sodomy—medievalists were describing the past as a “crude time” much more full of sodomy and sexuality. When western authors started recently claiming the global south is restrictive, sexist, and homophobic, medievalists were also beginning to claim that even explicit literary depictions of sodomy in early England “bear little if any relation to reality.” That Orientalism and medieval scholarship have remained in step with each other should trouble us. We need more recognition of how white supremacy draws the maps for our field.
What are you currently working on / what's next for you, research-wise?
Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm and I are finishing a book on race in early medieval England, which is under contract with Cambridge University Press. I am also working on a monograph about how people in early medieval England politicized sexuality and made sexual practice a marker of racial and national belonging.
One of the larger projects I work on is tracing the histories of my discipline and of discussions of premodern race and sexuality. I see this ELH article as being a small part of that work. We tend to forget that these critiques have been made time and again. In the very same issue of ELH as my article is an article that’s attracted pushback from scholars working on premodern race, because it characterizes those conversations as recent and claims, for instance, that Shakesrace and RaceB4Race represent young scholars. Yet there are decades of work on premodern race. Scholars like Profs. Margo Hendricks, Kim Hall, Imtiaz Habib, and Jacqueline de Weever were doing work on premodern race and on racist assumptions in scholarship in the 1990s and 1980s. Dr. Anna Julia Cooper was talking about race and gender in the Middle Ages in 1892. This is part of what Prof. Hendricks has criticized in one vein of premodern race studies: “Practitioners ignore the preexisting inhabitants of the land or, if PRS scholars deign to acknowledge the land is inhabited, it’s viewed as uncultivated and must be done so properly.” Citation genealogy is necessary. Histories of those who’ve come before are necessary. And histories of the violence in previous scholarship—the racism, the transphobia, the homophobia—are necessary. I hope to have to contributed in a small part to that work.
Erik Wade is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the State University of New York at Oswego. He studies the global origins of early medieval English ideas of sexuality and race. His work can be found in ELH, Exemplaria, postmedieval, JEGP, The Medieval Globe, Journal of Medieval Worlds, Early Middle English, Smithsonian Magazine, NBC, and elsewhere. Regrettably, he is on Twitter, at @erik_kaars.