- Disguises, Gender-Bending, and Clothing Symbolism in Dietrich von der Gletze’s Der Borte
In an editorial published in Die Zeit, the Freiburg biologist Sigrid Schmitz, specialist for the media communication of natural sciences and genetic research, vehemently opposed common trends in popular media, in political publications and speeches, and in books dedicated to popular sciences that suggest fundamental genetical differences between the genders. According to a naive reading of the theory of evolution, men’s aggressiveness, bodily strength, and survival skills resulted from their original function as hunters, whereas women’s modern-day focus on cooperation with their social group and hence their greater linguistic and communicative skills could be traced to their original function as gatherers. But we hardly know anything about some basic conditions in the early stage of human development, such as who invented what instruments and tools and used them for what purposes, and whether such instruments had a bearing on social and gender differentiations. A number of research projects focussing on the gender difference according to brain structures identified through computer tomography have not proved to be as absolutely objective and clear-cut as desired and have often contradicted each other considerably. In other words, it seems speculative to claim that men and women are distinguished from each other because of specific make-ups of their brains. By contrast, we should consider in the first place the combination of countless factors involving both the brain and social conditions.
As Schmitz emphasizes, the brain demonstrates a remarkable plasticity and develops in a myriad of fashions, which would undermine any attempt to correlate gender identity with genetic features. In fact, modern feminist biology and other feminist approaches to the sciences seriously challenge the myth of the sciences as being absolutely objective and free from any political, ideological pressures and so challenge their gender hypotheses. Schmitz concludes by pointing out that people today, at least in western society and in times of growing social instability and a loss of traditional values and ethical norms, tend to fall back on anything they assume to be totally authoritative, stable, and reliable, such as the teachings of modern biology or, in total contrast, religious dogmas that would convincingly explain the reemergence of fundamentalist approaches to the gender relationship in both the eastern and the western world [End Page 95] (see the volumes edited by Gowaty and Alper et al.; see also Baron-Cohen; Brinzendine).
For our purpose, however, we can utilize these observations regarding recent brain research that the question of how to define gender cannot necessarily rely on a narrow set of biological factors. This article will illustrate the contradictory, highly amorphous conditions underlying the quest for gender identity by way of analyzing a late-medieval German verse narrative. In this sense the distinction between sex and gender proves to be helpful (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet). However, this should not be regarded as an invitation to assume that gender is nothing but a social definition (Butler). Nevertheless, feminist medievalism has espoused the views developed by Butler and others, as reflected, for instance, by the contributions to a conference organized by Ingrid Bennewitz and Helmut Tervooren in 1997 (see also Chance; Inshaw; Spanily). Certainly, gender roles depend heavily on the social conditions and norms, and they strongly reflect power structures, and this already in the Middle Paleolithic cultures, including the Neandertals, when both men and women were almost equally involved in the hunting of large mammals, and in other activities (Kuhn and Stiner). Only in the course of time, with an increased diversification of food supply and nourishment, did a division of labour set in, hence also a new organization of gender roles (Kuhn and Stiner). Moreover, sexual roles within any kind of partnership can vary, depending on the individual orientation, strength of character, and ethical and moral principles of each person. But we can proceed from here to discuss a most significant late-medieval German verse narrative, where many of these modern theoretical reflections significantly appear to be convincingly applicable for an innovative interpretation, because here gender roles appear as surprisingly unstable and malleable according to changing social and economic conditions.
As this article will demonstrate, the...