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  • Gender, Sodomy, Friendship, and the Medieval Anchorhold
  • Robert Mills

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in comparison with the apparent verbosity of medieval discourses on friendship between males, representations of female amity do not loom large in medieval literature.1 One of the rare instances in which relations between women are subjected to the sort of public scrutiny more usually directed at male friendship is an Ovidian narrative widely retold in the Middle Ages, which concludes its representation of intense interfemale passion with a miracle of divinely inspired sex transformation. The story of Iphis and Ianthe, from book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, tells how Iphis's mother saves her daughter from death at the hands of her father—who has issued an decree stating that any girl child born to his wife will be slain—by raising her from infancy as a male. During her adolescence, however, the girl's father (who still thinks she is a boy) betroths Iphis to the maiden Ianthe; the two girls fall passionately in love; and finally, after Iphis has been magically granted a sex change by the gods, they marry and live happily ever after. The story has been dubbed "the most influential depiction of lesbian love in Western literary tradition,"2 but in keeping with the sex change device's attempt ultimately to erase the same-sex component of the coupling, medieval redactors were more likely to go into denial about the episode's homoerotic potential. Thus Caxton's 1480 translation of the Ovide moralisé, a moralized version of Metamorphoses, places the trope of impossibility in the mouth of Iphis herself, who declares categorically: "Ther is no femele that desireth to acowple her to another femele."3

This concerted effort to render the erotic potential of relations between women invisible and impossible presents a marked contrast to discourses of male love and friendship in the Middle Ages, which at least acknowledge [End Page 1] the potential for an erotic component in certain partnerships, albeit via the "utterly confused" category of sodomy. Alan Bray's work on premodern friendship has done much to highlight the extent to which, in certain discursive contexts, the sodomite and the friend occupied analogous terrain, by virtue of their mutually defining characteristics. His argument in The Friend, which complements his earlier research on homosexuality in Renaissance England, is that conventions of friendship were public facts in premodern culture, expressing order, civility, and peace; sodomy, in contrast, was characterized by disorder, scandal, and violence, and the two poles were normally kept firmly apart. But from time to time one finds a text mapping sodomitical meanings onto friendship, lumping the two together into what he calls a "surprising affinity"—a perception of symmetry that undermines friendship's capacity to connote order.4 Although Bray's argument here is directed mainly at the early modern period (his analysis of friendship prior to 1500 focuses predominantly on fictional narratives of sworn brotherhood and examples from material culture such as shared tombs, where sodomy is not ostensibly at issue), other scholars have shown the relevance of the sodomy–friendship dyad for certain milieus in the Middle Ages. Mathew Kuefler, for instance, has drawn attention to a veritable explosion of narratives casting suspicion on male friendships as breeding grounds for sodomitical liaisons in twelfth-century French romances and Anglo-Norman chronicles. As Kuefler sees it, this new desire to foreground a potential sexual component in male–male bonds, especially among the noble military elite, was part of an effort to transform the secular nobility into subjects of royal and ecclesiastical power, as well as deflecting sodomy accusations away from the clergy and the monastic orders.5

This article will draw attention to another body of literature where the sodomy–friendship opposition arguably emerges as a relevant interpretive prism. Significantly, however, the texts under consideration—devotional writings designed to regulate the lives of medieval recluses and to inspire them to lives of chastity and spiritual perfection—were in many instances directed at audiences of women. As scholars researching female friendship have been quick to point out, simply importing the terms of Bray's analysis wholesale into research on medieval women brings with it...


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