Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Matt Gabriele shows us some of the many faces of the Middle Ages

Gabriele teaches at Virginia Tech University and regularly writes for Forbes on the relevance of history and the humanities (not that anyone actually admits to that emphasis.  Here's an excerpt from a recent post which touches on my interest in jousts, tournaments and other deeds of arms:

The Medieval Women In Drag Who Maybe Caused The Black Death (But Really Didn't)

A curious thing happened in the middle of the 14th century. According to Henry Knighton's Chronicle, ..., in the year 1348 a group of about 40-50 women dressed in men's clothes began to attend tournaments. They supposedly moved from place to place behaving shamefully, baring their bodies in an "inappropriate manner," spending money, carrying weapons, and apparently performing for the assembled crowds.

God didn't like that, so according to the Chronicle a storm would suddenly form to disrupt the festivities. Then, shortly afterwards, Knighton recounts that the Black Death arrived in Europe and ravaged the countryside. Left unsaid, but narratively clear, the women's behavior caused God to punish England for their sins...

According to Prof. Sonja Drimmer from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst this anecdote inadvertently opens a fascinating window onto how gender roles were seen in Europe during the late Middle Ages, and more importantly how those roles were sometimes overthrown.
Dr. Drimmer, ...pointed out that it's interesting in and of itself that Knighton decided to write this episode down. Medieval histories are always selective in what they include..., but the anecdotes when taken together always reveal a deeper message that the author's trying to convey. In this case, Dr. Drimmer said:
the chronicler seems to have expected his audience would see women wanting to perform as men (and assert their sexual agency by “displaying their bodies”) as entirely plausible, particularly in a privileged space that was designed to assert rigid gender roles.

In addition, ...Dr. Drimmer pointed to something else (maybe) going on in this particular episode. She asks us to think about how the scene itself would have looked. ...This could have been something approaching what we think of today as drag performance.
In other words, Knighton more than likely decided to include this in his Chronicle because this was something that really happened and he was really freaked out about it.

For some time, scholars have talked about how boundaries are often drawn between peoples at moments when assimilation and cultural interactions are at their most fluid....  In this particular instance, what really seems to have bothered Knighton here was not just that these women were performing while dressed like men, but that everyone else thought that that was fine. Indeed, there's evidence that cross-dressing by men and women at medieval tournaments was relatively common.
Knighton may confirm some of our Game of Thrones-esque expectations about the European Middle Ages, one marked by God's wrath and a conservative religiosity. But, despite his intentions, Knighton also undermines our expectations by showing us a vibrant Middle Ages filled with color, pageantry, laughter, and performance - one in which people don't act like we think they're "supposed to." In other words, Knighton almost by accident shows us a slice of the real Middle Ages, populated by living, breathing human beings.

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