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Panel title: “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity”
Sponsored by: Hagiography Society
Conference: International Medieval Congress, Leeds (UK), 3-6 July 2017
Far too often, modern cultural commentators – and unabashed misogynists – refer to the medieval era as a nostalgic time of ossified gender roles. That was when “men were men, women were women, and everyone knew their place”, after all. Medievalists have long fought back against this cliché, including undertaking important work in contextualising pre-modern hagiography in terms of gender and sexuality.
Hagiography is all too often assumed to be a place where gender essentialism festers, complete with claustrophobic gender roles. See, for example, the importance of virginity for holy women; (avoidance of) rape as a central motif for female martyrs; the male power-base of the Church; God and His son as exemplars of male superiority; etc. Yet, in the early 1980s, Caroline Walker Bynum showed that Jesus was, in fact, “mother” in much medieval spiritual thought. Numerous other scholars have since shown that saints routinely challenged, more or less explicitly, the options offered to them by the gender binary.
Saints could, and did, cross-dress; live as a gender other to which they were assigned at birth; and modulate their identity by blending traits traditionally coded as male and female. Despite their potentially transgressive behaviours, not all of these saints have been shoved into the historical dustbin of obscurity. Transgender activist Leslie Feinberg, for instance, called upon Joan of Arc as a powerful example of historical transgendered experience with the publication of Transgender Warriors in the mid-1990s. This panel seeks to develop the important work of these scholarly forebears, directly responding to the vital discussion of “Otherness” which is the special topic strand of the International Medieval Congress 2017.
Relevant questions for this session include:
• What do narratives of holy men and women blurring – or outright challenging – the notion of a stable gender binary show us about pre-modern sanctity? What do such narratives contribute to the ongoing cultural conversations about modern non-binary identities? And the battle being waged for human rights for all individuals, no matter their gender identity? Can pre-modern hagiography be a potent political instrument to combat modern transphobia?
• What kind of reception did transgender and/or genderqueer holy individuals and their texts receive – theologically, practically, and in contemporary devotion?
• Is gender subsidiary to holiness as a category of difference for saintly individuals?
• As scholars, is our focus on gender(s) and binary gendered difference the most useful hermeneutic for productive interrogations of hagiography?
• Can we even meaningfully apply our modern categorisations of gendered experience to the pre-modern era?
If you’re interested in speaking on this panel, please submit an abstract of roughly 250-300 words to the panel organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] qmul.ac.uk), by 1 August 2016.
N.B. Conference regulations stipulate that speakers may only present on one panel each year at Leeds. As such, we cannot consider papers from individuals who have already submitted abstract proposals to other sessions at the conference.