Abstracts for 2023 MLA Session on Old English, Middle English, and Contemporary Trans Studies

Dr. Gabrielle M. Bychowski (Case Western Reserve University) will address the intersection of trans studies and questions of labor, urging us to consider how the long history of “marginalizing and stereotyping trans women as disposable sex workers” has roots in the medieval case of Eleanor Rykener that link to the Compton Cafeteria Riots, which have deep implications for the labor of Trans scholars today. 

Dr. Micah Goodrich  (Boston University) will address the concept of “lolling,” and how it might be understood through Trans and disability theory. He suggests that its use in late medieval literature creates a “trans theology” of bodily dislocation and suspension  that rejects “the primordial command to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’”

Sandra Goldstein Lehnert (The Graduate Center, CUNY), “The Pardoner, Revisited: Medieval Scholarship and a Trans Ethics towards the Past.”

In the same way that Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales remains a canonical text for medieval literary studies at large, the Pardoner persists as a canonical figure for premodern gender and sexuality studies. Walter Clyde Curry’s 1919 article “The Secret of Chaucer’s Pardoner” opened the floodgates for over a century of scholarship that explicitly investigates the Pardoner’s gender, sex, and sexuality. Dozens of academic publications debate questions such as: Is the Pardoner a “queer” figure? Can his “secret” be explained away through historical circumstance, theological allegories, or Chaucer’s literary flourish? Is reading a gay/trans/queer Pardoner anachronistic, homophobic, radical, or none of the above? And, of most interest to me: what are the stakes of revisiting the Pardoner again and again? This talk will reflect on how metahistorical patterns of scholarship on the Pardoner expose particular patterns of exigency in medieval gender/sexuality studies. Research on the Pardoner and his Tale make a detailed, if at times frustrating, portrait of scholarly relation to the distant past in a sexually minoritized figure. Through rhetorical tactics of claiming, distancing, minimizing, hesitating, centering, and building authority, these lines of Middle English poetry become vehicles for contemporary sexual politics. Further, as gender and sexuality become modes of navigating sameness, difference, and proximity, scholarship on the Pardoner enacts a sort of metaphysical text/sex-act of drawing near and touching, understanding, the medieval imaginary, reflective of a desire to “know” the body of the other familiar to trans experience. Through excavating these patterns of interpreting the Pardoner, I, from a premodern/transstudies perspective, will then approach the Pardoner myself. I will utilize theoretical interventions by trans studies scholar Hil Malatino in the 2020 chapbook Trans Care to explore possible ethics towards premodern transcestors—even (or especially) fictional ones.

Masha Raskolnikov (Cornell University), “Trans Metaphysics and “The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms”

The fifteenth-century poem “The Disputation Between the Body and the Worms” is told from the point of view of a speaker who dreams a debate between the dead body of a beautiful lady and the worms beginning to devour her flesh. This poem is preceded, in its sole manuscript copy, by an image of a transi tomb on the verso side (32v), with the poem beginning on the recto (33r). The tomb’s, and disputation’s, tension between appearance (as living and beautiful lady) and reality (as food for worms) invites the question of trans metaphysics. This is not mere speculation that the corpse could be a trans woman, although I’m pretty sure I will be doing that, too; this is also about noticing how the “Disputation” effectively unmakes the appearance/reality binary, as well as eliding the soul/body binary. This poem has long invited feminist readings bearing witness to the conflation of female body to sinful female flesh. In my talk, I question whether its narrator is male, as is always assumed, and discuss the odd temporality of the lady’s receipt of the signs(meaning lice and other vermin) from her future consumers, the worms, representing the inevitablility of future death and decay, a message that she fails to interpret correctly in life. To use the tools of medieval trans studies, I argue, does not take away from the years of thought about the sexism of its treatment in the narrative; on the contrary, it permits us to see how much “sex” (even if understood as some essential, unchangeable physical quality) makes no difference where “sexism” is concerned, and how all women (even dead, decaying ones) are women, which shouldn’t still need to be said but does.

Nat Rivkin (University of Pennsylvania), “‘as a ronde of flesche yschore’: The King of Tars, Race-Thinking and Trans Childhood”

The King of Tars (c. 1330) describes the birth of a child that cannot be classified, “for lim no haddeit non / bot as a ronde of flesche yschore / … withouten blod and bon” (576-79). Born to a princess “as white as fether of swan” and a sultan “that blac and lothely was,” the child lacks the anatomical features typically used to assign sex (12, 922). In this essay, I argue that The King of Tars illuminates how medieval race-thinking and histories of trans childhood mutually enhance one another. This late medieval romance featuring interfaith marriage anticipates what Jules Gill-Peterson describes in Histories of the Transgender Child: “children became the incarnation and etiology of sex’s plasticity as an abstract form of whiteness, the capacity to take on new form and be transformed” (4). I ask how conversion to Christian faith in The King of Tars resonates with Gill-Peterson’s account of sex’s plasticity. Indeed, the child’s adoption of binary gender resolves the crisis of interfaith marriage. When faced with the lifeless infant, the princess insists that a Christian god “can / make it fourmed after a man / with liif and limes aright” (690). Baptism returns the child to life, and it genders the infant after a man “with limes al hole and fere” (700-3). The assignment of the child’s sex aligns with its entry into fere whiteness. This transformation at the close of The King of Tars evokes ongoing moral panic about trans children and gender-affirming healthcare now.

Lisa MC Weston (University of California, Fresno), “Trans Grammar: Notes on the Old English Dual Pronouns”

Thinking about and with modern use of they, “normatively” the third person plural, to express non-binary, genderfluid subjectivity highlights the engagement of trans theory and grammar. Consider, then, the Old English first and second person dual pronouns wit (we two) and git (you two) as a grammatical feature provocatively trans in multiple ways.

Survivors of a more complete Proto-Germanic system of pronoun and verb forms, the duals appear temporally transient, on their way toward their eventual disappearance from English. Attested alongside the plural as available but not required, they seem to mark bonds both particularly intimate and conceptually interstitial, between the singular and the plural. Although the subjects joined may be of the same gender, the pronouns can link masculine and feminine, even human and nonhuman referents.

In the Old English Mary of Egypt, for example, Mary’s dual wit (for the Latin source’s plural nos) merges her with Zozimus, the monk who transmits her female life initially to his male community, and ultimately to later readers first as a Latin text and then as translated into Old English. In a second instance, Zozimus uses wit in addressing the (significantly) genderfluid lion/ness who “inscribes” Mary’s grave—and reifies her, or rather their (both singular and plural) translation(s) between genders and across languages and time. Such uses of the dual, I suggest, signal transient moments of textual transformation that speak to the benefits of developing a trans philology for early medieval English texts.

Rowan Wilson (University of Bonn), “Lyric Tactics, Mongrel Moves: The Trans/Medieval Poetics of Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Of Mongrelitude and Jos Charles’ feeld”

Describing the project of its 2017 collection Of Mongrelitude, Julian Talamantez Brolaski says, ‘I tried… to speak my body’.1 In her 2018 collection feeld, Jos Charles likewise describes her ‘tran… organe’ ‘speeching materialie.’ For both poets, the Middle English (ME) lyric idiom is central to their fashioning of language into a tool for articulating trans bodiliness. This paper interrogates why Brolaski and Charles found this seemingly distant idiom so generative for their twenty-first-century speechings. It proposes new intersections between the resistant, obscure, slippery body of surviving medieval lyrics and modern moves towards a trans poetics.

Brolaski and Charles, both also medieval scholars, weave ME—particularly ME lyrics—into their poetry through direct textual references, obsolete lexis, and anarchic spellings. These trans-historical infusions render the language of both collections difficult to parse—the reader is forced to slow down, mouth lines, squint. The poems resist the easy legibility often demanded of trans speakers, rejecting confessional modes oriented around painful disclosures (‘trauma lit is so hote rite nowe!’, one of feeld’s poems slyly remarks). Yet ME does not simply serve to ‘thicken’ Brolaski and Charles’ poetic idioms. The medieval lyrics they invoke are unstable entities occupying marginal on-page space, their subjects and speakers often ambiguously gendered, their ‘protean, mobile core[s]’ (Ardis Butterfield) shifting across different versionings. This paper unpicks the resonances of such medieval lyric tactics for Brolaski and Charles’ explorations of modern trans life, in all its contingency, indeterminacy and flux. It argues that these intertemporal lyric encounters might offer a liberatory invitation, in Brolaski’s terms, to an ‘ambivalence [that] becometh’, a state of unsettled being that is always in progress, always being iterated anew.

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