"The trans movement suggests a world
full of gender and sex variation, a world
much more complex than one divided into
female-bodied women and male-bodied men."
On Saturday evening, May 14th at the 51st International Congress of Medieval Studies, the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi Inveniendis, vulgo dicta, “The Pseudo Society,” held a panel wherein multiple papers repeatedly used derogatory words and references to the transgender community, including negative comparisons with eunuchs and bestiality. During the event, audience members walked out in protest and afterwards the organizers apologized for the offensive content. Throughout the night and the next morning, I processed what all this meant in a wider context. I am not a judge or jury, audience or administrator, so I make no judgment regarding the personal composers of the papers or their intentions; be they good, bad, or an ugly mix of the two. However, I am a transgender woman working in medieval studies at a time when the place of non-cisgender men in the field is under question and when the arrest, beating, and killing of transgender persons are actively sanctioned and encouraged by public figures. In this context, the belittling of trans persons in a public forum can make doing work and living life harder for transgender people by encouraging negative associations and undermining the seriousness of our ventures. If we believe that words have power, we must remember that power can also be dangerous. This is especially the case when a group in a position of higher power mocks a group of lesser power. Free speech does mean free from consequence. One of the consequences of this dangerous speech is that the night before I was to give a talk on the possibility of medieval transgender studies, the challenging context in which this talk and this possibility existed was highlighted. Without needing to be asked, although I was asked, the question arrived: what do we say when others misuse or abuse the power of speech against a vulnerable community that is struggling to gain theirs?
Now, I am speechless and I have no pardons to give; yet I come to this congress on medieval studies because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I come here because 48% of transgender women attempt suicide, because last year doubled the average number of transgender homicides, because parents bury them in clothes and names that contradict their gender identity, erasing all trace of their transgender lives. I sit with my countless dead trans friends and family looking for something to say but I have no words. So I listen. I listen to graves, the ruins of past trans lives, as they whisper to each other. They speak in many tongues from many places and many times. I hope if I learn to understand the dead and discarded trans lives that they might teach me words to say and stories to tell. I come to medieval studies because it is here that we learn to speak the language of the dead from the dead themselves. I come to medieval literature and history because we need their trans stories to make meaning out of our deaths and silences.
Toward that end, I will now listen with you to a medieval trans figure who knew what it means to be speechless at the point of hate, castration, and rejection from the community. By attending to the Pardoner’s Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales I hope to offer language for us to discuss medieval trans studies as well as frames which might help us make meaning and connections with them. To begin, I consider how the Pardoner answers hate speech and threats of his divergently gendered body by pointing to other bodies that have been dismembered and discarded. Then, by framing them with the force and meaning of relics, he tells those who view them as trash to kiss and value them. From such medieval and modern work of reclaiming bodies from the trash heap of history, we may understand transgender studies as the reframing of a set of embodied texts that make meaning through reconstructed relations to themselves and to the dangerous forces that made and unmade them.
So what of the Pardoner? Scholars have determined that the Pardoner exists within the genre of literature known as "exempla" and the genre of body known as "eunuch." These structures of literature and genre are not unlike each other. Each takes a text, in this case the body of the Pardoner, and makes it the facta, the material example, to validate a dicta, or doctrine. Eunuchs and other castrates historically were men who had their bodies made examles of for society’s edification. They were castrated as criminals to prove the power of Law, castrated as holy singers in the church to prove the power of God, and even castrated by slave owners to prove the power of rich lords. In the Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner is once described as a gelding, a castrated animal, and is later threatened with castration again by the Host. Even narratively, the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale is framed by the Physician’s Tale about controlling an unruly woman’s gendered body by cutting it to pieces.
Yet the power of the Pardoner's words is that he is able to re-narrate fragmented, scarred, and discarded bodies to become holy bodies that produce a sense of re-claimed wholeness. These words wrap around and redefine his body and associated body parts so that “Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon.” Of the Pardoner's many relics, he spends the most number of lines preaching on the efficacy of a part of slaughtered lamb, "a sholder-boon" from "an hooly Jewes sheep." Such shoulder-bones, following the surgical logic of discarding parts as refuse, would have been thrown away after butchery. The relic points to rejected parts of body and society, lamb and the Jewish community, locating mechanisms by which the fair, smooth appearance of wholeness is formed. By reframing material facts, it is from the state of fragmentation that the body of the Pardoner and the shoulder-bone imparts wholeness to society.
As a body who that has experienced being oppressively made into a living example for others, the Pardoner's demonstrates how exempla might liberate a body by reclaiming and reframing its meaning. To evidence this, the trans figure boasts the transfiguring power of his words and relics. First, promises the Pardoner, for those who "taak of my wordes" and physically place the shoulder-bone in a well, live-stock pierced by "any worm, or worm ystronge" and washed in the water will be made "hool anon." Second, bodies penetrated by disease, "of pokkes and of scabbe, and every soore" if they drink of the well shall "be hool." Third, if listeners "keep eek what I tell," says the Pardoner, “the good-man that the beestes oweth... drynken of this welle …His beestes and his stoor shal multiplie." If one drinks in the words of the Pardoner’s artificial wholeness and reclaims butchered bodies from the refuse of society there will be more life in the world. A sense of wholeness in the body and society comes into being out of the presence and power of fragmented bodies formerly deemed meaningless and worthless. New dicta arise out of forgotten and silenced facta. In this way, the Pardoner shows us how to regain control of the exempla of castration and fragmentation that made him a eunuch. Furthermore, he demonstrates how the mechanisms of castration make and depend on eunuchs to prove their power. By listening to the facta being whispered by silenced bodies we can gain knowledge and power over the genres that define our bodies and structure our stories.
So what genres define our bodies and our stories, past and present? Our medieval transgender lives are relics that we have forgotten how to read. They have no monstrances or reliquaries that tell us their stories and instruct us to value them. Instead, they have been discarded as waste among the trash heaps of history or else taken and used to tell other stories for other agendas. While laying the indispensable groundwork on which medieval transgender studies might arise, queer medieval scholars, like Carolyn Dinshaw in Getting Medieval, desire “to look at, not through, the transvestite,” as part of a project of queer history, yet too often see only “a crisis of categorization” that points to a queer concern, the unspeakable sin, “that is sodomy” (106). This desire for finding queer silence draws queer scholars away from the construction of transgender and towards the indeterminacy of the text, concluding “the silence of the records regarding this case [of a transgender life] might be the final silence of death, or the muteness of a maimed life” (112). The analysis that turns towards the silence and death of transgender can too often miss the whispers and resurrection. Thus the danger of queer medieval approaches to medieval transgender: that in the excitement of undoing binaries, we invoke specters of trans lives only to deconstruct the genders and genres by which they are able to speak.
The transgender lives of the past did not only live outside binaries and categories but understood (even misunderstood) and used (even misused) them in order to reclaim power over their bodies and their speech. In other words, our transgender lives do more than simply disturb your cisgender lives. We create and we exist within wider genres of trans embodiment. A critical trans approach to body and narrative insists on thinking in terms of relations and sets. Editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) and author of Transgender History, Susan Stryker, holds out hope for transgender's ability to reconstruct (and not only deconstruct) categories. Stryker argues that transgender is a word that ever challenges limits, an “umbrella term for an imagined community encompassing transsexuals, drag queens, hermaphrodites, cross-dressers, masculine women, effeminate men, sissies, tomboys, and anybody else willing to be interpreted by the term” (4). As a critical methodological term, transgender is not merely a claim to an identity category or medical dysphoria but a way of being inter-textual. Trans(-gender) studies embraces the prefix "trans-" as a way of thinking with and relating different ideas, locations, times, and bodies. Whereas other theoretical projects may see transgender as falling in the silence between modes of discourse, transgender studies insists that by linking and extending discourses the trans bodies may speak louder and in more varied ways than cisgender texts that obey their limits.
By establishing trans genres of embodiment, we can offer narrative frames that allow trans lives to speak rather than leaving them in the deconstructed ruins of gender. In a seminal trans studies essay, “A Post-Transsexual Manifesto,” Susan Stone call for us to embrace trans theory as the creative work of reconstructing categorization, “[t]o begin to write oneself into the discourses by which one has been written” (232). In contrast with definitions of transgender as a modern pathology or emergent third gender, Stone calls for a social model of transgender as a critical intervention in the study of genre. In this framework, transgender is an archive of relics that have been cast aside or silenced because they challenge our current modes of categorization, “a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structural sexualities and spectra of desire has yet to be explored” (231). Rather than merely undoing binaries, transgender transforms fixed pairs into dynamic and diverse sets that meet and converge, emerge and branch. Rather than demanding we set aside our history, a critical trans studies challenges us to do the potentially harder work of changing how we structure and understand our history. By learning how to read in a dysphoric way, medieval literary scholars can learn how to read trans lives that often speak in doubled or trebled voices. By reading for genres of embodiment medieval trans studies can offer new frames by which silenced trans bodies can speak, “to begin to articulate their lives not as a series of erasures… but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the reconfigured and reinscribed body” (232). Trans modes resist the enclosure of difference in the medical model or the silence of a cis-historicist model of gender, by admitting that all bodies function inter-textually.
To review, unlike a certain brand of queer studies that would like to see gender (including but especially the categories of man and woman) erased and forgotten, transgender studies makes the radical yet pragmatic move to insist that we can keep thinking in terms of categories but reframe what and who determines what bodies (facta) fit into what genres (dicta). This move from gender to genre plays upon a critical etymological genealogy. The English term “gender” comes from the French “genre” which in turn comes from the Latin “genus,” meaning a category. If “trans” signifies a crossing, a critical understanding of “trans-gender” or “trans-genre” should not be limited to recognized genders, but open to existing between categories, as well as changing and producing categories in the process. This critical approach does not seek to exist without gender and genre but to build archives of modes of embodiment that is constantly growing and being revised. Transgender and disability studies scholar Eli Clare sums up the critical work of trans studies by reframing the discussion of gender and genres, "The trans movement suggests a world full of gender and sex variation, a world much more complex than one divided into female-bodied women and male-bodied men. Many trans activists argue for an end, not to the genders of woman and man, but to the socially constructed binary." A transgender man is still a man, just not in that way. A transgender woman is still a woman, just not in that way. A gender queer person is still gendered just not in that way. Changing, creating and mixing genres is complex but so is the realities of gendered life. Ever “across” or “between” modes of embodiment, a critical trans literary theory follows the diverse genres of transgender through their historic genealogies, from eunuch to the transsexual, from hermaphrodite to intersex, from division to dyshoria, from monasteries to mad houses. Each genre existed within different genres of embodied gender and understood themselves by reframing the rules of different genres of literature; genres we may need to relearn.
"Nay, nay!" cries the Host. Like many anti-trans reactionaries, the Host fears that the trans bodies and stories of the Pardoner threaten the naturalized hierarchies of his world. If the silenced speak and the discarded are recollected, then those on the bottom of the patriarchal chain of being might try to rise up against their oppressors. The Host fears the call to love that which he has regarded as shameful and so he uses hate speech and humor to put the trans speaker back in his place. He yells, "[t]hou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech, / And swere it were a relyk of a seint, / Though it were with thy fundement depeint!” The Host claims that the remade bodies of the Pardoner and his relics are not fundamentals of Nature, but "fundements" to be refused as shit. The Pardoner’s body resembles the fragmented relics and stories he tells and the Host threatens to ensure that the stories of these broken bodies share similar ends. One might imagine someone making similar comparisons between transgender and bestiality, implying that both are equally unnatural, shameful and worthy of scorn. A trans discourse that demands we change our ways of framing and valuing the world is reacted to with hate speech that blurs the line between playful mockery and pretense to violence. "I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond," says the Host, "In stide of relikes... Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie!" The Host threatens the Pardoner with violence and the refusal of remade bodies and meaning. Through hate speech, people like the Host refuse the revaluation of discarded parts as new wholes in their own right. Parts remain parts. Refuse is refused. Trans bodies are denied the power to speak their own facta or dictate the dicta by which they’re understood.
Is there hope in the scars and silences of the Pardoner? What can we do with exempla that are deployed to make an example out of the trans body? It should not be missed that after these threats and mocking, the trans figure is scared into silence. The effects of a cisgender speaker using their power in a public forum in this way is that trans voices can be unpowered or excluded. This silence does not arise out of the transgender person's escape from the order of speech but by the active work of those undoing their voice. Persons and organizations like the Host reject the reframed and reimagined relics trans discourse offers and insists that they are dangerous fantasies projected on dead and silent bodies. Yet as we acknowledge the social forces that enforce this silence, can we see the retreat into speechlessness as yet another mode of discourse? Can we see silence as a call for help from those who might fill in the gaps and read between the lines? While scholars argue that the Pardoner’s silence at the threat against his body is a sign of passive absence, this may be an active opening up the body’s vulnerability in order to pressure others to remake and reclaim scarred bodies and relationships. Submitting to the Host’s sharp words and knife, the Pardoner compels the Knight’s help. “Namoore of this, for it is right ynough!” cries the Knight, “Sire Pardoner, be glad and myrie of cheere; And ye, sire Hoost, that been to me so deere, I prey yow that ye kisse the Pardoner.” The Knight has social authority to defend the Pardoner but also physical power. He is a person of privilege who might leverage his speech and body in defense of the silenced and vulnerable trans figure. And this is more than an unprompted act of charity on the part of the cisgender man. Choosing non-violent resistance, the Pardoner bears his vulnerable body, challenging onlookers to recollect a sense of solidarity with the refused body and to call out, “Namoore of this, for it is right ynough.”
What can seem to anarchical queer schools of thought like a return and submission to old rules of gender and narrative, in a trans genre theory is revealed to be a reconstructing and reclaiming of the modes of production. In order to change the rules of systems, we often need to learn to think like systems. In the process we learn about our vulnerabilities as well as the vulnerabilities of the discourses in which we are entangled. As a result, a transgender approach to eunuchs takes into account the eunuch as a genre of medieval masculinity as well as an engine in the mechanisms of the genre of exempla (the example) on which modern medicine is built. Genres of embodiment like exempla make the material facta of trans lives indispensable to the dicta of gender control. Anti-transgender discourses need the facts of trans lives to prove their doctrines, even as their framing of these lives distort and silence these facts. In the end, this does not result in the destruction of trans lives in anti-trans narratives but in the control and subordination of them. We become jokes for them to tell and fears for them to spread. Framed by exempla, eunuchs sell the tales of their lives to secure physical and social capital for those who have influence over them; be they the state, the Church, or the academy. Under the orders of these cis-exclusive organizers, the trans eunuch is made “whole” and safe by leaving behind parts of his body, meaning, and power. Yet the scars of the Pardoner reminds the knight and the readers of the countless bodies caught on either side of the bloody operations of sharp machines: power flows not through the erasure of scars but through the open making and unmaking of the body, revealing the dangerous instability of all lives — enfolding transsexuals, castrates, virgins, geldings and mares in a shared vulnerability and resistance. The genre of the eunuch exempla shows us that there are unique forms of resistance in embracing one’s vulnerability, one's mockery, one’s speechlessness. By not giving pardons, trans bodies connect to the agency of those around them in ways that put pressure on the system that makes and unmakes them.
Conflict is intrinsic to narrative and embodiment. It is not an over-reaction for a transgender medievalist to see the larger war and dangerous threats implicit in what may be pardoned as playful jabs. Yet the power of our oppressors can be used against them and our vulnerability can work for us. By silencing us so publicly, you are drawing others to hear our stories. By sending more of us to our early graves, you are adding to the cacophony of ghosts whispering in the machines of our destruction. By deconstructing our bodies, you reveal the maps for reconstruction written in our scars and sinews. Conflict comes with cost and we are paying it in the lives and stories of our transgender family. But one day that bill will have to be paid. For once we learn to listen to the transgender stories of the dead, each seemingly silent gravestone and medieval text will come alive with the call for justice. We do not rest in quiet peace but rest in untapped power. For those with the skills and intention to read in a critical transgender mode, the trans body incites storytelling by its scars of castration and surgery, confessions of sin and dysphoria, places of isolation and exclusion, and relics of death and silence. We know the questions people ask of these trans bodies: how did this happen? When did you change your name? What was it before? How did you change your body? What is it now? What made it change? Will it change again? All these questions require going backwards and forwards in time. These questions require stories. But I am here to say that sometimes the trans bodies go speechless. They are quieted by the violence of hate speech prefiguring exclusion and acts of violence. Where they don't give answers or pardons, they offer questions and challenges. Yet even when trans lives are speechless, excluded, or killed, our ruins and relics will remain with you. So long as the past remains, we may find the reliquaries, genealogies and genres of embodiment that help us make sense of our present. When the living are dead silent, their relics will continue to speak. Will you listen?