which may be moost plesance"
which may be moost plesance"
The Wife of Bath's Tale
The Trans Medievalist's Armor
Arriving at the Women's March on Washington, one becomes aware of how many others feel very similar. These queer, trans, straight, cis, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, non-believer immigrant, citizen women of color know what it means to be the targets of hate in ways that overlap like a venn diagram, intersecting in parts and extending some extra more in others. Entering into this crowd of hundreds of thousands, I still had up my armor. But I could read the armor of others as well. Some wore their armor in the layers they wore. Some wore army or police uniforms. Others wore suits. My partner wore her collar marking her as a member of the clergy. I had asked her before we left, "what is my medievalist uniform?" She laughed when I asked and then laughed harder when I came down the stairs. "You did it!" she said, looking me over. "You are certainly wearing your medievalist uniform." For me, these were my teaching / conference clothes but she agreed that I represented my work well. Others at the march wore their armor in the clothes they didn't wear. Mothers nursed their children. Young women bore their breasts openly in the January air with little strips of black tape over the nipples. Some augmented their bodies with face and body paint. Venus's mirror, a common symbol of womanhood, was drawn around people's eyes. Nasty woman was written on arms and cheeks. Then again, buttons, t-shirts, and signs were everywhere. The march was an overload in rhetoric and language. Some signs were funny. Some were angry. Some said a lot, listing the many immediate issues that need to be addressed by the government on six-foot signs in tiny lettering. Others indicated there was too much to say, with one woman holding a sign saying just that, "there is just too much..." For our part, the family brought with our flags that we hang in the front room of our apartment: a transgender pride flag, a rainbow LGBT pride flag, and a Black Lives Matter flag. Throughout the day, as we wore the flags around us or extended the flags between us, folks would come by and say a few words to us or take a picture of us. We met others who had similar ideas. The biggest advantage of the flags was that they could be seen by those who were not at the march. They would be visible in media and social media pictures as well as video. Those describing the event would likely include mention of these recognizable symbols. In a crowd with so much to say, we wanted to keep our statements simple but important, and leave it to others to say all the rest.
What mattered most to us was to speak with our presence. Like the hundreds of thousands around us, we were asserting our voice and power in the most peaceful way we knew, by silently standing together in a crowd. Images of the march had trouble capturing and comprehending how many of us were present. Estimates of all U.S. cities suggest that around 3 million people, mostly women, walked in protest this day. Aziz Ansari commented on Saturday Night Live that evening how Trump and his campaign/administration must have recognized that they did something wrong to piss off an entire gender. 3 million marchers do not represent the entirety of women or even just one gender but the massiveness of our presence made a statement. It was a statement that no one of us marching or those who saw the march could control. What does it mean when so many women, feminists, allies, and Trump protesters collect together? What does the Women's March have to say? What do women want? The question had many answers - some certainly better than others - but overall the massiveness of the march asserted how important the question was regardless of the answer. The Women's March stated that we were a force to be reckoned with and reckoned we will be. Immediately the news and politicians began spinning, trying to control what the Women's March meant. But no one description does justice. The March was too big to be contained by fences, roads, police barricades or by hashtags, news bulletins, or governmental pandering. The Women's March cannot be contained not only because it is so big but because it is made up of so many parts. The population of the march cut across race, religion, sexuality, disability, political party, class, and gender. The Women's March asked a big question but did not speak just in one voice but in many voices each with their own language, experience, dialects, and subquestions. What the Women's March means is an important question to ask but is inextricable from the question, what does it mean that a transgender medievalist and her family marched?
Answering the question of what the March meant to me will be a task that will take a long time to ponder, but what it meant to others with whom we marched is surprisingly easier to articulate. As soon as we began walking onto the National Mall, stopping by the fountain in front of Congress so the children could rest, I began to be approached by people. One women walked over just to tell me, "you are so beautiful!" This caught me by surprise because covered in my winter gear, medieval uniform and mom-equipment (for our hungry, tired kids) I didn't think I looked at my most attractive. Functional, competent, matronly, yes. But not beautiful. This also caught me by surprise largely because of my defense mechanism that insists I don't wonder what others think of me. If I ask, "does she think I'm beautiful?" I am prone to also ask, "does he think I'm ugly?" Often it is easier just not to ask either. But when someone comes up to me and tells me what they think, it is a surprise. I don't want the armor to deflect it but I can fumble - and did - as I had to take down these defenses and try to catch the compliment. I tried to switch the befuddled look on my face into one of gratitude. It is easier to shift into thanking them for the kind words. Again, focusing on the rhetoric and language is easier than assuming I know what was the personal intention behind them. Yet as the Women's March continued and others kept coming up to me to share their thoughts and experiences, pieces of the armor began to fall off. More and more I was able to release myself from trying to understand the meanings of their words and just receive their presence. In turn, I did feel more vulnerable. Because not only were they being present with me but I became more present with them. My meaning met and joined with the meaning of others. What does it mean for a transgender medievalists to be present at the Women's March on Washington? How does that feel? To consider this question, one must think like a transgender medievalist and that means considering the Wife of Bath for a moment.
On twitter, Chaucer Doth Tweet announced that he would be at the Women's March, provoking the question whether the Wife of Bath would be there as well. Modern feminists have much to admire about the Wife of Bath's liberty, strength and strategy. Too often medievalists have to correct students when they call her a "proto-feminist" or a "modern woman" because they want to declare her an honorary woman of their age. This impulse comes from a place of love and a recognition that if the Wife of Bath were walking among us today, she would likely be marching with us as well. But what such claims can elide, what we can pass over too quickly in our declaration of her modernity, is how her fight for women is so very medieval. She fought for herself and became a model for women in the fourteenth century. Most women and feminist medievalists won't be able to miss how patriarchal and subordinating of women the Middle Ages were. Indeed, as the revelation of "FemFog" last year made clear, the patriarchy and the subordination of women continues in the study of the Middle Ages as well. We share experiences and battles for sexual liberation with the Wife. Our oppression is linked over centuries to her oppression. The one came from the other. Yet the distinction of the Wife of Bath as a medieval woman (or medieval feminist, if you will) is as important as other intersectional identities. A woman of color (WoC) is affected not only by being a woman but being of color. Often it is hard to distinguish which element is at play more in any given act of prejudice, but reading the narratives of women of color demonstrates differences as well as similarities exist with WoC and white women. Likewise, 9/10s of the experience of being a transgender woman may overlap with cisgender women but the 1/10 that is specifically transgender and the way that 1/10 colors the rest is critical. In this way, the Wife of Bath being a medieval woman matters. Her medieval world and language affects how she understands and expresses her acts of resistance. Being a medieval woman affects how she would understand us, transgender women, and the Women's March.
I have read the arguments that identify the Wife of Bath as being like a transgender woman but feel that a critical trans reading of her Prologue and Tale points us elsewhere. True, she is a strong woman and transgender women are strong. This may be understood as masculinity in the same way that feminists in the early 20th century were called "shemales" by way of an insult; as if being transgender or intersex was an insult. But I do not think a woman needs to be transgender or intersexual to be strong, even in the Middle Ages. I don't discourage anyone who wishes to read the Wife of Bath as sort of trans. I welcome her into the trans sisterhood. I would gladly march beside her because many of our struggles are the same. This reading of the language and rhetoric others (including the narrator) use to describe her is not wrong but does not interest me as much as other things that the Wife of Bath says her self. My interest in the Wife of Bath is in her Tale. The Tale as a whole offers excellent analogies by which we can better understand the Wife's medieval moment and our own. The premise of the Tale describes a maiden who is raped by a man of the governing class. Many of us in the march have been raped, abused, or traumatized by the current governing class of men in the United States. In response to the transgression, a court of women collect in order to assert their power and offer judgement on the man. While the march was not able to enact the same force of law, matriarchs and women present at the march certainly passed down judgements on a man of many transgressions. The take away of the women's court was the command that the rapist patriarch (a stand in for the patriarchy) must come to understand on question: what do women want? Any man or watcher of the Women's March that does not turn away considering the same issue, what women want, have not read closely. The question is apparent but the answers are manifold. The knight is told in turn that women want: "richesse" (riches), "honour" (honor), "joylenesse" (fun), "lust abedde" (sex), "rich array" (clothing), "oftetyme to be wydwe and wedde" (often to be widowed and wedded), and "flaterye" (flattery). The signs and speeches of the Women's March made similar demands for the funding of women's healthcare, dignity, roles in entertainment, sexual freedom, freedom of expression, freedom to marry and divorce, and to be considered a constituency that the government cannot neglect.
All of these demands are true in the Middle Ages as today but the riddle of the Tale is not complete until the answer is given by the figure I most identify as trans in the Wife of Bath's texts: the shapeshifting "elf-queene" (elf-queen) and "fayerye" (fairy) who the patriarch must marry and the court must accept. The knight encounters the woman as she is dancing in the privacy of her fellow fairies, as a man might see a trans woman in a club surrounded by her queer and straight allies. The man desires her and pursues her but when he gets her alone, outside of the fairy/club atmosphere and dress, she is not what he thought she was. The knight in the Tale sees her as "a fouler wight" (a foul creature) that is often identified as an old woman but connect more broadly to the "loathly woman" trope in medieval storytelling. The commentary on age and youth is still useful because it draws attention to how women's beauty is often associated with their ability to sexually reproduce, ergo a young or cisgender woman is more beautiful than an old or transgender women who the man cannot impregnate. Yet beyond the question of age, the main conclusion is that this woman is not the standard of beauty and womanhood the patriarchy desires. The modern anti-transgender slur for this could be a "trap." Some use this term to describe beautiful (trans) women who trick (i.e. trap) men into sex by passing as cisgender women. Of course, in most likelihood transgender women or this elf-queen were not trying to trick anyone but were just having fun with their friends when the man broke into the queer space of his own choice. The shameful descriptions of her appearance reflect the reactive patriarchy that must dismiss the trans person they once desired for fear it might comment on their own desires. And indeed, the trans figure holds the answer to the patriarch's problem with women - as trans folk might who have been forced by society and body to see the world on either side of the gender divides. The answer she gives is that which a medieval feminist or a medieval trans feminist might give: "Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee" (women desire to have liberty).
Yet the Wife of Bath's elf queen is not done with the patriarchy, because she is not only a woman but a trans woman. It is not enough that trans persons are used to promote feminism for all women, they must be allowed to speak to the specific needs of trans women. After giving the knight the answer, the elf-queen demands he marry her. If one is to work with transgender people, one must be prepared to stick by them in solidarity and not abandon them after they cease being useful. This marriage also serves to introduce a sub-problem and question for the knight. The trans wife asks the patriarch: "Chese now," quod she, "oon of thise thynges tweye: To han me foul and old til that I deye, And be to yow a trewe, humble wyf, And nevere yow displese in al my lyf, Or elles ye wol han me yong and fair, And take youre aventure of the repair That shal be to youre hous by cause of me, Or in som oother place, may wel be" ("Choose now," she said, "one of these two things: To have me ugly and old until I die, And be to you a true, humble wife, And never displease you in all my life, Or else you will have me young and fair, And take your chances of the crowd That shall be at your house because of me, Or in some other place, as it may well be"). Within the Tale, the trans figure asks him to choose whether she will be ugly but subordinate or beautiful but insubordinate. Outside of the Tale, we might understand the choice as a trans person saying, "I can be openly transgender but can keep silent on the need for liberation or I can pass as a cisgender woman but then will need to fight for liberation." Such a question for the knight is supposed to be a riddle for the reader, "what would you chose?" By way of making a point, the Wife of Bath has the patriarch make the best decision. He says, "Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance" (chose yourself what you most want). This is a lesson for the medieval patriarch as well as the modern feminist. If you want trans persons to fight for your liberty and the liberty of all women, you need to let trans people be trans people. In the end, it is best for all. The knight magically gets a woman who is beautiful and free. Feminism gets trans women who fight for women and the trans community. The Wife of Bath's feminism is not just transhistorical, it is intersectional.
Standing in the National Mall, straining to hear the speakers in front of the Washington Monument, I was approached by a youth. They came up to compliment my flag and affirm their gratitude that other transgender persons were present at the March. They were done up in their protest apparel and buttons. What struck me most about them was how young they looked. In their eagerness for community, I saw how many of our trans youths are hungry to see themselves in the world. Too often, the world fails to present an image (Imago Mundi), a history, or a future that includes transgender. They didn't stick around for long. They were nervous and flew off to be with their friends. I don't think they would have braved those nerves for anyone and that they did mattered to me. Their presence here mattered to me. Their hunger mattered to me. For that moment, I was at the Women's March for them. Later, the exchange repeated itself as another community member in a transgender flag came over to introduce themselves. They were older and a little braver. I introduced them to my family. They seemed particularly happy to see that we brought our kids. Beyond this, I cannot say what our meeting meant to them but they did ask to commemorate it with a picture. I got one too. Funny enough, we had to same rose-gold pink camera phone. These words and pictures will stay with me for some time. Their meaning will grow as new words and associations build on them. Being present for one another allowed for dialogs to be generated and continued between us and between those witnessing our community-making. Because Marches are where many different lines of flight cross, tangle, and rub up against each other so that at a common intersection our struggles and lives mix. Our meanings, lives, and liberations are no longer our own. They join the collective discourse going on around us. Our voices joined the invited speakers in Washington DC and around the country. Some I heard at the March and others I heard through videos later as their trajectories criss-crossed online.
One of the speakers we were present for at the Women's March in Washington DC was Janet Mock, a transgender woman of color, whose speech insisted that feminist liberation must be intersectional. "It will find us struggling together and struggling with one another," Mock admits in her remarks. "Just because we are oppressed does not mean that we ourselves do not fall victim to the same unconscious policing, shaming, and erasing. We must return to one another." This idea of return sticks with me as a trans activist and a medievalist. So much of being transgender is fighting for the ability to put our lives back together after gender divisions and assignments have pulled us apart from our communities, stories, and embodiments. Trans activism then becomes the way in which we collectively fight to put our shared lives back together, bringing one another back from the isolating margins and into life giving community discourse. Medieval studies too is the work of going into the archives and bringing dead stories to life or bringing dead elements of those stories out from historical silence. In each of these works, we may individually become the enforcers of divides as we struggle to put things together. This is why it is important that we interrupt each other. A youth stepping into a conversation with my partner brings me out of my shell and reminds me of the stakes of being present. A photograph with a young adult returns me from family time to consider how my family may serve to grow the community and carry on discourse. Janet Mock standing on the National Mall declaring the place of trans women of color in the Women's March calls us all to step out of our individual feminisms and stand together, march together, and speak together. Silences can exist between those we are standing next to as they can in historical archives. The Wife of Bath may need to interrupt a conversation as much as my wife may need to interrupt me to point out someone trying to talk to us. We don't do as much or as well alone. Together we are able to continually call one another to return to the work and return to the work of co-liberation.
What the Women's March sent me home with was a renewed purpose to keep on fighting and to continue to be present. For me, this also meant connecting with the other marches once I left DC. In the Women's March in Maine, Jacie Leopold spoke on inclusion while an American Sign Language translator interpreted her words for the audience. "I was asked to represent the transgender community," she said as she told her story of becoming a victim of assault and overcoming this victimization. "I came to a place where I could flourish, do all the things in life a person should do without the having the word transgender define who I am and limit my opportunities." It is important for Leopold that others not tell her what her life means. Others cannot tell her what the March means to her. Yet the trans woman's presence can raise the question and get people talking. "You can create the dialog that gets people discussing, learning, and growing," she told the crowd. By asking the question of what transgender means, its meaning can grow. Yet this growth and dialog must keep moving if it is to stay alive. Like the movement of the March, if we are to liberate ourselves and reclaim the meaning of our lives, we need to keep opening ourselves up to others. Leopold then turned from her story to the stories of other transgender women, naming how transgender women of color face the greatest number of assaults and murders. She confessed how her experience brought her closer to understanding of mutual struggles with them without fully comprehending their struggles. In the wake of these struggles, male assaulters are often let off with minimal sentencing. This is in part allowed because the law sees these transgender women as men, reclassifying the assaults as men assaulting men. The logic of these excuses demonstrates how the patriarchy not only hurts transgender persons, women, but also men. Man on man violence is more acceptable so it is used to excuse violence against trans women. In this system, everyone is victims. The law itself demonstrates how it is victim to sexism patriarchal biases that delegitimize the law as law. By opening up what womanhood means, we give life to one another, including transgender women. By redefining what violence is, we give protection to one another, including men. By entering into dialog with others, we create roads where we might meet each other at the intersections of gender, race, suffering, life, and liberation.
For a transgender medievalist, this intersectionality must also apply to history and difference in historical periods. The Middle Ages are transgender. The Middle Ages marched. The elf-queen marched on Camelot. The Wife of Bath marched on Canterbury. Eleanor Rykener marched on Cheapeside. Saint Joan of Arc marched on Orleans. Narcissus marched on the woodlands. Hermaphrodites and Amazons marched on islands. Saint Marinos marched on the monastery. The trans Middle Ages marched and so trans medievalists marched. We marched because we know our history and carry on our history into the streets. We carry on their lives. We carry on their resistance. We carry on their liberation. We carry on the good. And unfortunately we too often carry on the bad. We march to move forward. We march to bring those along behind us. At the intersection of the past and the future, we find ourselves marching. In many ways, I am less certain of the future than I am of the past. That is the gift of being a medievalist. I know about manuscripts and relics, memories and fragments. I know about persisting through time. I know about change over time, how things transform by being different in some ways and the same in others. The trans-exclusive patriarchy in the fourteenth century experienced by the Wife of Bath is not the same as the patriarchy we know today but ours is a cultural descendent. In the face of today's patriarchy we can see the whole genealogy: in the rhetoric of a man who "caughte hire by the queynte" (grabbed her by the pussy, the Miller's Tale); in the rhetoric of a man who calls someone a "hogges toord" (nasty, the Pardoner's Tale), or in the man who rapes women and then goes to women looking for their support (the Wife of Bath's Tale). Our struggles are not only our own and that is why we march. That is why we may ourselves present and open ourselves to interruption, to compliments, to debate, and to liberation. Because the patriarchy works to make us feel alone, and small, and momentary. Because the patriarchy works to cut us off from each other and our past. Because after each failure, we turn and return to one another.