Conference Report: Gender and Transgression

On 7-9 May 2015, the University of St Andrews Institute for Mediaeval Studies hosted the annual Gender and Transgression in the Medieval World conference. This year’s theme was Crime, Punishment, and Penance.


Sarah Greer, a History PhD student at the University of St Andrews, has provided an in-depth look at the themes and topics covered during the conference:

“How was gender expressed in the medieval world? What activities were considered to be transgressive? What effects did transgression have on medieval societies, and what do responses to these acts tell us about the behavioural norms of the times, gendered or otherwise? The latest installment of the ‘Gender and Transgression in the Medieval World’ conference at the University of St Andrews addressed these questions in early May this year. Scholars of history, literature, archaeology and criminology presented a range of papers exploring the various facets of this year’s theme: Crime, Punishment and Penance in the Middle Ages. The variety of disciplinary approaches and contexts of the papers given threw into question our modern preconceptions of the nature of gender and transgression in the medieval world, sparking an exciting set of ideas for new directions in studying the Middle Ages.

Crimes of sex

As may be expected from a conference on gender and transgression, transgressive sex acts in medieval societies received a great deal of attention. What was notable, however, was the stress laid by a number of speakers on how responses to medieval sex crimes were often less concerned with the sexual nature of the act itself than with other related concerns. Condemnation of sexual behaviour could serve as a literary tool to reaffirm the identity of a group, as Emilio Bonfiglio pointed out in an anti-homosexual Armenian text written for a monastic audience in the fifth century. Introducing new punishments for sexual crimes could act as a means by which conquered regions were further absorbed into empires, which Zubin Mistry noted occurred with abortion and infanticide in the law codes of the Carolingian empire. Indeed, as Jamie Page showed in the dispute following the sexual assault of a 4-year-old by a 12-year-old girl in late medieval Zurich, even legal cases sparked by sexual assault could be less concerned with investigating the assault itself than with resolving the impact on the honour and reputation of the families involved.

The wider effects of transgressive behaviour on medieval society clearly which concerned medieval writers greatly. The amount of attention medieval chroniclers gave to royal anger, as Hannah Kilpatrick pointed out, showed how important it was for a king to express his emotions in the proper manner in order not to antagonise his followers. But properly expressing anger was not simply a royal concern. In the same vein, Ekaterina Mitsiou noted that the focus on restraining anger in monastic communities was a further facet of the wider medieval concern with outlining acceptable and unacceptable forms of behaviour.

Responses to disputes and transgressive acts were not simply focused on the parties involved, but needed to deal with the wider ripples that these disputes had caused in society. As the boundaries between crime and sin were fluid in the medieval world, any response to a transgressive act needed to include some form of appeasement to God as well. Rob Meens highlighted how penance, as a highly visible act of conciliation, served as a useful form of conflict resolution to knit back together ruptures in society.

Gendered bodies

While the Middle Ages are often characterised as a time of repression for women in general, in fact medieval women had a variety of ways through which they could gain a measure of power and agency over their own lives. Much of the ability for individual women to do this was determined by their social position, with those in the upper strata of society having more resources and opportunities to act in their own right. However, as both Sara Mederos and Azime Pekşen Yakar pointed out, women were able to use their bodies, specifically by controlling access to them, as a way to gain power over the men in their lives.

The comparative difficulty of seeing medieval women in primary sources can at times obscure the roles they played in medieval society. Yet, as Delfi Nieto-Isabel showed with the actions of Beguin women during thirteenth-century heresy trials, women had much more active roles than we often recognise. Indeed, sometimes our own modern preconceptions about medieval gender roles can lead us to misread the evidence, which Andrew Welton demonstrated through the number of Anglo-Saxon weapon burials that have been falsely catalogued as male. Megan Cavell also proposed that these same preconceptions hinder our understanding of the allusions to textile production being violent in Anglo-Saxon riddles, as even though it was a female-gendered activity, making fabrics was a visceral and highly violent occupation involving repurposed weapons. As Welton suggested, we may do better to put aside our modern view of medieval gender divisions as a male/female dichotomy and instead think about other kinds of models that past societies may have used, such as warrior/mother archetypes.

Indeed, the boundaries between male and female gender roles could at times become blurry. Women were praised for acting in a manly fashion and leading military action when there were no men around who were able to act, which Lydia Hayes outlined in her description of the biblical commentaries on Judith. The same praise for masculine behaviour by women appeared in Arab epic literature, but Amanda Hannoosh Steinberg noted that the key difference between the heroines and villainesses in these stories was not based on their gendered activity but rather on the motivations for their actions. In some cases men needed to take on feminine qualities too, as Catherine Coffey outlined in the case of high medieval German mystics. Women like Mechthild of Magdeburg were able to use their femininity to create sensuality in their mystical union with God, whereas male mystics had to transform their gender roles in order to do so. Effectively, medieval gender roles were less rigidly differentiated than our modern ideas about the Middle Ages might lead us to expect.

Norms and identities

By examining sexual and gender transgressions in the medieval world, the key result of this conference was to question our modern ideas of what the norms of sexual and gendered behaviour were in the Middle Ages. In many cases, we need to re-examine how much of what we consider to be normative behaviour is instead us implementing our own ideas onto the past. Rather than trying to classify the actions and identities of individuals in the past into strict categories with definite and recognisable boundaries, we need to consider the fluidity that these roles seem to have possessed. Also, any examination of medieval sex and gender needs to take into account the other contextual factors that influenced the case in question. In many situations the position of an individual in the hierarchies of power and authority in their society was more influential in determining their behaviour than their gender. Gender could serve as a useful discourse, to be activated in praise or criticism of an individual when needed, but individuals were able to act outside of what we might consider to be typical gendered behaviour in a remarkable number of cases. While gender was an important aspect of medieval identity, we should not forget that it was not the only, nor even the primary part of individuals’ identities.”