Medieval Studies Workshop Talk: Blake Gutt
Speaker(s): Blake Gutt (University of Michigan)
Blake Gutt will give a talk titled “What Can Medieval Trans Studies Do?” The target audience are both medievalists and gender studies scholars, but the talk is open to anyone interested.
In this talk, I present the groundwork of my current book project. I lay out the theoretical stakes and potential of the approach I call “the trans Middle Ages”, and discuss two case studies that illustrate what medieval trans studies can do with both “canonically trans” medieval texts, and texts that are not typically seen as susceptible to a trans reading.
My current project analyzes medieval literary representations of gender transition and transformation through the lens of modern queer and trans theory, and traces the lineage between the two, contesting the common assumption that theorization of non-normative gender was absent from premodern thought. I work to elucidate the modes of thinking, communicating, and understanding that constitute trans ways of making and interpreting meaning. Beyond transition and transformation as subject matter and plot device, trans ontologies and epistemologies reveal queer and disruptive ways of viewing existing norms, and of structuring new frameworks. My literary and theoretical approach enacts a trans poetics to produce a resonant, atemporal moment of affective connection and trans creativity. The trans Middle Ages is inherently political, because acknowledgement of the existence of trans people in the past —and of the value of trans thought in the present— challenges dominant modern narratives of transgender existence.
My first case study is Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence (c. 13th), which is perhaps the text that has been most frequently analyzed as an example of medieval trans literature. I read Silence, however, not through the lens of trans studies, but rather through the lens of critical cis studies. The power of the text, I propose, is that it lays bare the coercive systems of gendering that are normalized in cisgender society: the way that parents define their children’s gender in response to surrounding cultural norms. The story of Silence denaturalizes something that is completely familiar, revealing the gaps and flaws, as well as the possibilities for things to be otherwise, which are hiding in plain sight.
I then turn to Perceval, the chivalric hero of Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte du Graal (c. 12th), in order to explore what is trans, or trans-like, about the hegemonic hero who almost becomes the perfect knight, the masculine ideal, the chosen one capable of achieving the quest for the Holy Grail. Medievalists have long recognized certain medieval genders as vocational, most notably the “third gender” of celibate clerics. In the final section of this talk, I examine the scene in which Perceval first meets knights, and is irresistibly drawn to this enticing new gender, which he perceives as angelic or divine.
Blake Gutt is assistant professor and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. He is the co-editor, with Alicia Spencer-Hall, of Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2021), and the co-editor, with Zoe Angelis, of Stains/Les Taches: Communication and Contamination in French and Francophone Literature and Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2019). He has authored several articles published with Exemplaria, Medieval Feminist Forum, and postmedieval.
Please direct questions to Johannes Junge Ruhland (jmjr [at] stanford.edu (jmjr[at]stanford[dot]edu)).