Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2018
Robert Mills Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 398 pp.; 8 color ills.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226169125)

Robert Mills’s Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a brave and important book that future studies of sexuality and gender will need to contend with. Through attentive analyses of diverse texts and images, Mills destabilizes a variety of givens and orthodoxies, both medieval and modern. Seeing Sodomy enters the politically charged debates swirling around issues of social constructionism and essentialism—especially as linked to Michel Foucault’s conclusion in his influential History of Sexuality that in the Middle Ages sodomy was an “utterly confused” “category of forbidden acts” that did not admit the more modern notion of sexual orientation. Thus, while historians of gender and sexuality generally agree that the word gender connotes the social construction of sex roles, the word sexuality is less clear and more fraught. This is particularly so when considering, for example, the way certain interpretations of social constructionism are used to support the notion of homosexuality as a “choice,” which figures into the rationale for such horrors as conversion therapy. One way of addressing the problem has been to uncouple gender from sexuality, a move that—as Mills’s book demonstrates—can create additional troubling distortions. A great strength of Mills’s project is that he sees (and helps us to see) the complicated ways in which gender and sexuality were inextricably intertwined in the Middle Ages and remain so today. If Foucault’s project teaches us that sexuality has a history, Mills’s work wrestles with the corollary that the relationship between gender and sexuality does too.

Mills does so by taking into account the constitutive multivalence of the visual and the heavy ideological work it does—indeed, this is the first major work addressing the history of sodomy that examines both visual and verbal sources with comparable attention and care. For example, Mills observes that the well-known representations of homosexual couples in the famed moralized Bibles made for French royals in the thirteenth century are positioned on the page with scenes from the Creation and Fall so as to argue that their “disordered” sexual sin is a consequence of Eve’s violation of divinely ordained gender hierarchy. He also identifies images that seem to express possibilities for multiple gender identities and sexualities. One such case is a historiated capital in the cloister of the abbey church of La Madeleine, Vézelay, illustrating the dramatic moment in which the transvestite saint Eugenia—after living many years as a male abbot—reveals her breasts in order to refute a false accusation of rape by a scorned, would-be female seducer. Mills explains how this presentation of Eugenia embodies the fluid gender identity and ambiguous sexuality of the monks. Their avowed status as virgins might have constituted a third gender in the Middle Ages (as has been discussed by Sarah Salih and others), and their sexuality was in part defined by a battle against fleshly desire that “participates in erotic structures,” what Mills calls (following Virginia Burrus and Karmen MacKendrick) the “‘countererotic’ pleasures of enclosure” (193–94).

Mills is aware that he is initiating a difficult conversation and that the terminology he chooses is crucial to the success of his enterprise. The problem is that he is studying the subaltern, a submerged group who engaged in taboo sexual activities and whom medieval commentators often deemed unspeakable and unrepresentable. The sources that survive were typically designed to support hegemonic structures, and the language of sin and abomination employed in the Middle Ages is hardly conducive to scholarly objectivity. Not only the word “sodomy” itself but also terms like “homosexuality,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” “butch,” “femme,” and “queer” are, of course, historically contingent and contested. Mills elects to use postmedieval vocabulary as a method of “strategic anachronism”—a phrase he borrows from Valerie Traub’s The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, 16). This might have been more problematic in less skilled hands, but Mills issues enough careful warnings to remind us that the significance is located not in the (inadequate) words themselves but in the synapses between their words and our words, between then and now. He is also studying the spaces and silences created by the tensions between texts and images, which allows him to offer persuasive new readings of medieval works of art.

Experimental anachronism is part of Mills’s project, addressed by the second of five “themes” he identifies in his introduction. The primary theme, which I have addressed above, “is the relationship between sodomy and motifs of vision and visibility in medieval culture, on the one hand, and those categories we today call ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality,’ on the other” (10). The second theme draws on Annamarie Jagose’s theories about lesbian visibility—specifically how it is affected by sequences or hierarchies of sexuality and desire. Mills argues that “sequential paradigms shaped medieval concepts of desire” (14), that medieval texts and images manipulated temporal relationships among, for example, the events in the Hebrew Bible, classical antiquity, early Christianity, and/or the relevant medieval moment in order to prioritize heterosexuality. Mills argues that introducing modern terms such as transgender into medieval sequences is illuminating “because the sense of temporal disjuncture evoked by transgender in medieval contexts productively focuses attention on the politics of time that inflects the category” (86). Even if, as Mills thinks likely, his deliberate anachronistic use of provisional and evolving terms like transgender may quickly become dated, Mills’s work will persist both as an origin point for new possibilities in interpreting medieval art and as a document of our current moment.

Mills’s third theme is “assessing the role friendship discourse plays in medieval visualizations of sodomy” (16). Indeed, because the level of intimacy permitted in pubic expressions of same-sex friendships is historically contingent, the degree to which one can or should “see” eroticism in the documents of such relationships is often contested. Moreover, patriarchal structures have ensured that male-male relationships—whether interpreted as expressions of erotic interactions or fraternal loyalty—are more likely to register in the historical record than female-female relationships, which more often go unremarked. Mills uses the fluid (or “confused”) category of sodomy to investigate not only relationships between men but also those between women, a “gender-comparative analysis” that he identifies as a fourth theme. Pointing out that histories of sexuality have tended toward gender-separatist approaches—possibly the result of publishers catering to niche markets—Mills shows that such segregation leads to blind spots that his comparative approach helps us to notice. Mills’s final theme is translation. He draws on translation theory to tease out the polysemous potential of his source material and to interrogate sodomy as a metaphor that transferred meaning between and among realms: verbal and visual, gender and sexuality, one culture and another, past and present.

Although Seeing Sodomy has five themes and five chapters, they do not align. This makes sense, since the themes are interconnected and multiple themes are typically at play throughout Mills’s interpretive enterprise. Rather, his book is organized around a series of case studies in which he finds sodomitical issues surfacing in the visual record and reverberating in relevant texts. Chapter 1, “Translating Sodom,” focuses on moralized Bibles; chapter 2, “Transgender Time,” treats moralized Ovid manuscripts; chapter 3, “The First Sodomite,” focuses on representations of Orpheus (mainly in moralized Ovid manuscripts); and chapter 4, “The Sex Lives of Monks,” deals with Saint Eugenia and Ganymede as represented in select Romanesque cloister capitals. The final chapter, “Orientations,” provides the most eclectic assemblage of material from across Europe, ranging from the twelfth through the sixteenth century: books of hours, psalters, anchoritic texts, hagiographic manuscripts, early prints, moralized Bibles, romance manuscripts, cathedral facades, Tuscan frescoes. In these diverse sources Mills finds evidence suggesting “sodomites” were sometimes seen not as sinners guilty of discrete, forbidden acts but as persons who were oriented toward certain sexual sins and who derived their social identity from their predilections. He is cautious in his conclusions, and he succeeds in complicating the essentialism/constructionism debate without inappropriately collapsing the past and present.

Mills asks hard questions of his source materials, and his interpretations are subtle and nuanced. Given the scope of Seeing Sodomy’s achievement, it is probably unreasonable to criticize things that it does not do. It should be noted, nevertheless, that by limiting his lens to “sodomy,” he cannot avoid neglecting a great deal of relevant context. We get little sense of the creators and viewers of the individual works of art he discusses or the reason they may have been created for a certain community at a particular moment. Furthermore, Mills offers scarce discussion of intervisual contexts beyond other sodomy-themed texts and images. Such unconsidered contextual material must inflect the meaning of the specific images being investigated. Mills’s treatment of a wide range of source material across time and space sometimes has the effect of flattening out consequential differences among periods and cultures. Although this book is studded with fascinating insights connected to larger theoretical issues, including the “new philology” and phenomenology, Mills does not always pursue these potentially enlightening avenues very far. For example, his otherwise informative and hilariously titled section devoted to “The Phenomenology of the Anus” doesn’t explicitly mention phenomenology except in the heading. Mills’s mastery of intersecting fields is indisputable, and his notes and bibliography are a good starting point for anyone interested in investigating gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages. There are (inevitably) omissions, and lost opportunities include engagement with the relevant work of Jane Burns, Thomas Dale, Domenic Leo, Peggy McCracken, Joan Wallach Scott, and Richard Trexler. Mills mostly sidesteps the frequently gender-bending medieval devotional texts that have inspired a large scholarly literature, as well as increasingly important recent work on intersectionality, both of which seem quite relevant to his arguments. No doubt other readers would find different omissions, because such complaints are, in fact, a natural and desirable outcome of this type of probing, ambitious, interdisciplinary scholarship. It stimulates readers to see connections to other things they have seen and read, pushing them to think beyond the edges of the work at hand.

Mills has produced a body of work that makes compelling syntheses and draws unexpected conclusions about delicate, difficult, and urgent issues. Seeing Sodomy, sparkling with erudition, open-ended questioning, and keen analyses, offers new interpretive models, inspires new understanding, and lays the foundation for myriad future scholarly endeavors. 

Sherry C. M. Lindquist
Dorothy Kayser Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History at the University of Memphis, 2017-2019

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