Medieval Nonsense, Personal, Women and Transness

Writing about medieval women (when you barely remember how to be a woman)

In my day job, which is not even really a job at this point, I’m a giant nerd. Most people get over their knights-and-princesses phase; I just translated mine into knowing way too much about Anglo-Saxon warriors’ sex lives and how Old English poetic meter works. I’m an academic. Somehow, I may someday get paid for this.

Currently, it means that I’m madly editing a paper that I’m presenting at a conference on Saturday. The paper is about a fairly obscure Old English poem called “Wulf and Eadwacer,” which is spoken by a lonely woman, trapped on an island, longing for someone who might be her lover or might be a wolf or might even be her child depending on how you read a few significant words. It’s a weird poem that’s basically impossible to interpret coherently, and I have an unnecessary amount of feelings about it.

The first few drafts I wrote focused almost exclusively on the titular “Wulf” and his enigmatic identity. Is he a man, I wrote, or is he actually, literally a wolf? I wrote a lot about how Anglo-Saxons interacted with nature, and whether it was possible for the narrator of the poem to be seeking intimacy with an animal rather than a man. The text isn’t clear on Wulf’s humanity, and I felt like there was something important there. But I also felt like my argument was missing a connection somewhere. I just couldn’t relate his material wolfishness back to what the poem was saying about human identity.

Detransition helped me find that missing piece.

Not literally, of course. No one in Old English literature is trans, because transness is not a concept that existed in 1000 CE. There may have been people who performed gender in non-normative ways, but there was definitely no one in the misty fens of early medieval England taking and then desisting from taking hormones like I did. Even if there were, that would hardly help me with wolves. But still, I felt like my detransition gave me permission to focus more specifically on the speaker and her femaleness, and that turned out to be the key to a way better argument.

Now, as the Kids These Days say, it’s crunch time. I’ve been shoving as many books on Anglo-Saxon women down my throat as I can for the past week, and given my complicated relationship with womanhood, it’s been an intense experience. I have a lot of trouble engaging with femininity and femaleness in general. That’s probably a lot of why I chose to transition in the first place. Women like me–masculine lesbians, especially those who vocally describe themselves as butches–are seen, these days, as relics, no longer useful or relevant, so obsolete as to be almost unintelligible. That’s always been really alienating for me. And in reading this elegy, which is itself a relic of loneliness, written in a language that has been dead for centuries about a woman whose desires are disallowed and whose body is confined within an isolated landscape, I became more aware of my own alienation. I knew I was outdated and alone.

Yet at the same time, I began to feel a fierce kinship with this anonymous woman. Old English is dead, and her story is no longer relevant to the majority of currently living people. But it still matters to me. Not only as a scholar, but as a woman.

Old English men’s elegies tend to focus on far-wandering exiles, staring into the rain and hoping for eventual redemption and a return to the comfort of human kinship. They’re very mind-and-soul oriented, especially in comparison to the small body of surviving poetry about (and possibly by) women. In contrast, women’s elegies feel far more hopeless. They’re about being contained and enclosed, and how when there’s nowhere for you to go and no one for you to relate to, your melancholy stays directed inward, to your physical body and your material situation.

While I have never been physically enclosed, like the women of early medieval England, the way we do femininity now has always made me feel enclosed metaphysically. It’s a trap: shave your legs, don’t talk too loud or take up too much space, smile at men but don’t flirt with them, stay in this box and no one gets hurt. Like the unnamed narrator of “Wulf and Eadwacer,” I felt as though my isolation was keeping me separate from the materiality of my body. Anglo-Saxon women were typically enclosed for religious reasons, because keeping them cloistered insulated them from the earthly concerns of their bodies. Modern femininity, likewise, cut off the uncomfortable physical femaleness of my body from my mental and spiritual life.

The speaker in “Wulf and Eadwacer” longs for the return of her man/wolf lover not solely because she wants to bone him, but because his ambiguous human/animal nature has the potential to penetrate her enclosure. Wulf’s association with animality might allow her to reconnect with the natural world and the “earthly concerns” of the body that she was previously not permitted. I couldn’t see a way out like that. I thought that the only way I could deal with my enclosure was to transcend it entirely. If my body didn’t matter and I could artificially alter it any way I wanted, then I didn’t have to feel trapped by the femininity that tried to cut me off from it.

Turns out, though, that didn’t work for me. What I needed, just like the woman on that rainy island over a thousand years ago, was to find a way to reconnect with my natural self–to bridge the gap between my mind and my body that our modern way of doing femininity has forced on me.

And I’m doing it. Day by day, I’m getting reacquainted with my female, earthly body. It’s slow. It’s difficult. It’s kind of gross, sometimes. But it turns out, if it means getting off Patriarchy Island and running with the proverbial wolves? I can really deal with that.

2 thoughts on “Writing about medieval women (when you barely remember how to be a woman)

  1. Enclosure continued on an explicit, literal basis into the Victorian era – if you were pregnant the term used was “enceinte” – definition: “en·ceinte1
    an enclosure or the enclosing wall of a fortified place” – and you were supposed to refrain from being seen in public. A part of the current metaphysical enclosure, as you point out, I think, is the infantalizing cultural standards of stereotypic female “ideal” beauty: shaved legs, waxed hair-free pubis, soft voice, big eyes in relation to face (hence eye makeup) etc – don’t be a WOMAN, be a “sexy” girl-child, so no one has to think much about periods, childbirth, powerful sisterhood stuff….

  2. refraining from being seen in public was a luxury for upper class women – the majority of women had to carry on regardless. the work wasn’t going to get done otherwise.

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