Hannah Victoria Johnson interviews Lucy Allen-Goss about her recent book about Female Desire in Chaucer.

Female Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance (Boydell & Brewer, 2020)

Lucy is currently an Irish Research Council postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College Dublin, where she’s researching narratives of pregnancy loss and reproductive disorder in late medieval England. Before that, she was at Newnham College, Cambridge, and at the English Faculty there, and that’s where she began writing Female Desire in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women and Middle English Romance. It grew out of the lectures and seminars she taught between 2014 and 2018. Before that, she took her PhD at the University of York.

H – How did you come to choose the Legend and subsequent Middle English romances as a place to look for potentially ‘queer’ female desire?

L – This was actually really organic, which is a polite way of saying: I stumbled across it. My first job fresh out of my PhD involved a lot of lecturing and I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare lectures, so I just hit the ground running. I was lecturing about Chaucer’s Legends, and I think I was literally in the middle of lecturing the Legend of Thisbe and I looked at this line where it talked about her wimple and his empty sheath and I went, “Ooh I think that’s a vagina pun!” I tried it out on the students and they were kind of like, “Oh, yeah, ok.” And then I went back and looked it up and worked backwards and worked out that it is a vagina pun, but also that Chaucer was doing something a little bit more complicated in that he’s borrowing it from somewhere else in Ovid. Then that turned into an article because it came together quite easily. When I got that job I had pitched my research as being about sexual violence in the romances and I was doing that research, but it wasn’t coming together. I kept on hitting things where I was thinking, “This doesn’t quite make sense.” So then when I got that Chaucer bit I thought, “Oh, ok!” And then I spent a lot of time just thinking, “Ok this works!” And for me it really was just an organic process of thinking, “Ok these things come together.” But having now done it, I am really happy with it and I think I really want to go away and extend it to other things. But it wasn’t that I really sat down and said, “I’m going to research on queer desire or lesbian desire.” And this is really cool: when I started that job I had just left my husband and I was in the process of coming out again (I had come out as a teenager). So I just love this, it makes me really happy that I thought, “I don’t know what I’m researching.” And then I thought “Oh, lesbians are interesting!” And it was a nice scholarly reflection on my life situation. And I really love that, it makes me really happy that it mirrored what I was doing and I didn’t notice it happening.

H – I was really struck by the sexual violence when reading, because I was coming from a place of nice queer desire and lesbians. Regarding that violence and the fact that men are very present in these stories, what kinds of difficulties did you encounter with studying the extant lesbiany desires in what, on the surface, appear to be heterosexual relationships–relationships that are also often quite violent to women and their bodies?

L – I think this is just an expression of cultural trauma that–if we are going to go down a historical route and say that we think there were women who were feeling some kind of desire for women (which I’m sure there were), it’s going to be a sort of traumatic experience, it’s going to be marked by this kind of violence–strikes me as being historically completely valid to say that it’s something that’s going to be felt through that sort of heterosexual violence. And I also think that Chaucer–especially Chaucer–is the kind of poet who is incapable of seeing women desiring women without thinking it’s a huge fracture in his world which he responds to with rhetorical violence. So, I actually think Chaucer is more violent than the romances. The romances are very violent, and they’re violent on the surface; but the work Chaucer’s doing is a lot more epistemically violent because he’s the person who doesn’t really see any kind of autonomy in women’s desire.

H – Like how you explain that he seems to end the legends before they’re really “supposed” to end?

L – Yeah, I think the romances are more interested in playing with all of these ideas, even if they do it in a horrible violent way. They’re interested in the playfulness of it. Something that really bothered me while I was writing the book was that I did get people saying, “Well they’re just heterosexual relationships.” And it really annoyed me because part of what I wanted the book to be doing was saying, “Well, why shouldn’t we have a lesbian reading of this?” And it really gets on my nerves that people say that you have to have an enormous amount of proof to say there’s a lesbian reading. And I just think we need to get past that as medievalists and say, well, if I can put a lesbian reading together and I can say, “Here’s the word play. Here’s the historical context. Here’s the innuendo. And I can assemble all of those things,” you know, maybe we just need to go with it?

H – This makes me think about emasculation and the feminine qualities of male lovers–I’m thinking in Pyramus & Thisbe and also in Ariadne’s tale–which sits alongside innuendo and word play lending to a lesbian reading, doesn’t it?

L – I wish I’d had more space in the book to talk about the genre of fiction that comes about with girl’s school stories, because there’s a whole movement towards young women reading stories where they very much set themselves up as the [male] protagonist and they read into a masculine role, or they find an imaginative way to identify with those stories. And the research is not research that I know as well as I wish I did. I wish that I’d had more space–but it would have been two books–to say that women do really do this thing, that if you are growing up in a culture where stories are male/female stories, then you insert yourself into the narrative and you take the male role and you’re like, “Oh, well, there are two women now, so this is cool!” And we know people do that. There’s a mass of psychological and anthropological literary scholarship about that in different periods, so I don’t see why the Middle Ages would be different.

Do you want to know a cool thing about the Theseus story? Since I wrote the book I started looking at Shakespeare–my current project is on Shakespeare. He plays with the Theseus myth quite a lot; he does it in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he also does it in Two Noble Kinsmen. Two Noble Kinsmen is the one where he has an explicit lesbian character who goes around saying, “I like women. I don’t like men. It’s not ‘just a phase’, I really like women, I really prefer them.” So, it seems to me that I’m saying, “I read that myth as having some kind of female queer component to it,” and it looks to me as if Shakespeare and Fletcher, writing Two Noble Kinsmen, also thought, “Ah, yes, this is a queer myth.” I think you could disagree with that, but it’s really striking because Shakespeare’s corpus has got lots of vaguely lesbiany characters. In Two Noble Kinsmen it’s in the present of the play and she’s really explicit about it, and Shakespeare’s borrowing a lot of the Theseus/Minotaur myth for that. There’s a scene where the lesbiany character and her maid go for a walk in the garden, and they say, “Narcissus? I like Narcissus too. Do you fancy doing things with my skirts? And like, needles and things? Would you be interested? Should we go and lie down together upstage?” It’s brilliant. It’s not subtle at all. And there’s all this tradition ofscholarship that’s like, “Women like sewing; I see nothing sexual about that.” But there is also a tradition of scholarship–scholars like Stephen Guy-Bray and Laurie Shannon come to mind–that argues, “No, she’s a lesbian.” This isn’t just me.

H – So you mentioned, reasonably, that it bothers you that people were saying these romances and legends are about heterosexual couples. As a follow up to that, was there ever anyone who was upset about the fact that you were discussing lesbiany desires through sexual violence committed on women’s bodies by men?

L – It certainly worried me. I didn’t want to come across as saying women are only lesbian if they’ve had horrible experiences with men. Although, my background is second wave-y activist feminism, and I have issues with the rhetoric that seuxality is something innate and we don’t choose it. Because I’ve always thought it’s kind of reasonable to choose to be a lesbian–it’s a much safer lifestyle. And why wouldn’t you choose it? I don’t honestly know about how much sexuality is a choice, but if there is and element of choice, I don’t see why you shouldn’t choose to be a lesbian because of male sexual violence. I think it’s a perfectly valid response. This is the thing that really seriously bothered me while I was writing my book. I think that people think you can’t make that argument, as if male sexual violence is something temporary that we’re going to solve very soon and it’s all ok. And it’s clearly not, and it clearly is a societal problem that’s been going on for centuries, and it’s clearly not trivial. But, actually, on the whole I didn’t give conference papers and get people saying, “This is really offensive that you’re implying that sexual violence makes women lesbians.” Nobody really came to me saying, “I’m offended by that.” I mostly did try to navigate around it and try to acknowledge that it was there. I can see how you could have that kind of popular response, but I didn’t get that. What I got was more of a conservative response. I had situations where quite conservative academic scholars have read the book and have just said, “Well we don’t find this tenable. It’s just straight and there’s nothing else going on.” And I’ve had scholars who just say, “You need to prove it better.” Which is frustrating.

H – Something you and I have discussed in the past is how to talk about the relationships between women. With regards to how you tackle this in your book, in your preface you express reticence to use the word ‘queer’  to describe these women but you also don’t show a preference for terms like Judith Bennett’s ‘lesbian-like’. How did you go about navigating what terms to apply where?

L – Unfortunately I had finished writing my book when you and Lauren [Cole] did that GMS paper [‘Reorienting Disorientation:
Hildegard von Bingen’s annus horribilis and its Effect on her
Depiction of Female Bodies’], where I figured out that “lesbiany” was the term I should have been using throughout the book and it would have been totally scholarly and I should have gone with it. That prologue was partly me being on a rant. I really have issues with ‘queer’. I think it’s such a class-based term. I mean, I’m quite middle class, but on the whole it really offends me that academics who are really quite priviledged go around saying, “Oh, we’ve reclaimed ‘queer’.” And it’s just not like that for a lot of people. It’s not something that we’ve reclaimed. There are communities where it’s still a very active slur and I don’t want someone to flip through my book in Blackwells and see ‘queer’ and have it jump out at them and they’ll think, “Oh my God, academia’s not for me because they’re using this horrible term.” I think it still acts as a kind of gatekeeping and we need to keep having the conversation. I’ve had this conversation with students in lecture and out of lecture, and what I find interesting is that students who are comfortable being vocal often use the word ‘queer’. But often you get students who are not out coming to you afterwards who are grateful for the fact you’re not using the term. Lesbians tend to have more education and qualifications than straight women–and I doubt that this is because there’s a genetic predisposition to university amongst lesbians. It’s really sad, but it’s probably because people who are less educated aren’t coming out. And I think that’s horrible and it really bothers me. And this is me being social-activist-y, but I really don’t want my terminology to be furthering that kind of gatekeeping. And it’s really easy to say, “I live in this really liberal university educated place and I’m happy with using queer,” and not think about who’s being left behind by that. I know ‘queer’ is doing really useful work as well; I’ve got really good friends who are totally down with using ‘queer’ and will refer to us as queer medievalists and I love that, but I’m not going to do it.

H – So ‘queer’ is a no. But you hesitated on ‘lesbian-like’ as well.

L – Well that one’s just in the published scholarship. Bennett makes this argument herself, that there’s a worry that if you say women’s friendship looks kind of lesbiany, you’re kind of saying sex isn’t anything for lesbians. And I suppose I do the opposite thing in my book; I’m not really interested in if there was intimacy between them, as long as there are sex puns–which has it’s own problems.

H – Adjacent to that: ‘homoerotic’ or ‘homosexual’ are not terms you used either, but did you consider them? Do you have thoughts on using these terms for describing these kinds of relationships?

L – When I was very early in this project I was talking to a senior male scholar at a conference and I described what I was doing as “looking at homoeroticism.” And he said, “Alright! Which men are you looking at?” And I think that really sums it up, doesn’t it? I think that people tend to think “homoerotic” and think of gay men, because gay men get the attention. So I didn’t really want to play into that. And I also don’t think there was a lot of eroticism in what I was finding. There’s playfulness in the romances, but I don’t think there’s a lot of eroticism in the sense of intimacy because it is so violent, and because it is so much about violence on bodies that are substituting for women’s bodies. Especially with Chaucer–I’m being really essentialist here–I don’t think he thinks about women in an erotic or intimate way. The reason he’s writing about women being sexually orientated towards other women and women behaving as though they might have sexuality orientated towards other women is because he’s interested in the hermeneutic potential. I don’t think the Legend is him saying, “I’m going to portray intimate relationships between women and it’s going to be lovely.” It’s not that kind of text, and I don’t think he has enough of a sense of women as autonomous beings to want to do that.

H – Would you have preferred to use the term ‘lesbiany’, then?

L – I don’t know what I would prefer! For this book, I’m genuinely happy that I didn’t find the right term, you know? Because I quite like that aspect about not quite fitting and it not being quite right and there not being a precise word for it. I think for this book that was the right thing to keep on feeling: like the language was a little uncomfortable. But if I was working on different kinds of texts I would be more polemical about using ‘lesbian’. I’ve got no issue with people using ‘lesbian’ about medieval sex in general, I just didn’t think it was appropraite here.

H – Can you give an example of what texts you would use ‘lesbian’ on?

L – It wouldn’t bug me if someone talked about Silence or any of those French texts where you have two women and then you have a gender transformation [Yde et Olive]–or Hildegard–and where people can, I think, fairly easily use terms like ‘lesbian’ or ‘trans’ because none of us are idiots and we understand that these things are historically specific. But in that sort of context, I think the polemical work that’s being done by using a term like ‘lesbian’–which is recovering our histories and making it visible–outwieghs the slight discomfort of knowing it’s not precisely the term that would have been used.

I do feel like I’ve done something peculiar with this research. There’s other research being done on, I suppose, a sort of real lesbian desire in the Middle Ages that feels a bit more recoverable. But I quite liked when I was writing the book that I wasn’t trying to say: this is a historically recoverable desire between two women. This is more about people’s ideas about women’s orientation towards other women. It’s more about that history of ideas around what makes a woman marked out as the kind of women who desires other women, or what happens to society when you imagine two women having sex. It’s more about those ideas, often in quite misogynistic men’s thinking, than it is about the women themselves. So with my book I don’t think there’s that sense that I want to use ‘lesbian’ all the time because we’re recovering our histories. What I’m recovering in this book isn’t a history of lesbian desire. What I’m recovering is Chaucer playing around with this ‘horrendous’ idea of women liking women. It’s not quite the same thing. I suppose I’m really thinking about the literary history of lesbophobia.

H – ‘Lesbian’ is considered anachronistic when applied to the medieval period and this is often an argument for why not to use it. If I’m not mistaken this also applies to the Early Modern period, right?

L – Yes absolutely, so there are two things going on. One is: how much I mind about pissing off other scholars. And I suppose because I’m out of my wheelhouse as a medievalist, I don’t really care. But it’s not like I don’t footnote it and say “This is anachronistic.” But it really bugs me that as scholars we keep on being pushed back against. We keep on footnoting “This is anachronistic” but for goodness sake who doesn’t know that by now? I wouldn’t want to use it for Chaucer because I don’t want someone reading my work thinking, “Oh there are lesbians in Chaucer! Excellent, I will read this and I will enjoy it and I’ll be in a good place and it will affirm me.” I want them to feel slightly wary and think “Why is this scholar not using this term? I’ll guard myself.” And that’s really about protecting readers as a community. I’m much more concerned that someone doesn’t read my book and then get a horrible shock. Because as we said earlier, it’s nasty and it’s violent. And I want to protect someone reading it from thinking they’re going to get lovely affirming histories of lesbians in the past. This sounds really arrogant because I’m aware that the readership of an academic book is three, but I suppose because this book came out of a lot of my teaching, I was thinking about my students a lot. When I was lecturing I was really worried. If you title a lecture something like “Lesbians in Chaucer” you will get all of these 18 year olds that are really excited because they thinks it’s going to be like reclaiming our past, and it can really viscerally upset them if that lecture is actually about sexual violence. And it would be really irresponsible to make them think that it was going to be affirming when it’s horrible. If they’re reading Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen–which doesn’t end well for the lesbians, nothing does–but it’s better and I wouldn’t be so bothered flagging that up to someone as a lesbian story. If I did the lecture I would maybe put a content warning: this doesn’t end well. But I feel that someone could read it and come out thinking there’s some really cool stuff in there that is affirming. It always really bothers me when people write books for senior scholars rather than for people coming through. And all of this book has been lectures, so in my head I think I was still lecturing when I wrote it and I wanted to prepare people for the nasty bits.

H – Do you think that your argument about the discursive possibilities in Chaucer’s hermeneutics can be applied more broadly to other medieval literary traditions–secular and/or religious?

L – Yes, and I think it goes into Shakespeare, as I said, and I’m really excited about that. I don’t know enough about religious literature to know. My merely uninformed sense is that religious literature is doing a lot more of the intimacy and there’s just enormously more scholarship about intimacies that seem lesbian-like or erotic, like with Christ’s wound. I suppose when I came into this I was really interested in asking: why isn’t that in the secular tradition? So, I don’t know that what I’m seeing quite gets into the religious tradition. The religious tradition just seems to have its own thing much more overtly and coherently worked out, at least in the late medieval period.

I definitely think that what I’m seeing goes on into post-medieval literature, though. And I wanted to say: I think you can definitely see what I’m talking about in other romances than the ones that I talked about in the book. I chose those romances, especially the two later ones, because they’re responding overtly to Chaucer. I was interested in their response to Chaucer because that becomes a dialogue, but there are definitely romances that predate Chaucer or have nothing much to do with Chaucer that are also giving women a surrogate body on which to imagine same sex desire. I think Gawain and the Green Knight, Guy of Warwick, and Sir Degravant are doing that. And they then thread in innuendos of same sex desire that have a nudge-nudge wink-wink kind of effect. What I identify in my book, I think, is quite a tight little conversation that’s quite English. I was reading a lot of Susan Schibanoff where she’s talking about the way that French itself gets represented as effeminate and queer in some English literature, talking about how the French influence has come into Chaucer’s poetry. And other people have worked on this as well. So, I don’t know how much this is a particularly English thing. I do think Chaucer takes this stuff from the French tradition and then wants to play with it in a distinctively English way in order to make it his own. But I think there probably is a pan-european interest in “what are the hermeneutic possibilities of two women?” It’s just a fairly obvious corollary to, “the hermeneutic possibilities of two men are absolute linguistic destruction.” Lots of people must have thought, “Ooh, what does that mean about women?” But I don’t know the medieval side of it enough, because my research went into the Early Modern and that’s just where I’ve ended up.

H – Can you talk a little bit more about how this extends into the Early Modern period, then, since this is a kind of historical foundation for the evolution of literary lesbophobia?

L – One of my current book projects at the moment is looking at Early Modern images that come out of Chaucer. Although there’s a lot of really good research about Shakespeare’s use of Chaucer, there needs to be more of it, and especially about the Legend of Good Women. There are lots of parts of Shakespeare where he’s overtly using the Legend and as far as I know no one has picked up on it because it’s not that well known of a text. And there’s also this really cool thing that the Chaucer that Shakespeare inherits is much bigger than the Chaucer we’ve got because it includes things like the Assembly of Ladies–which is quite lesbiany. When Speght publishes Chaucer’s collected works in 1598 and 1602 (these are the versions of Chaucer that Shakespeare probably knew best) it’s basically everything that he liked out of Middle English literature packaged as Chaucer. So Shakespeare has this very diverse Chaucer that has this female same-sex desire in it. It seems to me that that’s running through a lot of his plays and I think he has a lot of fun with it. There is lesbophobia, but it extends into this conversation about deviant women’s bodies and prosthetically extended women’s bodies which you get a lot in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which extends into these pejorative ideas of race. Valerie Traub many years ago argued that there’s a kind of intersection going on between lesbianism and being racialised or portrayed as black. I think a lot of the race-making discourses in Shakespeare are really rooted into these ideas about bodies that are pejoratively different, which come out of this lesbophobic discourse. I’m trying to trace this across to other bits of Early Modern writing and Early Modern women’s writing. I’m at quite an early stage in that, but my hunch is that women writers pick this up and have fun with it. It’s in the Early Modern period that you’re starting to see women writers that you can identify and say these are definitely women who are starting to write their own things and are saying, “Ooh this is interesting I can play with these tropes.” And, so, you get women writers playing with these tropes of female intimacy.

Hannah Victoria Johnson is a PhD student of Medieval Literature & Linguistics [Doctorante en Littérature médiévale et la linguistique] at
STIH, ED V, Sorbonne Université