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In Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality when Normal Wasn't, Karma Lochrie
seeks to shake our faith in the supposed naturalness of heterosexuality. She
attempts to demonstrate that heterosexuality has not been the norm throughout
history by showing that female sexuality in the Middle Ages fails to fit into
current categories of heterosexual, or indeed, homosexual desire or activity.
Instead, according to Lochrie, female sexuality in this period shows a
remarkable diversity, and proves that our current popular conceptions of
sexuality are overly limited
Lochrie is a Professor of English
at Indiana University and her work is scholarly and text-based. She takes her
evidence from the letters of Heloise, Chaucer's Tales, medical texts, and myths about Amazons. She assumes a
high-level of background knowledge amongst her readers -- taking for granted,
for example, that readers will be familiar with the plot and characters of
Chaucer's Tales. As a consequence, Heterosyncrasies is not accessible to
the general reader, but rather is aimed at scholars of Queer or Medieval
On occasion, the evidence that
Lochrie unearths seems tenuous. Thus Lochrie examines the letters of Heloise
(famous for her relationship with Abelard, which ended in his castration and
her entry into the convent at Argenteuil ca 1118) and in a previously overlooked
phrase in her third letter finds a suggestion that nuns were susceptible to the
sexual overtures of female lay visitors. Furthermore, Lochrie suggests, Heloise
and her nuns may have been expelled from their abbey on account of illicit
sexual activity amongst the nuns. On the other hand, as Lochrie accepts (after
a whole chapter discussing the passages), alternative interpretations of both
the letter and the reasons for expulsion are possible. One is left with the
impression that evidence on female sexuality in the Middle Ages is rather
scarce and that Lochrie is forced to do the best she can with what is
On the other hand, chapters
examining the masculine femininities attributed to women with pathologically
enlarged clitorises, and the Amazons of medieval myths, are more convincing. In
the final chapter, for example, Lochrie demonstrates how the sexuality of the
Amazon queen, Thalestris, made sense to medieval minds, but cannot be
accommodated by contemporary categories. The mythical Amazons were a tribe of
warrior women, who sliced off one breast to facilitate shooting with a bow and
arrow. They lived in all-female communities, but sought out men at certain
times of the year in order to conceive children from the best of them. Any male
children they had were abandoned or returned to their fathers. According to
some stories, Thalestris, the Amazon queen, sought out Alexander the Great in
order to conceive the ideal heir by him. As Lochrie says, "There is no
word for this sexuality" (p.121). The queen's mutilated body is "part
martial, part maternal", she is herself a masculine being, who desires
masculinity, rather than men themselves (whom she views merely as a means for
conceiving female, warrior children) -- as such her desire fails to fit contemporary
categories of either hetero- or homosexual desire, but is rather something
Cooper, Ph.D., Lecturer in Philosophy, Institute for Environment, Philosophy
and Public Policy, Furness College, Lancaster
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