In this month’s blogpost, Aysha Strachan, a PhD candidate at KCL/HU Berlin, suggests that teaching modern theory alongside medieval literature gives us better access to the challenges that these texts issue to modern norms and assumptions.

As a new Graduate Teaching Assistant teaching second-year seminars on Gender and Identity in German Arthurian literature, I was excited to help shape the reading list and module structure. The module takes modern theories on identity and difference (from Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation to Butler’s Gender Trouble) together with medieval scholarship on gender (such as Ruth Mazo Karras’ From Boys to Men and Clare Lees’ Medieval Masculinity). We apply these weekly readings to two canonical examples of twelfth-century Middle High German Arthurian romance: Hartmann von Aue’s Erec and Iwein.

It felt important to stress to students that medieval studies is in the process of a well-needed – even fundamental – refurbishment in its scholarship. Where in the past the application of theory developed outside of a strictly medieval context was viewed as anachronistic, we now see a more diverse range of modern theoretical approaches, from psychoanalytical to gender, queer, and postcolonial theories, as fruitful to medieval studies. As Simon Gaunt argues, we need to re-shape a new generation of medievalists to think of history and theory together:

[…] there is no need to oppose history and theory; on the contrary, theory – including postcolonial theory – can be used productively in historically informed reflections on medieval culture. (“Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?”, p. 162)

As a researcher applying postcolonial feminist theory to medieval literature, my own aims mapped out well onto this module’s aims: first, to explore medieval literature in its own right through its language, poetics, figures, plot development; second, to exhibit the viability of using contemporary theory to read medieval texts; and third, to open students’ minds to the continuities between past and present by showing them that gender and identity politics resonate in both medieval and modern discourses.

Illumination of Hartmann von Aue in the Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 184v, (c.1300). Source:

Hartmann’s texts seem the perfect examples to illustrate a complicated, fluid image of gender. In Erec (c.1185), the eponymous protagonist is introduced “naked and unarmed like a woman”: hardly what you might expect from a heroic Arthurian knight. He is accused of spending too much time in bed with his wife, Enite, who is subsequently blamed for his lack of sexual moderation. Although it is arguably he who decides to prioritise the marital bond over the feudal one, he blames Enite for his downfall and rides out in pursuit of adventure to prove his masculine identity. Only when he meets and defeats Mabonagrin, the embodiment of masculine excess, does Erec realise his own error: it is good to be integrated with the court.

On the surface, Hartmann might appear to conform to traditional gender stereotypes given how women are frequently subject to male dominance; however, the gender roles in this text are complicated and undermined throughout. Enite is far from passive. Although sexualised through the voyeuristic eye of the narrator, she transgresses her husband’s orders to stay silent, risking her life to save Erec from ambush, thereby challenging the assumption that women are always submissive. She too plays a significant part in her and Erec’s joint journey of self-progression.

Arthur chasing the stag in Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide (c.1275): the source of Hartmann’s Erec (BnF, Manuscrits, Français 24403 fol. 119).

Hartmann’s texts ask their audiences – whether medieval or modern – to challenge their perception of what (if anything) genders people. How do we think about who we are outside of binary labels? After a brief introduction to the 12thcentury courtly setting of our texts, we venture into both ‘pure’ gender theory, such as Butler’s Gender Trouble, and scholarship with a more cross-period comparative approach, like James Schultz’s Courtly Love. Each week, we discuss the set theory before turning to our primary texts. By taking apart the language, searching for inconsistencies, and challenging narratorial perspective, students become increasingly comfortable with applying theory to the texts. The values of close reading also become more apparent week by week as we ask how far the language and content of these texts help to simultaneously shape and dismantle identity categories and norms.

It is time for medieval literary studies to fully embrace the ambiguity of medieval texts as the perfect starting point from which to challenge assumptions of gender and identity which are so topical today. By unpacking the way in which the language of medieval texts creates room for thought on society’s construction of identity, we can see how both modern and medieval audiences are asked to question and recalibrate their sense of self through literature.

Aysha Strachan is a Joint-PhD candidate in German at King’s College London / Humboldt University, Berlin under the supervision of Sarah Bowden and Andreas Krass. The working title of her thesis is: “Women as Agents of Sexual Desire in Middle High German Literature”.

References and further reading

Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval. Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).

Sharon A. Farmer, and Carol Braun Pasternack ed., Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Simon Gaunt, “Can the Middle Ages Be Postcolonial?” Comparative Literature, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 160–176.

Ruth Mazo Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Clare A. Lees, Thelma S. Fenster, and Jo Ann McNamara, Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, James A. Schultz, Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

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