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(Un)Natural Love: Homosexuality in Late Medieval English Literature: Langland, Chaucer, Gower, and the Gawain Poet
By Swaeske de Vries
Thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2011
Introduction: The film Brokeback Mountain (2005), the story of two homosexual cowboys who had a secret love affair, can be seen as a breakthrough in the portrayal of homosexual relationships in the twenty-first century. The script, based on a short story by Annie Proulx, had been around for years, but no actor had dared to step into the role of one of the two cowboys for fear of falling prey to so-called type-casting. When the film was finally made and started playing in theatres, it was acclaimed and detested at the same time. The Oscar nominated film caused bans and censorship (in China and Italy, respectively) and resulted in protests by a Christian group, but one thing was clear: the story of the same-sex lovers firmly took homosexuality out of the atmosphere of taboos and placed it among other romances on the world map.
It is peculiar that this relatively new film is considered to be so significant in this day and age. Its impact on the world strengthens the belief that homosexuality has been moving in and out of the taboo zone throughout history. Amidst all chaos and changes in society, love remained. Still, one thing is clear: homosexuality is not a new concept. If it was a known notion over two millennia ago as a familiar aspect of ancient Greek society and is still around today, we cannot possibly claim that homosexuality has ever, at any point, disappeared from our culture and society.
This is why it is interesting to take a look at a period in time in which the position of homosexuality may not have been very different from the one it had in (mostly) the first half of the twentieth century in Western Europe. For this we look back to some of the most well-known authors from the late Middle Ages: William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and the author known as the Gawain poet. We can examine in their works if there are any mentions of homosexuality, and, more importantly, whether these mentions bear a strong marking of late medieval English society. Do the four authors take different approaches to the subject? Do they take approaches at all, or do they omit any mention of homosexuality? What is the influence of the fourteenth-century society that they lived in? Is this influence noticeable in the authors’ works? And finally, can we deduct from careful examination what the poets’ personal opinions on homosexuality may have been?
See also our section on Same-Sex Relations in the Middle Ages