Kinky Reading: Power, Pleasure, and Performance in Middle English Texts
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This dissertation expands upon the vibrant field of medieval queer studies by considering literary instances of medieval sexual power play via theory on contemporary BDSM (bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism). It begins with a chapter outlining the history and theory of BDSM. The remaining chapters explore concepts of fantasy, performance, consent, and eroticized violence in three Middle English texts, Sir Gowther, The Book of Margery Kempe, and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, from the perspective of kinky reading, a methodology that draws on the traditions of feminist and queer theory and the new field of kink studies. BDSM has historically been pathologized, but this study interprets kink as a form of queerness rather than an expression of illness because of its non-reproductive, non-genital focus and embracing of fluid sexual identities and power dynamics. In each text this dissertation considers, reading with awareness of BDSM clarifies power dynamics and finds relationships between sex and power that can be both arousing and empowering for the characters involved. Erotic discourses in these texts express the struggle of an individual character to relate to larger social power structures, a struggle complicated by race for Gowther and by gender for Margery and the Wife. Like contemporary BDSM, these texts manipulate and exaggerate existing power dynamics for erotic impact. In Sir Gowther, the queerness of sadism is ultimately displaced onto foreign enemies, while temporary masochism allows Gowther to secure his aristocratic position. Increased attention to eroticized violence and consent reveals how Margery’s relationship with God enables her to reclaim her body and both resist and demand recognition from Church authorities. A kinky approach to the erotic content of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale provides a solution to the feminist critical impasse over the Wife; this rereading argues that her texts advocate for flexible power dynamics and embrace sex as a positive part of life. This dissertation makes connections between medieval and modern sexualities that illuminate kink as an intense form of desire and a resistance to heteronormativity.
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