White supremacists fetishize the crusading knight; queer theorists claim an identification with the generative secret of the premodern sodomite. This essay attends to the epistemological circuits of transhistorical identification, examining the claims of recursive history and the theories of attachment betrayed by identification with the medieval past. Turning away from the solicitations of the crusader and the sodomite, the essay excavates histories of emotional attachment to the leper, a medieval figure whose status as abject incarnation of historical distance helps reconfigure transhistoric emotional identification. In medieval texts, the leper's ruined face scripts styles of recognition. In the medical writings of nineteenth-century imperial physicians, the medieval leper is used in negotiating fears of disease outbreaks in various colonies. The leper therefore comes to assume the status of reassuring historical distance as a result of imperial ideological needs. Attention to the circuits of desire that animate claims to the past on the basis of identification and personal attachment can account for the attraction the Middle Ages exerts on both medievalists and white supremacists.
White supremacists tend to fetishize the European Middle Ages: recent examples include Celtic crosses at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the crusader chant “Deus Vult” at the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol. As Sierra Lomuto (2016) has cogently argued, the deployment of this sort of medieval iconography celebrates not a specific ethnic identity but instead whiteness as a “racial category of privileged dominance.” These symbols surface a contemporary emotional attachment to the Middle Ages, and specifically to the figure of the medieval crusader. In many ways, such an attachment is easily intelligible: the crusader is a figure of war, one that frames its own aggression and violence as a necessary defense of white Christian supremacy and heritage. American white supremacists’ identification with medieval imagery makes a claim about recursive historical continuity. Though its assertions of identification and attachment are to figures different from the crusader, queer theory has made similar claims about recursive history and the status of transhistorical attachment. This scholarship can help clarify the operations of such emotional attachments to figures from the medieval past. Borrowing from these debates, this essay focuses on histories of emotional attachment to the leper, a medieval figure whose status as ultimate difference helps reconfigure emotional identification across history.
Metahistoriographic descriptions of the Middle Ages promise a reckoning with the white supremacist underpinnings of the very concept of “the medieval.” In accounting for the place of the Middle Ages, such descriptions must contend with the contradictions of a medieval past constructed in scholarship as both heady point of origin for a wide variety of modern phenomena and as historical difference qua difference. These contradictory historiographic orientations, which Kathleen Biddick (1998: 83) describes in their incarnations in medieval scholarship as “pastism” and “presentism,” are not unique to the field of medieval studies, though the Western Middle Ages does occupy a unique position in historiography. Both the racist epistemological procedures bequeathed to medieval studies by Victorian scholars working to shore up the ideological foundations of British Empire and the contemporary availability of the medieval as fantasy fuel for white supremacists are evidence of the racism buttressing the field. Tension between the Middle Ages as marker of absolute difference from modernity and the Middle Ages as genealogical origin point structures the claims of white supremacists who frame the European Middle Ages as white heritage being violently denied to them. Part of what is at stake here is the epistemological status of charged emotional recognition.
The sodomite is an obvious object of investigation for issues of historiographic identification; by contrast, the leper is intractable, less available for emotional connection. The image of the leper, clanging a clapper to warn others of their imminent approach, appears in the contemporary view as indigestible difference, the abject incarnation of the medieval. In medieval literature, however, the leper frequently appears as a metaphor for the holiness of abjection, as when Christ is described as quasi leprosus in his suffering and physical degradation.1 In these treatments, leprosy is a form of penance and rehabilitation. Appearing in the Bible as the preeminent embodiment of impurity, frequently associated with sexual perversity, deployed as a metaphor for sin in religious commentary, and lavished with terms of the utmost disgust, the leper, as Julie Orlemanski (2012: 144) aptly characterized it, “has come to be the grotesque embodiment of historical alterity itself.” The leper is synonymous with the medieval. This symbolic centrality is a result of nineteenth-century ideological needs. This essay proceeds first by exploring attachment genealogies in queer theory debates, and then by detailing the emotional valences of the medieval leper, both within medieval literature and in later historiography, as a figure that marks historical distance. Finally, the essay turns to Robert Henryson's fifteenth-century poem The Testament of Cresseid to investigate attachments to a particular leper. Attention to the circuits of desire that animate claims to the past on the basis of identification and personal attachment, I argue, can account for the attraction the Middle Ages exerts on both medievalists and white supremacists.
Medievalist scholars who are not white supremacists have an understandable impulse to distinguish between the Middle Ages proper and the idea of the Middle Ages as it circulates among contemporary racists. Much excellent recent scholarship examines the period's complex notions of race, dispelling ideas of the Middle Ages as preracial. This approach, however valuable eo ipso, cannot reckon for the continuing hold of the medieval on the white imaginary. It is insufficient of antiracist scholarship to respond to the fantasy of a pure white premodern solely by correcting the record, because it is attachment rather than accuracy that is at stake.
Thinking through the possibilities of a mode of reading based in affective response and personal identification, Carolyn Dinshaw (1999) offers a reading of John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, a Middle English religious manual written in the late fourteenth century. In the course of a conventional discussion of “synne agynes kynde” (sin against nature), Mirk advises that children older than seven should not sleep together “Leste they by-twynne hem brede / the lykynge of that fowle dede” (quoted in Dinshaw 1999: 10; lest they between them breed / the liking of that foul deed).2 Dinshaw argues that the passage proscribes not just heterosexual fornication but also “that unnamable sin against nature,” and that Mirk is advising against letting children of the same gender share a bed (10). She meditates on these “boys and these girls, these men and these women” posited by Mirk as poised to discover unspeakable pleasures when they share a bed. “How can we know them?” Dinshaw asks. “And thinking we know them, what do we know?” (12).
The simplicity and directness of these questions attest to their emotional intensity. “How can we know them?” Dinshaw asks, meaning, I know them, or I know that moment, the adolescents in the dark room and the shared bed and the unnamable feeling that may or may not lead to sex. The conditions of possibility for these questions are fraught, premised on private, inchoate experience. This experience that Dinshaw gestures to is one that subsequently grants membership into a more recognizable and well-defined identity-based community: acts of sexual deviancy, or even the more nameless desires that precede deviant acts, are, in our contemporary formulations, a qualifier for queer identities. This speculative reading of Mirk functions to instantiate Dinshaw's larger theoretical project, which she describes as doing the work of queer history, a “contingent history” in the sense that “its forms are intelligible but do not emerge out of teleological necessity” (3). To read Mirk in this way, looking for queer resonance or even affective identification, is to engage in the project of historical community making. These identificatory impulses can become totalizing or simplistic, but Dinshaw models a style of incomplete, constantly shifting, affective moments of community formation.3 For Dinshaw, identification is not precise recognition or reclamation, not a claiming of definite heritage but an acknowledgment of a surge of emotion, a data point that emphasizes a way of both knowing and not-knowing the past. She calls these unstable historical connections “the touch of the queer.” The question for Dinshaw is not whether “we” can know “them,” but how.
In distinguishing between what she calls alterist and continuist approaches to queer historiography, Valerie Traub (2015: 83) writes that continuist scholarship tends to “emphasize a similarity between past and present concepts of sexual understanding,” while work that highlights historical difference, or alterity, tends to “emphasize problems of anachronism, changing terminologies and typologies, and resistance to teleology.” Dinshaw's concept of “the touch of the queer” and her insistence on the epistemological affordances of an affective relation to the medieval past put her work on the continuist side of the spectrum.4 Traub (2015: 61) surveys the way this debate often turns on accusations of teleology: scholars working on queer time explicitly intend to disrupt linear temporality, and they accuse stricter historicists of a “lingering attachment to identity that unduly stabilizes sexuality and recruits earlier sexual regimes into a lockstep march toward the present.”5 The problem for theorists of queer temporality is the stability of contemporary identity, so that historical difference works to solidify modern identity. For Traub, however, the reflexive avoidance of telos has made scholars unable to explain “the endurance or recurrence of some of the very similarities that interested them” (64). Traub's solution is to study what she describes as “cycles of salience” (85) in the history of lesbianism to account for moments of uncanny transhistoric familiarity. Recurring moments of recognition indicate not a stable unchanging identity but the “presence of symptomatic preoccupations” that make various historical forms of female eroticism intelligible as lesbianism.
Dinshaw valorizes personal identification, turning the thrill of recognition on the part of the modern reader into an intellectual resource. Simultaneously, her emphasis on contingency is intended to avoid the pitfalls of writing a past solely in the terms of the present. While proposing a different approach, Traub also values assertions of similarity and identification, arguing that such moments surface not some essential truth about identities gifted the privilege of recognition across vast historical distance but rather the recurrence of “perennial logics” that organize women's erotic lives. The impulse to make identificatory claims on the past is not unique to queer theorists: in fact, the white supremacist claims to the medieval described at the beginning of this essay might be said to follow a parallel track of emotional recognition. What queer theory offers is an assessment of the epistemological procedures of these moments of recognition. “And thinking we know them, what do we know?” Dinshaw (1999: 12) asks, and the question of knowledge assumes a double syntax, referring to a state of both knowledge and ignorance. The problem at hand is knowing both the medieval past and a collective affective condition in the present that makes such claims to knowledge possible and intelligible.
What methods might be capable of explaining the endurance of emotional identification? In his study of the idealization of deviance in queer studies, Kadji Amin (2017) offers an “attachment genealogy”6 of a collective queer investment in Jean Genet, the twentieth-century French writer, activist, petty thief, and prostitute. Genet was a criminalized sexual deviant par excellence; in queer studies, he sometimes functions as paradigm of deviance, full stop. Amin investigates the relation between Genet's radical political activism and Genet's pederasty and racial fetishization. Any investment in Genet as a self-identified criminal whose sexuality led directly to solidarity activism must grapple with his professions of erotic desire that read today less as radical and more as backward. Genet's failure—as Amin (2017: 6) says, his failure “to behave in the ways that I hoped he would”—is a “failure endemic to the project of revalorizing deviance.”7 Genet's work with the Black Panthers and with Palestinians seems unavailable as a model for coalitional politics when read alongside his outmoded and embarrassing writing about racial fetishization as means of forming coalitions. In deidealizing Genet, and attending to the disappointment, anger, and loss such a project entails, Amin investigates the conditions that lead to such attachments. As Amin argues, “attachment's analytical purchase inheres in its capacity to mark all that is passive, needy, historically overdetermined, compulsive, phantasmatic, and nonvolitional about interpersonal relations” (13). Instead of simply pointing to the ways that Genet fails to be a perfect political model, fails to “consistently and routinely secrete political value” (6), Amin investigates the motivations behind Genet's conscription into an idealized version of deviancy and the discrepancies between past and present that threaten that idealization.
In his book on the melancholy historicism that haunts Black studies, Stephen Best (2018: 64) draws on queer futurity to ask, “Through what process has it become possible to claim the lives and efforts of history's defeated as ours either to redeem or to redress?” The question of desired connection in Black studies is one routed through the unredressed violence of slavery. The status of affective relation with the past in Black studies is rife with foreclosed possibilities, and Best calls for a clearer articulation of the process by which relationships to history come to depend on personal biography. Quoting David Lloyd (2005: 152–53), Best writes, “The figures in the past with whom we crave a connection possess their own ‘specific and unreproducible orientation to the future,’ and our present, rather than representing the fulfillment of that projection, is more likely ‘the future imposed on the dead by past violence’” (Best 2018: 65). Amin's focus on erotic coalitions of the past disavowed in the present and Best's attention to the impossibility of being in solidarity with “history's defeated” share an attention to the thwarted but still fervent energies that motivate connection to the past.
In keeping with the deflationary impulse operative in the work of Amin and Best, and without eschewing the utility and epistemological leverage of historical identification, it is possible to think about what it is we know when we think we know “them.” Heather Love (2021: 15), examining the disavowed but significant influence of sociological deviance studies on queer studies, argues that confronting these tarnished histories of thought is necessary to address the field's “false universalism.” Love tracks the recurrence of the word spoiled across the scholarship of Erving Goffman, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Amin, a term that she says strikes a “recherché” note (13). The queer ideals that issue out of “a messy, damaged past” are “ripe for spoiling,” Love argues, not in order to distance the current moment from the past it emerges from or to restore ideals to their former positions of authority but to offer a better account of the present (17). A spoiled history deidealizes cherished objects without displacing them in search of a new ideal.8 Rather than posturing as the first-line defenders of accurate history from the interloping threat of white supremacists or locating the true starting point of race, colonialism, or the invention of the human in the Middle Ages, medievalist scholars are uniquely positioned to produce attachment genealogies of a period whose special status needs spoiling.
In the rhetoric of nineteenth-century imperial physicians, leprosy is always a storied disease. Alongside its highly visible symptoms, leprosy writes centuries of history on the surface of a living body. Leprosy's disfiguration, the capacity of the disease to cause exterior lesions that obliterate normative bodily boundaries, carries with it the whiff of the past, as though rents in the flesh of European lepers literalize the return of a repudiated heritage, routed through the margins and threatening to bloom in the center, necrotic fantasies that necessitate ever-stricter protocols of cleanliness and classification. Other skin disorders are visibly disfiguring, and other diseases are more contagious, but leprosy's distinguishing threatening characteristic is its historicity. The descriptions of leprosy by prominent nineteenth-century physicians like Erasmus Wilson links present-day symptoms to ancient case studies. To be a leper is to embody that which should have been left behind in the past, to suffer a disease that makes you anachronistic.
Lepers were consigned by ecumenical council to social exclusion in leprosariums, first in the 583 Council of Lyon, which forbade association between lepers and the healthy population, and then again in the Third Council of the Lateran in 1179, which detailed the separate spiritual and physical accommodations established for lepers.9 Across medical tracts, theology, saints’ lives, and poetry, medieval lepers assume a significance in outsize proportion to their historical presence.10 The seeming disappearance of leprosy from Europe by the sixteenth century reinforces this impression: despite the dwindling number of lepers, leprosy lingers as metaphor and archetype. Based on the number of examinations on record, leprosy seems to have been on the decline in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the archaeological record confirms that cases of leprosy after 1550 are extremely rare (see Roberts 2021). The emptying out of leprosariums, the social houses of the socially dead, marks for Michel Foucault (2006: 5–6) an epistemic shift in his genealogical study of the history of madness: “What lasted longer than leprosy, and persisted for years after the lazar houses had been emptied, were the values and images attached to the leper, and the importance for society of this insistent, fearsome figure. . . . Once leprosy had gone, and the figure of the leper was no more than a distant memory, these structures still remained.” For Foucault, the practices associated with leprosy as a social contagion and threat to the body politic continues to structure contemporary arrangements, even as the leper as such functions as a discontinuity. Foucault's historiography traces the way the present is shaped by the almost compulsive solidity of institutional regimes and intellectual habits, but the figure that initially inspired these forms becomes the face of the defunct past. In Foucault's argument for continuity, the “great confinement” attends to the question of madness, not leprosy, and the figure of the leper becomes the means of marking distance between then and now.
In the nineteenth century, there was renewed interest in leprosy and in medieval medical and literary sources on lepers. It is this engagement that renders the leper synonymous with the cruel marginalization of society's most hated and feared. Reading physician disease models and medical journals that draw on medieval sources, Kathleen Vongsathorn and Magnus Vollset discuss how nineteenth-century popular interest in leprosy was related to the death of a missionary in Hawaii. This interest peaked because of fear that leprosy would return to Europe, an anxiety Vongsathorn and Vollset (2021: 348) relate to “a desire to distance ‘civilised’ Europe from its ‘backward’ colonies, and therefore also from Europe's medieval, diseased past.” The relevance of medieval models for nineteenth-century medicine was challenged by Gerhard Armauer Hansen's laboratory techniques that identified associated bacteria under a microscope. The disease would come to be called Hansen's disease in 1931, in explicit hopes of mitigating the stigma associated with the term leprosy. Nineteenth-century medical monographs stoke fear of contagion of a backward, disfiguring disease and simultaneously emphasize the cruelty of medieval segregation models in the treatment of leprosy. One such publication, an acclaimed 1847 study of the disease by Norwegian physicians Daniel Cornelius Danielssen and Carl Wilhelm Boek, even includes an index entry for “cruel persecution.”11 Twenty years later Erasmus Wilson (1867: 231–44), an English doctor, produced eighteen case studies of Europeans with leprosy who lived in the colonies of India, British Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), Mauritius, and the West Indies, and one case study of a native of India. Wilson's work links best treatment practices for contemporary cases of leprosy with the historical evidence for leprosy: the subheading for his essay on “The Nature and Treatment of Leprosy” (an English summary of Danielssen and Boek's earlier findings) is “Jewish Leprosy, Leprosy of the Middle Ages, Leprosy of the Crusades, Leprosy of the Arabians” (1856: 339). These case studies, which circulated widely, emphasize the role of the tropics in contracting the disease, while also noting analogous case studies from the Middle Ages.
European legislation on sanitary reform in the colonies in response to leprosy is inflected by this muddled association between past cruelty and present colonialism. Tropes of colonial fantasies, in which the metropole is threatened with the same violence it routinely visits upon the colonies, appear in these nineteenth-century discourses on leprosy. As Rod Edmond (2006: 35) argues, colonial sanitary reforms are driven by fears of leprosy escaping the colonies and returning to the colonial center, “turning the fortress of England into a doomed fever camp” (see also Robertson 2007). In the actual reality of colonial era infection, colonizers introduce new diseases to the colonized. Leprosy narratives invert this dynamic, such that the center of the metropole is threatened by a disease already known to it.
Diagnostically, leprosy in the Middle Ages focuses on the skin of the patient and functions as a catch-all term for disfiguration that discomfits onlookers: what is called “leprosy” in the Middle Ages thus encompasses a range of skin disorders that vary in their severity.12 The early fourteenth-century French physician Bernard de Gordon describes leprosy as “a systemic disease that breaks down the appearance, shape, and composition of the member and ultimately dissolves the integrity” (Demaitre 2007: 110).13 This sort of medical definition understands leprosy as hypervisible, a stark and obvious disfiguration, and simultaneously makes leprosy's operations produce a sort of liquefication. To look at the face of a leper is to pay close attention to disintegration and to see not a person but the afterimage of where a person once was.
Crucially, lepers in the Middle Ages problematize issues of recognition because of leprosy's tendency to destroy, decompose, or blur the form and outline of the body it infects. This disfiguration leads to a unique dynamic in medieval literary treatments of the leper: on the one hand, the leper is unrecognizable, due to facial lesions and bodily decomposition; on the other, when faced with a leper there is never any confusion about what one is faced with. The leper is always identifiable as such, but the categorical sorting often stops there, so that the leper is rarely individuated. This dynamic is exemplified in saints’ lives, where the figure of the leper often literally vanishes after interaction with the saint.14 This vanishing sometimes retroactively makes the leper into an incarnation of Christ and thus dissolves the leper's individuality. Julie Orlemanski's treatment of the leprous kiss—a trope in which the saint encounters a disfigured leper, experiences a wave of disgust, and, ashamed of that initial reaction, subsequently leaps forward to kiss the abject leper's ruined face—crystallizes the stakes of recognition figured in the medieval leper. Orlemanski (2012: 146) argues that leprosy and the kiss share a tendency to “make strange the human face,” leprosy because of the way it disfigures the human face, and the kiss because it necessitates bringing two faces closer and closer together until, as Orlemanksi puts it, “the space of recognition, the zone between bodies that we look across and speak across in meeting one another, is drawn down toward zero.” That moment of fleshly interaction, disrupting ordinary modes of recognition in favor of more demanding and strange ones, is the special doubled provenance of the leprous kiss.
Horror lingers around the figure of the leper, a sense of dread connected to leprosy's association with transgression and immorality. Caroline Walker Bynum (1992: 276) argues that leprosy is frequently used as a metaphor for sin because of the disease's association with disintegration, because “parts broke off the leper's body, because it fragmented and putrefied and became insensate when alive, in other words because it was a living death.”15 The early church father John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Matthew, typifies this sort of associative thinking regarding defilement while musing on the prohibition of handling a corpse: “Do not touch a dead body, it is said. For such is the nature of sin, it is dead and rotten. The leper is unclean. For sin is a leprosy, various and multiform” (quoted in de Wet 2018: 482). In Chrysostom's treatment, the essential nature of sin, death, and leprosy is metastatic, multiplying pathogenic sites while assuming nonidentical shapes. To be infected with the sin or the leprosy of another does not necessarily ensure that the infected person will resemble the person who infected them. Sin and leprosy both disfigure, but disfiguration takes unique forms.
In addition to living death, leprosy acquires a special association with sex. The fifth-century Byzantine physician Aetius assumed that leprosy was contracted via sexual intercourse, a view that seems to have been quoted with especial frequency by nineteenth-century medical authorities.16 In the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen linked the disease to lust; writing contemporaneously, the theologian Adam Scotus typifies this characterization when he asks, “Nam quid est inhonestas leprae, nisi peccatum luxuriate?” (quoted in D'Arcy 2005: 102; For what else is the disgrace of leprosy but the sin of lust?). In the Bible, leprosy (Hebrew: צָרַעַת; Greek: λέπρα; Latin: lepra) is associated with purification rituals, as when Christ heals lepers. The most vivid biblical depiction is in Leviticus, where leprosy is described similiarly to a mold or fungal infestation, as raw white boils that can spread from living flesh to clothing to the walls of one's dwelling.17 In Numbers, the prophet Miriam is punished with tsara't for speaking disparagingly of her brother Moses's marriage. Her skin affliction is compared to the condition of a stillborn baby who emerges from the womb with flesh half eaten away (“אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ”; Num. 12:12; Who emerges from the womb of his mother and his flesh is half consumed). Miriam's punishment is caused by her slanderous speech: in his gloss on Leviticus, Rashi, the eleventh century rabbi whose comprehensive biblical exegesis would become the standard foundation for later commentaries, identifies the cause of leprosy as “לשון הרע” (slander, or evil speech), an analysis repeated for a later medieval Christian audience by Nicholas of Lyra.18
In medieval texts, the leper's hypervisibility and sexual unseemliness works in tandem with moralizing about social abjection, so that judgments about leprosy allow medieval thinkers to parse the contradictions that structure their ambivalence about topics like sin, desire, and sickness. As an anachronism, the figure of the leper from the perspective of the present is histrionically past. Nineteenth-century pronouncements about the cruelty of past treatment of lepers shape our contemporary historiography. The qualities of excessive signification attached to the leper in medieval texts appear to me from the vantage point of the present to enter into a recursive loop of their own, a circuit from abject overdetermination to cruel ostracization to anachronism. Epistemologically, this circuit sparked by the leper solidifies a comforting distance between past and present: the extreme emotions excited by leprosy in medieval treatments are proof positive of leprosy's incongruity and inappropriate lateness in the present.
Like the sodomite, the medieval leper organizes a vastly overdetermined range of affects. But the sodomite needs seeking out and is often implied without being named, a sinner against nature whose deviance resides in ephemeral acts. Lepers, by contrast, insistently present their deformities as surface to be read rather than depth to be plumbed. Where premodern sodomy has the quality of a secret, generative insofar as it is cryptic or indeterminate, leprosy is meaning made excessive, a super plurality of signification. Dinshaw's “touch of the queer,” with its capacity to make affective historical community, necessitates identification on at least one end of the transhistoric connection. But who wants to be a leper?19
In Robert Henryson's (2010) Testament of Cresseid the leper is an abject figure in a self-consciously ancillary text. The poem, in its content and in its material history, is framed in relation to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. William Thynne's 1532 print edition of Chaucer's works includes the Testament without authorial attribution, linking the two poems within Chaucer's oeuvre.20 Henryson's narrator opens the poem setting aside “worthie” (line 41) Chaucer's poem in favor of “ane uther quair” (line 61; another book) that contains a new account of the tragic fate of Cresseid after she abandons her lover Troilus. The citations of Chaucer's Troilus within the Testament bluntly situate Henryson's poem in relation to an earlier authoritative treatment of the same subject. In a lovely moment of ironic self-awareness, the narrator asks “Quha wait gif all that Chauceir wrait was trew? / Nor I wait nocht gif this narratioun / Be authoreist” (lines 64–66; Who knows if all that Chaucer wrote was true? / Nor do I know if this narrative / Is authoritative). Henryson questions Chaucer's historical accuracy without preserving authority for his own poem: neither treatment of events should be received by readers as definitive historical truth.
The events in the book that Henryson's narrator discovers take place after Troilus learns of Cresseid's affair but before his death, depicted in book 5 of Troilus and Criseyde. The Testament is therefore more of an interpolation into the story of Troilus and Criseyde than it is a continuation or addendum.21 Henryson's intervention is to punish Cresseid with leprosy. In the Testament, leprosy pries open settled plotlines, leveraging room for an original meditation on Cresseid's infamy. Henryson doesn't need to overwrite Chaucer's previous account, and the Testament is not a challenge to Chaucerian authority. Rather, the leprosy in the poem allows Henryson space to treat events already depicted in Troilus and Cresseid with different emphases. The disease in the Testament is depicted graphically, even grotesquely, and this crudeness displaces without fully erasing the majestic authoritative sweep of Chaucer's work. Leprosy is the means by which the poem negotiates an overdetermined relationship with its predecessor.
The poem relies on audience familiarity with the general contour of the plot. The poet “neidis nocht reheirs” (line 57; need not rehearse) Troilus’ distress upon learning of Cresseid's infidelity; instead, the action begins with the aftermath. After abandoning Troilus and being abandoned in turn by her lover Diomedes, Cresseid returns to her father's house, seeking seclusion and privacy in the face of vicious rumors about her sexual promiscuity. These rumors are lavishly described: Cresseid is filthy, defiled, “giglotlike” (line 83; whorish). In the very next stanza the poet expresses a desire to excuse and defend Cresseid from the scorn of the world, the misogynistic disgust at her sexuality seesawing into moralistic pity. This bait and switch is characteristic of the poem's general treatment of Cresseid, in which a sadistic impulse to inflict suffering interchanges freely with care, even tenderness, without admitting of the slightest contradiction. Cresseid, as a character, is an excellent conductor of emotional intensities.
At her father's house, Cresseid rails against the gods of love, Venus and Cupid, accusing them of having capriciously transformed all of her experiences of love into woe. Swooning, she has a dream vision in which the gods, angered by her blasphemy, sentence her to “seiknes incurabill” (line 307; incurable sickness).22 The poem lingers on her physical transformation from leprosy: her crystalline eyes mingled with blood, her sweet voice hoarsened, her beautiful face covered with black spots and morbid growths. From this point on the poem might be read as enacting a series of horrified partial recognitions. Waking, Cresseid immediately checks her visage in a mirror; finding it deformed by the disease, she calls her father, who looks at “hir uglye lipper face” (line 372; her ugly leper face) and wrings his hands in dismay; Cresseid begs her father to convey her to the leper hospital in secret so that she “wald not be kend” (line 380; would not be recognized); as for the local people who encounter her with begging cup and clapper, “Sum knew hir weill, and sum had na knowledge / Of hir becaus scho was sa deformait, / With bylis blak ovirspred in hir visage” (lines 393–95; Some knew her well, and some had no knowledge / Of her because she was so deformed, / With black boils spread over her visage). In sentencing Cresseid, the gods predict everyone will flee her presence once she becomes a leper with a clapper. On the contrary, with these lines, the poem and the people around Cresseid lean in closer and closer, peering into her face, debating her identity. If leprosy determines scripts of emotional resonance and social behavior (revulsion, abjection, almsgiving), so too does Cresseid, in her capacity in the poem as either local celebrity or intertextual character, determine behavior (prurient curiosity). Leprosy might have offered Cresseid anonymity, some relief from the daily burden of her infamy. Instead her infamy seems to deanonymize leprosy—within the radius of her leprosarium every leper becomes a potential Cresseid.
All these moments of tortured partial recognition reach their apotheosis toward the end of the poem, when Cresseid encounters Troilus on his way back to Troy after a battle. She turns her face toward him, perhaps blind from the advance of the leprosy, and he stares back, not recognizing her but thinking that “he sumtime hir face befoir had sene” (line 500; he had seen her face sometime before). Cresseid is so sick that Troilus does not know her; nevertheless, something about this leper's “luik” (look, visage) brings to his mind the amorous vision of “fair Cresseid, sumtyme his awin darling” (line 504). Overcome with emotion, Troilus breaks out in a fever, trembles, and almost faints. Without recognizing her, he casts all the gold he is carrying with him at Cresseid's feet and rides off. He doesn't offer money because he recognizes her; the poem stresses that neither Cresseid nor Troilus recognize each other. Instead, the poem explains:
It is not that Troilus looks on Cresseid's leprous face, half recognizes her, and, uneasy at the imperfect identification, offers her all the money he has with him. Troilus's love for Cresseid has so imprinted the fantasy of her face in his mind he could half glimpse her anywhere, in anything. Interposed in the line of sight between Troilus and Cresseid is the “idole” of his fantasy, her unblemished face. Moved by the memory of his former lover, overlaid and overwriting the leper before him, Troilus treats Cresseid as a leprous object of charity, throws down his gold, and rides away. As Kathryn Lynch (2010) argues, the poem indicates that Troilus’ confused mistake is because “so pervasively does she dominate his imagination, he sees Cresseids everywhere.” Similarly, Orlemanski (2013: 170–71) describes the poem's “double vision of Cresseid,” which repeatedly conjures two versions of the same face, “one leprous and one lily pale.” This failed anagnorisis is a moment of startled discovery that produces no knowledge, no recognition.
Cresseid's particularity, the narrative weight that accompanies her, her status as an intertextual character, the swirl of kinship ties and class status and love relations that surround her, render the failure of recognition particularly tragic. The leprosy that blurs Cresseid's recognizable profile ensures that while Troilus might see Cresseids everywhere, when he actually meets her his fantasy is interrupted by the lesions that index a prior but vanished person. Lynch puts the stress on Troilus's fantasy; Orlemanski on Cresseid's ruined face. Both readings note the way this misapprehension multiplies Cresseid. Between Troilus's gaze and Cresseid's face, there are a thousand Cresseids, and a thousand lepers. She resists being entirely subsumed under the obliterating header “leper.” So too does leprosy exceed the personhood of Cresseid. On the tombstone Troilus commissions for Cresseid he inscribes an epitaph addressed to all women: “Lo, fair ladyis, Cresseid of Troy the toun, / Sumtyme countit the flour of womanheid, / Under this stane, lait lipper, lyis deid” (Henryson 2010, lines 607–9; Lo, fair ladies, Cresseid of Troy the town, / Sometimes counted the flower of womanhood, / Under this stone, late leper, lies dead). The tombstone frames Cresseid's fate as a warning for all women, which the poet develops in the next and final stanza as a misogynistic instruction not to mix love with deception. The parenthetical “lait lipper” delimits a temporal interruption of her identity. Once there was Cresseid, flower of womanhood, then in her place there was a leper, and now under this stone, lies Cresseid again, dead.
Characterizing the feminist imperative in relation to the Testament, Gayle Margherita (2000: 260) writes: “I would like to contemplate that which can be said to live on, to remain, after moral and aesthetic judgments have been passed, after all the bodies have been buried and consigned to silence. What remains, it seems to me, is precisely the question of the body, a question that encrypts yet another, more uncertain one: the question of justice.” The leprous body that Henryson parades as spectacle through the poem is what brings the poem to an abrupt end when it is buried: the final line of the poem is “Sen scho is deid I speik of hir no moir” (Henryson 2010, line 616; Since she is dead I speak of her no more). But the very existence of the poem belies its sudden insistence on closure—Cresseid is as dead when the narrator begins as when he ends. It is possible to read this conclusion as of a piece with Henryson's style of irony: he inclines to be a poet who is knitting with one hand and unraveling with the other. The insistence that the end of the poem coincide with Cresseid's death contrasts distinctly with the famous ending of Chaucer's (2008: book 5, line 1808) Troilus, where the brief account of Troilus's death is followed by the astonishing image of Troilus's “lighte goost” floating above the carnage and laughing at earthly woe. Chaucer gifts his hero a moment to laugh at his formed benighted state; Henryson affords Cresseid no such extraterrestrial perspective. The testament she writes before her death consigns her corpse to worms, her possessions to lepers, and a ring to Troilus. Carnal to the very end, her story ends with her flesh.
Since she is dead I speak of her no more: it is possible to read this line as the final sally in the misogynistic barrage aimed at Cresseid. More generously, we might imagine Henryson's rhetorical overemphasis paradoxically surfacing those aspects of the poem that escape total closure. I think, however, it is equally possible to understand this line as a pronouncement about a failed and ever-failing emotional connection with the past, which persists in spite of better judgment. Cresseid is hard to recognize—leprosy has dissolved her face and interrupted the sequence of her personal history. Troilus, at the moment of their confrontation, is unable to identify her correctly and can't lay any sort of claim to her, cannot accuse or berate or reconcile with her. He's lost the capacity to interfere; he can only shiver with emotion and ride on. The generosity he extends toward her in the form of charity is a gesture that reasserts a social script. Troilus cannot relate to Cresseid anymore, but he can relate to a leper, if only as a giver of alms, a unidirectional form of relation that overwrites their previous complex and individuated connection. The late leper Cresseid embodies the erotics of thwarted emotional identification with the past. The poet aims his closing injunction at himself, an abrupt command to stop speaking that leaves in its wake a loud silence. This directive or promise—I will speak of Cresseid no more—is a retrospective diagnosis of a problem or intention gone awry. Something has been thwarted, something involuntary, excessive, a relation Amin might characterize as “needy”—an emotional attachment that needs to be cut off. Even within this effort to leave Cresseid in peace, unbothered by hordes of leering lovers squinting at her face and trying to draw lessons from her body, the attachment remains, an indigestible fact that must be dealt with.
It is impossible to redeem history or claim it fully. In their various deployments of medieval imagery, American white supremacists argue that the Middle Ages is white and also that there is something essential—stable, coherent—about whiteness. The stability of this white identity can only be maintained through violence. Lines of continuity, inheritance, and identification drawn between crusaders and Proud Boys speak to a thrill of recognition, an emotional connection made possible because of the perennial recurrence of ethnonationalist logics. Precisely because the Middle Ages has so frequently been made to assume the status of break in historiography, it offers us a way to examine the process by which we speak of the dead or claim them as our own.
I'm indebted to a number of people whose comments, suggestions, and questions radically clarified the shape of this paper: in particular, Melanie Abeygunawardana, Sierra Lomuto, Heather Love, and David Wallace.
Christus quasi leprosus was a frequent topic for sermons. The idea emerges from Saint Jerome's translation of a verse in Isaiah. For a recent scholarly overview of quasi leprosus, see Giles 2018.
Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own.
This approach follows from classic work in the history of sexuality, including Foucault's (1977) description of genealogical history in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” and David Halperin's (2002: 107) work in How to Do the History of Homosexuality, in which Halperin argues that the “incoherence at the core of the modern notion of homosexuality” is what “furnishes the most eloquent indication of the historical accumulation of discontinuous notions that shelter within its specious unity.” Valerie Traub (2015: 63) argues that Halperin's work is “committed to the view that modern sexual categories provide not just an obstacle to the past but also a window on to it.”
Dinshaw's work, like the work of scholars including Elizabeth Freeman, Madhavi Menon, Carla Freccero, and Jonathan Goldberg, can be broadly characterized as queer temporality, necessitating what Goldberg and Menon (2005: 1616) describe as “a reconsideration of relations between past and present.”
Traub (2015: 65) notes that medievalists including Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger were quick to utilize postcolonial critiques of chronological timelines, emphasizing the politics behind casting the Middle Ages as the abject primitive other of the modern. See Burger and Kruger 2001: xii.
Amin draws on Christopher Nealon's (2001: 14) work on affect genealogies.
Amin's fully conventional use of a first-person pronoun here marks his set of feelings about sexual deviancy and attendant personal expectations. Read alongside Dinshaw's more presumptive “we” in reference to a similar set of emotions, a shadow or gap emerges: What right does the queer scholar have to speak on behalf of an imagined community? And if the right is forfeited, and a singular “I” substituted for the collective, so that Amin's disappointment with Genet reads as personal and singular, to what extent does that first-person pronoun obscure a more communal investment?
I think here of Robyn Wiegman's work on the institutional substitution of “gender” for “women” as the sign of choice to denote the aspirational political promises of feminism. See “Doing Justice with Objects” in Object Lessons (Wiegman 2012: chap. 1).
Christian leprosariums did not admit Jewish and Muslim lepers. See Shoham-Steiner 2014.
In framing her empirical study of leprosy in medieval England, Carole Rawcliffe (2006: 1) argues that leprosy was a disease that “played a notable part in the medieval imagination and was accorded significance far beyond the physical threat it actually posed to the population.”
See Daniel Cornelius Danielssen and Carl Wilhelm Boek's (1847: 99) Om Spedalskhed, quoted in Vongsathorn and Vollset 2021: 350. In his investigation of premodern medical discourses of leprosy, Luke Demaitre (2007) distinguishes his work from “stereotypes” about leprosy, arguing that contrary to popular belief, the stigma against lepers was not so strong as to prevent doctors from physically examining patients. These stereotypes, against which Demaitre distinguishes his own careful archival analysis, calcify in the nineteenth century.
Andrzej Grzybowski and Małgorzata Nita (2016: 3) list “psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, favus, dermatophyte infections, nummular dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, pityriasis rosea, crusted scabies, syphilis, impetigo, sycosis barbae, alopecia areata, furuncles, scabies, neurodermatitis, scarlet fever, lupus erythematosus, lichen sclerosus et atrophicus, folliculitis decalvans, morphea, sarcoidosis, and lichen planopilaris.” The list is not exclusive. See also Demaitre's (2007: chap. 3) “The Many Labels of Leprosy.”
For a table listing the many different definitions of lepra in premodern medicine, see Demaitre 2007: 112–13.
Hagiographic treatments of interactions between lepers and saints are widespread. For a recent summary of the ambivalence in depictions of the medieval leper, see Welch and Brown 2016.
Another medieval figure treated as though dead while alive is the holy anchorite, whose distance from society is a pious choice.
“Leprosy” is arguably a mistranslation of the Hebrew term tsara't, as the disease described in the New Testament is distinct from the one in the Old Testament. This vagueness attests to the semantic field leprosy covers, as an umbrella diagnostic of visible deformity associated with moral rot.
For a reading on the relationship between slander, blasphemy, and leprosy in the Testament, see d'Arcy 2005.
I think here of Leo Bersani's (1995: 1) Homos, which opens with a characteristically flat polemical assertion: “No one wants to be called a homosexual.”
In manuscript, the poem survives only in fragments: three stanzas in the Ruthven manuscript (University of Edinburgh Library MS Dc.I.43), and one in the Book of the Dean of Lismore (ascribed to “Bochas that wes full gud”). In “Changing Emotions in Troilus,” David Wallace (2016: 164) describes Chaucer's and Henryson's poems as appearing in a “single conceptual package.” Megan Cook's scholarship on Frances Thynne's annotations of his father's edition of Chaucer makes it clear that the lack of attribution of The Testament to Henryson did not mean readers assumed the poem was written by Chaucer. Cook (2012: 229) notes that Thynne “underlines the references to Chaucer in the text” and understood that the poem was not written by Chaucer himself.
Scholars have disagreed about the best way to characterize the connection between Chaucer and Henryson. George Edmondson (2008), in particular, objects to filial descriptors in favor of “neighborly” as a way of capturing the unconscious hostility he finds in Henryson's poem.
Cresseid's punishment is linked to blasphemy, though many of the poem's readers have been struck by the incongruity of its early emphasis on Cresseid's promiscuity and this later justification of her punishment. Gayle Margherita (2000: 272) notes the curious fact that Cresseid's punishment “has little to do with her betrayal of Troilus.” Felicity Riddy (1997: 243) offers a string of possible sins including infidelity, blasphemy, and vanity, and observes that “all of these at some point or other in the poem, are brought to the fore as things for which she deserves to be punished.”