Conference at the University of Oxford and Online, 5–6 April 2024
Gender and sanctity are inextricably intertwined. Medieval saints and holy people exceeded, enshrined, and subverted cultural constructions and expectations of gender, yet were also contained, defined, and controlled by these same practical and discursive ideas. In the later Middle Ages, conceptions of gender and gendered roles changed: the sacralisation of marriage came hand in hand with new ideals of marital sexuality; the mendicant orders and other movements opened up new forms of lay piety and new routes for sanctity; and growing urbanisation and centralisation enabled the tightening of everyday gender roles,
but also a sphere in which different performances of gender could be broadcast to a wider audience. At the same time, the vitae of late antique and early medieval saints continued to circulate, leading to a myriad of co-existing, intertwined, and interacting modes of gender and sanctity. Later medieval holy women had gender non-conforming experiences of Christ, the saints, and the Virgin, and expressed their
own (a)gendered modes of holiness in different ways; the vitae of many saints complicate and expand a binary understanding of gender; male monks and bishops positioned themselves as female in relationship to the Divine – everywhere one turns, questions of gender and exceptional holiness converge.
This conference aims to put two immensely complex cultural categories, those of gender and sanctity, into conversation with one another. Both are multivalent, unstable categories of being, capable of both enforcing and disrupting hegemonic cultural and social structures and extending beyond themselves to unsettle and reinvent wider categories of meaning. Since the 1980s and the field-defining work of Carol Walker Bynum (1982) and Barbara Newman (1987, 1995), medievalists have embraced the importance of viewing sanctity and holiness through a gendered lens. More recent work (Bychowski and Kim, 2019; Spencer-Hall and Gutt, 2021) has expanded the methodological and conceptual toolkit with which we can approach the intersection of gender and sanctity and made clearer the political and ideological stakes of undertaking such research. The medieval world has become a totemic utopia for the modern far-right, where questions of gender, race, and normativity can be considered largely settled, and then deployed as a weapon in modern political discourse. This practice aids in the political project of abolishing or refusing the rights of transgender and nonbinary people. Against this backdrop, it is crucial that medievalists discuss these issues within their own research, and demonstrate the vibrancy, instability, and complexity of medieval categories of identity.
We particularly invite contributions from postgraduate and early career researchers, but proposals from scholars at any career stage are welcome. To apply, please send an abstract (max. 300 words) and a short biography to Edmund van der Molen (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Antonia
Anstatt (email@example.com) by 15 October 2023. The conference is expected to take place in a hybrid format; please indicate whether you would like to give your paper online or in person.
We invite paper proposals for 20-minute papers to consider the relationship between sanctity and gender in the medieval period, with both concepts understood as broadly and inclusively as possible.
Topics could include, but are not limited to:
● Saints transcending and disrupting gender (transgender, intersex, agender, non-binary saints and sainthood)
● The use of sanctity and/or gender to challenge hegemonic power structures
● Queer readings of sainthood, hagiography, or cultic practice
● The role of gender in constructing a saint (both paradigmatic and individual)
● Operations of gender and power within canonisation processes
● Material culture and gendered sainthood
● Gendered relationships within a saint’s cult – saint/confessor relationships, saint/devotee relationships, etc
● Non-Western, non-Christian religious and gender categories
● The role of embodiment in sanctity and devotion to the saints
● Sainthood and sexuality