Noble Strategies: Marriage and Sexuality in the Zimmern Chronicle

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The recent rise of the term “premodern” has profoundly altered the study of societies, cultures, and literatures in the distant past. It has regrouped academic disciplines once thought to exist in splendid self-sufficiency; it has reshaped scholarly conversations across geographical divides; it has unsettled long-standing period designations. At the same time, the term has rarely shed the binarism it transports. Since its coinage at the threshold between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, modernus has circumscribed oppositional structures of thought. Whether explicitly or implicitly, we are modern only in relation to those described as antiqui. Conversely, premodernity has the potential of invigorating our awareness of what is shared by ancients and moderns. Philology may benefit from such a terminological alignment. As a practice with a deep history, it straddles the many divides associated with the advent of the modern. In this chapter, I deploy a notion of philology that foregrounds questions of exchange and communication. The analysis of two sixteenth-century texts, the so-called Zimmern Chronicle and Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Colloquies, will illustrate how texts both reflect and redirect communicative processes on which our own knowledge about the premodern lesbian relies.
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Georges Duby described medieval, Catholic marriage as the product of two competing groups of people, clergy and nobles, each with their own conflicting ideas of marriage. Clergy wanted indissoluble and monogamous marriage, while nobles wanted to divorce and remarry at will. This widely influential idea of marriage is extremely misleading. Clergy and nobles did not comprise distinct and competing camps, nor did they have opposing ideas of marriage. Instead, together, as members of the powerful families that dominated medieval Europe, these men and women created and implemented Christian marriage as monogamous and indissoluble. Using as a case study the scandalous marriage of a twelfth-century abbess, this article will demonstrate the flaws in Duby’s argument, and also we can learn about medieval marriage, and medieval society more broadly, by applying this new approach.
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ing fallacy of this impression because most people continued to lead their normal lives, making money, pursuing politics, traveling, and raising families. Indeed, we might say that the shrill tones of the religious discourse during that century have occasionally been overemphasized in critical studies of the social conditions and the literature of that time (see, for instance, Hsia). The other side of the coin proves to be that the public obviously enjoyed satirical, facetious literature to a large extent, perhaps more than ever before and perhaps as much-needed compensation for the serious religious dissensions and tensions tearing early modern Europe apart. George Huppert reaches the insightful conclusion that "the mass of the (sixteenth-century) population kept resisting indoctrination. This was true of Lutheran Saxony as well as of Catholic Bavaria—and it was true in the cities as well as in the countryside" (145). He adds the important observation that "Attitudes toward authority, work, women, commerce, or celibacy, for instance, provide test cases of this conflict between an ancient culture, preserved in the museum of clerical tradition, and a newer one, born of the experience of the medieval commune" (148). 2 Already Boccaccio had initiated a new secular orientation with his famous Decameron (ca. 1350). He was followed by a large number of fifteenth- and six- teenth-century writers of short verse or prose narratives that often hinge on specific criticism against individuals, human behavior, and social groups, and are regularly explicitly predicated on sexual themes and allusions. Poggio Bracciolini (1385-1459) created enormous interest, but also protest, all over Europe with his witty, but often rather embarrassingly prurient facetiae, and he was subsequently followed by nu- merous other authors exploring and exposing human weakness, failings, stupidity, and ignorance. 3
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