Tag: academia

The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.


[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.


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Making Peace With The Unfinished

So I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I kind of suck at blogging these days.

I’m not going to apologise for that, because frankly I’ve made excuses for it enough times that you all knew what you were getting into when you subscribed anyway, but I am going to say that radio silence for five months was not actually my plan for this blog. My seemingly productive lockdown gave way to, uh, clinical depression, so that wiped out most of the summer. Then I moved house twice in a month and now I live in Ireland. Surprise!

I guess that’s my biggest piece of news — I’m now doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, which some of you may have seen on Instagram or Tumblr or other places where I post things about my life. Being back in academia has actually so far been a super positive thing for my brain, and I feel like I’m buzzing with ideas in a way I haven’t been for a while. It’s just, most of those ideas are about medieval Irish lit, or queer theory. Which kind of brings me onto the topic of why I’m actually writing this post. See, I feel like the main reason I don’t blog is because I have absolutely no idea what I’m trying to achieve with this blog. What and who is it for? Who am I trying to be?

I know I ask this question a lot. I’ve yet to find an answer. These days, it mainly takes the form of wondering whether I’m trying to present myself online as a writer or as an academic — my Twitter oscillates wildly between the two. When it comes to writing, there’s not a huge amount to blog about. “Still plugging away!” I could say, on a weekly or monthly basis. “Hoping it’ll go somewhere eventually!”

Oh, I’m always working on new things, but a lot of the time I don’t want to talk about those until I know that might exist beyond the confines of my hard-drive. In recent months, insofar I’ve been working on anything at all (I had a few fallow patches…), a lot of it’s been mainly for my own curiosity — sequels and follow-ups to other WIPs in an attempt to help develop the worldbuilding. They’re hard to talk about without knowing whether the first book will go anywhere, because who knows if they’ll ever see the light of day?

And when it comes to the academic side of things…

Well. I’m niche. I know that. Medieval Irish literature is nobody’s idea of mainstream, and even within my own field of study I’m a bit of an oddity, since I tend to be heavy on the literary theory side of things (especially queer theory and related topics), which isn’t typical in Celtic Studies. Ironically, this seems to be the aspect that makes what I do most appealing to a general audience — unlike, for example, the detailed linguistic analysis or complex manuscript editing that often seems to dominate the field in academic circles.

But it’s still niche and nerdy and a bit of an oddity, so whenever I start talking too much about my academic ideas on the internet, I get worried I’m alienating the people who followed me for writing stuff. This happens a lot on Twitter, I think — people follow me for one thing or the other, but the overlap in that Venn diagram is fairly small, and a lot of people’s eyes must glaze over when I start banging on about medieval Irish lit again. At least my writing tweets (especially the struggles of editing, and procrastination) can appeal to an academic audience.

Despite that, sometimes recently I’ve thought I wanted to use my blog to share some of my ideas as a medievalist. Like, earlier I was working on a lecture I might be giving later in the semester, because I happened to be in the right headspace to start drafting it. Trouble is, I don’t actually know for sure yet whether I’m going to be giving it, but as I remarked to a friend, it wasn’t wasted work — I could always chop it up into a couple of blog posts and share those, with minor adaptations, if I didn’t get to give the lecture.

But would I actually do that? Would I dare? Because that’s the thing — it can be nerve-wracking putting my academic ideas out into the world, and connecting them to my real name, before they’ve gone anywhere in academia. If I want to turn something into an article and seek publication for it, do I dare blog about it first? They’re radically different mediums, and the approach I’d take wouldn’t be the same, but if I’m trying to present an idea as innovative, do I risk undermining myself if I’ve already posted about it on the internet?

Probably not. But I still worry about it — and beyond that, I worry about getting things wrong, and having future supervisors judge me for it. Or peers. Or total strangers who know nothing about me beyond what I posted on my blog one time, but have opinions on that and are determined to make sure I know what those opinions are. Even though getting things wrong is pretty much unavoidable at some stage in your academic career, and being able to develop beyond your initial ideas is important, and I’m sure most academics have early work they wouldn’t stand by anymore.

(Plus, like, I don’t even know if I’m going to go further than the MA. Who am I trying to impress, at this point? I’m already here, and this may well be the end of it. But it’s hard to be sure on that. There was a time when I was almost certain I would never do a PhD, but at that point I also thought I wouldn’t do postgrad study at all, and here we are…)

The upshot of all of this is that I end up not blogging at all. Too nervous to talk about the academic stuff, not enough to say about the writing stuff, and working on reining in the whole ‘oversharing about my personal life’ thing I’ve definitely been guilty of in the past.

And look. I said I wasn’t going to apologise. “I will not sit down and write a blog post that is just excuses for why I haven’t blogged in five months,” I told myself. But I did, didn’t I? Maybe there weren’t any apologies in there, but this is essentially a laundry list of Reasons I Have Not Blogged. I wonder what proportion of posts on this blog are just explanations for my absence? I suspect it would be embarrassingly high.

What I actually wanted to say is: this is the last time I’m going to write a post like this. For a while, anyway. Because I think I’m going to start letting myself have opinions again, even though that always scares me. I’m going to let myself share some of my early, exploratory academic thoughts. Maybe I will turn bits of that lecture into blog posts, and share those.

Why the change? I think it’s because I was asked to give that lecture (which would be for second-year undergrads, if it happens). At first I was terrified and crushed by impostor syndrome at the mere concept of doing any teaching at this stage in my academic career. I immediately went to the library to borrow a bunch of books and brush up, because I was convinced I didn’t know enough. But you know, the more I read, the more I realised I did know. And that I did have opinions and that I did want to share them. That, plus the willingness of the lecturer who asked me to admit the gaps in her own knowledge and defer to my specific experience, made a huge difference to my sense of being an impostor. Because actually, I do have knowledge that not everybody has, and maybe I am ready to share some of that.

It’s funny how the more I thought about teaching, the more interested I was in coming up with new ideas, because the idea of being able to share them made it feel like they had a point, and weren’t just me playing around with thought experiments inside my own head. I’ve always thought academia wasn’t for me because teaching wasn’t for me. But now that I think of all the informal pedagogy I end up doing on Tumblr and on YouTube, I’m wondering why on earth it didn’t occur to me sooner that I might actually enjoy that kind of thing.

So yeah, part of it’s that my impostor syndrome is no longer as crushing as it was a month ago (in fact, I’ve been amazed at how much more comfortable I feel in academic circles since starting my MA than I thought I would, which I might talk about more in future). But more than that, it’s because I’m trying to learn to admit when I get things wrong, and to be comfortable with imperfection, and not to be afraid to share things before they’re finished because the truth is, nothing is ever finished, and if you always wait for something to be Final And Never To Be Altered, you won’t end up sharing anything, ever.

I want to make peace with mistakes, with early thoughts, with ideas still in development, with the process of learning. I want to be able to look back at past work and feel only pride in how far I’ve come / how much better I’ve got, rather than shame that I wasn’t already there. I want to learn how to share complicated thoughts in accessible language, and not just in academic jargon. I want to share my ideas! For the same reason I make my YouTube videos — I don’t think access to ideas about or knowledge of medieval Irish literature should be limited to the tiny handful of people who end up studying it at an advanced level in formal academia.

So if you see some more academic blog posts popping up over the next few months, that’s why. But don’t worry, I’ll still be talking about writing, too. And dance, as and when lockdown lifts enough to mean I can actually do any dance. And what I’ve learned from moving to Ireland and how I’m finding postgrad life and thoughts on any really good books I’ve read recently.

And sometimes I’ll be wrong about stuff. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, after all. About time I started using it as one.