Tag: Celtic Studies

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.


If you enjoyed hearing me have Opinions, please consider tipping me on Ko-Fi!