Eroticizing the Middle Ages: Gender and sexuality in Pre-Raphaelite medievalism

Deborah Gail Schizer, University of Pennsylvania


During the mid- and late nineteenth century, medievalism afforded diverse authors and artists a mythology in terms of which to question middle-class values and ideologies. For the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, medievalism provided a vehicle to challenge middle-class marriage and the constructs of gender and sexuality associated with it during a period when these categories were hotly contested in a wide range of discourses. This study focuses primarily upon the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and those personally--and artistically--closest to him, especially Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, and Edward Burne-Jones. These authors and artists demonstrated their opposition to a highly moralized and domesticated ideal of sexual relations both through their bohemian, reclusive lifestyles and through their ideologically diverse literary and artistic productions. Chapter One focuses upon the early years of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, examining how, since its inception, it constructed the Middle Ages as a mythic space accommodating marginal expressions of eroticism. Chapter Two explores how the Pre-Raphaelites developed the medievalist theme of courtly love to exonerate, however ambivalently, extramarital desire. Chapter Three examines how the Rossettis expressed an unconventional perspective upon the fallen woman's sexual transgression by reconstituting her narrative in terms of a medieval Christian world view. Chapter Four examines how the Pre-Raphaelites invoked another controversial category of marginal sexuality, religious celibacy, in order to reconstitute gender and desire in accordance with spiritual and aesthetic ideals. Chapter Five analyzes the Pre-Raphaelites' critique of prevailing notions of masculinity, in this case within the context of the Arthurian counter-tradition through which they challenged the constructs of masculinity inscribed in many contemporary versions of this popular legend. The Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian tradition was, in effect, the culmination of their medievalism, insofar as it most explicitly portrayed a mythic society within which the expression of gender and sexuality deviated from contemporary middle-class norms.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Schizer, Deborah Gail, "Eroticizing the Middle Ages: Gender and sexuality in Pre-Raphaelite medievalism" (1994). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9521117.