Straightforward: the Narrative Construction of Heteronormativity

from Homer to The Hobbit


When asked to name an archetypal love story, most people will reply 'Romeo & Juliet', although some say 'Tristan & Isolde' instead. Very few will come up with a classical example, and the reason for this is simple: when you say archetypal, it is assumed you mean love between a man and a woman, and instances of this in classical accounts are rare. The reason for this is also not hard to find: as it does now, 'love' in the ancient world meant the affection of equals, and given the inferior position of women in Greek and Roman society, between the sexes is not usually where love is to be found.


Straightforward examines how we got from there to here. It is a study not of the loves of real people, but of love as it found expression in stories, stories which were often retold and reimagined by new generations and new cultures. By following these stories and the changes they underwent through the centuries Straightforward attempts to answer two related questions: 'When and why did the heterosexual ideal become normative in our narrative tradition?' and 'What was there before?' 


Straightforward is avaliable as paperback and e-book


Cover shows Two Brothers, One Sister, based on an illustration in A. de Laborde,

Collection de vases grecs de Mr. le Comte de Lamberg, Paris, 1813



Bears, Wolves & Horse-Twins: Reading Relationships from Beowulf to the Brothers Grimm


In Straightforward I look at how stories change as they are retold. But there is also a choice involved in which stories to retell. During my research I started to wonder about the tales we don't tell anymore. Why do collections of Grimm's fairy tales for children include The Six Swans but not The Two Brothers? Why does the story of Helen eclipse that of her brothers Castor and Pollux? Why, of all the folktales and medieval romances rediscovered in the nineteenth century, did Valentine and Orson disappear again?

I know part of the answer already: female characters play only minor parts in these tales, and that does not usually go down well with a readership raised on equality. But that that doesn't make them any less interesting as narrative. Examining three or four examples in depth, this study will go in search of those forgotten stories to try and figure out what once made them important, and what we are missing now.


Valentine & Orson by Walter Crane
Valentine & Orson by Walter Crane

Valentine and Orson


When King Pepin's sister Belisent is forced by her evil mother-in-law to abandon her newborn twins, one of them is raised by a bear in the forest and the other in a castle by a knight. When they are grown the knight Valentine captures his wild brother Orson ('little bear'), who after many adventures helps him defeat his jealous and treacherous relatives.


The subject of a lost French roman d'aventure, the story of Valentine and Orson (or Valentine and Nameless) is known in printed versions in Dutch, German and English from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but modern retellings and editions are rare to non-existent, despite its appealing plot and many parallels to other medieval stories and folktales.


Source: Willem Kuiper, Valentijn ende Oursson, Voortgang, jaarboek voor de neerlandistiek 28 (2010), 213-245

From Adelaide to Zwentibold


I have a longstanding interest in given names: what they mean, how they are chosen, how they spread. I am especially fascinated by dithematic Germanic names, the ones that combine two roots according to certain implicit rules to produce both male and female names, such as Ethelred or Ermengard. In the middle ages ancestral Germanic names continued to be given in Romance speaking areas for centuries, producing variants of which the meaning is no longer transparent and the roots barely recognisable, such as Eleanor and Alfonso. Dithematic names are a feature of other Indo-European language families as well, with the curious exception of Latin. Just for fun, I'm working on a volume of 26 essays on these names and their historical context, perhaps with an index of roots for good measure.

Don't expect it anytime soon.



Adalheid, Aleid, Adalais, Azalais, Aelis, Alix, Alice etc.


From adal 'noble' and heid 'kind, being' (cf. English '-hood'), the most frequent female given name in much of the Middle Ages, known in over a hundred different spellings from France, Germany and the Low Countries. The English variants are all descended from the French; although Old English had many names starting with aethel (the equivalent of adal) these did not include *Aethelhad.

Azalais de Porcairagues, 13th century
Azalais de Porcairagues, 13th century