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Historical Theory as Religious Sacrament

Monday, January 15, 2018 - 07:00

In my focus on the "facts and documents" end of historic research, I tend to have little patience for discussions of "theories about theories" far removed from a consideration of the lives and experiences of actual people in history. That doesn't mean that I don't value them. The study of history is far from an objective, value-neutral practice, and if we don't examine and address the subjective, value-infused context in which history is done, we end up accepting those contexts as "fact" when they are far from any such thing. Freeman's discussion here brings exactly that sort of challenge to historic theory, using the imagery of a religious transformative experience as metaphor. I've ended up enjoying reading and thinking about these theoretical articles a lot more than I expected to. And if any of you find yourselves intrigued by the summaries of them that I'm presenting here, you might enjoy reading the collection itself as well.

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Full citation: 

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2011. “Sacramentality and the Lesbian Premodern” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2011. “Sacramentality and the Lesbian Premodern”

Where “lesbian” once signaled the avant-garde, it now is often interpreted as quietly normative, as pre-post-modern in comparison to “queer.” Freeman plays around with the semantics of “pre” and “post” for a while. She considers how the roots of historical theory are found among medievalists but that the primary texts and their analysis are often ignored by current theoreticians. She makes a comparison suggesting that lesbian/feminist scholarship occupies a similar relationship to queer theory: the concrete roots of the theory are ignored or unknown to those working in current theory. Freeman calls for a re-valuing of those roots, if only to better evaluate and critique the theory. There follows much discussion of that process of evaluation and critique. Freeman considers historical theories as “secular” but points out that this framing excludes a definition of religion as “a set of knowledge practices and embodied rituals.” From that point of view, secular modernity is a “habitus” of religion rooted in Protestantism, and conversely the critical avant-garde has a sort of sacramental approach to the concept of history as a systematic whole. In this framing, “sacramental” history includes more subjective “ways of knowing” that include desires, bodies, and fantasies. The acceptance of theory becomes like the experience of the Eucharist: a passive transformative acceptance. Can texts be treated as sacraments and experienced via transformative incorporation? Could this result not in expertise over, but community with, the past? The paper ends with an extensive discussion of how this framing would apply to the various papers in the volume.