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What does "Getting Medieval" mean anyway?

Friday, November 29, 2019 - 07:00

There's a certain type of book structure that always makes me wonder if the work has its origins in the author's doctoral thesis. (I mean, in the specific subject matter and organization, not simply in the themes.) I have no idea whether that's the case for Dinshaw's Getting Medieval, but it has the earmarks that raise that suspicion: a group of highly focused discussions of specific works, people, or events, tied together by--and featuring a conclusion referencing--an overall theme that operates at a tangent to the objective content of the material. These are books aimed at playing with ideas more than they're aimed at presenting and interpreting historic data.

And...I mean...that's fine? It's very much an important part of the theory side of "doing history." Historians dive into the wrestling pit of theory and come out with new ideas and approaches for how to work past the superficial meanings of historic data to identify underlying themes, forces, and motivations. This is important. But for me, as an amateur (but I like to think, sophisticated) consumer of historic research, I find this type of book frustrating. Especially when the shadow it casts over other, more data-driven, publications is large enough to lead me to expect something different.

If for no other reason, this is part of why I would never be interested in pursuing history as an academic subject. (Leaving aside the fact that I've already done the PhD thing, so I know that I'm already doing the "fun parts" of an academic history degree in this blog.) On the one side, I'm more interested in trying to understand past lives "from the inside", even if that understanding is flawed, than to think about history through a modern methodological lens. Even though that "from the inside" approach can only be made possibly by the apparatus of academic methodology. And from the other side, I'm completely comfortable with the goal of that understanding being the manipulation of historic data for highly subjective modern consumer purposes. (I.e., the production of historical fiction.) Books like Dinshaw's fall between those two purposes. And--in the context of the purpose of this blog--isn't a book I would recommend to the casual reader seeking to understand queer lives in history. The non-casual reader, sure. But if you're non-casual, you probably aren't coming to me for advice on useful sources.

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Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6

Coda: Use of the Past

This final section starts with the inspiration for the book’s title in a line from the movie Pulp Fiction. Dinshaw explores the imagery of sodomitical rape in this movie and other films. There is an association of the concept of “medieval” as an out-of-context reference alongside imagery of male aggressive sexuality, contrasted at the same time with male bonding. The same preoccupations, Dinshaw asserts, run through Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1.

The rest of the conclusion both critiques and celebrates Foucault’s work with its contras between identities and acts, and how acts tend to be prosecuted only when they disturb the social order. But since I’ll be covering Foucault’s work separately, I think I’ll leave the details for that entry.

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historical