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Getting Medieval on Sex and Sexuality

Monday, November 25, 2019 - 07:00

Some works loom large in a historic field without necessarily providing new bodies of data for that field. In fact, to a large extent, one might view the writing of historians to divide (somewhat messily) into "the presentation of facts" and "the interpretation of the presentation of facts." With an additional category of "the interpretation of the interpretation of the presentation of facts."

It was the references to Dinshaw's Getting Medieval in that third category that led me to include it in my current focus on "foundational works", but Dinshaw's book itself belongs solidly to the second category. This means that its discussion of queer-relevant themes in history largely involves moving objects around on an idea-board for which familiarity is assumed rather than created. This is, of course, much of what the work of history is: the questions of how we interpret "facts" and how different interpretations of "facts" are themselves a subject that must be studied and understood as part of "doing history."

In tackling the books in my "theoretical works" series, I've dithered a bit in how to schedule the blog. Many of my write-ups are a bit long to do as a single post, but don't necessarily contain enough interesting material to justify spreading them out over multiple weeks. So for some books, like this one, I'll be doing a cluster of sub-blogs in a single week. This means that the amount of work I spend on reading and writing them up will be a lot more concentrated than usual. For this reason, I've revised how I'm scheduling things for the next several months to break up the dense books with groups of semi-related articles. (Originally, I'd planned to do all the books in a row and get them out of the way!) I suspect this will also be more interesting for readers. I don't want to scare you away (all six of you) with a few months of nothing but theory and philosophy!

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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


This is not fundamentally a book about queer sex in history, it’s a book about the place of sex in the construction of certain historic communities in 14-15th century England, and specifically the place of sexuality in community-identification in relation to Lollard ideas. [Note: it may be useful for the reader to get a brief background in Lollardy from Wikipedia. Basically, it’s a pre-Protestant reformation movement inspired by the teachings of John Wycliffe and his translation of the Bible into English.] Some examples involved in this study are queer or have resonance for modern queer communities. And Dinshaw’s approach includes a queer-aligned examination of how people connect with historic communities across time. So it’s not so much a contribution to queer history as a topic, but to the act of doing queer history as a project.

The introduction (as is usual for a book of this sort) provides a survey of the topics and texts that will be discussed. It begins with a late 14th century verse manual for parish priests. In discussing sexual advice, the manual suggests with regard to sexual sins: “Also written well I find, That of sin against kind [i.e., sin against nature], Thou shalt thy parish nothing teach, Nor of that sin nothing preach.” Dinshaw examines how we can understand what “sin against kind” means in a context where its unspeakability was an essential characteristic. This will be explored further in chapters 1 and 2.

The definition and discussion of types of sexual sin--with the understanding that under some theologies, all sex was inescapably sinful--creates an indeterminate understanding of where same-sex practices fell within it. Some sex acts were simultaneously “against nature” and something that people might fall into through innate desire, as in Gower’s version of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

Dinshaw discusses the theoretical landscape she’s working in, with a review of existing studies, including the uses of cross-historical affective identification as a type of dissidence and agency. That is: the desire of modern people to identify with people in the past as “like them” gives those modern people both a way of challenging the modern narratives they’re forced into, and a way of taking charge of their own transhistorical identities.

Although viewing cultural phenomena (such as sex) as “fundamentally indeterminate,” Dinshaw does not see this as incompatible with identifying a “usable history” for queer people. In terms of providing identification for community formation, connections across time need not be complete or identical to create “community.”

John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality” opened an ongoing debate on this topic and is analyzed as a community-building force of its own in Dinshaw’s book. Boswell assembled evidence supporting a conceptual shift in the mid 13th century from a relatively tolerant Christianity and a flourishing self-consciously “gay” urban subculture to a more repressive, intolerant Christianity. Boswell was accused of “white-washing” the church out of a desire for a sense of acceptance (i.e., a desire to find a historic Christian church that allegedly had accepted and embraced homosexuality, as a path to influencing modern Christians to “return” to that state). Boswell’s work serves as an example of the public side of “doing history” in the late 20th century.

Boswell participated in a debate on whether one can say there were “real” gay people in history, or whether sexuality is always an ephemeral cultural construct--the former being an apparent prerequisite for the existence of “gay history.” Apart from the essentially cultural critique, Boswell’s approach has been accused of glossing over institutionalized age-difference aspects of male-male relationships, and of unwarrantedly assuming that his overwhelmingly male data applied to women as well.

Dinshaw discusses Foucault’s reception of Boswell’s work and how it interacted with his own work and approach. She surveys other historians working across the field of the history of sexuality.

Dinshaw uses an analysis of the Lollards as a light on the complexity of identification--how such cultural conflicts are complex, with the sides often having far more in common than not, even while people yearn for simple tests and metrics of truth and deviancy.

One chapter uses the case of John/Eleanor Rykener as an illustration of the elusiveness of categories.

There is much philosophizing to finish up the introduction.

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