For some reason, Ive only just come across Jon Jarretts post on Sex and medievalists, although its nearly a year old. In this, amid a multitude of examples of medieval texts on sex (and an unfortunate gender reassignment of Constant Mews), he worries that medievalists cant discuss, let alone teach this kind of stuff without seeming unsound. As this is pretty much what I do (and Im currently translating all sorts of dubious sexual matters), it looks like my academic career is pretty much kiboshed before its started (though as Im a gender historian I might get away with being merely marginal). What Jon wants, specifically, is to be able to ask a question like How bawdy was Charlemagnes court? without being regarded as a pervert.
One point to make is that there are some people who have asked this question and got away with it, and not just Jinty Nelson. I once heard a paper by Mayke de Jong, for example, entitled: Sacrum palatium…but what about the concubines? In fact, its quite tricky to discuss most Carolingian kings without getting into sex scandals at some point (except possibly Louis the German. And of course with Charles the Fat its lack-of-sex scandals). But I think that Jon is right that there are particular problems with historians studying sex and I want to explore why that is.
As long as you stick to the evidence in the texts themselves you are fine (which is why Carl Phelpstead can discuss Icelandic penis size with impunity, because the sagas refer to that. But if youre a medievalist (particularly an early medievalist) writing on any topic, at some point (often fairly early on) the evidence will run out and youve got to try and join the dots on your picture. At that point, you a) bring in evidence from some vaguely similar society, b) appeal to universal norms of human nature or c) use the assumptions about what you think the world was like then. Every historian has a set of basic assumptions about what the world was like then and what people are like, and if you read enough of their work or listen to them for a while its normally fairly clear what they are. (For example, I only listened to David Starkey lecturing on Tudor history a few times before I learned that he considered tax avoidance to be normal, and that immediately tells you a lot about him and his political views).
The problem of course is, if you talk or write about religion, youre going to give away your religious views, about economics, your economic views: and if you talk about sex youre going to give away your sexual views. So while its OK to ask the question about Charlemagnes court, if you trying answering it, given the shortage of evidence, youre likely to have to fall back on your assumptions about human nature. Theres a particular problem because of the nature of our knowledge of sexual behaviour: if you start quoting modern studies of sexuality youre all too likely to come across as perverted anyhow, given the dubious reputation its got after Alfred Kinsey (and ditto with Margaret Mead and sexual anthropology). And inevitably, most of our ideas about sexuality come from our own experience and perhaps a few close friends.
Therefore, unless you can somehow put a firewall between your academic views, your personal views and your own personal life, people are going to suspect once they know your views, they know your sexual practices as well, and that can often be off-putting. The most embarrassing talk on medieval sex Ive ever heard (and Ive organised a session that included Carl Phelpstead talking on penises) was one at the IMC when someone gave a talk about fisting as a metaphor for…Well actually I cant remember what he thought fisting was a metaphor was for, because I was distracted by imagining far more about the speakers sex life than I wanted to, which is rather my point.
One solution, as Ive suggested, is somehow producing a mental firewall in the audience between you and the topics of conversation. I suspect its probably easier for middle-aged women (like myself) to do that, because we can easily be assumed to be having either no sex life or a completely uninteresting one. So if we talk about prostitution or sodomy (even heterosexual sodomy) it obviously has nothing to do with us personally. On the other hand, if a male academic suggests a love poem could be given a gay reading, then hes implicitly assuming that it is normal for a man to feel sexual desire for another man, and some people would immediately make assumptions about his orientation.
I think, therefore, that it is possible to write about sex and still succeed in the academy (though that doesnt necessarily imply Im going to succeed). In order to do so, however, you will probably need a) to write about other things at times as well as sex (so you dont come across as obsessed), b) to give the air of having an extremely uninteresting sex life yourself, c) to stick closely to what medieval evidence we have (and as authors like Ruth Mazo Karras have pointed out, we have actually got quite a lot for the Middle Ages as a whole) and d) be really careful with footnotes (because once again the assumption arises: if youre playing fast and loose with academic rigor, what other standards are you prepared to lower?) With that warning, lets all get out there and find some more stories about dodgy nuns.