Sex, historians and assumptions

For some reason, I’ve only just come across Jon Jarrett’s post on ‘Sex and medievalists’, although it’s 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 can’t discuss, let alone teach this kind of stuff without seeming ‘unsound’. As this is pretty much what I do (and I’m currently translating all sorts of dubious sexual matters), it looks like my academic career is pretty much kiboshed before it’s started (though as I’m 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 Charlemagne’s 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, it’s 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 it’s 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 you’re a medievalist (particularly an early medievalist) writing on any topic, at some point (often fairly early on) the evidence will run out and you’ve 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 it’s 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, you’re going to give away your religious views, about economics, your economic views: and if you talk about sex you’re going to give away your sexual views. So while it’s OK to ask the question about Charlemagne’s court, if you trying answering it, given the shortage of evidence, you’re likely to have to fall back on your assumptions about human nature. There’s a particular problem because of the nature of our knowledge of sexual behaviour: if you start quoting modern studies of sexuality you’re all too likely to come across as perverted anyhow, given the dubious reputation it’s 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 I’ve ever heard (and I’ve 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 can’t remember what he thought fisting was a metaphor was for, because I was distracted by imagining far more about the speaker’s sex life than I wanted to, which is rather my point.

One solution, as I’ve suggested, is somehow producing a mental firewall in the audience between you and the topics of conversation. I suspect it’s 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 he’s 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 doesn’t necessarily imply I’m 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 don’t 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 you’re playing fast and loose with academic rigor, what other standards are you prepared to lower?) With that warning, let’s all get out there and find some more stories about dodgy nuns.


5 thoughts on “Sex, historians and assumptions

  1. I frequently wish I had either not written or deleted that post, its effect on my academic image must be very double-edged. But you summarise it very fairly. I think in fact you were in on one of the discussions, with Theo Riches in the IHR Common Room, that led to it, and that was rather difficult even among friends. The core that you’ve only skated over, though is this: I agree with you that it is necessary, to write about this stuff without being thought dodgy, to give the impression of having a very dull sex-life. Now why is that, eh? What would be wrong with an academic having an exciting life? Apart from, well, the sheer odds against it. Is this jealousy? Victorian parochialism? A feeling that too much concentration is being drawn away from the RAE? It bothers me anyway. I tend to think society in general needs to be more cheerful about sex and less as if it’s somehow to be separated from normal life, and this, frankly, is where I most often come up against the opposite.

    Pity about my assumption on Professor Mews there though. I’ve no idea why that possibility never occurred to me. I’ll go back and fix that.


    • I’d say the question is not so much ‘why is there a problem with an academic having an exciting sex life?’ as ‘why is there a problem with an academic having an exciting sex life that they discuss at work (or which is deducible from their comments on sex in the Middle Ages)’? And that gets into the whole question of the sexual culture of particular workplaces.

      Every kind of job has its own workplace culture, including conventions on what is said about private lives. I worked as a librarian for a long time, which is largely a female occupation. And in many libraries I’ve been in, there was a member of staff who would have a complicated love life which she wanted to discuss interminably with the other staff. Most often that member of staff was young, but not invariably. But almost invariably, it was someone low in the hierarchy (normally a library assistant as opposed to a professional librarian).

      More generally, I think in most professions, professionals don’t talk about their love life in the workplace (and I would include post-seminar conversations as the workplace). There are several reasons for this: it’s liable to undermine a person’s authority over any subordinates, and it also suggests that their priority in their time and energy are things other than their job. (I think it’s different in careers/firms which make a big thing of everyone ‘working hard and playing hard’). But I also think at a more basic level, when colleagues think of someone, their sexual morality can easily come to stand as a symbol of their moral behaviour as a whole. (This is not new: Kate Cooper has talked about this tendency in classical Roman politics). And in those terms, ‘an exciting sex life’ can suggest wider moral dubiousness: if someone cheats on their partner, who/what else may they cheat on? If they can’t commit to somebody, can they commit to a project? If they get bored easily with ‘plain vanilla’ sex, will they get bored with ‘plain vanilla’ charters? When someone’s looking to fill an academic post, as opposed to one as a financier, a proneness to ‘risky’ behaviour isn’t particularly appealing.

      In this sense, the sexual culture of the academic workplace is relatively conservative and this tendency is increased by the fact that history departments are not dominated by one sex (which often leads to more bawdiness) and that universities are always concerned to avoid problems of sexual harassment. (Where I do think UK academia is slightly more progressive is that you can be having a dull sex-life with a partner (married or unmarried) of either sex. I know more out gay historians than gay librarians). Add to that that historians are professionally prone to becoming gossips and I can’t see that publicising one’s own sex life is likely be a good move for a historian for a long time.


  2. Though a serious subject, it has its hilarious side:

    “If they get bored easily with ‘plain vanilla’ sex, will they get bored with ‘plain vanilla’ charters?”


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