Thursday, December 31, 2009

Summer of research progress report

Exhibit A: The learned Miss Jones, one of the two kittens we adopted for Christmas. Her brother is a cat-man of more plebeian tastes and prefers to spend his time rolling around under the sports section of the newspaper.

Exhibit B (located beneath Exhibit A): A sampling of the books I’ve read so far in my summer of research. I’ve only skimmed to the good bits in the chronicles at this point, but I’ll be going back for close reading later (and probably more than once).

The weather has been conducive to long uninterrupted spells of reading in the garden, so I’ve also managed to plough through quite a bit of other material, amongst which:

  • Michael Bennett’s Richard II and the Revolution of 1399 (which is still irritating me with its referencing, or lack thereof, but this post by Gesta on writing book reviews makes me realise I was probably unfair in blaming Bennett instead of his publisher.)
  • Nigel Saul’s Richard II and his EHR article “Richard II and the vocabulary of kingship”. I was surprised to find Saul’s 1997 book is the first scholarly bio of Richard II since Anthony Steel’s 1962 outing.
  • Lynn Staley’s Languages of Power in the Age of Richard II. I found this a richly detailed interdisciplinary study of the social and political contexts of works by Chaucer, Gower, the Gawain poet and other 14thC texts. It also offers some valuable insights that I haven't come across elsewhere (yet) into Charles V of France's influence on Richard II's court and the connections between literary patronage and ideas about kingship.
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler’s Becoming Male in the Middle Ages
  • Paul Strohm’s Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts
  • Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval
  • Karma Lochrie et al., Constructing Medieval Sexuality. I read Mark Jordan’s chapter, “Homosexuality, luxuria and textual abuse”, on the bus. That got me some odd looks.
  • Assorted articles on feminist and queer theory

In addition, I’ve re-read Christopher Fletcher’s useful article “Manhood and politics in the reign of Richard II”. I wasn’t able to track down a copy of Fletcher’s 2008 book on the same subject through my library system, so I ended up ordering it from Amazon. It’s hardcover and a bit pricey (though way cheaper than the list price in pounds), but with the NZ dollar being so strong against the US dollar at the moment and it being Christmas and all, I was able to talk myself into it. From what I can gather from the reviews, Fletcher achieves an innovative gender-based reading of the sources on Richard II’s kingship, but he also gets called out for skating over some major issues. One reviewer also calls Fletcher’s assessments of other scholars’ work “uncharitably critical”. Sounds like it should be a lively read if nothing else.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve also developed a much more refined picture in my mind of the approach I want to take to this research project and of the specific questions I’m going to be working to answer. Thanks to some unexpected connections the background reading has been sparking, my ideas have changed a fair amount since their initial incarnation. I expect they’ll morph quite a bit more in the coming months but at least now I feel like I have a clear direction and some markers to follow. (This is just as well, because it won’t be long before I need to front up to the Postgraduate Research Committee with the formal research proposal.)

I’ve been relieved to find that, as I suspected, I’m going to be covering some solid new ground and my advisor is pretty excited about it. I went through these weird phases of anxiety at first, swinging between ‘wow, I can’t believe no one has thought about this topic in this way before,’ and ‘crap, maybe no one has done this before for a good reason’. Now that my project has been approved in principle by both my advisor and the postgrad research co-ordinator (thus validating it is indeed worth pursuing), I’ve settled into a sort of steady state where I crack open each new book or article alternately hoping to find something along my lines that will be useful, and fearing that I’ll find my great original idea isn’t so original after all.

Here’s a question for all you scholarly and creative types, though. I’m really excited about this project and want to prattle on about it to anyone who will listen. But at the same time, I’m instinctively wary about putting too much detail about it on the public interwebs, given those cases we all hear about of academic plagiarism and people having their ideas nicked before they can take credit for them. In fact, I haven’t mentioned a couple of the books/articles I’ve read, as I feel like the titles alone could give away a bit too much about the way I’m thinking (this is, of course, assuming anyone but me even gives a damn). Is this just paranoia? Am I being overly cautious? Do you talk about your original ideas and research in any specificity online before you present or publish in a more formal context? If so, have you ever had an ‘oh crap’ moment, where you suspect someone else has pinched your work?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Disrupting the otherness of the medieval past

It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction to read this article on the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. The museum’s decision to present these collections in a single contiguous space works to destabilise the conventional narrative of historical progress from the ‘dark ages’ to a nascent ‘age of reason’ (or, literally, ‘rebirth’). According to the article:

"The V&A is managing to display some brutishly large cojones. This is not just an excellent museum addition. It is also a particularly brave one.

What is being challenged? Everything. The complete caboodle. Before we even set foot inside this theatre of delights, its title warns us of a revolution ahead. Medieval and Renaissance are, after all, two slabs of civilisation that we generally keep well apart. These two epochs are usually understood as near opposites, driven by dramatically different world-views. The medieval age is felt to have been gloomy, backward and propelled by fiery belief, while the Renaissance was enlightened, progressive and propelled by reason."

This traditional framing of discrete periods in Western history persuades us to see the present moment in time as the apogee of a linear progression in which the Middle Ages (a problematic term in itself. The middle of what?) is the brutal and intellectually stunted precursor to the increasingly enlightened Early Modern/Renaissance and Modern. In this vision, the medieval past is indeed another country, populated by the utterly strange and the irrationally violent. It’s presented as a time and place hopelessly tainted by Catholic groupthink that was then surpassed by the ‘discovery of the individual’ who, at his/her (usually ‘his’) finest, is driven by reason rather than superstition. Much more like ‘us’ in the modern West, in fact.

I have a Google alert set up for ‘medieval history’ and it’s quite depressing to see the number of links it produces with a first sentence along the lines of ‘the medieval period was a very serious, dark period of time’ or talking about ‘the savage unrestrained medieval times’. (Those are both real examples from the past week or so.) Contrived divisions between the medieval, the early modern and the modern are to some degree necessary to the discipline of history, as without any boundaries and the specialisation that goes with them, it would be virtually impossible to produce rich, accurate and detailed historical interpretations. But at the same time, when they are accepted without question as natural or logical, these standard periodisations become problematic because they help perpetuate the view of the medieval as utterly Other from the modern. This in turn underpins a teleology that says all history is a linear march of progress from a dark, barbaric and backwards past to enlightened, democratic (and implicitly westernised) modernity. The political uses of such a vision of history can be clearly discerned in those depictions of Islam and the Muslim world as ‘medieval’ that are all-too-common in the Western mainstream media at the moment.

This notion of the ‘othering’ of the medieval is something Magistra recently touched on in another excellent post in our on-going discussion about history writing, fiction and emotional engagement. Because I’m lazy, I’m going to paraphrase here something I wrote in the comments at Magistra’s blog -

We need to avoid romanticising the distant past while also resisting that still-compelling whiggish narrative of progress from the Dark Ages (or ‘medieval’ in its most pejorative sense) through Renaissance and Enlightenment to modernity, but that's a tricky path to navigate at times. That's partly why I try to avoid the standard periodisation labels when it comes to talking to people about what I'm doing (although I admit I don’t always succeed at this, because adopting the existing classifications makes things a whole lot simpler from a pragmatic perspective).

I want to disrupt and interrogate the divides that say you're either a medievalist or an early modernist/renaissance specialist or a modernist, based on a rather arbitrary imposition of dates that in itself implies a teleology of progress. The classic periodisation really only holds if you stick to a fairly narrow range of political/economic/socio-cultural indicators within quite discrete temporal and geographical limits. It starts to break down once you cross the traditional boundaries of 'England' or 'Western Europe', and when you start to look at themes like gender and sexuality, the history of non-elites and marginal groups, popular beliefs versus institutional religion and so on. That approach can reveal as many broad continuities and congruences between the medieval and the early modern or modern as it reveals big changes and ruptures. Feminist historians have been engaging with questions of periodisation since (at least) the 1970s, with work like Joan Kelly’s classic article “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” [1] providing significant new interpretations of received master narratives. More recently, feminist historian Judith Bennett’s History Matters [2] explored the question of change and continuity with her notion of patriarchal equilibrium, the merits and drawbacks of which were debated across a number of feminist history blogs earlier this year.

I find it an intellectual and emotional challenge to apply this thinking to my own historical research, because it’s tough to do without breaking all the rules about anachronism and sentimentalising, over-simplifying or distorting the past. I’m definitely one of those people who was originally drawn to medieval history precisely because I did perceive it as tantalisingly and exotically ‘other’. This process of exploring how the othering of the medieval shapes my own subjectivity at a specific moment in the historical present is an on-going one (and one that is much enriched by reading blogs like In the Middle and Modern Medieval, as well as those linked above).

1. Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, Chicago University Press, 1984.

2. Judith M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Flames of justice

Occasionally (very occasionally), the contract corporate communications work I do part-time intersects with my true love, which is of course studying history. Such a serendipitous cross-over happened just recently, as I’ve been writing some case studies for a company involved in upgrading the technology in a number of New Zealand’s historic courtrooms.

I was tracking down some background on the Old High Court building, which has now been incorporated into a brand spanking new Supreme Court complex, when I came across this little gem from the Supreme Court’s Conservation Report. It’s the tale of one Sir Hubert Ostler, a future Crown Solicitor and Crown Prosecutor. In 1910, Sir Hubert was a new appointee to the Crown Law Office and worked in a room above the court, but his career could well have been snuffed out by this little misjudgment:

“My desk was near the window and I generally worked with the window open. One day I was concentrating on some work and as I read I lit my pipe, shook the match and thinking it was out, dropped it into the wastepaper basket, which happened to be fairly full. But the match had not been extinguished, and presently I heard a noise and on looking round found a merry fire, the paper being well alight.

I promptly picked up the basket and dropped it out of the window and on looking out to watch the result I saw it descend on the head of Mr Justice Cooper, who had just emerged from the door. There was no time to warn him. It landed on his hat and blazing papers were shot out and showered around him like a Greek fire. He let out a yell and jumped liked a frightened horse…” [1]

The archaeologists have done some major excavating work on the construction site for the new Supreme Court, which lies next to the Old High Court building. This land was originally part of the harbour but was reclaimed in stages from the 1850s to provide some much-needed flat building space between the water and the steep, bush-covered hills. Archaeological finds on the Supreme Court site have encompassed both indigenous artefacts such as Maori kete (baskets, which were possibly used for bringing goods to trade with the colonists) and the prosaic leavings of daily life in the European settler community. The latter includes china fragments, wine goblets, gin and beer bottles, pharmaceutical bottles, and a rather beautiful Belle Epoque-style cold cream container.

Below is a Wellington City Council map showing the harbour reclamations and their dates superimposed on modern Wellington. Much of what is now the CBD is within the green area of reclaimed land. This is an interesting prospect considering this city is smack in the middle of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a zone at high risk of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis. I try very hard not to think about that - and about the fact that the scientists keep warning us we’re well overdue for ‘the big one’ - when I’m up on the 25th floor of some waterside high rise and a tremor hits.

Writing about the court’s conservation reports has reminded me I must track down a friendly local archaeologist to help me identify a few bits and pieces that were unearthed under our 1890s cottage when the drains were replaced recently. They include a couple of lead soldiers (?? - I think they’d be lead, if they are indeed from around the turn of last century) and some interesting old glass bottles.

1. The full story is published in R. Cooke (Ed.), Portrait of a Profession: The Centennial Book of the New Zealand Law Society, Reed, 1969.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Beaver, or a little mystery solved

Ah, I love it when I find the answer to one of the mysteries of modern life in the Middle Ages.

This happened to me recently in relation to an ad from this series for a new brand of tampons. It shows a young woman spending the day with a cute furry beaver, buying it treats and, presumably, sharing girly secrets. The punch line is “You only have one, so look after it.” I was watching a movie with some friends when the ad ran, and it sparked a lively debate over where and how the word ‘beaver’ as a synonym for vagina could possibly have originated*. Theories ran from the mundane (“Um, they’re both furry?”) to the more bizarre. (I wondered if there might be some connection between the beaver’s giant teeth and the mythical vagina dentata, but clearly I watch too many B-grade horror flicks.)

A few days later I was reading Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s Premodern Sexualities (at the hairdressers. Hint: If you are one of those people who would rather read than make banal chitchat with the hairdresser, take something like this along with you. I promise you will not get asked any more than a single question about it.) Anyway, I was up to Elizabeth Pittenger’s chapter “Explicit Ink”, which examines the connections between sexuality and Latin grammar in Alain de Lille’s twelfth century classic De planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), and I experienced a little thrill of discovery when I came across this passage:

Apocope [a Latin term meaning to lop off the end of words] serves as a figure…more curiously, for the beaver’s habit of chewing off its own genitals (Pr. 1, 103). The image is generated from the pun of the signifier “castor,” “beaver,” and its proximity to castration.” (p. 234).

Apparently, this whole ‘beaver = castration’ pun was considered the height of wit amongst later medieval Latinists, and what could be more symbolic of the feminine than losing your balls? I have no idea whether this really is the derivation of our modern slang term, but it’s better than any of the ideas my friends and I came up with. If you have a more convincing explanation, I’d like to hear it. (Really, I would! I’ve always been fascinated by the history of slang terms and argot.)

Always reliable on subjects like this, Got Medieval has more bizarre medieval beaver lore here.

* Is this a UK/Australian/New Zealand term? Or do North Americans use it too?

Image: A beaver castrating itself, from a mid-10th century Byzantine materia medica (Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.652).

(Also, apologies for the disconcerting change of font styles in this post. Obviously, Blogger is not liking me at the moment but I am in no mood to wrestle with the stupid HTML tags.)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Who'da thunk it?

So apparently, I’m “literati”. Yes, that is according to an email I received recently informing me that I’ve been included on this list of the “100 best blogs for the literati”. And they weren’t even asking me for my bank account details (though to be fair, the message was sandwiched between two emails from a very nice person in Nigeria.)

The site says -

“If you feel that you’re destined to be an intellectual long after you graduate from college, you’re going to have to work a little harder to keep up with high brow culture and scholarly debates on your own. These 100 blogs will help you jump in on the discussions influencing the art, literature, political and culture worlds, even without the support of your professors and fellow classmates.”

I have just two things to say about this:

1. I’m in good company. The other blogs in the History section include the excellent book history blogs Wynken de Worde and Bookn3rd, both favourites of mine. Check them out if you haven’t already.

2. High brow culture?? Wait till they see what I’ve got in store for you next week…

Saturday, December 5, 2009

History, politics and scholarly subjectivity

Magistra et Mater and I, along with assorted commentators, have recently been engaging in a wide-ranging discussion on historical fiction and the writing of history. (See here, here and here.) In Magistra’s latest contribution, Emotional engagement and historians’ values, she makes the point that while it may be valid for historians to use their academic work to support their social activism, they still have to adhere to the core values of honesty and accuracy. Otherwise, they’re engaging in writing fiction or propaganda, not history. In other words, historians can’t just jettison or manipulate the evidence if it doesn’t fit their particular view of the world.

Damned straight, I say. However, the deep, persistent and often problematic connections between the worlds of professional history and politics can make the noble values of ‘honesty’ and ‘accuracy’ much more difficult to pin down in practice than in theory. ‘Honest’ according to whom? (Let’s face it - we humans sometimes have trouble even being honest with ourselves.) ‘Accurate’ by what measures? These are questions I started to engage with at a theoretical level in undergrad classes in historiography, during which we discussed (sometimes heatedly) historical debates such as Australia’s so-called History Wars. The issue is becoming more immediate to me as a postgraduate student because I’m engaging in original research, actually putting something new out there with my name on it and in which I have to present my evidence and argue a position. It’s forcing me to become more self-reflexive and to grapple with questions of my own scholarly subjectivity. How does my subjectivity shape the questions I choose to ask and the ways that I present my evidence (right down to picking images to accompany the text)? Can I even be fully aware of my own subjectivity and if so, am I a fully autonomous subject?

That’s a high-falutin' philosophical tangent that I won’t pursue any further here, except to say that I don’t believe any historian can be truly objective in the purist scientific sense because our own subjectivity is always going to colour the kinds of questions we ask of the evidence - and even what we consider as evidence. For example, some historians might only see official documents - such as judicial or administrative records or state papers - as real evidence, whereas others will find literary sources or material culture (buildings, household utensils etc.) equally valid. Some scholars might read those official records purely to glean the facts (names, dates, places etc.), whereas others will apply readings more informed by literary theory to dig deeper into how and why a particular text came to take the form it did. They will look as much to what isn’t said - to the gaps, silences and absences - and to meanings that are conveyed unintentionally, in order to extend interpretation beyond the limits of the original author’s purpose (stated or implicit).

This is the point at which many historians trained in the strictly empirical traditions of ‘scientific’ history become very anxious about people manipulating the evidence to fit a theory or a particular political agenda. Certainly, this does happen, and when it does, it’s bad history. But the fetishisation of archive sources as objective evidence of the past can equally blind us to the reality that those dryly-official documents and records are still created, authored texts. As the French historian Roger Chartier said, ‘no text, even…the most “objective” (for example, a statistical table drawn up by a government agency), maintains a transparent relationship with the reality that it apprehends.’

Chartier’s argument has been resonating with me during the last couple of weeks as I’ve been reading some recent historical studies of Richard II’s reign. Historians of this period generally draw on the many surviving contemporary or near-contemporary chronicles as well as on official records and it’s quite revealing to see the different ways they treat the two types of sources. A citation from a chronicle is almost always accompanied by an attempt to corroborate the information from another source and is frequently also qualified by discussion of the chronicle writer’s known political and/or religious biases. That approach is perfectly sound, as later medieval chroniclers were generally writing in the service of patrons and they sometimes shaped and re-worked their texts quite extensively to meet the exigencies of changing political situations.

What interests me, though, is that the same qualifications are much less frequently applied to the ‘official’ sources. Instead, these are generally treated as accurate, reliable and unproblematic accounts of events as they actually happened. Nigel Saul offers one of the rare exceptions when he points out, “The parliament roll suffers from all the usual weaknesses of that source: it is highly edited; it is composed mainly of memoranda and petitions to which the king gave his reply; and it contains few reports of speeches or discussions.” [2]

Social activism and emotional engagement

I want to come back now to another aspect of Magistra’s latest post, namely the connection of history and social activism. She notes the two historians that I named as being particularly good at emotionally engaging their readers (Marcus Rediker and Judith Walkowitz) are modernists working on the 18th and 19th centuries. Thinking about this some more, I wondered if for that reason, readers could more easily make a connection between these writers’ historical subjects - broadly speaking, victims of the Atlantic slave trade and working-class women in Victorian England - and their own direct experiences of 20th century social justice movements such as civil rights and feminism.

For someone like me, with leftwing progressive political sympathies, it’s true that the history of marginal groups readily engages both my intellectual interest and my empathy as a human being. However, this is certainly not the case for many other people who study history. I’m reminded of an undergraduate paper I did on the Napoleonic Wars, when the students included both history majors and Bachelor of Defence Studies majors (all serving military). As you would expect, the course covered the military, political and economic aspects of war and empire, but it also explored broader social and cultural themes. The BDS guys were mostly either perplexed or annoyed at having to consider how war and the economic measures needed to support it affected civilian populations. For them, the life-altering impact of Napoleon’s wars on peasant communities or women or the clergy - the facet of the course that held the most appeal for me - was just not relevant, let along interesting or emotionally engaging.

I guess this comes back to a very personal question: why do history? Why does spending our lives in libraries and archives, puzzling over artefacts left by those long dead, have such appeal? (It certainly ain’t for the money.) I would argue that without some aspiration beyond simply uncovering and assembling an accurate collection of facts, we’re nothing more than modern antiquarians. For my own part, I’m driven not simply by curiosity or the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, but by a desire to understand patterns and connections in the past that also speak to the present. On this, I’m with Michel Foucault, who believed the point of history is “to show how that-which-is has not always been,” and so to show “why and how that-which-is might no longer be that-which-is.” [3]

That’s idealistic, I know. Maybe it’s even a little bit utopian. But that’s the way I roll.

1. Roger Chartier, Cultural History: Between Practices and Representations, p. 43.
2. Nigel Saul, Richard II, p. 222
3. Quoted in Joan W. Scott’s article 'Back to the Future' in History & Theory 47, no. 2 (2008), p. 284.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fourteen centuries of excruciating composition (and counting...)

I feel like I’ve been banging on a bit lately about my perception that the quality of writing amongst otherwise well-educated and articulate people has been going to hell in a hand basket. And it seems I’m not the only one to think this, as these representative samples from Clio Bluestocking Tales and Dame Eleanor Hull testify.

Regardless of whether I’m right or wrong, this particular gripe usually makes me feel just a wee bit curmudgeonly. I start to suspect the real problem may lay somewhere in the intersection between my advancing age and retreating patience, rather than in any objective decline in standards. This charming little post by Alice Rio (from Jonathan Jarrett’s back catalogue at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe) tends to confirm my suspicions. I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting the relevant chunk here, because it is just so apt. It’s from a seventh century manuscript that appears to have been written by a rather grumpy monk:

“Another text, addressed to young men who do not know how to write. I wonder that, after such a long time, my speech has in no way been followed on the page, and the borrowed writing tablets which you bring back soiled with your text, as if from dictation, are filled with the wrong words.”

I bet that after writing that, our monk got together with his mates over a pint of ale to moan about how “novices these days wouldn’t know what to do with a semicolon if it came up and bit them on the arse!”

Image: A novice monk being punished for misusing the possessive apostrophe.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Summer of research, ridin' and relaxin'

Spring has come late to these parts, and today was one of the first days there was real heat in the sun. I sat on the front porch reading, enveloped in the scents from the jasmine and climbing roses that are running riot around the balcony, watching the fat, furry bumbler bees (as my nephew calls them) slip dozily from bloom to bloom. My coursework is done for the year, so I now have the summer ahead of me to mull over the research project that will occupy a lot of my time over the coming year.

I’ve got some broad ideas about what I want to tackle and how, but I haven’t refined the research question(s) so narrowly yet as to require really intensive reading (or to get alternately obsessed and fed up with the subject). I’m interested in taking up Joan Scott’s challenge to examine the ways that ‘gender constructs politics and politics constructs gender’, so I’m thinking I may do something around competing constructions of misrule and the gendering of dissent during the troubled reign of Richard II of England. That leads to lots of related threads - starting with that classic late medieval triangle of heresy, sodomy and treason - that could also prove rich avenues for investigation.

I love this stage of the process, where I can dip in and out of lots of different books and articles, following up any little obscure angle that intrigues me. It suits my magpie brain. I have a nice big stack of background reading, theory, and secondary sources on the period to work through over the next couple of months, and I’ll also be making a start on tracking down primary sources I may want to use. There is a huge amount of this material for Richard’s reign and its post-deposition aftermath, including a bunch of French and English chronicles and extensive judicial and administrative records. (Bonus - thanks to the prompt from Dame Eleanor Hull, I also discovered my university library has an edition of the Calendar of Patent Rolls for Richard II’s reign stashed in offsite storage, so I won’t need to interloan.)

As this project takes shape over the coming months, I will probably torture you periodically with oblique accounts of my discoveries. But for now, I’m going to go and pour myself a glass of cider, so I’ll leave you with my thoughts on other good things about summer:
  • Monteiths Crushed Apple Cider served over ice in a big goblet
  • Hitting the single track at Makara Peak
  • Eating fish and chips on the beach, and washing away the salty, greasy goodness with a glass of crispy sauvignon blanc
  • Swimming twilight laps around Oriental Bay fountain
  • Breaking out the fairy lights and turning our patio into a Greek-taverna-by-proxy
To those of you facing down winter in unkindly climes, I send my commiserations.

* The image is of a 14th century music manuscript of the English round Sumer is i-cumen in.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Carnivalesque 56 early modern edition

Carnivalesque 56, the early modern edition, is now up at Investigations of a Dog.

There's an eclectic selection of subject matter, from the American Founding Fathers, military culture in Stuart England and Oliver Cromwell's boots through to conjuring tricks, scurrilous political pamphlets and a notorious London sex criminal with a predilection for spanking.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Take that, cultural imperialists!

I’m relieved to see that Google has been forced to see sense on its Google Books digitisation project and concede to a fairer settlement with rights holders. Google promoted its plan to digitise the world’s books and make them freely available online as a magnanimous gesture to education the world over. Unfortunately, the original out-of-court Google Books Settlement disregarded the claims of non-US rights-holders, and had authors and publishers in New Zealand (and a lot of other countries) crying ‘cultural imperialism!’

The attitude that ‘if it’s not currently sold in the US it’s free for the taking’ really got Kiwi writers’ hackles up. (Though it was the pressure put on by the EU and its individual members - France and Germany made formal complaints - that probably made Google back down.)

As the NZ Press Association explained the original deal back in August -

“If a book is not generally available for sale in the US, even though it is widely available elsewhere, it is considered out of print and Google can display excerpts without consent…. It has digitised books by Janet Frame, Hone Tuwhare, Sir Edmund Hillary, Witi Ihimaera, Michael King, James K Baxter and Keri Hulme, all without any permission from anyone.”

These are best-selling, iconic New Zealand authors, whose books are all currently in print and widely available in this country. Just because mainstream US booksellers have not seen any value in stocking them does not make them ‘out of print’ and therefore freely available for Google to do with them what it likes.

Further, while authors and publishers could opt out, asking that their books not be included as part of the digitisation project, “Google was under no obligation to agree to that request. The rights-holder then had the right to take their chances and sue the multi-billion dollar company.”

Yeah, good luck with that, tiny NZ publishing house. New Zealand authors would fare even less well. The local market is so small that even best-selling authors sometimes need to do the odd bit of corporate huckstering to pay the mortgage. There are still some significant problems with the revised settlement (here’s a good analysis), but at least Google has been stopped in its book-plundering tracks and forced to recognise that the world of publishing does not begin and end at the US border.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Debating history-as-fiction and fiction-as-history

While I was busy contemplating the awfulness of Colin Farrell’s bleach job in the film Alexander, Magistra et Mater picked up on my post as the opportunity to ask some deeper questions about “the rising cultural importance of historical novels … [and] the uneasy relationship between the two genres of history and historical fiction.” What, she asks, “do authors or would-be authors of historical novels think that writing fiction allows them to do that more conventional historical forms don’t?”

Amongst the possible answers she poses is the ability to gain a much wider audience and therefore to sell more books than the lowly historian could ever dream was possible. The historical novelist may also have the ability to write more vividly than the historian, though I think this is debateable. Some best-selling 'historical' novelists write dreadfully clunky, lifeless prose (Dan Brown, I’m looking at you!), while some historians have the ability to sweep you along in stories that are more exciting than any fiction. Of course, the novelist also has the unique freedom to make things up when it suits them.

It seems to me that Magistra is also touching on some much bigger issues, such as those old unanswerable questions about the purpose of history and the historian’s role in society, and whether history is an art or a science. If we consider that the historian has some responsibility to reach out to the general public (and I do, because if historians don’t do this, then politicians have free reign to manipulate history to suit their own purposes), then we have to be concerned about developing the communication skills to engage a wider audience at least some of the time. I’m also of the school that believes that the way scholarly and academic history is written - the narrative approach used, the rhetorical constructs chosen and so on - is as much a part of the history itself as the research, the facts, the analysis and the scholarly apparatus.

I find it interesting that Magistra appears to make a very black-and-white distinction between being a writer of fiction and being an historian, as though one can be one or the other but not both. The creative writing that I do definitely enriches and improves my academic writing, and a number of the novelists I enjoy reading are qualified historians (have PhDs in history), so I see more overlap between the genres and skills than she perhaps does. To me, it’s a bit of a cop out to think conveying the facts in dull, workmanlike prose is enough just because the historian’s task is to write about ‘what really happened’. Yes, it’s true that most historians aren’t going to be able to come near what the best writers (of fiction or non-fiction) are capable of, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take good writing as seriously as they do thorough research and well-supported analysis.

I also believe that novelists should not be the only ones aspiring to make us emotionally engage with the past. Historians like Marcus Rediker or Judith Walkowitz have the ability to tell what really happened with faultless attention to the scholarly apparatus, and to make us care about what happened and possibly use that knowledge of the past to help fuel change in the present. To my mind, that is an extremely important skill for historians to possess, particularly those who work on the histories of the marginal and the previously unconsidered (the poor, the mentally ill, migrants, slaves etc.). But it does open up the fraught question of whether academic history should also be serving the causes of social activism (as many historians believe - that was, after all, integral to the feminist history that emerged in the 1970s), or is indeed by its very nature political regardless of any claims to objectivity.

To write history that engages us on both the intellectual and emotional planes does not mean making things up. But it does require a more mindful approach and a commitment to honing one’s writing as a craft in and of itself that perhaps some (many?) academic historians either don’t have time for or don’t consider a core part of the job. In my experience, writing skills are often an under-rated, if not completely ignored, aspect of the teaching of history at university level. (For any history teachers/professors reading this, do you consider teaching the skill of writing in itself as part of your purview? Or is that something for the literature/composition teachers to worry about?)

Magistra is right in saying “Most of the books by academic medievalists/early modernists which do find a wider audience are either on conventional kings and battles topics or are lucky enough to have found sources/archives which contain a lot of information on a small group of people (such as the inquisition records for Montaillou)”. But in the case of Montaillou*, for example, it was not simply the unique nature of the evidence that made it such a popular work but Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s vigorous and accessible prose style, which is characteristic of the best of the Annales school. (It might also reflect a different and distinctly French view of the historian’s function in society, and therefore of what types of skills the profession requires.)

Having said all that, I confess I’m bothered when writers of historical fiction try to blur the boundaries and claim more for their creations than they merit. For example, this quote highlighted by Magistra really disturbs me: ‘As [novelist] Sarah Dunant puts it in History Today: ‘I want to sink the reader deep into the period, to say, “Have the confidence to follow me because I know what is true”'. My response to that is to say yes, Ms Dunant, you may have done in-depth historical research and ‘know what is true’, but when it comes to choosing between what is true and what is interesting or what best moves the story along, you’re going to pick the latter every time.

* This was a history of the lives and beliefs of peasants living in the village of Montaillou, in what is now southwest France, in the early 14th century. It was based primarily on the previously unexamined records of the Catholic inquisitor Jacques Fournier. Le Roy Ladurie's interpretation is profoundly flawed because he took Fournier's highly-mediated accounts as factual descriptions , but the book still stands as one of the first examples of 'history from below', which sought to expand academic history beyond the study of the lives of elites.

Friday, November 13, 2009

History and fiction: The good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain dull

Now that my university coursework is over for this year, I’m planning to spend some time over the summer doing some creative writing. Yes, I am one of those students of history who also harbours a secret longing to write historical fiction. Medieval mystery/crime fiction, to be exact. (I confess, I’m a walking cliché.) I have a few chapters written and a vague plot outline but I don’t really expect to produce anything as substantial as a complete first draft any time soon. For me, fiction writing is primarily a form of relaxation, a way of escaping the constraints and conventions of the academic and business writing that consumes so much of my time. (This blog is another such outlet, where the rules don’t apply.)

Having said that, I do take my fiction writing seriously in the sense that I’m aware of, and try to avoid, most of the dreadful clangers discussed so passionately here. Many historians find historical fiction hard to read (or watch) not necessarily because the authors may bend the facts a bit to suit their plot, but because of their tendency to have their 14th or 16th or 18th century characters act, think, and believe in thoroughly 21st century modes. Thus, you get 14th century serving wenches espousing the values of third-wave feminism and 16th century atheists who declare their rational faith in science instead of God. (The renowned French historian Lucien Febvre wrote a fascinating and very readable book, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais, in which he argued that 16th century French language did not contain the words or constructs - as he put it, ‘l’outillage mentale’ - to even *think* an idea like atheism as we know it today.)

Personally, I don't mind a bit of anachronism in my historical fiction, whether literary or cinematic, provided it's well-written or well-acted and, as Maximus said, I am entertained. Topping my list of execrable historical films is Kingdom of Heaven. On paper (and barring Orlando Bloom), this film had all the elements to make for top-notch cinema. Ridley Scott, crusading knights, Saladin, a leprous king and dirty dynastic dealings over a disputed crown (Ha! I could have said ‘diadem’ there, but enough alliteration for one day)… even if you took no liberties at all with the historical record you’d have a rollicking story. I just don’t understand how it could turn out so absolutely lifeless. Poor old Jeremy Irons spent most of the movie looking like he wished he were anywhere else. Running a close second is Alexander, although it must be said that this film at least had some unintentional humour value. I laughed out loud at Colin Farrell’s appalling bleach job, which made him look like a regular at Hair Jude in Levin. And why on earth did everyone have fake Irish accents? It was like something out of Monty Python.

On the positive side of the ledger I put The Name of the Rose, which manages to pull off an almost impossible mélange of papal and royal intrigue, Aristotelian science versus ‘dark ages’ superstition, apocalyptic prophecies, witchcraft, heresy, demonic possession and a visit from celebrity Inquisitor Bernardo Gui. Oh, and there are a bunch of gruesome murders to be solved by Sean Connery, playing the kind of monk one perhaps wishes hadn’t taken a vow of celibacy. And from the land of the small screen comes my current Sunday night indulgence, The Tudors. I’m not sure how historically accurate this series is (any Tudor scholars out there care to weigh in on this?), but the extremely high production values and the quality of the writing and acting lift it out of the usual run of historico-romantic television schmaltz.

Speaking of schmaltz, I’ve had a kind of hankering lately to watch Shogun again, although I suspect my present self would probably be aghast at it’s mixture of Anglo-centric superiority and rampant orientalism. Whereas my past self was too busy being dazzled by Richard Chamberlain’s samurai swashbuckling. Ah, the early 80s, when Richard Chamberlain reigned as indisputable king of the historical mini-series. Actually, that must have been a pretty new television genre back then. Anyone know what the first historical mini-series was? My memories reach back as far as the mid-70s television phenomenon that was Roots, but was there anything before that?

Anyway, back to my obsession with The Tudors. I'm watching the third series and I’m liking the way the writers have managed to incorporate the complexities of European politics and religious upheaval during this period, instead of just doing the standard romanticised 'six wives' story. They’re not shying away from showing Henry VIII's sociopathic bullying and his anxieties about failing to measure up to François Ier in the Renaissance prince stakes, either. Also, without suddenly making Henry wear a fat suit or start dribbling, the director has managed to convey his increasing dissipation and hint at the horrors to come (which can't be easy for the crew, given Henry is played by the rather dishy Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

Incidentally, I’m no fan of the psychohistory (that is, seeking the answers to questions about complex historical change in the personality quirks of so-called ‘great men’), but out of curiosity I looked up ‘sociopath’ and found these amongst the signs listed in the DSM. If the shoe fits, Henry…

  1. Inability to make or keep friends, or maintain relationships such as marriage - check. (In no small part because he keeps having his nearest and dearest executed.)
  2. Apparent lack of remorse or empathy; inability to care about hurting others - check. (See under 1, above.)
  3. Impulsivity and/or recklessness - check. (“Have you got me my divorce yet? Screw the pope, let’s make ME head of the Church of England!”)
  4. Poor behavioural controls — expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper - Uh, check, check, check, check and check.
  5. Narcissism, elevated self-appraisal or a sense of extreme entitlement -check. (But I’m inclined to give him a pass on this one. He is King of England, after all…)
  6. Tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others - check. (See under 1, above. See also, ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Francophilia: Asterix in Paris

Two of my favourite French cultural icons are being brought together with an exhibition of Asterix and friends at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The show, appropriately, is being housed in the museum’s frigidarium, a part of the building that has survived since the Romans ran Gaul.

In the typically irreverent style of Asterix’s creators Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, the show features some great cartoon parodies of classic artworks.

I love this version of Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV -

And here is their take on Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a fish (what, no roast boar?!) standing in for the human corpse -

It’s interesting to hear how Uderzo and Goscinny incorporated historical research into their artistic process. The exhibition’s curator Emmanuelle Héran says that ‘while neither spoke Latin (they relied on dictionaries for quotations) and weren’t experts on Roman or Gaulish history, they did plenty of school-book research. The exhibition shows them devouring Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars and you can see notes Goscinny scribbled in biro on pieces of exercise book paper as preparation for Asterix and the Olympic Games. “No pine trees, cypresses” […] “From 776 B.C. the Games are held for 5 days between the end of June and the first days of September”’.

Apparently, historians were sometimes distressed by their gleeful anachronisms. (I can just imagine the kind of wizened carrot-up-his-bum scholar that would take issue with Asterix. It’s a cartoon, people.) Luckily, Goscinny and Uderzo were more interested in having a laugh than providing accurate depictions of the past. Otherwise, we might never have witnessed the joyous concurrence of a 16th century square-rigged pirate ship and a Viking longboat.

Strangely, while I enjoy reading the Asterix cartoons in French, I think they’re actually funnier in English. I don’t know, maybe the English language is more suited to puns and word play. For instance, the drug reference makes Getafix a much wittier name for a druidic pharmacologist than the original Panoramix. And isn't Cacophonix a more suitable moniker for the no-talent Bard than the French Assurancetourix (which sounds like rental car insurance)?

In French class last term, my classmates and I could get away with drinking wine and waffling about movies, rugby and what we did over the weekend. This term, we have to read French novels and come to class prepared with lots of intelligent things to say about them whilst exhibiting the ability to ‘think in French’. At the moment, I’m leavening my reading of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with liberal doses of Asterix en Hispanie (but don’t tell my teacher).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Inside my brain

Check this out. It’s a Wordle, a graphical representation of this blog showing which words get used the most and relative relationships between different terms. You can basically consider it as a picture of what may be going on inside my brain at any given moment (or at least the stuff that’s fit for public consumption).

I like the quirkily appropriate way some of the associations are working here. Note, for example, the bundle ‘political violence state’ in the upper left quadrant, and at bottom left, ‘Christians bad’ (this is how I felt when the door-to-door Catholics recently came calling while I was studying for my final exam). At top right, we have ‘analysis pain’ and ‘connect better’, which I could read as either a set of instructions to myself or a whimper of despair, depending on how my research is going. And in the middle, the ‘Times Muslims experience’ sounds like I’m advertising an odd sort of son-et-lumière show.

I don’t know if I should thank Jliedl or curse her for the link, given the time I’ve frittered away playing with this toy over the last week or so. Meanwhile, someone more insightful than I am has been considering the Wordle as teaching tool and gateway drug to textual analysis. Over at Muhlberger’s Early History, some unexpected results were obtained by running the text of Geoffroi de Charny’s 14th century book of questions on war through the Wordle generator. Muhlberger notes, ‘I am not surprised that "Charny" and "arms" are big; but I am rather taken aback by the size of "prisoner" and the near invisibility of "knight."’

I might try this out on some of my corporate clients. It would be a great way of hammering home the point I’m always trying to make, which is that they spend way, WAY too much time talking about themselves.

ETA a correction to the name of the Charny text.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Torture museums and public history

When I posted recently on the use of scold’s bridle in early modern England, a number of you commented that you felt as chilled as I did when contemplating the role these devices played in the brutal enforcement of gender and class order. Several of you also mentioned you had seen these devices in museums in the UK and Europe, and that set me off on another train of thought.

On the one hand, it’s essential that museums, as educators and interpreters of public history, tell the full story about the past even when it’s unpalatable for the tourists. But on the other hand, I can’t help but be disturbed by the gruesome voyeurism and the titillation that is sometimes enabled (and even promoted) by museums. It seems that as cash-strapped museums struggle to make themselves more appealing to the tourists, the temptation to go for the sensational in the quest to make a buck may just be getting to be too much for some of them.

Something like the London Dungeon is probably an extreme example that, judging by the way it promotes itself, happily blurs the line between museum and ghoulish entertainment. The Dungeon urges schools to “Put aside the textbooks, bring the past to life and give your class a history lesson to remember with a visit to the Dungeons! … Our teams of live actors blend carefully researched historical fact with outstanding special effects to provide your class with an exciting, educational and unforgettable journey into the depths of history that is, above all, seriously scary fun!” Not only that, but with the Dungeons Resource Pack, teachers can “Take history's horrible bits back to your classroom and allow your pupils to build on their new found knowledge and enthusiasm. …Combine the Dungeons' usual dose of interactive fun and gore with national curriculum topics of study.”

The London Dungeon’s shtick promotes a vicarious experience of London’s ‘dark underbelly’, complete with the usual relish in displaying medieval instruments of torture and recounting the ‘fun history’ of sexual sadists like Jack the Ripper*. As another example, the organisers of this major touring exhibition of historical torture devices don’t baulk at promoting the titillation factor, promising, “Students too, will have the chance to satisfy their curiosity on … Tortura’s more flashy and fleshy attraction.” Can you imagine if this same sensibility - or rather lack of it - was applied to museum representations of more recent history? Say, Cambodia’s Killing Fields or Srebrenica? No? So why does it seem perfectly acceptable to make slick ‘multimedia entertainment’ out of it just because the victims and perpetrators lived in the ‘distant’ past?

I hate seeing topics like the European witchcraft persecutions and the Inquisition treated in ways that cynically exploit our seemingly insatiable desire for images of violence and torture as entertainment (images that are often sexualised in highly problematic ways)**. I certainly don’t believe museums should avoid or sanitise topics like this. But whether they succeed in making people think more deeply - both about the past and the present - or merely give passive viewers a cheap thrill depends very much on how things are presented. Put into their wider social, political and cultural context, such subjects can be powerful prompts to question the forces that shape individual lives and wider society, both historically and in our own time. But too often, these types of exhibits never rise above gratuitous displays of torture implements, presented shorn of all context and achieving little but to elicit gasps of voyeuristic horror.

As museums begin to utilise new technologies to make their exhibits more interactive and engaging (read, more effective at competing for the tourist dollar), I think this is going to become a much more sensitive issue. When you replace dusty old glass cases and typewritten index cards with fully sensory, 3D experiences, the line between education and entertainment is bound to get even more blurred. I think that is going to make it even trickier for museums to deal
appropriately with the dark side of history.

** As an aside, Judith Walkowitz’s The City of Dreadful Delight does a fine job of locating the Jack the Ripper episode within its much broader and more complex historical and cultural context of class conflict, sexual politics, racism and the role of the media in Victorian England. It’s a scholarly work (careful footnoting of sources, full bibliography etc.) but Walkowitz’s clear and dynamic writing style also makes it very readable for the layperson.

** Do a Google image search on ‘inquisition museum’. I rest my case.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Carnivaleque 55: Ancient/medieval All Hallows Eve edition

Gather round the fire and turn out the lights, for it’s time to share tales of the spooky, strange and unexpected in this Halloween edition of ancient/medieval Carnivalesque

A gold hoard fit for a goblin king
The historical blogosphere has been abuzz recently with news and speculation about the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard. This pile of gold and silver goodness must have goblins everywhere cackling with glee. Meanwhile, medievalists are alternately waxing lyrical about the romance of treasure, and debating the origins and possible interpretations of the find. (As for me, I reckon it’s a deposit scheme set up by the chaps at Gringotts.)

Vampires and werewolves and Chaucer, oh my!

In parts of rural France, twilight is known as ‘the hour between the dog and the wolf’. For Geoffrey Chaucer, though, twilight is all about the ‘sparklie vampyres’.

And speaking of vampires, if you’re after a nice sharp wooden stake…

You could do worse than check out the Anglo-Saxon wooden architecture discussed here. Using the example of a surviving 12thC stave-church in Norway, Carla Nayland makes the important point that we might need to use a bit more imagination envisioning the upperworks of Anglo-Saxon wooden buildings. (Bonus - Carla includes a stunning photo of said Norwegian church.)

Haunted by the ghost of Conference Past

The Ruminate has a thoughtful piece up that forms part of recent debate over the present and future of the International Congress on Medieval Studies, more fondly known as Kalamazoo. Included is a chilling cautionary tale about the consequences of giving a bad paper. Read on, if you dare…

Stalking and slaughter
Of deer, that is, as described in S.A. Mileson's Parks in Medieval England, a newly published historical study in a still relatively undeveloped field. It's reviewed here by Philobiblon.

Grave expectations

If you work for Caligula, chances are that sooner or later, things are going to go belly-up (or should that be belly-open?) for you. Executed Today tells the story of the execution of former Roman Consul Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus as the result of a dark plot. The extract from Roman historian Cassius Dio puts another nail in the coffin of Caligula’s reputation.

Revelations of Divine Love and Zombies
Speaking of coffins, In the Middle contemplates a rewrite of Julian of Norwich with zombies, while the commenters contemplate buried-alive anchoresses as the ultimate undead.

It’s not Halloween without some good old-fashioned witch persecution (or in this case, heretics)
Muhlberger’s Early History reviews A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom by Mark Gregory Pegg. Pegg’s work opens up a whole new perspective on the thirteenth century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics of southern France.

For less scary bedtime stories

Wormtalk and Slugspeak announce that "For the first time in 1000 years, the Homilies of Wulfstan are recorded and available on the internet. Take a listen and enjoy all the ranty goodness of Wulfstan."

Eat the rich

And finally, while you’re here you might enjoy this gruesome little tale of clerical cannibalism. If Zombie Cannibal Priests From Hell isn’t already a movie, it should be!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Women, know your limits!

From The New York Times comes one of the few half-decent analyses of a recent study showing that women are less happy than men and that our unhappiness has been steadily increasing since the 1970s. It may be no surprise to you to hear that conservative pundits are gleefully using said study to ‘prove’ women are unhappier because of feminism. No indeed, it’s not that we’re unhappy because we still have to put up with crap like this. It’s because getting the vote has cruelly raised our expectations beyond our capabilities, and now we aspire to ridiculous things like having fair access to education and equal pay for equal work. If we’d just heed biology’s dictates and go back to having babies and keeping house like we’re designed to, we’d all be blissful.

This subject would usually trigger a great long rant from me, but luckily for you I have a final exam to get to (Advanced Historiography - one question, three hours – should be fun). So instead, I’ll leave you to enjoy this documentary, er, I mean, comedy gem.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The slipperiness of premodern sex

(For Ginger, to whom I promised anatomical drawings.)
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been following the various discourses swirling around the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya with some interest. The tragedy of her situation makes me wonder whether medieval concepts of sex and gender could offer us an opening to ways of conceptualising biological sex that are more holistic (and realistic) than the strictly male/female binary into which we keep trying to rigidly divide the entire human species in all its marvellous variety and diversity.

Medieval mentalities were coloured by incredibly complex and nuanced perceptions of sexuality, gender and the body*. According to medieval medical theory**, physical sex was not an immutable oppositional binary grounded in biological difference; in fact, one’s biological sex was a very slippery and unstable state indeed. Humoral medicine held that all humans started with a common set of male reproductive organs (the male being the generative first principle). A favourable combination of hotter and drier humors resulted in the penis and testicles becoming fully formed (and reaching a state of perfection) external to the body – et voila, you have a male baby. By contrast, females were the result of a kind of under-cooking in utero, with a combination of less favourable cool and humid humors creating an imperfect internal construction of the penis and testicles as womb and ovaries.

Medical texts and anatomy illustrations from the period*** reflect this conception of the female as inverted (and therefore imperfect) male. At top left is an illustration from a 1523 anatomy by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi. It shows the female reproductive system, but the schematic and labelling clearly indicates it is based on a male model. And below is a beautifully detailed illustration of the female generative organs from the famous 1543 De humani corporis fabrica of Andreas Vesalius. The resemblance to a male penis is marked (right down to a certain suggestion of hairiness).

The fortuitous combination of hot and dry humors that created male physical sex was also believed to produce such superior masculine characteristics as strength, reason, continence and a bent for action. By contrast, cool, damp humors rendered women passive, weak and ruled by emotion or passion rather than reason. Women were also characterised as more lustful and sexually disordered than men, and medieval commentators speculated this was the result of a constant yearning by women to heat themselves up.

Sex as continuum instead of opposition

Within this worldview, physical sex was conceived of as a continuum that may have had ‘clearly male’ and ‘clearly female’ marked at each end, but where there could be slippage between a whole range of men-women and women-men in between. For example, the lactating Christ-as-mother figure, a popular motif of late medieval piety, blurred the boundaries between male and female just as it did between human and god.

With no clearly determined biological binary of male or female sex, sexual difference was grounded in a masculine/feminine gender dichotomy, and it was the individual’s social role, behaviour and character that defined, and could potentially even alter, their physical sex. A trope that appears in the fabliaux of late medieval France is that of the female who presents as male – adopting male clothing and exhibiting such masculine attributes as boisterousness and physical prowess – and in the denouement, has a penis spontaneously spring from her body.

Virago as a strategic performance of gender

In a subtler act of gender-bending, ‘lordly women’ could adopt the self-representation of virago (derived from ‘virgin’, which was also a much more ambiguous state in medieval thinking than it is today). As virago, they overcame to varying degrees their innate female weaknesses in order to lay claim to the masculine virtues of reason, strength and continence that made them fit to wield power. Magistra et Mater recently posted about Kimberly LoPrete’s work on perceptions of ‘lordly women’ in the high Middle Ages. It’s interesting to consider whether they were seen simply as unusually competent women filling a masculine role, or whether they actually became gendered as masculine. A third possibility may be that they occupied an indeterminate position, taking on some aspects of maleness but in other ways remaining female (and this position may have shifted towards more or less masculinity/femininity depending on the context and circumstances).

Gender as the starting point for sex

In medieval thought, then, it was gender – the social and cultural role and behaviour of the individual – that was the starting point for determining physical sex and not the other way around. For those of us living now, there are some obvious problems with this model, with the privileging of the male as first principle being the most glaring. But on the other hand, the fluidity and mutability of medieval conceptualisations of sex seem to me to offer some potential avenues to thinking about sex and gender that could relax our grip on a reductionist and repressive biological opposition. It occurs to me that by questioning the definitions and the limits of this ‘self-evident’ and ‘natural’ binary, what I’m really seeking is to foster some dialogue between the premodern and the postmodern that will eventually enable us to comprehend and accept the rich heterogeneity of the human species.

* For more on this, see for starters the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Karma Lochrie, Joan Cadden,
Thomas Laqueur, Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset.

** When I say ‘medieval’ here, I’m talking about the eleventh century re-discovery of Galen and the translation of Arabic texts such as Avicenna’s Canon into Latin

*** The two examples here are from early 16thC printed anatomies, but the illustrations are consistent with those in much older manuscripts. Berengario, for example, was heavily influenced by the texts of Mondino dei Luzzi (d. 1326).

Image credits:
Jacopo Berengario da Carpi
Isagogae breues, perlucidae ac uberrimae, in anatomiam humani corporis a communi medicorum academia usitatam. (Bologna: Beneditcus Hector, 1523).
NIH National Library of Medicine

Andreas Vesalius
De humani corporis fabrica. (Basel: Oporinus, 1543).
Wellcome Library

Incidentally, the Wellcome Library has a fantastic store of historical and contemporary images online in categories including illness and wellness, nature, culture and war. They're freely available for download for personal, academic teaching or study use. (Why didn’t they have cool stuff like this when I was at school??)