I gave a talk for the London Science Museum Lates on medieval sexuality and the ways in which cities responded to what were considered the competing needs for sex and a harmonious Christian landscape. Included: swearing, manuscript pictures of penises, and a lot of talk about sex work. Enjoy!
As a very serious adult, with a respectable career and life, and a healthy ability to let petty shit slide, I spent much too much time last week arguing with strangers on the internet who believe in the myth of the Dark Ages.
The arguments in question focused on a massively inaccurate meme, which some observers of the group pointed out was originally supposed to be about knowledge loss after the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but which some very cool EDGE LORD had changed to be about ‘The Christian Dark Ages’. Please feast your eyes on it in all it’s massive wrongness:
This is, pretty obviously, a bunch of honkey bullshit and also massively incorrect, as many important scholars have noted. As a result, I spent hours of my life – which I will never get back – pointing out repeatedly that the ‘graph’ in question has nothing to do with reality, and arguing with non-experts about the medieval period.
As I’ve noted several times, I generally try to ignore whatever is currently passing for ‘governance’ in America at the moment, cuz I just ain’t got the patience, or ability to do all that emotional labour. However, they will keep on doing things that call back to the medieval period, so we’re gonna have to talk about it.
So currently in America, which is defo a first world country and for sure very prosperous and a good place to live, there is some debate about whether or not sick people should be driven into bankruptcy, given the audacity of their instance on being ill. (Have they tried not getting ill? IDK.)
My loves, it is with a heavy heart that I announce Nigel Farrage is once again saying some meaningless garbage.
I know, I know. You are not surprised, but I am afraid I have to respond to this douche canoe’s latest idiocy – in this case the following tweet:
For those not up to speed with this particular flavour of British idiocy – at the moment the Archbishop of York, Nigel ‘Why don’t I have a chin? Let’s blame the EU’ Farage, and now Prime Minister Theresa May are all shocked and offended that Cadbury’s promoted an ‘Egg Hunt’ for the National Trust rather than a specific ‘Easter Egg Hunt’.
Ohhhh there is a lot to say, is there not? You think that you have starred fully into the depths of the dumpster fire and fully appreciated its heat, its dazzle, its stench, but it just. keeps. burning.
As a medieval historian, one aspect of said dumpster fire that has interested me of late is the concept of ‘fake news’ and what Trump feels the purpose of the press is. More specifically, it is of interest that apparently Trump feels that the press should be taking on the same function during his presidency as commissioned chroniclers did during the medieval period.
Sooooooooooooooooooo, current governments enacting laws based on religious ideology, amiright? Here in the modern Western world, we’ve grown accustomed to governments largely agreeing that we have freedom from and of religion, by and large. Obviously, at some points (*ahem*), this doesn’t work out and particular individuals push for religiously motivated legislation. This usually doesn’t go well for us women. Funny that.
Often, people who want to do my head in will refer to this kind of religious influenced legislation (or, you know, executive order (*cough*)) as being ‘medieval’, which as I have pointed out several times, is not helpful. More to the point, in this case it’s not even accurate, because there sort of kinda was separation of Church and State in the medieval period, at least in the Holy Roman Empire, but it worked in the exact opposite way.
This election should not surprise anyone who teaches history. I teach medieval and early modern history at several unis in London.
The study of history in these eras shows us very clearly that Western society is built for white male protestant property owners.
This same society has been built over the bodies of black and brown people, and kept whites without property deliberately marginalised. Within it, the role of women has always been to be scapegoats for the worst of male excess, and vessels for sexual gratification/the getting of heirs.
You should not, therefore, be surprised to see a misogynist racist ruling what has always been a white supremacist society.
As historians, it is our job to show our students the roots of this society – SHOW them the thought processes that have built our world.
Like many people, you may have been hearing for your entire damn life about the ‘mystery of the female orgasm’. Over and over again, we have been assured, that not only is it mysterious how women orgasm, but why they do. We toss about at night, unable to sleep, haunted and desperately hoping for ‘seven weird tips to drive her wild’. More recently, a whole army of apps determined to show you how to ‘make’ women come, and sometimes enumerating the ways in which that can be done. (Twelve apparently. No more. No less.)
As the world collectively crawls, gibbering and raving toward the end of the American presidential election, the medieval roots of society’s expectations of women are once again very firmly on display.
Case in point – the life and times of one of the three medieval women you have heard of – Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor was, by all accounts, an absolute bad ass. She lead armies both in Europe and on the Second Crusade. She was a highly skilled ruler who reigned in her husband’s absence from the country. She was also a total babe.
For all these reasons, the modern imagination loves Eleanor. She won Katherine Hepburn an Oscar, and pops up in most Robin Hood movies. (Yes, even that really bad Russel Crowe one.) This is why you know her name.
Whilst we appreciate Eleanor, her mind, influence, and general kick-arsery now, everything we love about her now meant she was often reviled in her own time, and for decades after her death.
Eleanor managed to run herself into trouble because she was intent on exercising power in the public sphere.
Elsewhere, we have discussed why it is that the use of the word ‘medieval’ as a pejorative is, in general, quite lazy and a convenient way of distancing ourselves from the terrible things which take place in our own time.
Having said that, the medieval world still very much influences many of our political institutions, and our mind-sets. If we consider, for example, that the Church and a universal concept of the West as the home of Christendom to be the overriding hallmarks of the medieval period, it helps us understand why for many people, theoretical Christian values are seen as an inherent part of being Western.