For some reason, Iíve only just come across Jon Jarrettís post on ĎSex and medievalistsí, although itís 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 canít discuss, let alone teach this kind of stuff without seeming Ďunsoundí. As this is pretty much what I do (and Iím currently translating all sorts of dubious sexual matters), it looks like my academic career is pretty much kiboshed before itís started (though as Iím a gender historian I might get away with being merely marginal). What Jon wants, specifically, is to be able to ask a question like ĎHow bawdy was Charlemagneís court?í 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: ĎSacrum palatium...but what about the concubines?í In fact, itís 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 itís 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 youíre a medievalist (particularly an early medievalist) writing on any topic, at some point (often fairly early on) the evidence will run out and youíve got to try and join the dots on your picture. At that point, you a) bring in evidence from some vaguely Ďsimilarí 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 Ďwhat the world was like thení and Ďwhat people are likeí, and if you read enough of their work or listen to them for a while itís 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, youíre going to give away your religious views, about economics, your economic views: and if you talk about sex youíre going to give away your sexual views. So while itís OK to ask the question about Charlemagneís court, if you trying answering it, given the shortage of evidence, youíre likely to have to fall back on your assumptions about human nature. Thereís a particular problem because of the nature of our knowledge of sexual behaviour: if you start quoting modern studies of sexuality youíre all too likely to come across as perverted anyhow, given the dubious reputation itís 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 Iíve ever heard (and Iíve 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 canít remember what he thought fisting was a metaphor was for, because I was distracted by imagining far more about the speakerís sex life than I wanted to, which is rather my point.
One solution, as Iíve suggested, is somehow producing a mental firewall in the audience between you and the topics of conversation. I suspect itís 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 heís implicitly assuming that it is Ďnormalí 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 doesnít necessarily imply Iím 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 donít 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 youíre playing fast and loose with academic rigor, what other standards are you prepared to lower?) With that warning, letís all get out there and find some more stories about dodgy nuns.