Cont-sex-ualising (yes, I just said that.)

I would love to say that the impetus for this blog springs solely from my previous promise of improved regularity, but in fact it’s all down to the lovely folks of the PostgRAD Study Gang on’t Facebook, who have come up with #AcWrBloMo as a way of encouraging each other to kickstart our languishing academic blogs. (If you’re a postgrad/early career researcher, check the group out – it’s a seriously wonderful hub of mutual support and understanding.) This week’s #AcWrBloMo theme is “taking stock”, and so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you all a bit about why I do what I do. Next week: how it fits into an exciting project that I’ve just become a part of!

So my regular visitors mother and occasional bored facebook friends will know that I bang on about Edward II quite a lot, and that my PhD looks at medieval and early modern representations of Edward and his favourites, with a focus on sexual behaviour. Most people think they know one or two things about Edward II: they “know” he was gay, was horrifically murdered with a sexually mimetic red-hot poker, and was the incredibly camp one in Braveheart. So why does anyone still need to do a PhD on him? Surely we’ve got him, and his sex life, pretty sussed?

Well, firstly, not many facts involving medieval people having sex are particularly sussed. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to know what Edward was doing (or thought he was doing) – I think it’s far more interesting and important to ask what his contemporaries and subsequent commentators thought he was doing, since their thoughts came to constitute the “truth” about him for many people. But even if we agree that we should focus on reputations rather than realities, the task isn’t over. It might sound obvious – and it is – to say that we can’t assume medieval and early modern people conceived of sex in the same way we do now.* But for a worrying proportion of modern historians who engage with Edward II, this doesn’t seem too obvious. One academic historical work, published less than ten years ago, begins its discussion of Edward’s sexual behaviour by blithely asserting that “The medieval connotations of ‘sodomy’ need not concern us here”. Really? When our only evidence of what people thought Edward II was doing sexually comes from texts, some of which use that very term? I could adduce a towering pile of other examples, all of which seem to suggest that sex, for some reason, still isn’t considered a subject worthy of basic background reading. How long would it take to find out that it’s somewhat anachronistic to uncritically call a medieval person “homosexual”?** Half an hour, tops, and yet the anachronisms keep coming. I can’t help thinking that if these writers gave anachronistic treatments to religion or law, they’d be criticised, and rightly so. What makes sex so different? 

So my thesis is an attempt to read representations of Edward II’s relationships with his male favourites – as romantic, sexual, both, or neither – in the context of a scholarly understanding of the history of sex. My academic fantasy  hope is that it might go some way towards ushering in a new age of historicising sex like it deserves. The reason this gets promoted from fantasy to hope is that for every anachronistic academic, there’s an early career researcher going, “YES! CONTEXTUALISE THE SEX!” I know because I’ve met some of them, and they’re awesome. Hopefully I might bump into more of them at this conference next year…

The young, then, are the future. And that trite observation can be your teaser for next week’s post, when I’ll be writing about the many, many reasons there needs to be more LGBT history in schools (hint: the majority of those reasons are sitting in the classroom feeling isolated) and a few little things I’m hoping to do about it…

*In fact, I’d quite like to argue that we should never assume anyone conceives of sex – or gender – in the same way as we personally do, but that’s another story…

** If you’re interested/don’t already know, it’s because that term implies an identity of only being attracted to people of your gender; it’s more helpful to think about acceptable/unacceptable sex acts in this period.


5 thoughts on “Cont-sex-ualising (yes, I just said that.)

  1. Excuse me, some of us consider ourselves as more than merely ‘Facebook’ friends… :p

    I think I knew all this already, but as I forget things easily, it’s always useful to have a written reminder. Mwahahaha.

  2. Well, you know, the bit about ‘occasional’ and ‘bored’ may have been true… However, I have just read through your latest blog post as well, which was another thing I heard about before I read about… stop seeing me before you break news here! :p

    • Liz my dear, I’m sure you would be far more annoyed if you found out things about my life through my blog and weren’t one of the first to know…right? 😉

      (Going on holiday in two hours, btw, so you will have to wait in suspense for another reply!)

  3. Pingback: My thesis mixtape; or, queer mourning and resistance | Unbeseeming Words

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