A few weeks ago 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.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but a lot of hip hop songs refer to ‘hoes’. (I know, I know, stay with me.) What that can mean in any given context varies, of course, but in general terms what we’re talking about are either sexually available women in general, or specifically actual sex workers.
The thing about the hoes is that whether you’re announcing to a woman that she is one (before taking her to a ho-tel), reminding everyone that you can’t trust them, telling them to leave if they can’t accept the basics, or simply wondering where they at – hoes are an integral part of the hip hop landscape.
In many cases the very concept of masculinity is pinned to one’s ability to either attract hoes, or traffic them, a situation which ain’t easy, and makes it hard out here for a select group of men.
Across the board, however, one thing is certain about hoes – they are not worthy of respect, and the fact that men don’t respect them is absolutely paramount to their street cred. Jay-Z wants you to know he doesn’t eat with them. Snoop just needs you to understand that G’s are more important than them. Hoes are women who are available for sex, but don’t have the ability to hold emotional focus or respect from men.
Today, I was asked what I thought about a blog post written by a self-professed non-historian about the medieval period this morning.
Friends – I thought it was garbage.
Here is a link to the wrong thing, but honestly I don’t want the basic getting the clicks, so please skip it and believe me when I say it was a roll-out of the old trope that the Dark Ages were a) definitely real, and b) this dude who had never studied medieval history could prove it.
Obviously, I have written at length before about how the Dark Ages are not a thing, and that basics should maybe stay in their lane. What is particularly disturbing about the ‘argument’ is that is claims that there is an undue academic rigor needed to disprove that the Dark Ages aren’t real. What the author means is that because he (it’s so defo a he, it reads like a he) wasn’t explicitly taught medieval history it is therefore Very Bad™ and you don’t need to worry about it.
This sentiment is terrifying.
Medieval history is not generally taught before the university level because it is really quite complicated. Every kingdom has different laws. Primary sources are hand written in Latin. Not many sources have been converted to print. The history of each part of Europe is really quite different culturally. The major overarching structure is the Catholic Church, and people have tended to teach about it and its influence from a place of bias given the charged nature of the confessionalisation of Christianity.
Moreover, it requires a solid understanding of history as a discipline. Because medieval people were living in very specific cultures, we have to read their work very carefully in order to parse the meaning. The blog writer in question was implying that Petrach is a reliable narrator of his times, without unpacking why Petrarch was writing about history. One cannot take the words of a man who was specifically advocating for a return to Roman rule of the world at face value. Would the guy who wrote this think that Fox was a reliable narrator of the Obama presidency? The two sentiments are exactly the same.
History as a discipline is about interpreting written accounts and artefacts, not accepting them at face value. This entire argument hinges on taking biased first-person accounts as fact, which makes no goddamn sense.
Although the blog throughout claims that those discussing history are requiring ‘undue rigor’ in order to disprove this person’s core beliefs, what it is asking is an ‘undue rigor’ that it would not apply to other disciplines. I was never taught advanced calculus in school – does that make it not worthwhile as a subject? Or is it just because, you know, it is complicated and you have to have a strong basis in mathematical theory in order to understand it before you undertake it?
What the author also fails to grasp is that as a non-historian he seems to think he understands how the historical method works and is able to comment on it with no historical training and without having done any reading on the subject. This approach is, depressingly, common.
There is something about the discipline of history which allows laymen to think that they are able to grasp its complexities without any research, background, or skill sets. History is apparently as obvious as reading a list of facts and reporting them without analysis. This is simply not the case.
Obviously academics from all walks of life face this. I see what scientists go through pushing back against anti-vaxers, or climate change deniers. However, it is historians who face this sort of off-the-cuff and wholesale denigration of our work from people who proport to be educated, reasonable, and often ‘rational’. These people deny rationality to people living in a thousand-year swathe of history, but then hold themselves – as untrained as they are – as paragons of reason having never studied a subject.
I very much welcome interest in the medieval period, and I have never claimed that I want to live in it (I am, after all, a woman who dares to speak in public), but it is exhausting to have to theoretically argue the value of a millennium against someone who is convinced it is not important because he admittedly has not been taught about it.
This has chilling ramifications for any sort of history which focuses on anyone other than rich white guys. We aren’t taught women’s history, the history of people of colour, or even working class or peasant history with any reliability in the west. Does this mean that 99% of the population wasn’t doing anything notable? Must we all specifically be Alexander the Great in order to impact society? (Yes there was a specific thing about Alexander the Great, who followers of the blog will note was actually a cut-rate Ghengis Khan with white-guy PR.)
If we are going to determine the worth of a subject based on what is taught to laymen what hope does inquiry in any discipline have? If it a subject is complex, nuanced, and requires specific skill sets in order to study it so it isn’t taught at an early age does that mean it is not worthwhile? If not everyone is required to study something from the age of six is it of no matter?
I can almost certainly say that whoever wrote this blog would never dream of writing off an entire branch of science based on his limited understanding of the subject, but because history is an art, he thought he could lay a flimsy argument on the table and prove an idea that almost no actual trained historian would uphold.
I would ask that non-experts consider why it is they think they can do this, and maybe just not.
Non-experts who want to learn more about the medieval period before being wrong about it are encouraged to check out the following:
James Hannam, God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science
Antonia Fitzpatrick, Thomas Aquinas on Bodily Identity
John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction
Faith Wallis (ed.), Medieval Medicine: A Reader
Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Early Middle Ages: The Middle Rhine Valley 400 – 1000
Barbara Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages
So, I went to Rouen last week in order to be the Biggest Geek in the World ™. I have returned with a video showing you how to catch churches judging the fuck out of you for being sinful. In particular we’re talking about how S. Maclou church, which was built in the late medieval period in the Flamboyant Gothic style (Yes. That is what it is called.), is judging you.
This is essentially what travelling with me is like, except you aren’t drinking with me. You are welcome.
On this day in 1227 one of the most important men ever to exist – Genghis Motherfucking Khan – died.
I am still cut up about it.
People are out here being basic as hell about Genghis on the regular to which I say please consider – if you believe that Alexander the Great was, in fact, Great, but think that Genghis Khan was not one of the greatest men who ever lived, you are uncritically accepting racist – and discredited and outmoded – historical narratives.
Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2005)
Jon Man, Genghis Khan, His Heirs, and the Making of Modern China (Corgi, 2015)
Frank McLynn, Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World (The Bodly Head Ltd, 2015)
Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khanand the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom (Viking: 2016)
Or maybe just take Hark A Vagrant’s and my word for it.
There has been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the past few days on the part of white supremacists who suddenly have a heart-felt attachment to the ‘history’ of Confederate monuments in the United States. The monuments, they argue, must be preserved because they honour the legacy of a bunch of guys who lost a war to enslave other people and participation trophies are important. Never mind that the majority of Confederate monuments have not survived to us from the American Civil War, and were erected during the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century. No no! They must be preserved, in situ, because they are a part of history.
I regret to inform you that this thinking makes no sense to actual historians.
The sudden cri de coeur about the importance of preserving ‘history’ is absurd because history isn’t the act of simply remembering a series of events. It is the act of combing through documents and artefacts from another era and analysing them. We then use this analysis to inform our view of how society functioned at that particular time, and how people lived within it. A statue is not, therefore, in and of itself, valuable because it recounts a particular time. It is valuable because it tells us about the values of the people who erected it.
Come for an explanation of why the Church are total haters about any sex that can’t get you knocked up, and stay for Justin’s insight on, well, basically anything involving sex, gender, relationships, and self esteem.
Massive plug here also for Justin’s book Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want to) with Meg John Barker. Spoiler alert: enjoying sex usually requires more than inserting tab a into slot b, and that’s why the Church wanted to limit sex to just that.
Being a medieval historian means quite a few things. Among other things, it means you get irrationally irked by the popular usage of medieval as a pejorative, make literally no money at all ever (Haha – I’m not joking, tho. HELP.), and spend a lot of time being frustrated with the concept of the Renaissance. Over this time, I have come to realise that the Renaissance is, in many ways, like the seminal classic Hey Ya by Outkast.
Now the thing about the Renaissance is that, much like Hey Ya, everyone can agree it is cool as hell. We’re out here enjoying that art and damn if it is not amazing.