Pluralistic: Eleanor Janega's "Once and Future Sex" (17 Jan 2023)

Today's links

The cover for Eleanor Janega's 'The Once and Future Sex.'

Eleanor Janega's "Once and Future Sex" (permalink)

The Once and Future Sex is Eleanor Janega's new history of gender and sex in the medieval age, describing the weird and horny ways of medieval Europeans, which are far gnarlier and more complicated than the story we get from "traditionalists" who want us to believe that their ideas about gender roles reflect a fixed part of human nature, and that modern attitudes are an attempt to rewrite history.

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Janega is a fantastic and hilarious medievalist whose blog, "Going Medieval" is essential reading, offering well-informed and profane counterpoints to the ideologically driven, just-so stories that get rolled out to explain why progressive ideas are doomed. Some of my favorite installments:

  • I assure you, medieval people¬†bathed

  • On courtly love and pickup¬†artists

  • If you‚Äôre going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be¬†right

  • On putting sex work on the¬†map

  • On women, pleasure, and¬†semen

  • On conflating drag, (and femininity), with¬†sexuality

  • On medieval kink (part¬†one)

  • On medieval kink (part¬†two)

  • A medieval abortion reading¬†list

Once and Future Sex is one of those very excellent blogger books that takes all the ideas that the author has developed through short pieces reacting to current events, takes all the reactions to those pieces, including the squeals of outrage from less-informed people desperately invested in a certain vision of medieval life, and synthesizes them into a single consistent narrative.

Books like these are the comedy specials of blogging: the author has road-tested their material, tried it in front of audiences up and down the land, polished it to a high shine, and now brings it all together in a triumphant, confident bravura performance.

Janega's overarching point is that gender and sex are contingent. Our obvious, "biologically determined" ideas about sex – for example, that men are sexual aggressors and women are generally uninterested in sex – are relatively modern, and millions of people once believed the exact opposite, with equal confidence.

This extends in all directions: whether women did hard physical labor, whether beauty ideals are eternal, whether women went to war, or ruled, or engaged in scholarship. When someone claims that the "hip to waist ratio" for women has an evolutionary determined ideal that is found everywhere, Janega's work lets us counter with the fact that for hundreds of years, the ideal female body was one with small breasts and a prominent pot-belly.

Janega's point is by no means that the medieval era was a golden age of gender equality – rather, it's that the problems of gender were very different from our own. If, as a society, we are capable of believing that women are sex-crazed monsters, and capable of believing that women are frigid and sex-averse, then perhaps we could find some happy medium, like "Some women like sex a lot. Others, not so much. Still others: it depends."

But while Once and Future Sex has a point and a narrative, it is also a bouquet of delightful grace-notes and weird facts from the age – from the belief that horny women tricked their men into having sex with them by putting live fish in their vaginas, then cooking and serving them, to the criminal hijinx of oven-for-hire bakers who stole their customers dough by means of a hole in the table.

The past is a different country. Our understanding of the past is always changing – and that's not new, either (after all, many of the ideals of the medieval era's ruling class were based on revisionist beliefs about life in ancient Greece and Rome). Janega is a thoroughly modern medievalist, able to inform and contextualize while entertaining and amazing.

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

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Colophon (permalink)

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