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  • Response: Identity, Sexuality, and History
  • Ruth Mazo Karras (bio)

History is the story of change, but also of continuity; of revolution, but also of evolution. It is exciting to focus on points of rupture, of drastic discontinuity, but if the discontinuity is so total that we cannot use the same language to discuss “before” and “after,” then the “before” essentially has no history. Both Theo van der Meer and Carla Freccero suggest that the point of premodern history is to locate antecedents to the modern. Van der Meer calls for addressing “how premodern construction became modern sexuality” 1 and Freccero for “a way to explore the history of sex in premodernity as a genealogy of modernity’s discourses of sexuality.” 2 Leaving aside the possibility of understanding the premodern past in its own right, and accepting that the goal is to illuminate contemporary issues, I still question whether a focus on ruptures, to the exclusion of processes that operated analogously, if not identically, is the only approach to such illumination. 3

I argue that there were discourses which I do not hesitate to call “sexuality” around sex in the Middle Ages. Of course these were different from those in the nineteenth century. Freccero notes that in support of my claim, I can provide only legal and theological evidence, corroborating Foucault’s argument that there was no “sexuality” because sex was only a matter of “‘law and taboo’” rather than “‘truth and falsehood.’” 4 The statement “sex was only a matter of sensation and pleasure, of law and taboo” does not describe the European Middle Ages that I study. 5 This was a society in which one’s relation to sex (as a current, former, or non-participant) defined one’s status in the scheme of salvation, the most important truth that could be known. The Middle Ages obviously did not know a scientia sexualis like that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and if one chooses to define sexuality so narrowly as to make it a specific discourse rather than any discourse or set of discourses around sex, one can easily define it as exclusive to modernity. However, there are many kinds of truths in different societies, and it seems to me helpful to look at ways in which societies are comparable although not the same, as well as ways in which they are totally different. Freccero remains reluctant to apply the term “sexuality” to the premodern period. I suggest that if we cannot speak of premodern “discourses of sexuality” we need a new term, because “sex” or the “history of sex” does not suffice. The history of sex is what Freccero refers to as “working within those very apparatuses [around sex as the truth of the subject] to produce truths about persons of the past through sex”—in other words, finding out who did what to whom. 6 For the wider project of understanding [End Page 193] what sex meant in the premodern world—yes, and how it was used to produce truth—“sexuality” seems to me the best term available.

Freccero notes that “Karras unintentionally illustrates Sedwick’s argument that the two discourses, minoritizing and universalizing, coexist.” She is quite right that they coexist, and I intentionally illustrate this. I stress the minoritizing aspects because the universalizing are more obvious, and the “identitarian” nature of medieval prostitution has not been recognized. Clearly, however, the tension between the discourse that makes a prostitute a certain distinct type of person and that which makes her the extreme case of a tendency present in all women was fundamental in medieval understandings of feminine sexuality. 7

Van der Meer raises a number of issues which he would have liked me to address. What was it that prostitutes were supposed to desire or really desired? What they really desired (if I may be so positivist) was a living wage. Medieval discourses around prostitution tended (although not universally) to ignore economic necessity as a motivating factor, focusing only on sexual desire. As to what prostitutes desired sexually, van der Meer’s statements about the absence of reciprocity in early modern understandings of both same-sex and opposite-sex relations are equally applicable to the...