- Medieval Prostitution and the Case of a (Mistaken?) Sexual Identity
As a historian of early modern same-sex sexuality (for lack of a better term) and as a student of current homophobia, I welcome Ruth Karras’s challenge to the present master narrative in the historiography of sexuality. I also underscore the point implied in her article, that this narrative has become a stumbling block in understanding both premodern and modern sexualities, and, I may add, homophobia. I particularly welcome her attempts to critique the behavior/personality dichotomy which is so central to the Foucauldian canon. My own work has led me to the conclusion that this dichotomy is faulty, reductionist, and theoretically questionable. The idea that people prior to modern medicalization were defined only by their behaviors, or, indeed, that sodomy was only an act, suggests that there can be sex without subjects and objects, thus ignoring gender. Contradicting its own assumptions, the Foucauldian narrative essentializes desires prior to the mid-nineteenth century into biological functions, and argues that these were first culturally molded by modern medical discourses, implying that there can be sex without a cultural context. I find both contentions questionable.
Nonetheless, I doubt Karras’s conclusion that in the European Middle Ages “prostitution was a sexual identity in any relevant sense of the word.” 1 At the very least, I suspect her conclusion to be premature, as she ignores crucial issues that ought to be raised. While I contend that there are major theoretical, methodological, and factual problems (and sometimes downright errors) in the current Foucauldian narrative, I doubt whether the notion of a sexual identity is proper or relevant to medieval sexuality or that an acclaimed medieval sexual identity would resolve those problems. Nor do I think such a claim will help us understand the transition from premodern to modern times, which to me seems paramount to a critique of the Foucauldian canon. After all, one of the adagio in that canon is the virtual denial of historical roots to nineteenth-century medical discourse, and the sole attribution of this discourse to the aspirations (and imaginations) of an emerging medical establishment.
Karras argues that a minoritizing discourse on “lewd” women intersected with a universalizing discourse that considered all women as naturally lustful and at risk of losing control over their desires. The minoritizing discourse produced (or was expressed in) social practices of exclusion and regulation, and assigned special roles and spaces to women deemed lewd (whether or not they engaged in prostitution in the modern sense of the [End Page 178] word). Similar constructions of sexual otherness affected Jews, heretics, and lepers. Although such individuals left no texts behind which would enable us to see whether and how they appropriated such meanings and by virtue constructed subjectivity, Karras argues that such an absence should not deny outright their subjectivity. From there, she makes a quantum leap to the conclusion that medieval prostitutes not only had a sexual identity but also that “medieval discourses around certain aspects of sexuality operated in ways comparable to more modern ones.” 2 The very fact that this identity has disappeared would then be an argument for the construction of sexuality.
Karras’s application of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notions of universalizing and minoritizing discourses is helpful in understanding the medieval period and some of the changes that have taken place over time. 3 She does not, however, problematize enough “sexuality” and “identity,” just as, to a certain extent, the present canon fails to do so. For one thing, I am not completely sure what it is that Karras claims to be constructed in the first place. Is it prostitutes’ sexuality—meaning a discrete set of desires, subjectivities, subjects, objects, social roles, and practices, as the original Foucauldian narrative claimed for the nineteenth-century emergence of homosexuality? Would the medieval prostitute’s identity approximate that of a homosexual identity today? Or, is it simply a matter of the meanings medieval society attributed to prostitutes’ behavior, which in the process of appropriation became a subjectivity? If the latter, seeing that meanings can change and that changing meanings may account for the disappearance over time of a prostitute...