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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 14-29

Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies
James A. Schultz
University of California, Los Angeles

Medievalists know that if they claim to have found "homosexuals" in the Middle Ages they will provoke cries of outrage, and nothing else they say will be heard. So they avoid the term. Thus Allen Frantzen, on the very first page of Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from "Beowulf" to "Angels in America," declares categorically: "I call this a book about 'same-sex love' because the obvious choice, 'homosexuality,' is, for periods before the modern era, inaccurate. 'Homosexuality' and 'homosexuals' were not recognized concepts in the Middle Ages." Apparently, the same is not true of "heterosexuality" and "heterosexuals." Frantzen does not hesitate, throughout his volume, to oppose "same-sex relations" to "heterosexual relations." 1 The result is a Middle Ages that would make Pat Buchanan jump for joy, one from which all the homosexuals have been banished and only heterosexuals remain.

This should give one pause. If homosexuality was not a "recognized concept" in the Middle Ages, then heterosexuality wasn't either. This in itself is not a reason to argue against its use: much of the best work in medieval studies relies on concepts that were not recognized in the Middle Ages. And, in any case, to insist that medieval scholarship limit itself to medieval concepts in their medieval meanings is to insist on an impossibility. I want to argue against the use of heterosexuality in medieval studies not as a matter of high principle but as a practical matter because of the damage it does.

To be sure, other scholars have questioned the wisdom of imposing the heterosexual norm on the Middle Ages. 2 Karma Lochrie makes the point [End Page 14] with exemplary clarity: "Heterosexuality as a normative principle simply did not exist" in the Middle Ages. 3 But Lochrie, like others, voices her objections as part of a larger argument on a different topic. Perhaps it is for this reason that the case against heterosexuality has not carried the day. In what follows I propose to isolate the issue and illustrate the consequences, both historiographical and political, of reading heterosexuality backward into the Middle Ages.

Among the problems with granting special rights to medieval heterosexuals is the fact that, despite the vaunted naturalness of heterosexuality, many of us do not have a very clear idea what is meant by the term. Apparently, we are not alone: sex researchers were surprised to discover recently that the term "heterosexuality" is "not well understood by many people." 4 Perhaps the problem lies less with the people than with the term. Janet Halley, studying a number of judicial rulings, demonstrates the "definitional incoherence" of "the heterosexual class." 5 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick labels "preposterous . . . anybody's urbane pretense at having a clear, simple story to tell about the outlines and meanings of what and who is homosexual and heterosexual." 6 Medievalists seem to use the word in three senses. Sometimes they mean heterosexual sexual relations, discrete acts performed by women and men. Sometimes they mean heterosexual orientation or identity, a more or less permanent and exclusive "personal essence defined (at least in part) in specifically sexual terms." 7 Sometimes they mean institutionalized heterosexuality, the vast apparatus that regulates the relations between women and men in the interests of men. In everyday usage we often do not keep these meanings separate: cultural heteronormativity presumes heterosexual identity, which is understood to generate heterosexual behavior. Doubtless this confusion, drawing in shifting, unacknowledged ways on the naturalness of biological reproduction, on the desire for psychosexual integrity, and on the weight of every institution in the culture that is organized around gender difference (home, work, recreation, to name just a few), accounts for the [End Page 15] utility of the category. David Halperin writes of the "crucially empowering incoherence" that attaches "to the term and concept of 'the heterosexual.'" 8 But confusion and incoherence are not helpful in scholarly writing, and...