Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 167-172
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History in the Presence of the Now
Rosemary Drage Hale
It is indeed a pleasure and an honor to comment on Carolyn Dinshaw's provocative and evocative book Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Drawing from an unusually wide range of materials, Dinshaw constructs a brilliant constellation. Like the configurations in the sky on a starry night, this constellation relies upon imaginative relationships to make sense of the faraway: here it is a matter of how the texts, concepts, categories, and moments in time touch one another. Each chapter involves a set of juxtapositions. To tantalize those who have not yet read Getting Medieval, to touch and not to touch figure prominently throughout the book as something of a refrain. In her own words, Dinshaw touches "on traditional religious instruction for parish priests, ringing accusations of sodomy among heretics as well as among orthodox Christians, the possibly quite wily deposition of a male transvestite prostitute, the ostensibly heterosexual fellowship of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, and the energetic verbal sparring of Margery Kempe, all in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, alongside obscure archival work of Michel Foucault, the culture wars in the late twentieth century in the United States, and sodomy in the 1994 blockbuster movie Pulp Fiction." 1
While linking the discourses on Lollard heresy and the accusation of sodomy in late medieval England, a fusion of sorts, may be the matière of the book, the analysis is by no means constrained by geographical or historical boundaries. Essential to the analysis, to the political implications, and to community building are the recognition and representation of the indeterminate nature of medieval cultural phenomena. Reading Getting Medieval provided a number of reasons to recall Rey Chow's passionately held view that "it is only through thinking of the 'other' as sharing our time and speaking to us at the moment of writing that we can find an alternative to allochronism." 2 Although Dinshaw's theoretical assumptions [End Page 167] are explicitly informed by the works of Foucault, Bhabha, Barthes, and Spivak, they function as points of departure for the construction of an entirely original theoretical perspective.
There are many possible readings of Getting Medieval, but for whatever that variety, Dinshaw invites her readers to touch upon their own pasts as and in the present. I found this exercise especially useful. My training as a medieval historian was essentially traditional. I was taught to believe that with good philological background and rigorous archival work I could, with a fair degree of accuracy, reconstruct the context of past lives. I recall that whenever I delivered papers at conferences, there was a palpable comfort when I made assertions about historical context of the texts. I even recall enjoying that sense of authority. But, things have changed. Now the notion of context as a given is consistently challenged. Many, perhaps even most, of my colleagues recognize and regard context as a creation of our own interpretive strategies and just as much in need of explanation as the events we call history. 3
My reading of Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval is framed by a methodological conundrum that continues to shape my work, namely, how do I write about the daily lives of historically situated women without dissolving particularity into some solitary faceless Ordinary Other, privileging the abstract in anonymity, cutting out certain details, turning them over in my hands, and taking or mistaking the parts for the whole? In this regard, I was especially touched by the chapter "Margery Kempe Answers Back" and the discussion of Robert Glück's 1994 novel, Margery Kempe. As Dinshaw summarizes the fusion, "Bob is a San Francisco fag, and he loves too much, and the mismatch between Margery and her world is what allows him to make her story his as well. What Glück sees in Margery is excessiveness born of that disjunction, 'A greed for more life'--and he finds a culture of excess to...