Pornographic Archaeology: Medicine, Medievalism, and the Invention of the French Nation by Zrinka Stahuljak (review)
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Reviewed by
Zrinka Stahuljak. Pornographic Archaeology: Medicine, Medievalism, and the Invention of the French Nation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. viii + 338 pp. Ill. $75.00 (978-0-8122-4447-2).

Described as “a cultural history of medical medievalism” (p. 3), Zrinka Stahuljak’s Pornographic Archaeology explores the ways in which fears and fantasies about medieval sexuality were invoked by nineteenth-century medievalists, philologists, and physicians to construct discourses of French nationhood. When conceived as the “origin of a continuous civilization that led to the present of the nineteenth century” (p. 10), the nation’s medieval past posed certain challenges for the formation of French national identity. Containing some key ingredients of the nation’s “civilizing mission,” notably the chivalric code, the Middle Ages also featured a number of elements that seemed opposed to them. Thus, as Stahuljak notes, “if the Middle Ages were invented by nineteenth-century nationalist desires, they were also invented by nineteenth-century opinions, fears, and fantasies about medieval sexuality” (p. 13). This fraught encounter with medieval sexuality would shape French national identity as well as the academic study of the Middle Ages in the twentieth century.

This detailed and well-researched book is divided into three parts consisting of two chapters each. Chapter 1 examines how hereditarian medical discourses relied upon historical knowledge that allowed doctors to trace the biological origins of the French “race” to the Middle Ages while engaging with mounting concerns about national degeneration. This convergence of medieval history and medical knowledge was clearly articulated during the consanguinity debates of 1856–66, the focus of which were aristocratic families that intermarried over the centuries. Chapter 2 continues this focus on hereditarianism in a more theoretical vein by examining the complex ways in which medieval understandings of “blood” included a material dimension ensuring biological continuity over time as well as a moral side that was more psychological in nature. In a Foucauldian sense, then, medieval “genealogy” was in fact irreducible to heredity; “what is ‘seminal’ is really ‘semiotic’” (p. 67).

In addition to interrogating continuities and changes within France over time, medical medievalism repeatedly engaged with non-Western “others” by considering the cultural exchanges effected by the Crusades. Chapter 3 describes how nineteenth-century relationships between colony and metropole were triangulated by references to the medieval past, in this case the Knights Templar, whose [End Page 336] historical reputation was tarnished by accusations of idolatry and sodomy supposedly imported from the East. Chapter 4 examines the ways in which medical and historical discussions of Gilles de Rais and Joan of Arc made these figures into “an inextricably bound pathological pair … inseparable sides of the same coin, two manifestations of a singular pathology of superior degeneracy” (p. 125). In the hands of nineteenth-century physicians, Gilles, who was executed in 1440 for sodomizing and murdering children (mostly boys), was a criminal degenerate whose sadistic and homosexual tendencies were understood to be congenital and nearly symptomatic of the more general degeneration of the aristocracy. Although the national hero, Joan was also described as a superior degenerate; the hallucinations experienced by this “daughter of the people” were taken as evidence of the “genius” and strength of the French populace rather than the corrupt weaknesses of the nobility.

Chapter 5 turns to the discipline of archaeology itself to address how historical information about everyday medieval sexuality related to philology and ideas about the nation. Noting how the civilizing ideal of chivalry was challenged by the carnal behavior related in the fabliaux, philologists and medievalists sought to smooth over this apparent contraction within the nation’s medieval heritage by emphasizing the “Oriental” and therefore non-French origin of the fabliaux. Yet, as chapter 6 shows, not even chivalric love (renamed “courtly love” in the 1880s) was above reproach. As courtly love existed only outside of the bonds of matrimony, physicians borrowed the insights of medievalists to encourage the infusion of chivalric values into marriage itself. Against the backdrop of the divorce debates of 1880s, many promoted a kind of “courtly marriage” that, while valuing conjugal sexuality, was distanced from the potentially disruptive passion linked to carnal desire. Rather than undermining the institution, then, the...