Monday, February 13, 2006

Review: Sex, Dissidence and Damnation

[Jeffrey Richards. Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 1990.]

This may seem rather far afield from the history of twentieth century Canadian social movements, but I at least officially read it because of its relevance to my work. Along with introducing readers of that work to new facts about Canadian history, it is also central to my purpose to introduce new ways of thinking about history. In the introductory section to a chapter that focuses on the activism of two white men involved in gay liberation activities in Winnipeg, one of the points that I try to make is that, mainstream preconceptions to the contrary, queer sexualities and mobilization around them have always been present in human society, even if that struggle has most often not looked like it does in post-Stonewall North America.

In December, I pointed people towards a fascinating review of a book called Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. (I subsequently read the book itself but didn't feel I had anything to add, so I did not post a review on this site.) A footnote in this review introduced me to the interesting idea that a number of heretical sects in the Middle Ages had a queer component to them, and listed a couple of the books that discussed related ideas, and this book by Jeffrey Richards is one of them. Unfortunately, though I learned a lot from it, I didn't learn what I was looking for.

Richards' book examines the experiences of six minority groupings in the Europe of the Middle Ages: heretics, witches, Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals, and lepers. All of this is deliberately linked to sexuality, and how sexuality was mobilized in the persecution of all of these groups. Indeed, as the persecution of these groups increased in intensity, all were linked together in official church and state rhetoric: most or all came to be regarded as heretical, most or all were reputed to spread disease, most or all were described as sexually promiscuous and engaged as a matter of course in homosexuality (including heretical sects that were in actual fact largely celebate and sexually conservative).

Unfortunately, I had the impression going in that this book would dissect out the slanders designed to incite public outrage against heretics from possible actual space for expression of queer sexualities within heretical movements, and it didn't do that.

Nonetheless, it is still an interesting read. For example, for me it is one more step in appreciating a more complex sense of motion in history. We have this illusion that space for those who deviate from oppressive norms was uniformly minimal or absent before about 1965, and only since then have we supposedly enlightened moderns allowed such space to exist. In fact, history is full of examples of change in both directions. For a variety of reasons, persecution of all of these groups actually intensified over the course of the middle ages.

I also found this book useful because it made me think of certain changes going on in the world today, namely the rise of fundamentalisms in a variety of faith tradtions. These fundamentalisms are often associated with a particular way of understanding knowledge that tends to undercut the need for what I would actually consider to be evidence. They are often also associated with the use of torture to gather information, whether through doing it themselves or through the euphemistically named "extraordinary rendition." In the Middle Ages, because of the use of torture, which lead the victims to say whatever they thought would make the torture stop the fastest, and because of a dominant epistemology that was openly inclined to award the status of "fact" to information that was consistent with its needs to dominate, you had the construction of a widespread commonsense about the evils of these oppressed groups that later historians have discovered bore very little resemblance to anything these groups might actually have done in most respects. And as I've argued before, liberal-democracy is perfectly capable of similar fact-bending and "knowledge" creation in the service of maintaining oppression, and has been fundamentally based on it all along, but it works harder to pretend such distortions aren't happening and hangs its legitimacy at least partly on its ostensible fairness and objectivity, which can be a useful rhetorical tool in struggling against oppression. However, there are powerful forces at work today trying to move the world back towards a space that does not even officially value things like facts, due process, and fairness.

It is interesting that this book quotes what may be the first ever example of someone saying, "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." The church had been waging war against a quite successful heretical sect. After a few defeats, they made a deal with the moderate wing of the heresy, which then abandoned the radical wing and allowed it to be taken out militarily. When a particular official -- don't remember if it was a church or a state representative -- was asked how the military folks were to tell the difference between the moderates, who should be spared, and the radicals, who should be killed, something to this effect was the answer.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

6 comments:

Evan said...

The claim that "kill all, God will know his own" was said during the cleansing of the Albigensian Heretics (the Cathars) in France early in the 13th century is pretty widespread. You can even find it on wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathars. True or not, it's a great story.

I found a link alleging the original quote as ""Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaitra les siens" ("Kill them all; for the Lord knoweth them that are His.") [Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Citeaux, 1209, from http://www.positiveatheism.org/mail/eml9442.htm.

Scott said...

Thanks for the links...I could've looked back through the book and found the details to put in my post, but I was too lazy. The information you cite is, in fact, what is in the book, and it was said about distinguishing Cathars from righteous Catholics. I think when I described it in the post I was confusing this situation with the two wings of the Hussite heresy, which of course was different geographically, temporally, and doctrinally.

Thanks again!

Dark Daughta said...

Thanks for this.

It's always good to add to my historical links as they pertain to present day sexually conservative beliefs and values that definitely have an impact on social climates around the world, especially as they pertain to ideas about change and revolution not just politically but personally as well.

Wanted to invite you to have a look at a post I wrote a couple of days ago that is about the logical conclusion of the histories referenced in ex, Dissidence and Damnation.

My post is called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Sexual Conservatism (http://darkdaughta.blogspot.com/2006/02/unpacking-invisible-knapsack-of-sexual.html).

Dark Daughta said...

I'm not sure if the link showed up. Still trying to learn how to do links in comments...

Let's try this...

Dark Daughta said...

(This is the same post I sent, but hopefully with the link I want you to see at the bottom)

Thanks for this.

It's always good to add to my historical links as they pertain to present day sexually conservative beliefs and values that definitely have an impact on social climates around the world, especially as they pertain to ideas about change and revolution not just politically but personally as well.

Wanted to invite you to have a look at a post I wrote a couple of days ago that is about the logical conclusion of the histories referenced in ex, Dissidence and Damnation.

My post is called Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of Sexual Conservatism (http://darkdaughta.blogspot.
com/2006/02/unpacking-invisible
-knapsack-of-sexual.html).

Scott said...

Hey Darkdaughta...I think I was working on a post about your piece on Sexual Conservatism as you were writing these comments. Take a look and let me know what you think!