Historicism, Sexuality Studies, Psychoanalysis /Ruth Evans


Historicism, Sexuality Studies, Psychoanalysis

Ruth Evans, Department of English, Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, MO


I want to argue that history still matters very much to those who work on medieval sexuality but that the field has always insisted on a very particular understanding of the historicity of the texts it studies. Medieval sexualities are at best only spectral; ‘context’ is a constant negotiation between present categories and past practices, meaning that both the past and the future of sex and sexuality are only partly intelligible in any given present. But I first want to address a couple of general points in Paul Strohm’s review. I agree to some extent that traditional historicism has been, in Strohm’s words, ‘on the run for nearly a decade,’ and not just in medieval studies (Strohm, 2010, 386),1  although a glance at some of the major journals in the field of Middle English literature shows that we are far from being in a ‘post-historical’ — or, more accurately, post-historicist — moment. But the new medieval historicisms, with their emphasis on the recursive, multiple and contradictory temporalities that flow through every literary text, have not turned their back on history. This work encompasses a spectrum of quite heterogeneous practices that cannot be marshaled under a single rubric, as the question mark in Strohm’s title astutely implies. The other side of historicism? historicism on the wild side? But there’s no doubt that this eruption of new work recognizes, in John Frow’s succinct formulation, that ‘[t]he historicity of texts is not a matter of the singular moment of their relation to a history that precedes them, because that moment is in its turn endowed with meaning in a succession of later moments, as well as in the lateral movement of texts across cultural boundaries’ (Frow, 2010, 244). To be fair, the energetic critiques of what Aranye Fradenburg calls ‘discontinuist historicism’ are sometimes concerned less with locating the text in a succession of historical moments than in locating a succession of historical moments in the text (Fradenburg, 2009, 87–115). But the critiques care very deeply about that dimension of the literary text that has a relation to the present and the future, and which cannot be simply conflated with its historical ‘context.’

One aspect of these current shifts in the discipline that Strohm does not consider is whether post-historicism has turned away not only from the positivist matching of text to context but also from the deliberately politicized, symptomatic (à la Fredric Jameson) historicist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, a branch of historicist criticism that Strohm does not mention (as Larry Scanlon also notes) and which is not foregrounded in the works he discusses: that of David Aers, Sheila Delany, Felicity Riddy, and Stephen Knight (to name only a few). The turning away from sociohistorical criticism is noteworthy: is this a rejection of the hermeneutics of suspicion? But let’s not polarize: skepticism as much as affect motivates the desire to attach literary texts to times and places that are out of sync with their moment of production.

In the field of sexuality studies, the post-historicist project has been both skeptical and affective. Medievalists continue to critique the limitations of nineteenth-century categories for understanding premodern sexualities; they also talk about the multiple ways in which our sexed bodies seek an affective kinship, however awkward or difficult, with the bodies of people in the past, a kinship that also serves politically to rethink the present. Carolyn Dinshaw’s ‘queer history’ is about the desire to touch the past and for the past to touch us (Dinshaw, 1999, 2); Robert Mills, in a discussion of medieval homosexuality as a ‘spectral’ category, argues that ‘the enigmas and confusions that linger in the archive remind us not to view our own sexual categories as universally applicable or fully formed’ (Mills, 2011, 79). Historically grounded studies of sexuality have further complicated the historicist imperative by drawing on psychoanalytic modes (Ingham, 2009). Of course nineteenth-century psychoanalysis largely ‘invented’ the very sexual categories that medievalists critique, but its understanding of sexuality as a psychical reality, distinct from either material or constructed realities, and its account of the complexity of the sexual relation cannot simply be set aside, precisely because these modes of understanding make a problem of the (historical) categories of desire, sex, and the body — and of our libidinal investment in the past.

To pursue this point: James Schultz and Karma Lochrie have produced impressive historicist critiques of the inadequacy of postmedieval categories (heterosexuality; heteronormativity) for reading desire between men and women in medieval literary texts (Schultz, 2006a; Schultz, 2006b; Lochrie, 2005; Lochrie, 2011). One radical implication of Lochrie’s recalibration of courtly love — namely, her view that it is ‘part of, rather than the exception to, a medieval culture that still did not understand sexual and romantic relations between men and women in terms of the category of heterosexuality’ (Lochrie, 2011, 46) — is that the sexual relation in medieval courtly fictions is not sustained by a heterosexist belief in the complementarity of the sexes. Our expectation that it should be so sustained obscures the extraordinarily powerful ways in which courtly fictions register that the myth of oneness is impossible. I would argue that in addition to these recent nuanced understandings of the historically variable constructions of desire and gender we need psychoanalysis, because it offers the most compelling (if ostensibly bleak) account of sexual love not as a complementary universe but as a failure (Lacan, 1999, 9; Copjec, 1994, 41).

In Aristophanes’ myth in Plato’s Symposium, humans were originally a rounded whole but Zeus cut them in two, so that each half seeks its sexual other half in order to restore its original oneness. Although unknown to the middle ages, a Christianized version of this myth appears in Origen (Origen, 1857, 12:158). And in a gloss on Genesis 15.10 the medieval Jewish philosopher Philo speaks of the ‘Logos as cutter’: creation divided men and women from being a single flesh (Philo, 1929-1934, 133–140).2 Alain de Lille’s infamous trope of hammers and anvils, in his De planctu naturae, can be seen as a moralistic riff on the ideal of sexual oneness (Alain, 1980, 68–69). In Troilus and Criseyde Pandarus is the chief proponent of the myth that the romantic quest is to find one’s sexual other half: two-become-one. He assures Criseyde that she and Troilus will restore the other to wholeness: ‘There were nevere two so wel ymet, / Whan ye ben his al hool [wholly] as he is youre’ (2.586–587, emphasis mine). Note, however, the asymmetric temporality implied by the grammar: she is not yet whole, not wholly his, whereas he is already (assumed to be) her wholeness. Pandarus also promises Troilus that he and Criseyde will eventually ‘be oon’ (3.1740). Nowhere, however, does Criseyde subscribe to the idea that she and Troilus will complete each other (but why — in terms of history and genre — doesn’t she?). As we know, the poem records in painful detail the failure of the sexual relationship, and attributes that failure — despite the narrator’s best efforts — to Criseyde.

But the sexual relation fails not because women are ‘naturally’ duplicitous. It fails because Troilus is searching not for his sexual complement but rather, in Jacques Lacan’s words, for ‘that part of himself, lost forever, that is constituted by the fact that he is only a sexed living being,’ in other words, the objet a, the primordial lost object that was never lost in the first place and that can never therefore be refound (Lacan, 1977, 205). Troilus’s tragedy (Criseyde’s too?) is that Criseyde cannot complete Troilus, because, in Joan Copjec’s elegant exegesis of Lacan’s complex mathematical formulae of sexuation, ‘Lacan defines man as the prohibition against constructing a universe and woman as the impossibility of doing so.’ She goes on: ‘The sexual relation fails for two reasons: it is impossible and it is prohibited. Put these two failures together, you will never come up with a whole’ (Copjec, 1994, 41). The impossibility of Criseyde’s constituting Troilus’s ‘hool’ does not, however, point to her culpability: rather, lacking a limit, she represents ‘the failure of the limit, not the cause of the failure’ (Copjec, 1994, 35).

Sexual difference for Lacan is not reducible to cultural construction because it is a real, not a symbolic, difference. And, as Copjec notes, sex is not on the terrain of culture but on the terrain of the drives (Copjec, 1994, 23). Certainly there is no general, universal category ‘heterosexuality,’ only historically specific categories of sex, gender, and desire (and we need to know what they are), but this does not address the agonizing dynamics of the sexual relation that are staged in courtly fictions. This difference cannot, however, be reduced to the familiar opposition between historicist and psychoanalytic criticism, since Lacan insists on the historicity of the drives and on their link to ‘remembering,’ which includes cultural remembering (Lacan, 1992, 209). So if psychoanalysis offers the most persuasive theory of why the sexual relation fails, then we must attend to the historicity of that theoretical paradigm. Future work on (hetero)sexuality in the middle ages might look at how the myth of complementarity is elaborated in medieval theology (Origen, Philo, Alain de Lille) and in historically specific literary systems.


I would like to thank Holly Crocker for her generous criticism and for a most helpful suggestion for revision.

1. On postmedieval challenges to historicism, see, for example, Lane, 2003, 466, who is critical of the project of matching text to context in historicisms old and new because of its failure to account for a text’s ‘aesthetic remainder.’

2. See also Philo, 2001.


Alan of Lille. 1980. The Plaint of Nature, trans. J. J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Copjec, J. 1994. Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason. In Supposing the Subject, ed. Joan Copjec, 16–44. London: Verso.

Dinshaw, C. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Fradenburg, A. 2009. (Dis)continuity: A History of Dreaming. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. E. Scala and S. Federico, 87–115. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Frow, J. 2010. On Midlevel Concepts. New Literary History 41(2): 237–252.

Ingham, P.C. 2009. Amorous Dispossessions: Knowledge, Desire, and the Poet’s Dead Body. In The Post-Historical Middle Ages, eds. E. Scala and S. Federico, 14–35. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lacan, J. 1977. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis, ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. A. Sheridan. London: Penguin.

Lacan, J. 1992. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960 (Book VII), ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. D. Porter. London: Routledge, 1992.

Lacan, J. 1999. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore 1972-1973 (Book XX), ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. B. Fink, New York: Norton.

Lane, C. 2003. The Poverty of Context: Historicism and Nonmimetic Fiction. PMLA 118(3): 450–469.

Lochrie, K. 2005. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Lochrie, K. 2011. Heterosexuality. In A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages, ed. R. Evans, A Cultural History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, gen. ed. J. Peakman, 37–56. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Mills, R. 2011. Homosexuality: Specters of Sodom. In A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages, ed. R. Evans, A Cultural History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, gen. ed. J. Peakman, 57–80. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2011.

Origen. 1857. In Genesim I, 15, Patrologiae Graecae, ed. J.P. Migne. Paris: Garnier.

Philo. 1929-1934. Quis rerum divinarum heres sit. In Philo of Alexandria, Vol. IV, ed. and trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker. London: Loeb Classical Library.

Philo. 2001. De opificio mundi. In Philo of Alexandria: On the Creation of the Cosmos According to Moses, Introduction, Translation and Commentary, trans. D. Runia. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Schultz, J.A. 2006a. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness and the History of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schultz, J. 2006b. Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies. Journal of the History of Sexuality 15(1): 14–29

Strohm, P. 2010. Historicity without Historicism? postmedieval 1(3): 380–391.


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