An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 18, 2013

Stahuljak, Pornographic Archaeology

Zrinka Stahuljak, Pornographic Archaeology: Medicine, Medievalism, and the Invention of the French Nation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Emery (

Sexuality (and particularly medieval sexuality) so thoroughly preoccupied nineteenth-century French scholars, doctors, and policy makers that many of the well-known public health debates of the time -- about consanguinity, prostitution, communicable diseases, racial mixing, homosexuality, degeneration, and depopulation -- were grounded in beliefs about medieval mores.  Furthermore, Zrinka Stahuljak argues, the historical and medical representations of medieval sexuality and genealogy disseminated by such thinkers had a profound effect in the most unlikely of places: library organization, the Lachmannian stemma codicum, and newlywed bedrooms (promoted as bastions of “courtly love”).

These examples are just a few of the seemingly-unconnected topics that Stahuljak has brilliantly interwoven in this fascinating, ambitious and utterly unique investigation of what she calls “medical medievalism”: the “medical construction of the Middle Ages” by historians, writers, and philologists, doctors, and scientists.  This is ground-breaking work in medievalism studies, not least for bringing to public attention the critical importance of medieval history for the medical discourse of the nineteenth century and the magnitude of such medical theories for the philologists who established medieval studies as we know them today.  The book also sheds new light on how medieval sexuality was interpreted at this time, while bringing much-needed attention to nearly-forgotten “makers” of the Middle Ages like Romantic-era writer Paul Lacroix (le bibliophile Jacob), whose popular (and often liberal) interpretations of history led to much misconception about the cultural practices of the medieval period.
The book’s title, Pornographic Archaeology, though titillating (particularly in combination with the priapic medieval badge adorning its cover), is a bit misleading (albeit clever).  The book concerns neither pornography nor archaeology, at least in the modern sense. Stahuljak has borrowed this title from Lacroix, who used it to “arouse” readers (as she puts it) with these archaic terms in the section of his 1852 History of Prostitution dedicated to the “shameful streets” of Paris (pornography being etymologically-related to prostitution and “archaeology” as used liberally to refer to a cultural history based on the study of documents [131-32]).  Stahuljak has done the same; aside from the epilogue, her book is not about nineteenth-century excavations of medieval pornographic artifacts.  It is, in reality, about nineteenth-century archival “digs” into historical documents dealing with medieval sexuality.  Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, with its emphasis on cultural context, discourse, and power structures, supplies the bulk of the theoretical framework.

I cannot do justice to the wealth of insights about “medical medievalism” provided by Stahuljak, but I can describe the volume’s structure and content in order to convey some of the volume’s major findings.  She has divided the book into three sections.  Each looks at sex from a different angle (“Sex and Blood,” “Sex and Race,” “Sex and Love”), and each shows how “a medieval concept acted upon the nineteenth-century medical opinions on social issues, as well as upon medical theories and hypotheses; how a certain idea of the Middle Ages was constructed around medical notions in the nineteenth century; and how this medical construction of the Middle Ages -- medical medievalism -- invariably shaped a certain way of thinking about the Middle Ages until the very end of the twentieth century and, in some cases, until today” (2-3).

The introduction and first section, “Sex and Blood,” are critical for laying out fundamental terms and issues.  They survey the progressive influence exerted by positivism in the development of both medicine and medievalism over the course of the nineteenth century in France.  This first section exposes the predominance of medical theories of heredity, espoused by figures such as Prosper Lucas, Benedict-Augustin Morel, and Jacques Moreau de Tours, who relied heavily upon historical anecdotes about the transmission of physical and mental traits over time and across families. The Middle Ages, seen as the origin of the French nation, was particularly germane to such studies since family medical histories could be intuited from royal histories.  The increased emphasis upon heredity, combined with debates about consanguinity (1856-1866) and a post-Revolutionary tendency to see the aristocracy as weak, led to a “pathologization of history.”  It also resulted in a nineteenth-century obsession with blood, no longer used as a metaphor signifying legal relationships (kinship), but now imagined in its material, biological sense (bloodlines).  

Stahuljak analyzes a number of nineteenth-century medical and scientific texts that illustrate this shift away from a socially-determined medieval conception of genealogy (legal acceptance of paternity) and toward a more biologically-determined nineteenth-century understanding of heredity (biological paternity).  This nineteenth-century obsession with heredity, influenced by the rise of Republicanism, recast the juridical framework that had governed medieval genealogy.  Instead, social reformers drew attention to the “bad blood” of the intermarried Ancien Régime nobles in order to educate the public about the dangers to the health of the nation represented by consanguineous marriages.  Stahuljak concludes this section with several long passages summarizing medieval historians’ disputes over how medieval genealogy functioned, and she defends Foucault’s open-ended concept of genealogy. 

In Part Two (“Sex and Race”), Stahuljak moves nineteenth-century French medical re-readings of genealogy to the colonial context, thus linking anxieties about homosexuality, sexually-transmitted disease, and racial mixing to new interpretations of medieval history that identified the Orient as the point of origin for sodomy and syphilis.  She provides a fascinating discussion of the fierce scholarly debates that raged over the Templars and their alleged sexual transgressions, most of which, she suggests, derived from an incorrect transcription of a medieval manuscript figuring the name “Mohammed” into “Baphomet” (an alleged idol worshiped by the Templars). This accident became the basis for much public fantasizing about the Templars' alleged Satanic practices (and French scholarly defense of their virtue). The identification of Gilles de Rais as Bluebeard was similarly based on the misinterpretation of manuscript sources and similarly exploited by writers and medical specialists who used him as a case study in sexual deviance.  These two examples, along with discussion of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais’s companion in arms, circle back to the conclusions of the first section, demonstrating that the perpetuation and elaboration of such “fictions” led to a “passage from historical to medical discourse” (115), and to a pathologization of non-heteronormative practices.  Public debate about these historical figures also tied into contemporary discussions about the inseparability of madness and genius; Gilles and Joan represented opposite ends of the same spectrum (while reflecting the anti-aristocratic bias of Third Republic France).

Part Three (“Sex and Love”) segues from this medical and geographical marginalization of non-procreative sexual acts into a complex discussion of chivalry and “courtly love,” exemplified through epic and romance, which came to be seen as particularly French values in the 1890s, thus displacing from the literary canon the more sexually-licentious behavior incarnated in the allegedly “Oriental” fabliaux.  Stahuljak traces the fading fortunes of the fabliaux as indicative of a shift from “Romantic archaeology” and its predilection for the histoire de moeurs (enthusiasm for collecting and displaying all manner of information about cultural history) to Romance philology, with its emphasis on scientific selection and classification (her discussion of the use of the Lachmannian stemma codicum in France is particularly interesting in light of the contemporary obsession with origins, genealogy, and heredity).  Stahuljak goes even further, though, uncovering fascinating intersections between the courtly and chivalrous ideals espoused by manuals for newlyweds and the divorce law instituted in fin-de-siècle France (1884) to help combat depopulation (understood as a by-product of the search for sexual fulfillment outside of unhappy marriages). “Courtly marriage” thus became a way of encouraging “healthy” procreation and repopulation, while emphasizing these allegedly “pure” French traditions as a counterpoint to their more dangerous less productive “Oriental” alternatives (homosexuality and prostitution).

The book concludes with an epilogue discussing the sale of Arthur Forgeais’s collection of 3,000 medieval lead badges (a number of which contained erotic images) to the Musée de Cluny in 1861-1862.  Stahuljak uses this final example to illustrate the triumph of authorized “courtly” models of sexuality, embraced by the medical establishment and philologists alike at the end of the nineteenth-century in France. Like Forgeais’s pilgrimage badges, displayed to the public while the erotic images remained hidden, idealized courtly models of medieval sexuality covertly replaced earlier generations’ overt exploration of medieval mores.  In the late nineteenth century medical professionals and philologists both created stereotypes about the “purity” and “charm” of the Middle Ages that persist today (Stahuljak begins the book with a number of examples of such received ideas).  She concludes by questioning such perceptions and by inviting reconsideration of what we really do know about medieval sexuality and its social implications at various moments of what we call the Middle Ages.  

Even such lengthy summary as this cannot capture the many brilliant insights Stahuljak has brought to this topic.  I have the most effusive praise for this book as a work of medievalism.  The book’s greatest strength -- its ambitious coverage of nineteenth-century medical interpretations of medieval history -- may also, however, be construed as a weakness, and I suspect that some nineteenth-century French historians may have reservations about the speed with which some claims -- such as those about French colonization and the conception of the Orient, attitudes toward prostitution, theories of the transmission of syphilis, the decadent movement, and rationale behind divorce courts -- are made.  Stahuljak covers so much ground so quickly that sweeping conclusions such as “thus medievalism and archaeology were synonymous in the romantic period” (145) appear without extensive justification. 

But Stahuljak does not claim to be writing a work of nineteenth-century French history.  Inspired by Foucault, her primary goal is to examine the conflicting discourses about medieval sexuality that circulated in the nineteenth century.  By that measure her book is supremely successful. By examining what was written about medieval sexuality in the nineteenth-century medical and scholarly contexts, Pornographic Archaeology exposes as frauds many of today’s assumptions about well-known medieval figures: widely-disseminated theories underlying accepted medical or social thought were quite often founded on mistranslations, misreadings, and misinterpretations.  The medicalization of history led to the appropriation of spurious anecdotes from the past as “scientific evidence” by doctors and scholars whose social status validated the “truth” of what they wrote. It is fascinating to see how medieval history, interpreted through the lens of nineteenth-century medical theories, came to influence the literary canons and historical accounts set in place at this time by philologists, themselves reliant on misinformed scientific theories about the Middle Ages.

Pornographic Archaeology provides an excellent illustration of medievalism at work -- nineteenth-century thinkers’ tendency to interpret the medieval period according to their own preoccupations -- and reveals the serious consequences of relying too heavily on secondary sources.  Stahuljak’s book provides a cautionary tale for all of us who “excavate” medieval archives in search of the “truth” about medieval life and should be required reading for scholars purporting to understand the methods and discourses underlying modern medieval studies.  
Elizabeth Emery
Montclair State University