Pornographic Archaeology

Published: July 22, 2015

This engaging and informative study of nineteenth-century French medievalism sheds new light on the scientific and ideological underpinnings of the discipline’s foundation. While previous work has explored the role of nationalism in the shaping of medieval philology following the Franco-Prussian War and during the establishment of the Third Republic, less attention has been paid to the role played by contemporary discourses on sexuality and empire-building. Zrinka Stahuljak offers a useful corrective by showing how biopolitical concerns about blood, race, heredity, and vice—which were seen as crucial to the nation’s demographic and moral vigor—both impacted medieval studies and invoked medieval sexuality to influence current debates. On the one hand, an internal threat of decline and decadence had weighed heavily on France since before the Revolution; on the other, colonial contact, from the Algerian conquest in 1830 to the Third Republic’s imperial expansion, had raised the specter of oriental contamination from without. There was an omnipresent fear of national decadence, which, as Stahuljak shows, was tied to pressing concerns about sexual and marital practices, venereal diseases, perversions, and heredity. These concerns were often traced back to the putative origin of the French nation in the Middle Ages, a period viewed either romantically, as the vigorous root of national identity, or as the contaminated source whose dangerous legacy required medical intervention. In foregrounding the discourse on medieval sexuality, both in philology and in medicine, Stahuljak attempts to triangulate between the metropolitan present, the colonial context, and the medieval past.