Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some Comments on the Medieval Nature of Todd Akin's Assertion about "Legitimate" Rape And Conception

Recent articles and op-ed pieces in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have noted that Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO) comments about the medical implausibility of a woman becoming pregnant from a forced sexual encounter are based in medieval ideas about female sexuality and anatomy. Vanessa Heggie, in The Guardian, points to a 13th century English legal text, Fleta (in which I am not expert), which states "If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive." Heggie goes on to cite a late 18th century text on medical jurisprudence and further asserts that both texts were grounded in a biological understanding of human sexuality called the one-sex body. Jennifer Wheeler's article, appearing in the HuffPo a day after Heggie's piece appeared in The Guardian, repeated Heggie's claims about Fleta and Dr. Samuel Farr's book on medical jurisprudence. James Taranto, in the WSJ, wrote a piece titled "Middle Ages Man," but none of the sources he mentions or quotes are from the medieval period (one piece, an op-ed in the LA Times, refers only to examples from colonial America).

The initially striking thing about these pieces is that they assert a medieval world-view by relying on evidence from outside the medieval period. With the exception of Fletus, none of the examples are medieval. Heggie, by invoking the idea of the one-sex body and genital homology, mistakenly ascribes an idea that was present in late 16th and 17th centuries to the medieval period. Yet, several scholars have demonstrated that the one-sex body was not a commonly held belief among medical authorities in the medieval period. This reliance on non-medieval sources to reveal a "medieval" set of ideas is a long-standing trope of medievalism: that anything that is backward, or unscientific, or cruel can be termed "medieval." It also betrays a misunderstanding of the historical period called the Middle Ages. It does not extend into the 18th century (or the 17th, or even the 16th in some places). 

Perhaps more relevant to Todd Akin's ideas about rape and conception are 12th century theologians. William of Conches, a theologian and philosopher, puzzled over the reason why forced intercourse could result in a pregnancy. "Although raped women dislike the act in the beginning, in the end, however, from the weakness of the flesh, they like it. Furthermore, there are two wills in humans, the rational and natural, which we often feel are warring within us: for often what pleases the flesh displeases reason. Although, therefore, a raped woman does not assent with her rational will, she does have carnal pleasure" (Dragmaticon philosophiae 6.8.10). This seems to be more in line with Akin's beliefs. If a woman conceives after being raped, then she must have liked it, which means that it wasn't really rape at all. Akin privileges theology over science (after all, many acts of unprotected consensual sex do not result in pregnancy, and plenty of embryos are created in vitro).

I am sometimes asked what a person from the Middle Ages would be most surprised by if they time-traveled to our world (no lie). One of things that I think would be most shocking for a medieval person to discover is that autonomy, economic opportunity, education, and participation in public life have been extended to many more kinds of people than in the medieval period. Akin's views are medieval, but not in the way Heggie, Wheeler, Taranto, and others have asserted. They are based on his ideas of who should hold authority over women's bodies and whence that authority derives (from theology, not science or personal autonomy). I love the Middle Ages, but I don't want to live there.

Monday, August 20, 2012

When Did the Middle Ages Get Medieval?

A few of my readers have asked me about when the Middle Ages became the Middle Ages, and why they're called that in the first place. I get into some of this with my students, and am, in a few months, going to get into it even more, as I'll be co-teaching a new course on medievalisms (about which more later).

The short answer is that the nomenclature and the idea behind it are legacies of Renaissance humanism. In the late antique (late 3rd-7th centuries) and medieval periods, people who were thinking and writing about history, the world, and their place within it didn't think they were in the middle of anything. They thought they were at the end. St. Jerome, who lived and died in the Roman Empire, viewed history in terms of empires (Babylonian, Greek, Roman). St. Augustine viewed human history as comprising six different ages, and he was writing in the last age. Writing during some hairy threats to the Roman Empire around 410, he viewed the end of the Empire as a sign of the coming End Times. Peter Abelard referred to himself and his intellectual cohort as moderni, meaning that they were modern and of the moment. (Medieval is the old modern?)

It was Petrarch (d. 1374), a student of the classical Greco-Roman past, who wrote that he was living in an "age of darkness." No marble statuary could compete with the ancients, no one's Latin was a good as Cicero's, etc. Some of his Italian humanist successors looked to this view as a way of further explicating their own time and a way of distinguishing between themselves and the benighted ignorami who came before them. The "medium aevum," or "middle age" was in use as early as 1469 to describe the seemingly bleak period between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the rediscovery of what humanists considered to be the pinnacle of western achievement: the intellectual and artistic culture of the classical period.

But that term wasn't codified, at least in English, until the 17th century. In part, that's because there wasn't enough weight behind the term. It hadn't been around for long enough. Another reason is that the chattering, writing, thinking classes were still reading (and printing and translating and re-printing) books that had first been written in the Middle Ages, up through the middle of the 17th century. (For further reading, check out Alexander Murray's "Should The Middle Ages Be Abolished?" [sub. req'd.]) By the end of the 17th century, the "Middle Ages" had become an established period, and "medieval" began to refer to a set of practices, ideas, and viewpoints that were seen as largely incompatible with current, "modern" ways of doing things. 

Still to come...musings on how we got from there to here:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

TDKR About Actual Knight

Medieval Robots' London correspondent, JB, directed me to this excellent piece on TDKR by Gavin Mueller over at Jacobin. Mueller rightly dismisses the vague nods to Occupy and the 99% as smoke and mirrors and makes a far more interesting assertion about the underlying ideology in the film: it is a critique of capitalism in favor of neo-feudalism. 

You should read the whole essay; it's quite good. I have only a few things to add to his reading of Bruce/Batman as a feudal lord. Bruce's anti-capitalist (and anti-Dagget) stance and his role as Gotham's benefactor go hand-in-glove. In BB, Bruce's father tells him (and the audience) that the Wayne family is responsible for the water supply and public transportation system in Gotham. While I'm not a true fanboy, and am sure that others can recite chapter and verse about the ins and outs of Wayne Industries, it does seem that, until Bruce's parents' death, Wayne Industries and the Wayne family are pretty entwined. This supports the feudal reading that Mueller proposes: a wealthy family with a lot of influence steps in to provide basic services that the State cannot. Bruce continues this tradition as Batman, initially as a corrective to the famously corrupt GCPD and an alternative provision of public safety. But it's because Bruce is so wealthy and because of his position of authority in Gotham that his role of Batman is more like that of a feudal lord than a masked vigilante. A constant thread running through all of the Nolan films is that Batman is protecting his fiefdom city from internal and external threats. 

Mueller's take focuses more on the feudal trappings of the ancien regime, which is fitting, given the overt references to A Tale of Two Cities in TDKR. Yet core aspects of the plot within the trilogy actually reference medieval lordship. Feudalism is a problematic term within medieval history these days. Yet the idea of the more powerful (economically and militarily) lord or castellan stepping in to control (or protect) a geographic area or group of people in the absence of a more powerful central authority is, at the macro level, a good place to start when thinking about economic, military, social, and political structures in the eleventh century. This is exactly the role of the Wayne Family/Wayne Industries and, later, Batman. But, as Mueller also notes, there is a strong element of medievalism to Nolan's films, as well. Batman is, in the last two films, the Dark Knight. Batman and Bruce have specific notions of honor, and BB and TDKR feature Bruce on different quests--to conquer his fear, to find R'as Al Ghul, to become Batman, to rise up as Batman once again.

Medieval is the new modern, indeed. Believe it.

Olympic Robots

Just back after ten days in various secluded locations, none of which had any kind of wi-fi. Bliss. I did have access to the gross NBC broadcast of the Olympics, which I dutifully watched, while gnashing my teeth in rage at the inanity of the commentators. (The "bigger" the sport, the worse the commentators, I think.)

But the highlight of my Olympics so far has been the robotic red double decker bus that can do far more push-ups than I can.