Sunday, June 25, 2023

Q&A with Eleanor Janega




Eleanor Janega is the author of the new book The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society. She also has written the book The Middle Ages: A Graphic History, and created the blog Going Medieval. She teaches medieval and early modern history at the London School of Economics, and she lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The Once and Future Sex?


A: I was getting really tired of evolutionary psychologists saying ridiculous things that had no historical basis. There is a tendency for researchers in this area to look at how our society treats women and say, “It has always been like this, and now I can extrapolate a scientific reason for why we think this way.”


This approach doesn't take into account that for thousands of years the conception of women was drastically different to our own in a number of ways. And while that might seem to be an academic quibble it isn't. Acting as though social structures have a scientific basis is actively harmful because it tells us that we don't need to be better or more equitable than we currently are.


We need an antidote to this, and that is a careful discussion about what the history of women and what the way they are considered means and tells us.


The spoiler here is that we change the reasons why we treat women as less than men all the time, but we keep the idea that they are less than men. We can't begin to reject that until we accept that the reasoning behind it is deeply flawed.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: There are a lot of absolutely brilliant academic works on medieval women which was my first port of call. I already had a lot of them under my belt from previous research, but I spent some time expanding my reading.


I wrote a lot of this during lockdown, and that made it difficult, however. I had to just actually buy a lot of books that I would ordinarily read in a library because I couldn't leave the house.


That meant I also spent a lot of time with source collections - published and edited collections of medieval sources on the subject. Ordinarily I would do more reading of sources from manuscripts but there was no way to do that at the time. Luckily my colleagues have published some really helpful works on the subject. 


One of the things that surprised me the most was how late the idea of the literary portrait was. In the classical era authors didn't really describe characters in written works in great detail. In a European context writing a total detailed scan of a person's looks is a medieval invention, and I think that's really cool.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It started out as a joke between my agent and me. I thought it was useful because it highlights the fact that the idea of what a woman is, is in constant flux. There's always a category of people called women, but the behaviour that we expect from them and the things that we want them to do has no set pattern.


It's the same as any myth - and in this case a reference to Arthuriana - in that we as a society keep remaking it to suit our needs, and attach a great deal of romanticism to it that we don't always admit. It's also a nod to the fact that in the future we can hopefully be a bit more imaginative about what we think women's place in society is.


Q: The writer Carissa Harris said of the book, “Reading this book is like hanging out with your brilliant, hilarious historian friend, raging together at misogyny's extraordinary adaptability over time and plotting how to change the world once and for all.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see looking ahead when it comes to the continuation of misogynistic viewpoints?


A: This was, to me, an absolutely wonderful piece of feedback. In this book I want to write for a general audience, and I tried to write in the way that I actually speak.


General audiences are usually really underserved in that academic books, while incredibly useful, are such technical pieces of work that it is hard for non-experts to get stuck into them. But that doesn't mean that non-experts can't grapple with complex ideas.


My goal was to have a high-level conversation that was well referenced, but that anyone could enjoy. I think that having reading be a pleasurable experience is important. If someone takes the time out of their busy day to spend it with your work, they should have a nice time. 


Sadly, at the moment I think we are facing a real backlash of misogyny. The reactionary desire to define women solely by our reproductive capacity, and to enforce that women do reproduce, is incredibly troubling.


I think it is important for us as a whole right now to push back against these ideas by pointing out that gendered expectations can and do change. Our biology is not our destiny and we make decisions that force women into being creatures of the domestic.


We're at a crossroads here, but I do think on the whole most people want new and better things for women. I try to look at the backlash as the lashing tail of a dying dragon, and I hope to be a part of the group looking to slay the next monster.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My next project is going to be looking at ideas of the afterlife and social control. I am really interested in the stories we tell about the dead and what that tells us about the values of the living.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Anyone who wants more of my work can check out my blog, or my podcast We're Not So Different, which is available pretty much everywhere.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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