Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

People, Let's Get This Straight Now

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

People, Let's Get This Straight Now

Article excerpt

The man-woman pairing displaced other well-established forms of bonding, finds Robert Mills.

The Invention of Heterosexual Culture

By Louis-Georges Tin

MIT Press, 208pp, Pounds 15.95

ISBN 9780262017701

Published 12 October 2012

At one time, believe it or not, heterosexuality as we know it did not exist. This isn't to say that men and women didn't engage in sex acts with one another, get married, have children or engage in some of the other practices commonly grouped together under this heading. But male-female love didn't possess the cultic status that it does today. In the Middle Ages, chastity tended to be valued more highly than sexual relations of any kind, including those between men and women within the framework of marriage; heterosexuality was neither a given nor a cultural norm, and other modes of bonding - notably platonic friendships between men - were often accorded greater value. Even when the word "heterosexuality" was coined at the end of the 19th century, it still didn't signify as normal: as late as 1923 some dictionaries defined it as a "morbid" passion for members of the opposite sex.

The main thrust of Louis-Georges Tin's argument is that, as the Middle Ages shifted into the Renaissance and the early modern period, heterosexual culture's fortunes gradually began to change. Heterosexuality shifted from being a marginalised and occasionally denigrated practice to being the epitome of the natural and the normal. In France, the principal focus of Tin's survey, this shift was neither straightforward nor inevitable. From the 12th century, courtly literature began exalting male- female love within well-defined parameters. But this burgeoning discourse of what Tin claims is an early manifestation of heterosexuality met with fierce resistance, whether at the hands of religious authorities, medical practitioners or advocates of older chivalric codes.

Medieval churchmen saw heterosexual culture as a threat to their chaste ideals and, when they couldn't stem the tide, sought to bring it under their control, notably instituting marriage between men and women as a Christian sacrament. Physicians since ancient times had viewed love as a mode of sickness, with a distinct pathology and potentially devastating consequences for its practitioners. In literary circles there continued to exist a tension between the codes of chivalric culture, which placed a high premium on intense male bonding, and the new ethos of courtly love, which promoted the idea that women might be as capable as men of arousing deep-seated emotions. …

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