Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages
by Roland Betancourt
Princeton University Press
274 pages (illustrated), $35.
WHEN JOHN BOSWELL argued in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) and again in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994) that there were “gay” monks and that the medieval Catholic church condoned and even blessed “gay marriages,” it was considered groundbreaking and controversial. One of the founders of gay studies, Boswell leveraged his postion at Yale to legitimize and institutionalize gay and lesbian studies through the three annual conferences he spearheaded there. I helped bring the fourth annual iteration to Harvard in 1990, expanding the number of speakers and the name: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies Conference. I am not an art historian or medievalist. Yet, reading Roland Betancourt’s Byzantine Intersectionality and reviewing the wealth of recent scholarship he cites, I am struck by the impact of queer studies on art scholarship, particularly in the past two decades. Not only sexuality, but also gender and race issues have become integral to historical analysis, both textual and visual.
Betancourt is further spurred by the most current political urgencies to engage in bold and challenging interpretations—just as LGBT and AIDS activist-academics did in the ’90s. He’s a professor of art history at UC-Irvine and a consummate Byzantine scholar, yet his interpretative concerns are firmly planted in the present. For example, his anthology (co-edited with Maria Taroutina) Byzantium/ Modernism: The Byzantine as Method in Modernity (2015) not only demonstrated visual æsthetic links between 20th-century modernist artwork and Byzantine art,* but also deployed contemporary critical techniques in Byzantine scholarship. The research project for his new book, Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages, evolved during a residency at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which he evokes in a lengthy paragraph in his acknowledgements—itself a paean to the collegial and gustatory pleasures of the life of the mind.
Vernon Rosario is a historian of science and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA.