Ath Talk Examines Medieval Sex and Scandal

Yitzhak Hen speaks at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum on Feb. 21, 2017. (Liam Brooks • The Student Life)

Yitzhak Hen, professor of History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, spoke about Merovingian political history at Claremont McKenna College’s Marian Miner Cook Athanaeum in a talk titled, “Sex, Lies, and Politics in the Early Middle Ages” on Feb. 21.

After a formal dinner and eager chatter in an ornate hall, the lights slowly dimmed, welcoming Hen on stage.

“I belong to a group who study medieval manuscripts. I know it sounds creepy but it isn’t,” he said, earning a few chuckles from the audience.

Hen attends many conferences where he and other experts read and analyze various manuscripts, reading between the lines of Medieval letters.

Hen said that these manuscripts often include Biblical comparisons, describe sex scandals that are used to flaunt political power, and reflect how aristocratic people used the written word as a means of communication.

Threaded within letters between bishops are well-constructed insults, which Hen generously narrated:

“Order yourself to be castrated so that you do not perish through such things … I could give you grief about your other faults.”

Hen also said that while he is able to come up with theories to explain these letters, there is no way of knowing for sure if they are correct.

“Being a medieval historian without a large dose of imagination is very boring. We exercise our imagination trying to find what these letters can mean,” he said, “But I’m always willing for someone to come and say ‘you’re wrong.'”

Furthermore, these letters give us insight into the literary and communicative abilities of aristocratic women. Hen believes these kinds of letters survived because they are strange, creating the need for historians like Hen to read between the lines and extract information that may allude to the political state and activities of the time.

While a group of historians analyzing medieval manuscripts may conjure a tranquil image of people leisurely weaving through scandalous texts, Hen mentioned that sometimes there isn’t anything significant to say about a text.

Additionally, Hen said that when there doesn’t seem to be any substantial meaning hidden within a text, the group starts collectively brainstorming.

“Each one of us has different expertise,” Hen said.

He memorably ended with a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “Once you eliminate the impossible, however improbably, whatever remains must be the truth.”

Mirenna Scott PO ’20 found the niche subject of the talk to be quite interesting and unexpected compared to others she has attended thus far.

“I never really thought about the process of historical analysis. I suppose I assumed it involved mostly the finding and transcribing of the past. I didn’t think too much about historians needing to come up with their own interpretations based on the limited information they have in front of them. But I suppose that’s why history can be very subjective and biased towards the authors of a particular story,” she said.

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