Talk by Dr Jennifer Evans and Embracing Dead Ends

Dr Jennifer Evans, senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, gave a talk on 22 March at the Edinburgh Gender History Network Seminar Series. Evans’ talk, entitled ‘Men’s Sexual Health and Masculinity in the long 17th century’ served to introduce the audience to her latest project, which aims to explore how masculinity was discussed (or not discussed) in medical texts in this period. Employing the concept of the long 17th century, encompassing 1580-1740, Evans admitted was taking a bit of academic license as she has only come across one other academic using this to frame their analysis. However, Evans expressed hope that her project would demonstrate the value of the long-17th century to historians working on this period.

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I should say from the start that I am not a historian of this period, nor do I focus on medical history or masculinity – though I’m realising more and more that the latter should be part of my research and general knowledge as a gender historian – so I apologise if I don’t go into as much detail on to subject of the talk itself as readers might want me to. I’ve always liked medical history and, after stumbling upon a talk given by Evans posted to youtube about a year ago, I am a fan of Evans’ work. I was really looking forward to the talk which proved to be as interesting as I’d hoped. However, what I found most valuable for me as a struggling PhD, and wish to highlight in this blog, is how Evans shared the problems she was facing with this project and the frustration it was causing her.

In introducing her topic, Evans jokingly warned her audience that, as she had done with her book Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, she was going to take a topic that had the potential to be sensational and sexy and make it boring. I’ve faced that struggle myself. My PhD focuses on the representations of women indicted for murder in New York City and London from 1880 to 1914. When I tell people the focus of my research I usually get a reaction along the lines of ‘now that’s a sexy topic’. To some extent this is an accurate assessment, but in a more realistic sense my flashy topic is a shiny lure I use to trick my audience into hearing me drone on about the theoretical foundations of feminist concepts of agency, Foucault gets mentioned, more than once – it’s a bit dire. I too worry that this makes my topic boring but I was heartened to see that Evans was wrong in her assessment as evident by the extended question and answer session that followed the talk.

Evans pointed out that while significant research has been done on the themes of femininity, health, and the ‘leaky body’, little work has been done on how men’s bodies could fail them in poor health. To help fill this void, she is looking at medical texts to see how thinking of the male body in a time of weakness affected perceptions of masculinity. Although she was expecting these texts to be a rich source, so far her research has revealed frustratingly little direct evidence to answer this question. Evans focused on the topics of impotence, infertility (which she argues, contrary to other historians, are two separate but sometimes linked conditions), and problems urinating. In the popular culture of the period all three conditions could be deemed emasculating and yet the medical texts rarely brought this up. Evans argued that it is possible surgeons avoided discussing the risks for emasculation inherent in these conditions in an effort to attract potential patients amongst their readership. Rather, these texts focused on how the threat to masculinity was often temporary and could be overcome by a good surgeon such as themselves.

Similarly, Evans was expecting to find indications of change over time in how masculinity was conceptualised in these texts, especially given that 1660 is considered a watershed moment in the history of masculinity, but she has yet to identify any. She suspected that this may be due to the fact that authors of medical texts often plagiarised each other shamelessly and were often simply repeating old, outdated ideas. In general, while her research was bringing to light some interesting points, these were also accompanied by frustration and thwarted expectations.

As a PhD student, I have walked down several dead ends with my research and it is comforting to hear someone much further along in their career admit that they have travelled a similar road. It was also good to see that Evans has not just stopped at those dead ends but instead asked why they are there and what they could mean; thereby still managing to generate valuable research. I also commiserated when she confessed that she needed to go back over some sources in greater detail, a painstaking exercise she had been hoping to avoid. Ultimately, Evans’ talk reminded me what research is really about. It is about getting lost, wondering why, retracing your steps, and getting lost again until you happen upon something worth writing about.

– Rian Sutton

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