May 5, 2010 in Dicks
My job involves giving the occasional public lecture, usually to a bunch of academics. That’s fine. I love a captive audience. I am a hambone. I also truly love what I do. I get ridiculously excited about the stuff I work on and usually I’m happy giving talks about my work. The problem is the Holy Foreskin. I bet you don’t know anything about it, but it’s fascinating. The story of its invention, its rise to prominence and its papal de-accession from the official list of things-that-are-accepted-as-relics offers an important view into aspects of medieval identity. But it doesn’t matter how important or interesting it is, or how engaging and lucid I am.
I can’t get past the introduction before the sniggers begin.
No matter how hard I try, no matter how many times I rewrite it, any serious discussion of the Holy Foreskin is doomed. I have done violence to the English language, become a slave to the thesaurus and invoked damnatio memoriae on completely innocent phrases – to no avail. You want examples? “Its rise to prominence,” “the extent and length of its influence,” “the spread of the cult.” And I need to discuss the number of foreskins – which then requires that I mention the “hill of foreskins” from the book of Joshua. This passage, and thus the hill, is depicted in an 11th century manuscript. So I’m standing at the lectern with an over-sized detail of a hill of foreskins projected onto the screen behind me while I talk about the interpenetration of cultural ideologies.
At this point they’re rolling in the aisles.
I’m up there talking about something that probably never existed and doesn’t exist now, something that I’ve painstakingly researched. I think I’ve figured out its place in the greater scheme of the function of medieval relics. You would think an audience composed largely of experts in the field would behave – you’d think they would be interested and engaged in the subject. You’d think I’d get some useful questions or an astute observation here or there. It never works out that way. The first question is always along the lines of “what can you say about the growth of the cult of the Holy Foreskin?” at which point everyone turns into a seven-year-old boy and it’s all over.
I’m not complaining as much as I am expressing my frustration. I believe I have solved a problem and set forth a convincing argument for the place of the Holy Foreskin in medieval identity politics. It’s important! It’s not been done before!
But I can’t talk about it.