While all GEMS activities have been postponed in these strange times, research and teaching continues. In the middle of marking exams, Jonas Roelens found the time to answer some questions for our GEMS in Portraits series. He is by no means a background character of GEMS, his victory in the 2019 PhD Cup has brought him a lot of fame. We are of course very proud to have him as a GEMS member. Jonas completed his PhD on sodomy in the late medieval and early modern Southern Low Countries in 2018 and currently teaches at the KASK/HoGent and will take up a position to teach gender history at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. What’s more, he has just been awarded a FWO postdoc mandate, which enables him to continue his research at the UGent history department. Let’s hear what inspires this ambitious researcher.
How did your interest in your research arise?
Honestly, there are a lot of coincidences involved in the fact that I am doing research into early modern sodomy. About a decade ago, I was desperately looking for a subject for my bachelor paper. As a student, I quite liked the ‘big city life’ Ghent had to offer and, consequently, I had postponed the decision about my research topic to the very last minute. The night before the deadline, my eye caught Germain Greer’s coffee table book The Boy, about the fleeting beauty of boys throughout the ages. Rather impulsively, I decided to write a paper about homoeroticism in Italian Renaissance art. Never have I been more grateful for my tendency to procrastinate than that day. Besides coffee table books, a complete field of research about same-sex desires in the past unfolded before my eyes. The paper led to a thesis about the impact of two sodomy trials on the formation of an urban memory in early modern Ghent and that thesis eventually led to my PhD dissertation.
Do you consider your research to be interdisciplinary?
From its onset, the field of gender studies has indeed been a very interdisciplinary field of research, so naturally, I also try to pursue this in my own research. In my PhD for instance, I not only wanted to chart the number of sodomy trials in the early modern Southern Netherlands, I also wanted to analyse the urban perception of sodomy. To do so, I collected a wide corpus of sources, ranging from legal documents such as witness reports, interrogations, sentences, accounts etc, to religious treatises, song texts, urban chronicles, engravings, demonological texts and so on. I have tried to write a broad cultural history, applying methods derived from the fields of gender history, legal history, urban history, art history, the history of literature, et cetera.
Have you ever experienced an eureka moment in your research?
I distinctly remember my very first eureka moment, but that was back in the days when I was still writing my master’s thesis. I found an intriguing manuscript in the Ghent University Library describing the execution of several mendicants in 1578. I stormed out the reading room to call my partner: ‘I’ve found something, brilliant!’ Throughout the years, I more or less revived that initial sensation whenever I found a new trial record. But every single time, after a few minutes it dawned on me that ‘Eureka’ is perhaps an inappropriate term because these archival finds deal with actual human beings that were horribly punished for their sexual desires.
What is the most inspiring study you have read recently?
For the past year and a half, I have mainly been teaching a various range of classes at different universities. This involves a lot of work, but after years of focussing on one specific topic, it is also very stimulating to immerse oneself in different themes in a short period of time. Therefore, I decided to catch up on some of the classics in the field of cultural history. Peter Burke’s ‘The Fabrication of Louis XIV’, which focusses on the strategy deployed to create a public image of Louis XIV remains relevant to students today because it allows students to compare how politicians today are constantly creating their public image. In the field of gender history, I really enjoyed the special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly (vol. 5. no. 4, 2018) because it focusses on ‘transhistory’, an emerging subdiscipline in the field of gender history. In my opinion, courses in gender history still tend to focus too much on the binary opposition between male and female without taking into account that, both nowadays and in the past, people were aware of a much broader spectrum of gender identities.
by Renée Vulto