Universiteit Leiden

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Introducing: Marlisa den Hartog

Marlisa den Hartog is a PhD candidate at the Institute for History since January 2017. She is working on a thesis about perceptions of sexual desire and sexual identity in Italy between 1450 and 1550.

In 2010, I started my Bachelor in History in Leiden. The cultural history of the medieval and Renaissance period has always been my main interest – and I was very glad to broaden my perspective by following courses at other departments as well, such as Art History, Middle Eastern studies and Italian language and culture. During the course of my study, I slowly developed a specialization in Italian history, which was nurtured by following courses and doing research in Florence and Rome.

The history of sexuality

For my Master thesis, I analyzed the way in which people in fifteenth century Italy thought about sexual desire and sexual identity, using both medical, theological, Platonist, romance and novella sources. I found that comparing a number of different discourses, each with their own particular “language of sex”, do not only show how different perceptions of sexual desire and sexual identity could co-exist. It can also uncover the similarities transcending these discourses that reflect the ideological concerns, cultural values and power relations of a society. While the results of my thesis were promising, I felt that still more research on this could (and should) be done. For my PhD project, entitled “Unveiling sexual identities in Italy, 1450-1550” I am therefore building on these results, while extending both the source material and the chronological scope.  

Using the past as a mirror

I believe historians have an important task in discovering how past societies dealt with the same issues we are dealing with today. According to me, the history of sexuality can offer a most profitable point of entry for our study of the past, as sexuality has always been a topic of central concern to human identity. Historical research can function as a mirror to examine our own modern notions of sexuality, while at the same time increasing our understanding of societies whose value systems differ from ours. As matters of gender and sexual identity still trigger much debate, historical research helps us reflect on our own ‘modern’ assumptions and makes us aware of the origins of some of our own convictions about ‘proper’ sexual behavior.

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