People in the Middle Ages may not have used the word sex to refer to intercourse, but they had plenty of other terms at their disposal. From Middle English euphemisms such as knowing to the blunt French word footre, medieval people spoke, joked and fretted about sex, using language that ranged from the colourful to the coy. In this respect they had much in common with us: as C.S. Lewis observed in his essay “Prudery and Philology” (1955), talking about sex and those parts of the body associated with it often leaves us groping for “a nursery word, an archaism, a word from the gutter, or a scientific word”.
The language we use to talk about sex varies in part because of the range of responses provoked by the subject. Depending on one’s predilections and prohibitions, one might view the topic with excitement, fear, disgust or desire, among innumerable other emotions, making it difficult to avoid viewing the sexual proclivities of others through the lens of one’s own preferences. This problem is compounded when the sexual practices in question are those of the distant past. If today the Victorian era is associated with prudishness and sexual repression, the Middle Ages are often associated with sexual violence and depravity. (For proof, look no further than medievalist fantasies such as Game of Thrones and its new prequel series, House of the Dragon.)
As two recent books make clear, part of the problem of writing about medieval sex is that these preconceptions make it difficult to understand the sexual practices of medieval people on their own terms. Katherine Harvey’s The Fires of Lust seeks to counterbalance misconceptions about the supposed depravity of the Middle Ages by means of an impressively wide-ranging survey of medieval sexual practices and attitudes. As she demonstrates, medieval understandings of “normal” or acceptable sex were extremely narrow. If two people were having anything other than penis-vagina sex, if they were having sex out of wedlock or if they were having sex for the sake of pleasure (rather than procreation), the odds were that they were participating in what many in and around medieval Europe would have considered proscribed sexual activity. Menstruation, the use of make-up or even the day of the week could render a sexual encounter deviant or sinful.
Intermediate, it is also perfectly clear that medieval people were having all kinds of sex, and in all sorts of ways. The Speculum al foder or Mirror of Coitusa fifteenth-century Catalan text, enumerates five basic positions in which a man and a woman might have intercourse:
In the first way the man and the woman lie down together. In the second way they lie on their sides. The third way is seated. The fourth way is on their feet, and in the fifth way – which is the most common form of coitus – the woman lifts her legs and rests them on the man’s buttocks and the two become tightly entwined.
For readers wishing to venture beyond these basic positions, the text goes on to provide two dozen variations on them. Interfemoral intercourse was popular, whether between two men or between a man and a woman, and though anal sex was regarded as a serious offence, evidence indicates that some people had it anyway. Then there are cases such as that of Simon, an artisan accused by the Venetian court of having carnal relations with his goat, and consequently branded, beaten and deprived of one hand. (As Harvey drily informs her reader, “The fate of the goat is unknown.”)
While most of Harvey’s evidence is drawn from Christian contexts, she also incorporates material related to Jewish and Muslim attitudes towards sex, as well as material that sheds light on how the practitioners of different faiths perceived one another’s sexual practices. Harvey observes that sexual encounters that crossed religious boundaries were typically prohibited. According to the 1120 Council of Nablus, a Christian man who had sex with a Muslim woman should be castrated, while the woman should lose her nose. A 1393 letter issued by Juan I of Aragon grimly decreed that “if a Jew was found having sex with a Christian woman, both should be burnt to death”.
The Fires of Lust is the most comprehensive picture of medieval sex to date, one that not only illuminates striking differences between sex then and sex now, but also dispels long-held misconceptions about life in the period. Harvey notes, for instance, that, though there were cases of children being betrothed or married, “the average age at marriage seems to have been surprisingly high: across Europe urban girls typically married in their mid-twenties, and their rural counterparts in their early twenties”. Some of the other traces of medieval attitudes compiled here seem disturbingly modern. A thirteenth-century proverb that warns women “Give your cunt to the penis and lose out on marriage”, for example, seems to anticipate the expression: “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”.
If The Fires of Lust brings into view some of the most intimate experiences of medieval life, Painful Pleasuresedited by Christopher Vaccaro, ventures into the even less conventional territory of BDSM (usually interpreted as “Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism”). Painful Pleasures is not an investigation of medieval sex play, despite contemporary BDSM’s frequent use of medieval props such as “shackles and dungeons, floggings, and St Andrew’s crosses”. Instead, BDSM is used as a framework that offers a fresh perspective on medieval discourses of power and play. In the words of one of the book’s contributors, Nicole Slipp, it provides “a way to understand pain that does not rely on an opposition between pain and pleasure, on pathologisation, or on a reductive understanding of the possibilities of agency in desire”.
This theme of agency is key to the book’s mission of reading beyond popular ideas of a violent and depraved Middle Ages, and beyond BDSM’s taboo status. The essays in Painful Pleasures Uncover the seductiveness of submission to such forces as love, death or wyrd (Old English “fate”) in medieval texts, and show how effective – and pleasurable – humiliation could be as a form of spiritual and social control. As Tina-Marie Ranlli demonstrates in her excellent essay on “failed sadism” in Christine de Pizan’s accounts of virgin martyrs, BDSM theory enables us to see more clearly how power is transferred from tormentors and tyrants to the female saints they eventually martyr. The discourses and imagery of BDSM may be found in both spiritual and secular medieval contexts, though (as is the case today) they are not always sexual. For the monks at the center of Karmen MacKendrick’s essay, the masochistic quest for the humiliation of knowing one’s worthlessness was almost entirely intellectual, however pleasurable its pain might have been.
Painful Pleasures adopts a thought-provoking new approach to medieval culture, but its contributors are sometimes forced to walk a careful line. To avoid readings that might be viewed as “wishful thinking”, some seek refuge in the language of speculation: one passage “seems” to evoke the discourse of sadism; another “might be read” as evidence of a mystic’s masochism. Overall, however, what emerges is not a picture in which contemporary notions have been superimposed on the past, but rather a clearer sense of both medieval culture and the history of “getting medieval”.
While Harvey’s book was regularly picked up by my dinner guests this summer (and sometimes hastily set back down with a cough), Painful Pleasures earned me some curious glances and raised eyebrows on public transportation. Yet in very different ways both books push back against the same basic assumption about sex and the Middle Ages: that, presumably like medieval life in general, medieval sex was “violent, deviant or both”, as Harvey puts it. Certainly, medieval people conceived of sex differently than we do (most typically as something done to – rather than with – somebody else), just as they categorized both sexual behavior and orientation in different ways. People in the Middle Ages might not have shared our concepts of heterosexuality or homosexuality, but they were certainly aware of the occurrence of same-sex encounters, primarily between men. (Sex between women is only rarely mentioned in medieval texts.)
Such distinctions between the Middle Ages and our own time can make it difficult to interpret historical evidence for what it says about medieval attitudes toward sex, sexuality and gender. How, for example, should we write about the fourteenth-century case of Rolandina Ronchaia, who was raised male, but whose physical characteristics and behavior suggest that Ronchaia identified as a woman? And how should we approach the case of John Rykener, who adopted the name of Eleanor, put on women’s clothing and was arrested in 1394 for “committing that detestable, unmentionable and ignominious vice” (ie sodomy)? Ultimately, the surviving documents related to these cases cannot speak for individuals such as Ronchaia and Rykener – they are hostile sources, produced by those who persecuted, imprisoned or executed them. As such they are a sobering reminder of how much of medieval life remains hidden from our eyes.
Mary C. Flannery is a writer and medievalist based in Switzerland. Her most recent book is Practicing Shame: Female honor in later medieval England2019
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