Sex and medievalists

I believe it would now be traditional to say: “bet that got your attention”. But I actually do have some opinions stored up, and they, like so many other things lately, have been brought forth at last by the latest issue of Viator.1

There is an article by Constant Mews about gender boundaries in the Middle Ages, you see, and it focuses on Robert of Arbrissel, and fair enough.2 He opens with a quote from a critic of his controversial ‘double monastery’ (which seems a much more familiar idea to an erstwhile Anglo-Saxonist or even someone who’s read my EME paper than it does to the author, but this is the species of medieval study which forgets that years with only three digits also count I’m afraid) at La Roë. This critic, whose name is Marbod, says that when it comes to the evident failings of this house, “the crying of infants, not to put too fine a point on it, has made [them] clear”. Mews regards this as a reference to women bringing nursing children into the community with them, and suggests that this is bringing the genders too close together. As it may well have been, but it seems likely to me that the critic was suggesting that the babies were not just nursed, but begun in Robert’s monastery; it just seems vanishingly unlikely to me that an allusion as pointed as that can be to anything other than sexual scandal. Even if it hadn’t been intended as such, I’m sure most readers would have so construed it.

A romantic depiction of Abélard teaching Héloïse

He later suggests that the real problem with Abélard’s seduction of Héloïse was not the fornication per se, but that he had stepped beyond the bounds of proper conduct for a teacher. Again, this seems a peculiarly bloodless way of viewing the situation. I’m sure that not just for Fulbert or Hubert (Héloïse’s guardian, for those who don’t know the story3) but for the popular gossips in Paris and elsewhere (especially Abélard’s students!) it was the illicit sex that made it worth talking about, especially as it pretty much heralded the end of Abélard’s career as a controversial lecturer, a rôle that he seems perhaps to have enjoyed too much.

Were the Middle Ages really so dispassionate or, if you prefer, religiously chaste, that considerations of sex were so secondary? I would have thought not. It is difficult to say for sure, of course, once you dig in to the subject. Our primary source material, because narrative history and theological treatises don’t usually go off on erotic digressions, is literature, but that presents problems, firstly because that means it’s late (by my standards—there’s plenty from Mews’s period) and secondly because that’s writing for the élite, the same élite who in some parts of Europe almost bred more bastards than legitimate children (thinking of Anglo-Norman England) but in others supposedly only allowed one male per generation to avoid celibacy so as not to break up the family inheritance (thinking mainly of Duby’s Mâconnais).4. Nonetheless, it is there: you don’t have to dig very far into Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale to find this, for example:

Skittish she was as is a pretty colt,
Tall as a staff and straight as cross-bow bolt.
A brooch she wore upon her collar low,
As broad as boss of buckler did it show;
Her shoes laced up to where a girl’s legs thicken.
She was a primrose, and a tender chicken
For any lord to lay upon his bed,
Or yet for any good yeoman to wed.
Now, sir, and then, sir, go befell the case,
That on a day this clever Nicholas
Fell in with this young wife to toy and play,
The while her husband was down Osney way,
Clerks being as crafty as the best of us;
And unperceived he caught her by the puss,
Saying: Indeed, unless I have my will,
For secret love of you, sweetheart, I’ll spill.

(G. Chaucer, “The Miller’s Tale”, lines 77-92)

And one could go a lot further from there, or report from the Wife of Bath’s Tale too, but I see no need; we can see where that’s going and it’s not swapping theological riffs. Chaucer of course was partway inspired by the Decameron of Boccaccio, and you can find similarly unregulated enjoyment of contact between the sexes there without trying too hard:

You are to know, then, that in a convent in Lombardy of very great repute for strict and holy living there was, among other ladies that there wore the veil, a young woman of noble family, and extraordinary beauty. Now Isabetta—for such was her name—having speech one day of one of her kinsmen at the grate, became enamoured of a fine young gallant that was with him; who, seeing her to be very fair, and reading her passion in her eyes, was kindled with a like flame for her: which mutual and unsolaced love they bore a great while not without great suffering to both. But at length, both being intent thereon, the gallant discovered a way by which he might with all secrecy visit his nun; and she approving, he paid her not one visit only, but many, to their no small mutual solace. But, while thus they continued their intercourse, it so befell that one night one of the sisters observed him take his leave of Isabetta and depart, albeit neither he nor she was ware that they had thus been discovered. The sister imparted what she had seen to several others. At first they were minded to denounce her to the abbess, one Madonna Usimbalda, who was reputed by the nuns, and indeed by all that knew her, to be a good and holy woman; but on second thoughts they deemed it expedient, that there might be no room for denial, to cause the abbess to take her and the gallant in the act. So they held their peace, and arranged between them to keep her in watch and close espial, that they might catch her unawares. Of which practice Isabetta recking, witting nought, it so befell that one night, when she had her lover to see her, the sisters that were on the watch were soon ware of it, and at what they deemed the nick of time parted into two companies, of which one mounted guard at the threshold of Isabetta’s cell, while the other hasted to the abbess’s chamber, and knocking at the door, roused her, and as soon as they heard her voice, said: “Up, Madam, without delay: we have discovered that Isabetta has a young man with her in her cell.”

(Decameron IX, Novel II, as transl. by J. M. Rigg)

Which might just be earnest conversation and staring into each others’ eyes (in the dark…), but the following paragraph makes it clear that whatever act they were caught in it involved nakedness, so I think the allusion is meant to be clear enough.

Literature is always tricky as a source, of course, because of the uncertain relevance to real life, and in the case of Chaucer I know that there is a weight of scholarship sufficient to sink the Titanic and to sustain a marvellously viable parody, of which I am largely unaware.5 All the same, these works had a wide dissemination, particularly the Decameron; we have to assume that people liked what they read, and that they found the characters engaging, if perhaps in a grotesque way. Had they been completely alien to the readers’ experience, and the themes repulsive, we’d never have heard of these two authors. (Now consider what that argument says for the popularity of the Marquis de Sade’s writings, eh?) And there’s plenty of less critically-acclaimed stuff one could cite: the extensive sorrowings of troubadours on the sufferings of courtly lovers whose ladies wouldn’t, er, ‘requite’ them, or the really quite Freudian ideas about masculinity and sex in the Norse sagas.6 And of course for Anglo-Saxonists there is the most enigmatic medieval sex scandal of all, “where a cleric and Ælfgyva” in the Bayeux Tapestry, thumbnailed below with a link to the full-size image (which I have borrowed from here).
Where a cleric and Ælfgyva…
We don’t even know what it was that they, but the unparalleled little figure in the lower margin gives us a pretty strong indication, and although this is perhaps the most famous piece, there’s plenty more Old English smut elsewhere too.

We have, in short, plentiful evidence that medieval gossip was just as lewd and obscene as modern gossip, if not more so, and I’m sure that if a situation presented even a whiff of sexual scandal that not only would people be talking about it as if it were definite, but that such rumours would have been well-known to the people that we see writing about it. Monks and so on may have been vowed to chastity, but no-one with pastoral duties could be unaware of people having sex and I doubt very much that you could avoid such awareness in the cloister either. In fact, exploring that possibility allows one to go back rather further, because one has to use the penitential handbooks that priests and those with pastoral care may have used to set penances for sins, and a quite substantial quantity of those sins were sexual in nature. This is not just a conversion-period thing either, there are plenty of later penitentials too, sufficiently well-known to medievalists that the Chaucer blog mentioned above can jokingly use Burchard of Worms’s one as a kind of medieval purity test.7 Whether these actually reflect what the populace were getting up to in bed (or in some cases in stables…), or whether the penitentials are the result of cloistered men’s imaginations working overhard on lists of possibilities, is a long debate, but since in either case it indicates awareness of sexual practices on the part of ecclesiastics, I don’t mind which side wins for these purposes.8

However, though by now it probably doesn’t look this way—in fact by now it probably looks as if I spent the last hour or so trawling the web for medieval smut, which is unfortunately partly true—I’m not really arguing here about the Middle Ages. I am in fact arguing about the historical discipline now, because even though I’ve found all this stuff to cite, it has always seemed to me that there is no safe way for medievalists to discuss this stuff, much less teach it. It seems to me that this is a condition of the discipline, at least in the English-speaking world. It can damage your reputation among medievalists to place too much emphasis on sex, unless you manage to make it (or rather sexual identity—actual sex might be too close to the bone) your subject, and even then it seems to me that people consider such scholars either rather odd and therefore marginal, or feminist (the latter of which is perfectly respectable but despite everything the gender historians have done, also still marginal alas).9 Actually showing an interest in sex as a practice relevant to oneself is often regarded as ‘unsound’, or so I have been privately assured.

On the other hand, whatever your subject of study within medieval history (excluding archaeology, whose practitioners’ ethics seem, anecdotally at least, to be more realistic—an obvious conclusion is that perhaps they’re less afraid to get their hands messy, but I should probably leave that…), allowing your sexual side to become public is potentially very dangerous. The unfortunate Professor Paul Halsall is the exception here perhaps, in as much as he was able without scandal both to teach on medieval sexuality and to publically endorse a homosexual lifestyle, and his fall from grace appeared at least to be entirely due to other factors. Whatever Professor Halsall may or may not have done, and almost all of us who teach the Middle Ages have probably had cause to be glad of his Internet Medieval Sourcebook and thus support at least one thing that he’s done, he has not been accused of sexual misconduct. Such stories are much harder to find in public, but I probably don’t need to; anyone in higher education can probably think of stories, stories that were never perhaps more than gossip, about some member of faculty who got into trouble with one of his or her students (or, in the former case, may even have got one of his students into trouble, which is apparently more survivable). It remains, hanging as a cloud, about these people’s reputation ever more. Perhaps Professor Halsall got lucky after all; he could be cleared…

Please note that I’m not suggesting liaisons with students are a good idea, or not a matter for concern; it just seems to be the visible protrusion of a larger disciplinary neurosis that they are so talked about but never admitted to, and even if some medieval historians have such neuroses like anyone else might, it seems problematic for the field and for teaching if they get to enforce them on those members of their discipline still struggling to live a rounded life.

Now of course such a liaison was Abélard’s great sin, and it seems to me as if this is what Mews is reproaching him with, or rather, suggesting that he would have been reproached with at the time. Both our other evidence and Fulbert’s reprisal however seem to suggest that the medieval perception of the situation, er, struck at the root of the problem. It’s not in any way that Mews’s article is bad; on the contrary, it is learned and interesting, and if one is going to look for a pair of highly-intellectualised medieval lovers to accuse of theological backchat there can be no better ones to choose. It just seems to me here particularly, and in the discipline more widely, that a picture of medieval society that manages so to distance the most basic physical passion from its description does itself and the society we study no favours, especially when it seems to be the problems of medieval historians with frankness on such matters that are behind it.

On the other hand it’s not that there is no work going on on such matters. Once you start digging it is out there, even if it’s very often slanted to talk about what people thought of themselves rather than what they did.10 So what, as someone I was talking to the other day about this asked me, do you actually want medievalists to be doing, Jonathan?

Well, let me pick an example. There is some disagreement over the daughters of Charlemagne. Thegan, one of the biographers of Louis the Pious, says that when Louis succeeded he turned his sisters out of court immediately, because his aged father had been letting them run wild out of indulgence and wouldn’t let any of them marry (though it is Einhard who tells us about the latter situation). And this has been read as a political strategy, of informal alliances through nonmarital pairings, and it has been taken at face value, but either way Louis wanted a clean slate, and that too was strategy and who can blame him for that?11 What doesn’t get discussed is what they were actually doing. Were they in committed monogamous relationships that the Church just didn’t recognise, such as we are more and more assured existed in these times?12 Or were they just sleeping around because they could?

It’s very difficult to approach such questions objectively of course, because we ourselves, by which I suppose I mean Western civilisation, have had such huge changes in sexual morality over the last two centuries. No matter what Chaucer and Boccaccio may have thought usual, a generation who lived through the brief period between The Pill and AIDS when ‘free love’ meant something are now guiding students who have grown up in what I think of as the ‘sex sells’ era, where advertisers try to convince their market that it must be having lots or else its members are not doing as well as they could be. Twenty-first century sex can all too easily thus become a competition motivated by outside, consumerist, factors. And both these groups are looking at it all through a filter of Victorian scholarship which regarded such matters as entirely beyond the pale. And some scholars, and teachers, still do, in fact the advertisers have I would hazard partly caused a reaction back towards Victorian-style taboos. So it’s very hard to find a clear-minded take on where the people of the Middle Ages were on such matters, because we simply don’t have those clear minds, and it’s perhaps worse with this subject than in an awful lot of others because we’re obliged to react to sex as a phenomenon an awful lot of the time, whereas for example liturgy doesn’t really leap off hoardings at you in the street.

So I accept that it is problematic working out how far Christianity and the fear of Hell, and also the fear of pregnancy and disease in a period when these were much harder to avoid, affected what we would otherwise expect to be the natural pressure of sex-drives, in a species that’s still driven to reproduce, in the Middle Ages. How bawdy was Charlemagne’s last court? We’ll probably never know, because all our sources are highly-charged both because of politics and religion, and also the probable complexes of the writers because of their membership of a profession in which celibacy was championed by at least some of its members.

But it should be all right to ask, shouldn’t it? As academics we ought to be able to talk about anything, even if it’s only to say, “Well, I personally find that distasteful but it’s clear that it happened”, more or less as historians of war in all eras are assumed to think. But there are a number of academics out there before whom such questions would not be wise for one’s future prospects, or at least it seems that way to me. And it’s not just medieval questions, but one’s own life that thus has to be kept away from it all. My argument, then, is pretty simple: what I want is to be able to reckon such matters as part of the usual grist and fare of everyday conversations in my field, without having to count the audience first and decide whether it’s safe, and without the risk of being branded a pervert in the minds of people who may later be on interview panels, merely for having mentioned sex. That shouldn’t be something we have to worry about in a profession that prides itself on freedom of thought.

Edit: it has been pointed out to me that my unchecked assumption that Professor Mews is female was wrong. I have fixed this in the text, and I would apologise to the Professor except that, if he ever reads this, that will be the least of my worries…

1. I promise to stop ranting about Viator now. In part this is because I’ve read everything early enough to appeal in this issue, and otherwise it is because someone recalled the copy I was reading to the library. I’d love to think this was evidence for readership, but…

2. C. J. Mews, “Negotiating the Boundaries of Gender in Religious Life: Robert of Arbrissel and Hersende, Abelard and Heloise” in Viator: medieval and Renaissance studies Vol. 37 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 113-148.

3. If you don’t, you could do worse than consult Michael Clanchy’s Abelard: a medieval life (London 1997).

4. For England, see for a first orientation R. H. Helmholz, “Bastardy litigation in medieval England” in American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 13 (1969), pp. 360-383, online through JSTOR for those with access. The Mâconnais: G. Duby, “Lignage, noblesse et chevalerie au XIIe siècle dans la région mâconnaise: une révision” in Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations Vol. 27 (Paris 1972), pp. 803-823, repr. in idem, Hommes et structures du moyen âge: recueil d’articles, Le Savoir Historique 1 (Paris 1973), pp. 395-422 & in idem, La société chevaleresque: hommes et structures du moyen âge (I), Champs (Paris 1988), pp. 83-116, transl. P. Raum as “Lineage, Nobility and Chivalry in the Region of Mâcon in the Twelfth Century” in R. Forster & P. Ranum (edd.), Family and Society. Selections from the Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations (Baltimore 1976), pp. 16-40 and C. Postan as “Lineage, Nobility and Knighthood. The Mâconnais in the Twelfth Century—a revision” in Duby, The Chivalrous Society (London 1973), pp. 59-80.

5. A recent account of such work is S. Trigg, Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern, Medieval Cultures 30 (Minneapolis 2002), though I have not myself seen this and am aware of it only through the review of Camille la Bossiè in College Literature, Vol. 31 pt. 1 (West Chester 2004), which I found online at FindArticles.

6. I became aware of these themes from a conference presentation by David Wyatt of the University of Cardiff, “Slavery, Power and Honour in the Societies of Medieval Britain, 800-1200”, presented to the conference Slavery, Freedom and Unfreedom in the Middle Ages, University of Nottingham, 23 April 2005. See also the article hyperlinked in the referring sentence for a slightly less fervid account of these themes, which sadly names no author.

7. Some penitential texts, including extracts from Burchard’s, are gathered and translated in J. T. MacNeill & H. Gamer (eds/transl.), Medieval handbooks of penance; a translation of the principal libri poenitentiales and selections from related documents, Records of civilization: sources and studies 29 (New York 1938), but obviously matters have moved on since then. Penitentials have recently been the subject of a dedicated issue of Early Medieval Europe, Vol. 14 no. 1 (Oxford 2006), pp. 1-117, where up-to-date references can be found. The articles there include one on Burchard’s text, “Canon Law and the Practice of Penance: Burchard of Worms’s Penitential” by Luther Körntgen, pp. 103-117. Readers interested in a later period should start with the masterly study by James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago 1987). For some conversion-period material see n. 9 below.

8. For an example of the argument, see P. J. Payer, Sex and the Penitentials: the development of a sexual code 550-1150 (Toronto 1984), as reviewed by Susan A. Keefe in Speculum Vol. 61 (Cambridge 1986), pp. 453-455, online at JSTOR.

9. One other margin where such things are permissible is when one works on pagans, it seems; aside from Wyatt’s work cited in n. 6 above, see also Allen J. Frantzen, “Bede and Bawdy Bale: Gregory the Great, Angles and the ‘Angli'” in Frantzen & J. D. Niles (edd.), Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity (Gainesville 1997), pp. 17-39. The implication that Christianity brought with it sexual continence so thorough that the field becomes irrelevant to enquiry is so odd, especially given the evidence of the penitentials that it merely struggled to control the new converts’ sex-drives, that one has to ask if it is not more to do with those enquiring than with their subject. For evidence of those difficulties of control, see for example the famous Libellus Responsionum of Pope Gregory the Great, edited as part of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History:

A man who has approached his own wife is not to enter the church unless washed with water, nor is he to enter immediately although washed. The Law prescribed to the ancient people, that a man in such cases should be washed with water, and not enter into the church before the setting of the sun. Which, nevertheless, may be understood spiritually, because a man acts so when the mind is led by the imagination to unlawful concupiscence; for unless the fire of concupiscence be first driven from his mind, he is not to think himself worthy of the congregation of the brethren, whilst he thus indulges an unlawful passion.

(B. Colgrave & R. B. Mynors (edd.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford 1969, revised 1991), I.37, translation here taken from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, transl. L. C. Lane (London 1910), online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook). For latest thinking on the Libellus, see B. Friesen, “Answers and echoes: the Libellus Responsionum and the historiography of the north-western European mission” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 153-172 with abstract p. 153.

10. For example, there exists J. E. Salisbury (ed.), Medieval Sexuality: a research guide (New York 1990). Georges Duby and his school have often been commendably unafraid to include such subjects, and the obvious example is P. Ariès & G. Duby (eds), A History of Private Life. 2: Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. G. Duby, transl. A. Goldhammer (London 1988). The work of Brundage, mentioned in n. 7 above, as well as obviously-related things like J. Goody, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983) also touch it, though some such work really has little more than the clichés I’ve parrotted above. Nevertheless, dedicated work that actually relates to what and how much medieval people did about sex is very hard to find: see J. Murray, “Men’s bodies, men’s minds: seminal emissions and sexual anxiety in the Middle Ages” in Annual Review of Sex Research Vol. 8 (1997), pp. 1-21, online at FindArticles, who rightly observes that such matters are almost always addressed under the cloak of other agendas, most especially gender history or the history of medieval women. Work on marginal sexualities, like (male)13 homosexuality or prostitution, dwarfs work on heterosexual mores, and while I understand the attraction in medieval studies of border zones where things are ill-defined, I am used to being outbulked considerably by more conventional historiography. Not so here!

11. The relevant passage of Einhard’s Life is cap. 19: see O. Holder-Egger (ed.), Einhardi Vita Karoli Magna, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) XXV (Hannover 1911). Thegan’s Life of Louis the Pious is freshly edited in E. Tremp (ed.), Thegan, Die Taten Kaser Ludwigs (Gesta Hludowici Imperatoris). Astronomus, Das Leben Kaiser Ludwigs (Vita Hludowici Imperatoris), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum in usum scholarum separatim editi) LXIV (Hannover 1995); the relevant chapter is cap. 7. Both MGH texts are online. Einhard is translated in L. Thorpe (transl.), Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: two lives of Charlemagne (Harmondsworth 1969; 1984), and the older translation of S. E. Turner, Einhard: the Life of Charlemagne (New York 1880) is online in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. On interpretation, contrast S. Airlie, “Bonds of Power and Bonds of Association in the Court of Louis the Pious” in R. Collins, P. Godman (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (814-840) (Oxford 1990), pp. 191-204, with J. L. Nelson, “Women at the court of Charlemagne: a case of a monstrous regiment?” in J. Parsons (ed.), Medieval Queenship (New York, 1993) pp. 43-62 & 203-206.

12. See most recently R. M. Karras, “The history of marriage and the myth of Friedelehe” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14, pp. 119–151.

13. Work on lesbianism is almost entirely lacking, mostly because so is evidence of course. The only example I’ve ever come across, and I haven’t actually found time to see if its title is more than advertising and there is actually something to say in it, is J. C. Brown, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, Studies in the History of Sexuality (New York 1986), which anyway is much later than I’m really considering.

3 responses to “Sex and medievalists

  1. First comment! No, seriously folks. I just wanted to add for any future readers that what seems to me a more all-in take on Robert of Arbrissel can now be found in Bruce L. Venarde, “Power, Personality—and Perversity? Robert of Arbrissel (ca. 1045-1116) and His Critics” in Robert Berkhofer III, Alan Cooper, Adam J. Kosto (edd.), The Experience of Power in Medieval Europe, 950-1350: essays in honor of Thomas N. Bisson (Aldershot 2005), pp. 213-224, and probably in the full-length biography much cited therein, but I’ve only read the article, so far.

  2. I’m glad you revived this post with your comment, because it pre-dates my discovery of your blog. Medieval sexuality (both practice and ideologies about sex) is a big research interest for me at the moment, and I’m pretty disturbed by some of the reactions you’ve had from people who don’t seem to see it as ‘legitimate’. I’m intrigued by the connections between perceived threats to power/status quo and crackdowns on sexual behaviour (laws regulating/repressing prostitution etc.). I think you only have to look at the last US election to see how central ideas about sexuality are to structuring power relationships, and that alone makes it a valid and necessary field of study in my opinion.

    Another source to consider for sexual practice is medieval medical manuscripts (charms against impotence, recipes to prevent conception etc.). Although again, these are probably much more prevalent for the later Middle Ages than for your period.

    • I don’t think people see it as `not legitimate’, I think they see it as dangerous and possibly unprofessional. Since I wrote this I have learnt that it is much more of a UK thing than a US one, which is odd because the UK lay person is a lot happier talking about sex than the average US person, or so am I told…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.