Medieval perception of women’s sexuality
The first two Medieval Mondays posts on sex focused on proper sexual conduct as dictated by the Church.
But no discussion about sex, be it in a historical or a modern context, can be deemed complete without a parallel discussion about the societal perception of women as sexual beings, as well as their sexual agency, or lack thereof.
The two topics are intrinsically linked.
Three years ago, I decided that writing a research essay on some aspect of medieval history once a month would be a good idea.
To be clear, it was a good idea. Although I’d already written the first draft of the first book of my historical fiction trilogy in 2006, I went on a six year writing hiatus after that, during which time I’d convinced myself I was giving up writing forever.
(Continued from Part 1)
The previous post on sex in the Middle Ages discussed its various contradictions as espoused by the medieval Church.
Another important inconsistency was that even though sex was considered a requirement between spouses, this didn’t mean just any sexual act was acceptable.
Sex and sexual relationships in the Middle Ages, much like during any age, were fraught with contradictions.
Most of these contradictions stemmed from the involvement of the medieval Church in dictating proper sexual conduct. In turn, according to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, the Church’s involvement was owing to the fact that,
Many theologians were completely unable to reconcile sex and the sacred because sex was viewed as something unholy and unclean (p. 86).
As discussed in the previous post on the medieval Church, church life in the Middle Ages was life.
The services it provided contributed to every key turning point in people’s existence. According to John R.H. Moorman, author of Church Life in the Thirteenth Century,
It gave first, the regular worship of the Church on Sundays and weekdays. It gave also the opportunities of Christian baptism, matrimony and burial, together with a little teaching and some spiritual direction mainly administered in the confessional. Further, it offered to the sick and the dying spiritual comfort and perhaps, in some places, medical help as well. (p. 151)
In the medieval world, the influence of the Church was ubiquitous.
The average modern inhabitant of the western world, even a religious one, might struggle to conceive of how much this was the case.
If there’s one aspect of medieval knights that tends to be grossly exaggerated in mainstream media, it’s the amount of time they spent in open warfare.
To begin with, as previously discussed in my post on the feudal system, a “knight’s fee”—that is, the assorted obligations a vassal owed his lord in exchange for the land he lived upon—was both passive and active in nature.