On treating sex with the utmost reverence

For my last post of this garbage year I wanted to write you something festive. Maybe about commemoration, or compilation, or Christmas traditions of some kind. Then I logged into twitter and well lord forgive me, but it is time to go back to the old me.

You see, the first thing I was presented with as my poor tired eyes struggled to adjust to the weak light of a December morning was this:

Now, of course, this stirring crie de coure was posted by an honest to god white supremacist who is bemoaning the fact that ladies be having sex, or, whatever. This man’s insistence on using the term “Anglo Saxon” which medieval historians are moving away from tells you a lot about his stance there. Luckily, my colleague, who specialises in Medieval England, Erik Wade broke down the issue with the misuse of the term and why chuds use it over on Twitter, so I do encourage you to go read that as well.

So, what I want to talk about today is how the idea that the past is a monogamous place full of people who treated sex as “sacred” is a) not real, and b) used as a weapon to argue for eugenics. As such, it has to be countered as vociferously as possible at all times.

Now I am not the first to have noticed that this take is absolutely ahistorical, but I am especially well placed to do so given that when challenged on the ahistoric nature of this take, with reference to the fact that in the Epic of Gilgamesh the oldest surviving work of literature in the world begins with a sex worker seducing the hero, this brain genius clarified thusly:

So this is where I come in.

All you have to do is go to the “Sex” part of this blog’s A-Z and you will, of course, see that I have written quite extensively on the subject and that sex was not, in fact “treated with the utmost reverence” by “our ancestors” in the Christian West. Sex was, instead treated in a highly ambivalent way.

To be sure, from a Christian theological standpoint there was an ideal way to approach sex. That was not to have it. The ideal individual would devote their life to God as a member of the clergy and simply opt out of the whole sex thing. This is because sex, and the attendant pleasure that individuals experienced as a part of it, was a direct result of the Fall of Man. Had Eve never eaten that damn apple, it would have been possible, according to St Augustine, to have sex without experiencing pleasure.[1]

Instead, people would simply will themselves into having erect penises and wet vaginas. Slot A would envelop Tab B, the penis would ejaculate on command, conception would happen, and all with the passion and pleasure of making a cup of coffee. Maybe less as coffee is pretty great.

So ideal individuals were those who were wary of any sort of sexual contact, eschewed it, and devoted their lives to worshipping God in the clergy.

A very reverential picture from British Library MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 177. 

On the other hand, new humans had to be made, so some people were going to have to have sex. The way to control for the sinful and lustful nature of sex, according to the clergy, was for those individuals to get married and have sex specifically and only with each other whilst also attempting to procreate. Any sex that couldn’t lead to children was sodomy. Sodomy was always forbidden. Sex should always theoretically result in more children. Any other type of sex, whether extramarital or sodomitical should be confessed and repented for.

So this is all well and good and very cute of the Catholic Church to state. Trouble is, that you can’t actually dictate that this happen because it turns out people really really like sex. Like, a lot.

For a start, while the clergy were meant to be acting as arbiters of sexual impurity as well as celibate examples for ordinary people, they pretty famously were not always great on that one. Indeed before the Gregorian Reforms of the eleventh century there were plenty of clergy members who were married themselves and having plenty of sex. So much so that the moral authority of the clergy was under question to the point that the Gregorian Reforms were, you know, required. Pope Gregory VII (c. 1015-1085) thus duly made one of the most successful pushes for clerical celibacy and from that point onward clergy members were supposed to keep it in their pants.

This did not work.

Clergy members kept on having sex. Sometimes they had sex with each other and wrote sweet little love notes about it.[1] Sometimes they had sex with women living alongside them as their concubines. Sometimes they had sex with the sex workers who were considered absolutely necessary by Church authorities to the ordering of society.[2] Sometimes, they just straight up fled their convents in order to get the D. My boy, the fourteenth-century preacher Jan Milíč z Kroměříže decried the sexual profligacy of the clergy, lamenting that “Virgins dedicated to Good.. are not enclosed, but some run through the world … some have dances with their lovers in the precincts of the monastery and wihtout a blush take their lovers … to their cells. … [and that] the rulers of the churches [Bishops] ….either concubinaries or simoniacs destroy the holy Church rather than build it up.”[3]

Obviously, then even clergy members were never totally celibate. Sure, they wished to be, and sometimes even strove to be, but the lascivious clergy member was common enough that it is a trope in medieval literature. There is a reason that we see nuns harvesting the penises from the tree in BNF Roman de la Rose manuscript is what I am saying.

Let’s hear it for the ladies of BNF MS 25526, everyone!

Of course there is also all of the non-clergy members to consider. Spoiler: they were also not great at the whole only having sex within marriage and specifically in order to get pregnant thing. The thing is that although sex within marriage was allowed, it was just considered fundamentally not that sexy. Indeed, while marriage was very much considered a religious state, so too was it seen as a specific contract between families. Marriages, especially among the upper classes were frequently conducted for business or dynastic reasons and it was entirely normal for people to end up married to individuals that were not necessarily their first choices.

It is for this reason that the entire genre of courtly love literature sprang up. You know, the entire corpus of medieval works about having sex with women who were married to someone else? Yes. That. Because sex with one’s husband was a duty that one participated in. Sex with one’s lover was about, well, love. Also hot sex. Indeed the anticipation of extramarital sex was such that it was generally agreed that women groomed themselves not for their husbands, but their lovers. One spurned husband in the Roman de la Rose lamented this inarguable truth thus:

“Is it for me that you amuse yourself?
Is it for me you lead so gay a life?
Who do you think that you’re deceiving now?
I never thought to see such dressing up
As that with which you waken the desires
Of ribald lechers…
To dances and to church alike they wear
Their finery, which surely they’d not do
Did they not hope the men who see them there
Would thus be pleased – more quickly to be seduced.”[4]

An extremely reverential outdoor handjob from the Belles Heures of Jean de France, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1) Folio 191r.

For the average person (i.e., peasants) this was, of course, not the case. Peasants and other commoners had much more freedom about who to marry, given that they weren’t busy starting wars over dynastic spats. Even there, we know that many marriages in the Early Modern period between common people, as many as one in five were conducted when the bride was already pregnant, which we assume pretty safely holds true of the medieval period. The flip side of this is that plenty of women also found themselves pregnant with men who would not end up becoming their husbands.

One fifteenth-century poem, “A Servant-Girl’s Holiday” noted the propensity for common people to have a little too much fun at festivals and end up in inconvenient situations. The protagonist of the song recounts her day off thusly:

“Jack will pay for my share
On Sunday at the ale-feast;
Jack will souse well my throat
Every good holiday.
Soon he will take me by the hand
And he will lay be on the ground
So that my buttocks are in the dirt
Upon this high holiday.
In he thrust and in he drew
And ever I lay beneath him:
‘By God’s death, you do me wrong
Upon this high holiday!’
Soon my womb will begin to swell
As great as a bell.
I dare not tell my lady
What happened to me this holiday.”[5]

Sex, then, wasn’t something that was treated as a sacred covenant by everyone. Did the Church want you to? Yes obviously they did. Could they even live up to that standard themselves? No. Jesus are you joking? Sex was had where sex was had by the people who wanted to have it. Then as now.

Of course there was pushback against, you know, all the extramarital non-procreative sex. One need only to look at the penance that was meted out for women who used dildos to see that there were those in the Church who very much considered themselves engaged in a war against sex. Thing of it is, by the very existence of such penitentials we see that there was never a point when unacceptable sex was ever totally curtailed. People were threatened with burning in hell for their lust in church frescoes because they were having unacceptable sex. They were given penance by their priests because they were having unacceptable sex. They were lectured from the pulpit by their clergy members because they were having unacceptable sex. The very existence of correctors shows us that they were necessary because people kept violating the rules.

The punishment of the lustful in Hell. Are you not dissuaded?? Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, SA 3390, fol. 36v

To ignore the nuanced and varied history of sex in order call sex now a result of the “triumph of the merchant” is to completely ignore the fact that the traditional medieval and early modern conceptions of sex within marriage were almost entirely transactional in nature. Sex, as I have argued repeatedly was very much conceptualised as an object and a debt that one person owed another within marriage. This sex was exchanged in order to secure heirs.

Moreover the promise of access to this sex was very much the means by which marriages were negotiated. Sex was a commodity traded between families and marriage the contract by which it was secured. Indeed, by saying that sex must necessarily only take place inside of a married context for the getting of heirs the very conception becomes immediately commodified and brokered between interested parties.

Equally laughable is the idea that sex was always “revered” by our Christian ancestors, belied as it is by the utter glee that they quite obviously took in profane images. Whether we are talking about obscene pilgrim badges commemorating all the sex that you may have had while away, (or the pregnancy you were hoping to secure through pilgrimage, we aren’t sure!), the marginalia of couples going down on each other, the endless parade of dicks that pop up everywhere from dragons’ hats to standing in for manicules, it is abundantly clear that medieval people also just though sex was pretty funny. Doesn’t matter if you were a cloistered monk decorating the pages of books for the glory of god, odds are you were gonna draw a dick in there. Cuz it’s funny.

Reverential AF in British Library Add 18852, fol. 299r 

So anyway, yes clearly the idea that there is some sort of pure holy Christian past that we are straying away from is absolute nonsense and a exists only as a construct in this sad little white supremacist’s head. Indeed, if anything I would argue that we are probably more monogamous now than medieval people were. After all, the way that we currently relate to marriage is that it is a relationship wherein we are supposed to receive everything from the other person. Our spouses are supposed to be our hottest lovers, our best friends, our family members, and if we are religious our spiritual equals. That is … way more than medieval people expected from one relationship. We are therefore becoming increasingly monogamous, asking that one relationship do more and more work for us, and edging out older traditional relationship models which include an extended family as well as the larger community. Also maybe banging that cute guy over there on the sly. Who knows!

Whilst I have just written over two thousand words about how this is a factually incorrect nazi wank fantasy, the sad truth is that the pathetic young man who has manufactured it is not arguing from either any sort of historical fact or from good faith and it is of course wasted on him and his ilk. Individuals like this have never read any history, or any of the innumerate primary sources which will quickly show that the idea that the past was a very sacred and serious place where absolutely no one was having sex in the dirt next to the alehouse at the festival is a nonsense. Instead, they are actively involved in myth making, attempting to put forward an idea of a non-extant whitewashed past to argue for the hateful present that they desire. They locate their ideal world in the past in order to argue that their eugenic relationship to sex is not only possible, but used to be the norm. This is not the case.

The human relationship to sex is complex, multi-layered, and constantly changing. It has a history that is equally intricate, and which has to be studied to understand. Now, more than ever, it is important that we pay attention to the past and treat the study of sexuality as a viable and important practice. If we don’t, white supremacists will absolutely attempt to control a fictitious narrative about sex and use it as a way of forcing their morality on us all.

Merry fucking christmas. Tip your local sex historian.

[1] Augustine, City of God, Book XIV, 16. The evil of lust, in the specifically sexual meaning.
[2] See Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Ride of European Love-Lyric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 482.
[3] See, just so many cases in the Ivan Hlaváček and Zdeňka Hledíková (eds.), Protocollum visitationis archidiaconatus Pragensis annis 1379–1382 per Paulum de Janowicz archidiaconum Pragensem factae, (Prague, 1973).  Like, so many. Christ.
[4] “To Urban V”, in The Message for the Last Days, Three Essats from the Year 1367, ed. Milan Opočenský and Jana Opočenská (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1998), p. 27.
[5] Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Harry W. Robbins (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962), p. 172, p. 182.
[6] The Oxford Book of Medieval English Verse, eds. Ceilia Sisam and Kenneth Sisam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 452-454. Following Ruth Mazo Karras’s modernization in, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 3rd edn., (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 134.

If you enjoyed this, please consider contributing to my patreon. If not, that is chill too!

For more on sex in the medieval period, see:

On sex with demons
The Medieval Sex Apocalypse on Drinking with Historians
Doing it Right – A Short Introduction to Medieval Sex for Nerd Nite
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
Talking sex in the medieval times on Holly Randall Unfiltered
On the plague, sex, and rebellion
No beastiality was never OK, you absolute rabid weirdo
On courtly love and pickup artists
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”
On Jezebel, makeup, and other apocalyptic signs
On Sex, Logic, and Being the Subject
The Medieval Podcast – Medieval Sexuality with Eleanor Janega
On the Objectification of Sex
On “the way of carnal lust”, Joan of Leeds, and the difficulty of clerical celibacy
On Dildos and Penance
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at Bish!
Sex and the (medieval) city: social hygiene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
These hoes ain’t loyal – on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hip hop culture

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

6 thoughts on “On treating sex with the utmost reverence”

  1. Great post, amazng medieval images. And you know, that sneering reference to “the merchant” has an unmistakable whiff of anti-Semitism about it. I suspect yer man is an admirer of Ezra Pound, for all the wrong reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

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