On medieval kink (part one)

Because my job is what it is, and my partner’s is what his is, we have the delightful opportunity of occasionally getting to be the subject of hit pieces from the absolute muck-raking depths of the UK media industry. The other week, we went through that again while a bunch of people pearl clutched over the amazing and important relationships and sex education over at BISH (where I have also written before!) was targeted because it dared to acknowledge the fact that kink exists to young people. (Please support BISH and the work going on over there, just by the by. It will piss off the Daily Mail.)

Later, I was alerted by friend of the blog and all-around great tattoo historian Dr Matt Lodder, that this probably had something to do with an absolutely wild group of people called We Can’t Consent. I am not going to link to these people’s site because they simply do not deserve the traffic, but suffice to say that they appear to simply be a bunch of people who really hate that kink exists and who are attempting to lobby politicians here to make it illegal to consent to BDSM. They, among other things, encourage you to write to your government officials to legislate that you ‘cannot be said to consent to your violent assault’ in the name of ‘protecting women’. This will, of course, be news to the legions of BDSM enthusiasts who very much can and do consent to all manner of things which are probably none of our business.

Now the thing that this group seems to do is focus on the idea that violence against women is new and that it can be linked expressly to a greater acceptance of kink in the world. And it is that second point that I want to talk about today, because groups like the idiots at the Daily Mail, and these campaigners have a tendency to treat kink and an interest in rough sex as a modern phenomenon which spreads by contagion. They present kink as a learned behaviour – usually from porn and also apparently the Fifty Shades series, and as nothing more than a mask for violence, rather than a specific sexual interest. To this I say, lol and also lmao.

The Flagellation of Christ, Morgan Library MS M.1000 fol. 136v.

It is incredibly funny to think of BDSM as a new preoccupation when we have so many first hand accounts of medieval people, well, being quite into it. One of those is what I would call not my favourite source because it comes from Peter Abelard (c. 1079 – 1142), and, well I have a complex relationship with him. As did Heloise d’Argenteuil (c. 1100 – 1163). See we know that Abelard was very much was always hot for Heloise by his own admission and that after seeing her he was, ‘utterly aflame with [his] passion for this maiden, [so he] sought to discover means whereby [he] might have daily and familiar speech with her, thereby the more easily to win her consent. For this purpose [he] persuaded [Heloise’s] uncle, with the aid of some of his friends to take him into his household.’ But here is the thing, the minute he is considering a sexual relationship with Heloise, for him that is absolutely bound up with what we would see as BDSM. In his own words, Heloise’s uncle was a fool to allow him this position because ‘what had he done save to give free scope to my desires, and to offer me every opportunity, even if I had not sought it, to bend her to my will with threats and blows if I failed to do so with caresses?’

And apparently Heloise was very receptive to this, as Abelard states ‘Why should I say more? We were united first in the dwelling that sheltered our love, and then in the hearts that burned with it. Under the pretext of study we spent our hours in the happiness of love, and learning held out to us the secret opportunities that our passion craved. Our speech was more of love than of the books which lay open before us; our kisses far outnumbered our reasoned words. Our hands sought less the book than each other’s bosoms — love drew our eyes together far more than the lesson drew them to the pages of our text. In order that there might be no suspicion, there were, indeed, sometimes blows, but love gave them, not anger; they were the marks, not of wrath, but of a tenderness surpassing the most fragrant balm in sweetness. What followed? No degree in love’s progress was left untried by our passion, and if love itself could imagine any wonder as yet unknown, we discovered it. And our inexperience of such delights made us all the more ardent in our pursuit of them, so that our thirst for one another was still unquenched.’[1]

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For Abelard hitting thus has a complex connotation. In the first instance, it was used to disguise the sexual and romantic nature of their relationship, in that hitting was an expected pedagogical method at the time. However, as a part of this it was very much a part of the expression of both desire and love, and an aspect of a sort of experimental approach to sex and their relationship as a whole.

Abelard and Heloise, presumably engaged in post-play discussion.

It is of course very easy to see Abelard as just a danger of a man who had no business near any young woman ever. But even years after the fact, with Abelard castrated and away from her, Heloise references her own love for him, and her personal desire to be seen as his subordinate, something which she expressly connects to her sexual passion for him. She writes, ‘Judge of the exquisite sensibility and force of my love by that which causes the grief of my soul; I was disturbed at the superscription of your letter! why did you place the name of Heloise before that of Abelard? what means this most cruel and unjust distinction? ‘Twas your name only, the name of Father, and of a Husband, which my eager eyes sought after. I did not look for my own … The rules of decorum, and the character of Master and Director which you have over me, opposed that ceremonious manner of addressing me; and Love commanded you to banish it. …  I see your heart has deserted me, and you have made greater advances in the way of devotion than I could wish. Alas! I am too weak to follow you; condescend at least to stay for me, and animate me with your advice.’[2]

Here Heloise sees herself still first and foremost as Abelard’s subordinate lover, who should be seen definitively as lesser than him, her Master. She also refers expressly to her inability to rid herself of her desires for her Master and is asking him still for directives, and possibly to do some light dom work in the preamble of letters to her in the future. I mean, that right there is what we would very much characterise as power dynamic play now. And I would go so far as to say, wow Heloise is thirsty for it. Love that for her.

Heloise was by no means the only enthusiastic sub who saw themself in a romantic relationship with a tutor who hit them, however. We also have the testimony of Guibert of Nogent (1055 – 1124) a Benedictine monk and theologian who lived in France, and for impact play with his Master. In his autobiography he wrote that ‘However oppressive he was, my master made it clear to me in all kinds of ways that he loved me no less than he loved himself … As for me, though I was somewhat clumsy and shy for my age, I had such a liking for him – stripped as my poor little skin might have been by his many whiplashes – that I obeyed him, not out of fear (as would generally be the case in relationships like these) but out of some curious feeling of love, which overwhelmed my whole being and made me forget all his harshness.’[3]

A novice master, hitting his students in a normal way. BL Burney MS 275 f.94r.

Interests in a sexual reading of violence can also be seen throughout the medieval period in religious art. The historian Katheryn Gravdal has described the overtly erotic religious art that we come across as ‘a sanctioned space in which eroticism can flourish and in which male voyeurism becomes licit, if not advocated.’[4] And in these spaces we see well, rather a lot of art that reflects an interest in BDSM. There is of course, ubiquitous sub-twink St Sebastian, who we have covered before – but the virgin martyr saints also feature prominently in this. Consider, for example Master Francke’s (b.c. 1380)  gothic masterpiece the St Barbara Altar, which stood in a church in Kalanti, Finland until some time in the nineteenth century and is now in the National Museum of Finland. It tells the popular story of St Barbara’s (third century) martyrdom but is incredibly heavy on the parts of her story where she faces corporeal punishment. I mean, just have a look:

Geißelung der hl. Barbara from the Barbara Altarpiece.

There she is, tied up, stripped, being beaten with a whip and about to have her breasts cut off and she is just … smiling about it.

We also see it a lot, with, for example, St Agatha of Sicily (third century), who famously had her breasts removed in torture and then had them restored as one of her miracles.

St Agatha, from KB nationale bibliotheek Netherlands.

Images like this give viewers the chance to play the part of what we would call a switch. They can decide whether they see themselves in the torturers or in the person of the saint. As William Burgwinkle and Cary Howie put it, ‘The viewer of such scenes will almost inevitably flip between identification with the torturer, wielding his power, and the saint who intuits this torture as his opening onto transcendence.’[5] You can decide what kind of power play you want to relate to and what the meaning of the suffering is.

Of course, part of this is also deciding whether or not you relate to these images as sexual at all. Because yes, of course, the placid and even delighted looks on these women’s faces are a symbol of their delight in torment for the sake of their Christianity. But this also acts as a cover though for art that is pretty titillating. (I didn’t intend that pun but I am leaving it here.) And we know that is it seen as sexual because we have actual factual early modern people tell us they find it sexy.

I know I have quoted him before but the Lutheran dude from Strassborg was very clear that he ‘often had base thoughts when [he] looked upon the female saints on the altars.’[6] When someone tells you that something makes them horny, believe them the first time. Even if they are weird little Protestant freaks trying to get you to whitewash your church.

So there you have it, not only were medieval people engaging in relationships which involved impact and power dynamic play, but they were also making porn about it. In fact, there is SO MUCH MORE TO SAY ABOUT THIS TOPIC THAT I AM NOT EVEN DONE AND I WILL HAVE TO PICK IT BACK UP NEXT WEEK. Why? Well I haven’t even covered love service and femme dommes in courtly love literature, aftercare and fantasy, and suspicion of BDSM enthusiasts and, ahem, a worry that kink is a contagion that other people can catch.

You can go ahead and treat BDSM as a modern phenomenon that can somehow be legislated out of existence, but you would be wrong. You weird prudes.  

[1] Abelard, Historia Calamitatum, Chapter VI ‘Of how, brought low by his love for Heloise, he was wounded in body and soul’, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/abelard-histcal.asp <Accessed 23 June 2022>.
[2] Heloise, ‘Letter IV Heloise to Abelard’, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35977/35977-h/35977-h.htm, <Accessed 23 June 2022>.
[3] Paul J. Archambault, A Monk’s Confessions: The Memoirs of Gilbert of Nogent (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 19.
[4] Kateryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 24.
[5] William E. Burgwinkle and Cary Howie, Sanctity and Pornography in Medieval Culture: On the Verge, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), p. 78.
[6] Quoted in Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 88.

For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On conflating drag, and femininity with sexuality
On sex with demons
On “alpha” men, sexual contagion, and poorly disguised misogyny
That’s not what sodomy is, but OK
On sexualising the “other”

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now in the Americas, and available for pre-order in the UK, Aus, and NZ.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

One thought on “On medieval kink (part one)”

  1. Thank you for this piece! I feel so torn about this whole We Can’t Consent To This -campaign, as their goal (less women strangled to death!) is commendable, but their means (harsher carceral punishments!) are so ass-backwards. To be sure, there’s a lot of misogynistic awful sex going on in the world, and it sometimes unfortunately results in death, but the solution to that is lots and lots more comprehensive conversations about sex & misogyny and the ways in which they’re intertwined. As well as more & better sex education, including education about safe BDSM. I mean, when have harsher punishments ever decreased the activity they were supposed to? That campaign feels more like revenge than prevention. And I’m afraid that their good intentions will only have bad consequences in limiting open & informative conversations about sex.

    Anyway, thanks for discussing sexual themes in religious art! It’s so strange how people can look at all these nude and rude paintings and sculptures throughout history and just go “nope, nothing sexual here, since perversion is entirely a modern invention”. The often assumed purity of historical peoples is truly a baffling phenomenon.


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