On medieval kink (part 2)

OK look, things have been very distracting, what with the continued unravelling of both the US and UK. This week in the UK, our government has collapsed because a known Tory sex-pest was suddenly a problem, even though he had been Torying around most Tory-ly for years. But apparently by Tuesday it was an issue and now Boris Johnson has resigned (sorta kinda not really, IDK.)

With a major sex scandal like that you would think that our newspapers would have their hands very full! But the ever diligent Times apparently saw all that and said, “You know what? Let’s do another hit piece on BISH for talking about consensual kink. Sounds good.” Normal stuff! So, I am forced to stop refreshing news websites and actually write the second kink blog that I promised you all, because the Tory media in this country simply cannot leave my household alone.

While in the previous kink article we mostly discussed the historical interest in impact play, kink isn’t just one thing, and it doesn’t always mean pain is involved. Consider, for example, service-oriented submission. Service submissives derive deep and meaningful pleasure from performing services for their masters. The satisfaction comes from being focused on the needs of another, rather than themselves, and sometimes also in being debased or humiliated by that role.

There is a clear parallel here with the courtly love conception of ‘love service’. This is the state that the great majority of the unmarried young men who are hot for their bosses’ wives find themselves in. The woman in these cases is usually presented as emotionally aloof, and for good reason. After all, she is usually from a very high social position and her entire career is predicated on being a good wife to her powerful husband. In order to win her affections the man in question then performs all sorts of feats – you know, taking part in a joust, or taking up a quest, that sort of thing. But it can also involve ritual humiliation in service to a woman.

Lancelot in the cart, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, MS 3480, f. 59.

A prime example of this comes to us from Chrétien de Troyes’ (c. 1160-1191) “The Knight of the Cart” which is a Guinevere and Lancelot story. This was the first story that depicts Lancelot as a lover, and in it Chrétien pulls pretty much every literary trope out of the bag to establish him as such. The story begins with Guinevere being kidnapped by Meleangant, the king of Gorre. Lancelot kills two horses trying to ride after her, and is eventually caught up by Sir Gawain. (Shout out Dev Patel.) At this point they meet a dwarf with a cart. He says that he will tell them where Guinevere is, if they ride in his cart. This is meant as a humiliation because knights ride on horseback not in carts. Gawain says no, which clearly shows that he isn’t in love with Guinevere.

Lancelot, in contrast, struggles to make up his mind because “…common sense, which is inconsistent with love’s dictates, bids him refrain from getting in, warning him and counselling him to do and undertake nothing for which he may reap shame and disgrace. Reason, which dares thus speak to him, reaches only his lips, but not his heart; but love is enclosed within his heart, bidding him and urging him to mount at once upon the cart. So he jumps in, since love will have it so, feeling no concern about the shame, since he is prompted by love’s commands.”[1]

The fact that he is debasing himself by riding in a cart is brought up over and over throughout the story, with random characters absolutely ripping into him for it. He also does several feats including lifting heavy stones, beating up three dudes with axes, escaping a weird trap where if he sleeps in a bed it will kill him, and walking over a bridge of swords. Finally, he agrees to fight a duel for Guinevere and she is released. When the duel comes up in a year (the whole duel in a year thing is big in Arthuriana), Guinevere asks him to throw it in order to prove his love for her – which would be humiliating. He agrees. Then she changes her mind mid-battle and tells him to win. He does. She gives him a hug. The end.

Lancelot passing over the sword bridge, BNF MS Fr 115, f. 367 v.

Now of course, this is a literary example, not a real one, but it codifies the sort of ritual humiliation that was expected of love service. Men were expected to debase themselves and what they got in return was being able to say that they were in love and loved. The humiliation was the relationship and the end goal. Having said that, sex was always sort of hinted at. Sure, Lancelot and Guinevere don’t get down in that particular story, but they sure do in others.

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At times, explicit literary links were made between servile debasement and the promise of sex as a cautionary tale. In the thirteenth-century a French text called the Lai d’Artistote began to circulate a new text alleging that Aristotle was a thirsty little s. It was popular enough that by the fifteenth century it had been recorded by a Dominican monk working in the German lands called Johann Herolt (d. 1468) in his Promptuarium exemplorum. It went a little something like this:

“Aristotle, when he was teaching Alexander [the Great] that he should restrain himself from frequently approaching his wife, who was very beautiful, lest he should impede his spirit from seeking the general good. Alexander acquiesced to him. The queen, noticing this and grieving, began to draw Aristotle to love her. She often crossed paths with him alone, with bare feet and loose hair, to entice him.

 At last, being attracted to her, he began to solicit her carnally. She said, ‘I will not do this, unless I see a sign of love, in case you are testing me. Therefore, come to my room crawling on hands and feet, to carry me like a horse. Then I’ll know that you aren’t playing with me.’ 

When he had consented to this condition, she informed Alexander of this, who lying in wait, apprehended him carrying the queen. When Alexander wished to kill Aristotle, Aristotle excused himself thus:

‘If it happens to a very wise old man, that I was deceived by a woman, you can see that I had taught you well, what could happen to a young man.’

Upon hearing this, the king spared him, and made progress in his learning.” [2]

Phyllis riding Aristotle BNF MS Fr. 95.

I love this story because it is just so medieval. They absolutely love a bit of fanfic, don’t they? Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great? Sure, why not! Also, Alexander likes chicks now. Lol. It isn’t that they think that this is something that actually happened, but using these well known historical personages is an excellent was to get across important points about sex. First, this plays on all of your standard “women are horny sex monsters who will destroy you/the world if they have to” tropes. Second it shows that even smart guys like him can be tricked into humiliating pony-play by hot chicks. Because chicks love that and are very into it, or whatever.

All of which brings us to a last point for today which is that our society, like medieval society, is still treating kink and sex more generally as a sort of social contagion. I had to start writing these articles because a bunch of rabid haters were behaving as though acknowledging that kink exists when young people ask about it is tantamount to infecting those same young people with said kinks. Aristotle’s willingness to abase himself after being presented with one hot barefoot chick with bed head is representative of this concern, but there are plenty of others.

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example, confessors were specifically told not to describe the sexual practices that they were questioning their penitents about, lest they inspire the lusts that they were trying to root out. Elsewhere, and outside of an explicitly religious context, Jacques Despars (1380-1458), the magister regens of the Paris faculty of medicine from 1411 to 1419 warned of the catching nature of sexual depravity in his commentary on Avicenna. According to him, “It would be possible … to relate several types of sodomite coitus which men and women abusively indulge in, and establish between them comparisons on their advantages and disadvantages, but I judge it better to keep silence, so that human nature, inclined towards evil and towards the exercise of new lusts, may not attempt, on hearing them. To put them into practice, and thus prejudice one’s honour and one’s soul.”[3]

Here we see the classic definition of sodomy and, well, the idea that having sex that isn’t about having kids treated as a perversion – a kink – and one that is genuinely catching. Even in a medical context one had to be careful not to give people ideas.

Sexy sexy flagellants in the Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

Elsewhere, we also see worry that expressly painful forms of kink may have been contagious. In 1349 when the Black Death was ravaging Hungary, a Polish chronicler wrote of what he perceived as the expressly sexual phenomenon of flagellants who cropped up there. According to him, “Many settlements and towns were depopulated and great throngs of people from Hungary and neighbouring regions marched through the land while whipping themselves. They threw themselves to the ground and summoned others to repentance and atonement. Young and old women from the towns were also there, with close-cropped hair, moving about in the processions as if in a state of mania whipping themselves. They spent nights in the woods with a certain Gregorius, whom they regarded as a saint. Seduced by the devil, many of them were led to hell.”[4]

This pretty much says it all. The dude in question was absolutely sure that what was going on with these flagellants was expressly sexual. Whipping yourself and humiliating yourself in public? Sexual. Gathering a bunch of people on the way as a result? A form of sexual contagion. Camping out in the woods with said group of followers? Orgy city. Just one huge BDSM scene that might be coming to a town near you any moment now, and seducing away your women and causing them to get cute little pixie cuts. The horror.

Of course, all the hand-wringing that kink is catching is indicative of the real worry of all these haters – that kink is fun for some people and people might like it. Every time a priest is told not to discuss kink, or a doctor declines to describe something that people might try, they are basically admitting that these are a range of activities that people actually enjoy. They firmly believe that the only thing stopping us all from joining a BDSM orgy cult is apparently that we never knew that was available. It is that exact same fear that is animating the pearl-clutching haters currently trying to put a stop to comprehensive relationships and sex education. They fully believe that young people can be prevented from ever becoming kinky if they simply aren’t given the option to ever learn that kink exists.

This is incredibly stupid. It is also dangerous. If you pretend that the only reason someone will ever get interested in BDSM is that they learned it from someone else, then you deny them ways of interacting with their kinks safely. A little pony ride here or there is probably not going to lead to any long term damage, but a session of flogging and rolling on the ground absolutely can if you don’t know what you are doing.

Some light spanking, Walters Manuscript W.88, fol. 163r.

If we want to pretend that we have learned anything about sexuality since the honest to god medieval period then we need to be real about the fact that there are all kinds of sex that people get up to and that is OK. Giving people information about kink does absolutely nothing to force people to be kinky – it just protects them from harming themselves if they decide they want to try it.

If all these people were really concerned about sex and violence they would be a lot more angry at the Tory party right now, instead of attacking people and groups that are trying to offer the comprehensive relationships and sex education that years of austerity have rendered almost impossible in this country. Kink has always existed, and we should be supporting projects like BISH that are helping people navigate that fact and their own lives safely. I am serious. Go support BISH. I am so tired. Jesus christ.

[1] W.W. Comfort (trans.), Lancelot, or The Knight of the Cart, (New York, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1914), Vv. 237 – 398. http://www.public-library.uk/ebooks/54/35.pdf <Accessed 8 July 2022>.
[2] Translated form the Latin quoted in, George Sarton, ‘Aristotle and Phyllis’, Isis, Vol. 14. 1 (May 1930), 12-13.
[3] Quoted in Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasette, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans, Mathew Adamson, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 159.
[4]Annales Mechovienses, quoted in Niklaus Largier, In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, (New York: Zane Books, 2007), p. 129.


For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On medieval kink (part one)
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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Want more audio medieval history? Check out my podcast, We’re Not So Different.

My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

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