One of the most interesting discoveries from reading about medieval sexuality is how sex is discussed, then and now. While colloquially some say dirty (dirty = out of place) words like ‘bang’, ‘pound’, and ‘fuck’ as verbs one subject does to an object, nowadays we say we have sex or make love. Sex with two subjects. Sex done unto someone was the commonplace for medieval Europe, however, with the onus on the at-the-time penetrating partner, or partners depending on taste and inhibition. While sexist accounts mean we know scarce about women or nonbinary ‘masculine’ penetrators, the same subject-verb logic likely applied.
This change in usage: to ‘have-sex’ or ‘make-love’, is remarkable because cultural changes, namely successive equality movements brought about by materialist (labour saving technology) and idealist (feminist) forces have changed how a culture materially functions and ideally expresses itself; changing subject-verb use. Sex is something we ‘have’ together, or more romantically something that adds to something deeper—lust to love, that we ‘make’ together. Of course, depending on gender play roles will vary and alter (some leatherdyke boys ask to have it ‘done unto’ them, for instance), but the common usage of ‘we’ espouses how far equality has come, how the feminine is no longer automatically deemed passive but as equal. The move to more equality in workplace roles in the office has, as language and Google search statistics suggest, corresponding to more equality in gender roles in the bedroom.
Another interesting insight is the pervasiveness of sex and media, compared to then. The present preoccupation with sex and sexed bodies comes from our material plenitude; sex and pleasure only became priorities when the priority of what food would-be-eaten and what would-happen-to a sinned soul had been allayed. The mention of ‘the body’ to medieval people would likely have evoked corpses, and the flesh of Christ more than it would skimpy celebrities. They had chaste Saints, instead. Depictions of bodies were chaste, and the role of sex was embroiled with sex as reproduction; the status of sex for pleasure rather than sex for purpose was debated in the medieval centuries as to what was holy, or not, genuine or simulacrum, to God; and heterosexual sex was inevitably tied to reproduction for lack of reliable contraception. In any case, it is probable that medieval people’s fetishment were centred around fasting and feasting rather than abstinence and sex. (The symbolic significance of food extends into post-medieval renaissance paintings where food, like a peach, can mean fertility, youthfulness and decay). As natural as sex is, it is not inevitable for a community to have sex—monks and nuns do not. Whereas sex is only necessary for human generations, food is essential for everyone always. And for medieval people, to not think about and to not have sex was the cultural standard and default instead; there was no comparable media discourse and advertising about sex or which used sex on a daily basis. Instead of sex being put to the fore of consciousness, death was—little skulls engraved with ‘remember death’, or in the Latin ‘memento mori’ were as commonplace and normal as a Windows icon.
Your body was not only yours but God’s also, a vessel for the soul; so taking care of your body and exerting mindful control over matter, spirit over body, was deemed admirable for medieval people for whom sex was regulated as marriage-bound. In some respects the romantic reverence for ‘experience’ of all kinds whether new travel or new partners or new films is a contemporary invention; even our experiences are deemed as consumables and we have the right to ‘experience’ regardless of how good that experience is – it is assumed, by nature, always to be good, to be natural. But given that ‘nature’ is anything that can happen, then, it is not natural or naturally good, to have novelty, because medieval people lived parochial sex lives in parochial communities. Lives, which were just as meaningful and valid as ours, despite mismatching our biased standards; jarring with the modern snobbishness to condescend people from the past, but, in principle, never people from elsewhere. For some reason prejudice by time is allowed, but not prejudice by space.
Perhaps, because past humans cannot answer back against their inferiority or barbarity. In fact, the barbarity of the medieval ages is exaggerated since most of history is not memory but the few mythic constructions that are salient in collective imagination discerned from fiction and reinterpreted texts. Christianity, torturous violence, and repression are the take-homes of mediocre school classes and, while there are prominent pearls of truth to these, the role of The Church provided a valuable interkingdom infrastructure and the base of knowledge acquisition rather than ruining everyone’s fun; the torturous violence is an exaggeration; and the repression idea assumes that we ourselves aren’t repressed, and that sex is some Freudian energy that has had its lid finally taken off. It hasn’t, for as Michel Foucault says, as we work against the power of repression we choose to be repressed by different concerns – still about regulating sex.
Shockingly, we are more closeted about sex education and the private sphere than they were in many ways. Medieval children knew the ins and outs of sex in preparation for pubescence. Wedding ceremonies often ended with the married, naked, in a publicly displayed bed. Breasts are likely more fetished today than then. Breasts have been supported by contraptions since Ancient Greece, but breasts were more exposed freely then; for Medieval people breasts were most obviously for feeding babies more than sexual fetishment. And our media exacerbated sex-focused culture is stuck within the power of sex, is in its own way repressed—limited—by sex in a way that medieval people would find as alien as we do theirs.
If you would like to learn more about the fascinating history of sexualities, I recommend the academic but wet (pun on dry meaning dull) books of Mazo Karras, Michel Foucault, and Carolyn Dinshaw. Notably,
Doing Unto Others: Medieval Sexualites, A History of Sexuality, and Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities: Pre and postmodern