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LHMP #153 Karras 2005 Sexuality in Medieval Europe

Full citation: 

Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2005. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-415-28963-4

Publication summary: 

This work is intended as a non-specialist introductory text on the subject, e.g., for general college courses on medieval history. I found it to have excellent and up-to-date coverage in the areas I'm famliar with.

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Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

The book has a solid introductory discussion of the complexities of sexuality in history, especially historic differences in how orientation was viewed. This book is a general work for non-specialists. It includes a focus on the different experiences of men and women in all situations, including within marriage and outside of it. Other than this introductory chapter, the only chapter with relevant material to the LHMP is Chapter 4 (Women Outside of Marriage). Although the relevant lesbian material is limited, I’d have no problems recommending this book as an introductory text for those who want to contextualize sexual issues in the Middle Ages.

(Of the remaining chapters, only #4 has relevant material)

Chapter 4: Women Outside of Marriage

Women’s extramarital sex was less tolerated than men’s at least in terms of heterosexual activity. Women were considered more lustful than men, but held to stricter standards. Upper class women’s sex lives were closely overseen, but for unmarried women of the lower and middle classes, although sexual activity outside of marriage was considered a sin, it was treated as normal and expected. The book has four pages on same-sex activity, starting with the usual acknowledgement that there’s very little data on the topic and it’s hard to know what was really happening.

In the 13th century, medical writer William of Saliceto provides an early mention of the clitoris and its potential for penetrative sex if enlarged, but this would not become a significant preoccupation until the 16th century.

There is sometimes more evidence for women’s romantic feelings towards each other than sexual activities. Examples of erotic poetry written between nuns are offered. Anxieties about women’s sexual activities are laid out in penitential manuals, which were especially concerned with monastic women. Many of these are vague references, e.g., to women who “practice vice” together, which is punished less severely than heterosexual adultery and much less severely than male homosexual activity, unless the women use an “instrument”.

Court records of prosecutions for sex between women are scarce. Only 12 are mentioned in the entire medieval period, and these focused primarily on penetrative sex using a dildo. Legal condemnation was not for sex between women, as such, but for usurping a male role, as in the trial of Katharina Hetzeldorfer, which also involved cross-dressing.

The popular attitude towards non-penetrative sex between women is seen in de Fougères’ 12th century Livre des manières, which portrays it as ridiculous and pointless, rather than forbidden, though he admits the potential for sexual satisfaction.

Cross-dressing alone, especially if done for economic purposes or safety, was not strongly condemned. (Literary examples are cited, as well as the Krakow university student.) In fact, in some societies, female cross-dressing was associated with male homoeroticism, as in the 9th century Ummayad court’s institution of ghulamiyat [forgive the lack of diacritics], female slaves cross-dressing to appeal sexually to men who desired boys.

Medical manuals sometimes addressed the topic of the medical consequences of sexual frustration for women, expressed as a belief that the regular “emission of seed”, i.e., orgasm, was necessary for humoral balance. It might be prescribed for a midwife to treat this condition by manual stimulation. Another anecdote that recognized potential consequences of frustration told of Italian merchants’ wives in France who satisfied each other with dildos to avoid the risk of pregnancy that came with male lovers.

References to sex between women in literature, e.g., in the romance Tirant lo Blanc were carefully framed for male titillation and generally denied the possibility of genuine desire between women.

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