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LHMP #211 Lemay 1996 Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings

Full citation: 

Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1982. “Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage eds. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X

Lemay, Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings

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This is an overview of treatments of human sexuality as indicated in the title. Only a very small amount of material pertains to same-sex sexuality, so this summary will be brief. The subject matter is medical, astrological, and philosophical treatises of the 12-15th centuries, either written in or translated into Latin.

In general, medical texts treated sexuality with a matter-of-fact approach and did not reflect moral judgments on their topics even when they noted social attitudes towrads them. Astrological texts also avoided moral judgments although in this case the attitude may be attributed to the deterministic approach of the field itself. If the heavens determined one’s sexuality, what was there to condemn?

Astrological evidence regarding a woman’s virginity might seem a strange place to find discussion of sexual practices, but the discussion notes that the loss of virginity is a complicated question. A woman might technically lose her virginity without having intercourse with a man by means of stimulation by her own hands or someone else’s which brought her to orgasm. (Although the text does not specifically mention same-sex activity, it touches on sexual techniquest that don’t involve a penis.)

Astrological texts recognized a large array of sexual orientations, in the sense of the types of sexual partners and preferences in sexual activites that a person prefers. The postion that a person’s sexual response will be determined at birth is in contrast to the competing medieval theory that “sodomy” was a moral failing and was something any person might fall into.

Astrological texts are unusually forthcoming in recognizing the potential for female same-sex desire, although it is typically framed in heteronormative terms. A particular stellar configuration “increases the virility of their souls and makes them lustful for unnatural congresses, when they act as if their female friends were their wives. ... they may perform these acts either secretly or openly.” Another text elaborates that “act as if their female friends were their wives’ means “they rub one another as if they were men.” One Italian tract suggests that planetary conjunctions can also cause a change of physiological sex later in life.

In medical literature, William of Saliceto was one of the first writers to advance the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire, though his version involves what appears to be a prolapsed uterus rather than the clitoris.

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