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Debating Sex in the Middle Ages

Monday, October 14, 2019 - 07:00

In every era, the subjects tackled in academic debate are neither random nor comprehensive. They follow the interests and anxieties of the times. So it's not surprising to find that medieval writers applied their analytic and debating skills to a slightly different set of questions that the classical authors whose work they leaned on. One of the aspects that Cadden emphasizes (and that Laqueur downplayed) was the diverse and contradictory nature of medieval arguments and conclusions around sex. There is room within the existing literature to support any number of philosophical positions.

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Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-48378-6

Chapter 3: Academic questions

This chapter looks at academic questions regarding the nature of male and female. With no agreed-on set of source texts or fixed principles of interpretation, the diversity and imaginativeness of late medieval interpretations was a natural consequence. But the contributions of Greek and Arabic writers and the development of structures for argumentation and presentation also affected the resulting conclusions. The formality of the field and its presentation can make it difficult to separate intellectualizing versus popular understanding.

Topics that the classical writers had overlooked were treated in more imaginative ways by medieval writers. Questions were more focused, precise, and contentious in the context of university debates. The answers were no clearer, but the questions were more sharply articulated. Some texts were newly accessible, such as Avicenna, who incorporated classical material via the Arabic tradition. New questions that had been of less concern to the ancients included how to determine the sex of a fetus and the nature and purpose of female and male sexual desire and pleasure.

The dissemination of these texts and debates were not only via academic institutions, but also in secular urban schools, such as the one at Salerno, that were not constrained by theological concerns. For example, while Albertus Magnus debated the logical arguments for why sex should or should not be pleasurable, later humanists considered such debates to be vain and pointless exercises.

Works that focused specifically on female medical concerns began to be created (typically by male authors). Debate over male and female contributions to conception were framed later as an “Aristotelian” position (which held that there was no female contribution) versus a “Galenic” position (which held that there were equal male and female contributions). Such positions oversimplified and exaggerated the classical authors’ views, while emphasizing the diversity of thought that remained current. But medieval authors often took a more compex position, drawing on a wider variety of authors, rather than following a single classical author.

The chapter has an extended discussion of how various authors considered and resolved these conflicts.

Sex determination had a practical as well as theoretical importance. If you know how the sex of a fetus was determined, then you could take actions to increase the chance of the desired sex (typically male). Whether this was due to the heat, strength, or other qualities of the man’s seed, he was considered to be the deciding factor in the child’s sex, though the position in the uterus was also considered relevant. These conflicting factors were also considered to account for non-binary sex and gender (i.e., intersex conditions and people who didn’t conform to gender norms). Such explanations always started with the assumption that the male was more perfect and more desirable. But even this presumption was sometimes contradicted on theological grounds (that God doesn’t create errors).

The role and purpose of sexual pleasure was not of special interest to classical authors, so medieval treatments of the topic were less constrained by precedent. Arabic sources focused more on desire than pleasure (to the extent that the two can be distinguished in the texts) and primarily on male experiences. The basic understanding of sexual pleasure was functional: to encourage procreation. But the rationales expanded to include health (via the balancing of humors). Psychology was also invoked, especially for disorders of desire such as lovesickness, as being due to a failure of reason.

Men’s sexual pleasure could be attributed to orgasm/ejaculation, but opinions were varied on how women received pleasure, especially in connection with theories about female seed. Even if female seed was not assumed to be a factor in procreation, orgasm was thought to enable conception by various means, such as by “opening the womb.” Later medieval writers on sexual pleasure could de-couple it from the mechanics of procreation when considering marginal cases such as desire during puberty, during pregnancy, etc. Specifically non-procreative pleasure (e.g., masturbation) was disapproved but discussed. (Albertus Magnus describes penetrative masturbation by women in this context.)

Debates over whether women or men had greater pleasure in sex were tinged by anxieties about gender traits. Is male orgasm a symbol of strength or of loss of control? Discussions often compared and contrasted consideratoins of pleasure (delectatio), love (amor), and desire (appetitus). Overall discussions of sexual pleasure were typically teleological--designed to explain pre-determined conclusions.

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historical