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Medieval (general)

This tag is used when a more specific date isn’t available covering very roughly the 11-14th centuries.

LHMP entry

Introduction

The purpose of this collection is to “think differently” about medieval sexuality without losing the benefits of modern theoretical approaches. The authors address sexuality not in the narrow sense of orientation but as the study of experiences, attitudes, customs, and institutions that are a subjetive human experience and an objective field of “knowledge”. Sexuality was embedded in other medieval systems such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

Medieval opinions about abstinence--as expressed in medical, philosophical, theological, and social literature--are more complicated and ambivalent than those about procreation. Given that much of the discourse around procreative sex frames it as driven by medical and moral imperatives (e.g., theories about how sexual desire has the goal of achieving balance and promoting health), how can abstinence fit into the same framework without being considered unhealthy?

The concepts and theories around in/fertility have shifted over the centuries much as those around sex/gender. Medieval authors were highly preoccupied with childbearing and anything that helped or impeded it. The expression of this concern was closely connected to theories of reproduction. Medieval treatments for infertility followed from the varied theoretical understandings of the process of conception and gestation.

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.

The rise of universities, growing importance of towns, and shifts in the focus of ecclesiastical and secular courts created a new context for discussing sex differences. The rise of universities also inspired translation of vast quantities of Greek and Arabic material on natural philosophy and mediecine, providing access to classical sources that had been altered in the course of Latin transmission. This wealth of detail highlighted problems with the consistency and structure of the body of knowledge. This chapter highlights several texts grappling with this diversity.

Part I

Medieval philosophy rested on classical and theological traditions, but these traditions could be contradictory and their contents were sometimes adapted to new uses and beliefs.

Chapter 1: Prelude to medieval theories and debates

This chapter covers Greek and Latin source materials that would form part of the basis of medieval understanding of sex differences. These philosophers presented both “scientific” and metaphorical explanations for sex difference. Different writers presented different concepts that overlapped and contradicted each other.

While covering much of the same timeframe, Cadden takes a broader and more diverse view than Laqueur, while acknowledging the reality of his two models (the one-sex and two-sex models). In all eras, the “facts” about sex and sexuality are filtered through cultural prejudices. Medieval ideas about sex difference were part of the culture’s assumptions about gender. Medieval society was not a single culture, and the era covered several overall shifts in thinking, so there isn’t a single unified “medieval idea” of sex difference that can be pointed to.

This paper begins by looking at the function of single men in chivalric literature as being free to pursue courtly love and service to all women only by not being bound to a specific woman. But the single woman--the one who requires rescuing because she has no man to act for her--is what makes the male character’s reputation possible.

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