It will surprise no one to learn that medieval European societies had strong views about the roles of men and women – especially with regard to sexuality. Members of one sex were naturally graced with self-discipline, able to resist base urges and live a life of propriety. Members of the other were inherently insatiable and, left to their own devices, would be incapable of exercising any control over their passions at all. It was the responsibility of the former – and of institutions such as marriage – to rein in the lustful impulses of the latter and act as the gatekeepers of sex.
It’s a familiar sentiment – the kind of gender philosophy you might find in an episode of Mad Men or in the corners of TikTok occupied by “trad wives” busily picking apart two decades of sex-positive feminism. This world-view is predicated on a belief that men and women are innately different: social mores may change over time but human nature does not, and pretending otherwise is a recipe for disappointment and disaster.
[See also: Why Rome had no culture wars]
As the medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega deftly explains in her new book, it’s more complicated than that. For while writers, thinkers and Church leaders in the Middle Ages did believe the sexes were different, it was obvious to them that it was women, not men, who were obsessed with sex. “European society has a far longer tradition of women as sexually rapacious than our newly agreed upon idea of them as frigid,” she points out. Something for the trad wives to consider.
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society is about far more than what squires and damsels may have got up to in the bedroom a millennium ago. Janega, who teaches history at the London School of Economics and runs a popular blog and Twitter account under the title “Going Medieval”, is interested in both the ideal imposed upon the female sex and the reality of how women lived in the 900-year period, from around the sixth century to the 15th, that bridges the ancient world and what we think of as the modern era. She offers a crash course in all things feminine: female fashion, education, motherhood, witchcraft, women at work, and those rare but impressive women who managed to carve out a space for themselves in public life, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Queen of France and then England, and one of the most powerful political figures in 12th-century Europe.
I admit, it was Janega’s sexuality argument that caught my eye. In November last year, she went viral on Twitter with a thread that debunked comments made in 2010 by Stephen Fry about how women clearly enjoyed sex far less than men, as evidenced by the absence of women cruising for hook-ups on Hampstead Heath. To rebut this notion, Janega delivered an account of medieval attitudes to the female libido that echoed those I’d encountered studying the classical world: sex was messy and chaotic and overpowering, so it was natural that weak and poorly formed women would be more easily swayed than men, who were the ideal humans – at least according to Aristotle. (That’s why any self-respecting Athenian man should lock up his wife and prevent her from leaving the house unaccompanied, lest she be overcome with lust and commit adultery.)
This anxiety was inherited by medieval thinkers from the classical texts they venerated, then supercharged in the early Christian era by the evidence of Eve’s inability to resist temptation in the Garden of Eden. “Women,” Janega writes, “even in their perfect state in paradise, were simply more susceptible to caving to seduction and sexual depravity.”
Such views are, of course, just as ridiculous and unscientifically supported as the one put forward by Fry. What’s interesting is how thoroughly the narrative has reversed. Whereas once the 12th-century cleric Andreas Capellanus was writing in his pick-up artist guide The Art of Courtly Love that “every woman in the world is… wanton, because no woman, no matter how famous or honoured she is, will refuse her embraces to any man” (as long as he can seduce her properly), now evolutionary psychologists debate whether women can enjoy casual sex at all and dismiss female sexual pleasure as a biological by-product. When sex was bad and dangerous, women were considered raging nymphomaniacs. As it has come to be destigmatised and embraced as a positive, healthy aspect of being human, modern society has assumed that women can’t possibly want it – at least not nearly as much as men do.
The point, Janega argues, is that, “while many of our attitudes toward women’s sexuality have changed since the medieval period, one thing has remained the same: women are not sexual in the correct way”.
If this sounds more feminist manifesto than history, it is worth noting that the modern social commentary only comes towards the end of what is a robust and well-sourced academic book. The primary sources Janega draws on are remarkable in their variety: Greek and Latin classics from Plato to Juvenal, early biblical scholarship, philosophy, poetry, theological disputations, and even accounts by women themselves. The French court poet Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) gets to defend women as equals to men, rather than innately inferior, while the scholar and later saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) has the chance to put forward her own thesis on female sexuality. There are colourful anecdotes on almost every page, beginning with the fate of poor Domka, a married woman living in 14th-century Prague, reported to the Church for potentially running a brothel because she lived with other women and sold herbal remedies. And if some of Janega’s digressions can be dry, her discussions of the ecclesiastical wrangling Church fathers indulged in over the morality of wet dreams (worrying but not ultimately sinful, they decided) and clitoral stimulation (frowned upon but permitted if it enabled the woman to orgasm, and thus get pregnant) more than make up for it.
In history, Janega finds lessons about the way we view and treat women today. It is easy to look on with derision at medieval beauty manuals instructing women in how to achieve ideals that seem alien now (snow-white skin, high foreheads, small breasts, pear-shaped figures). But while the details may be different, the underlying message – that a woman should aspire to painfully unrealistic standards, and make the process of achieving them seem effortless – is all too familiar. Our supposedly enlightened views on women in the workplace are less impressive when we recall that the concept of the “housebound mother” is itself a modern invention. For the majority of history, the majority of women worked – but some time in the last century we forgot about it.
Ultimately, Janega argues, “our desire to think about history as one constant march towards progress” holds us back from properly considering the sexism and prejudice in our own societies. I am wary of the temptation to downplay progress: it is hard to imagine a woman in a democratic Western country today wishing she lived in tenth-century England (not least because of miraculous medical and technological advances). But Janega is surely correct that we cannot successfully challenge modern gender inequalities until we acknowledge that they are social constructs. Impossible beauty standards, the gender pay gap, our attitude to sex and sexual violence – the challenges facing women in the 21st century are met with pseudoscientific justifications just as irrational as the arcane theories that enabled medieval patriarchs to define the female sex as deformed men whose “cold, wet” natures made them inherently less intelligent, able and worthy. We may no longer assume all women to be sex-crazed harlots incapable of self-control, but there’s a way to go yet.
The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society
WW Norton, 272pp, £22
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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission