Sex, Romance, and Medieval Misinformation Part 2: The Role of Women

mw hunting.jpgThe English mid to late medieval was a period when romance was idealised with the advancement of chivalry (in theory anyway), and a somewhat more delicate manner in which most women were treated, especially in courtly circles.

It has been suggested that the introduction of chivalry actually invented the whole concept of courtly love. Many suppose that the troubadours inspired a whole new attitude to desire which had not previously existed. I find this exceedingly unlikely. Humanity – even the dour English – surely did not need a sudden influx of poetry in order to discover what idealised romantic yearning felt like! Clearly the stories and songs of chivalry were largely a reaction to whatever already existed. However, the minstrels no doubt fired up some new romantic ideals and gave eloquence to what had earlier seemed more mundane.

Chivalry – to some extent – stuck! Women (until Henry VIII, who was chivalry in reverse even though he seemingly loved the joust) were not usually executed, whatever they had done, and were generally treated more kindly than their masculine counterparts. This might also seem patronising – but beware imagining they were all automatically treated with contempt.

The popular vision of any strong woman of the times being called a She-Wolf is somewhat
mw hunting.jpgmisleading. A strong and capable women was usually admired, and meek little ‘pawns’ were not the ideal. Wifely obedience – well that was perhaps more common then than now, but don’t tell me every wife constantly obeyed her husband, and the insults of argumentative nag were just as common. True – married women of that period owned little or nothing since all their property legally belonged to their husbands – in fact I remember some aspects of this still being enforced in the 1950s when my husband seemed to think he owned my tax rebate.

However, back in the 1400s women did have a voice. I have so frequently read books or articles that see the female of the past as being voiceless and utterly overlooked. It is true that we have little existing documentation regarding how they felt or reacted to the turmoil around them – but nor do we have much documentation of any other kind. Men’s opinions were rarely recorded and even kings’ private feelings were kept very much to themselves. The documentation which still exists is invariably ecclesiastical in origin since monks and priests were the scribes and the record keepers of the time. So a woman’s opinion was rarely passed down to us. That does not mean it was not made clear at the time.

Women joined the Guilds, created and carried on their own businesses, studied and read widely, and in their husband’s absence (and in his company) took over the defence of their homes under siege, arranged armaments, secured trade, and enlarged the family’s security, influence and interests. The abbess of a convent could be an extremely powerful woman, while a back-lane brewer, although not exactly powerful on a national scale, could earn an excellent wage, run her own business, and become a woman in demand, much respected and admired.

Some strong women were certainly disliked for their actions and attitudes, but so were many strong men. It was legal for a man to beat his wife should he believe she deserved punishment, and naturally that is abhorrent to us. But it is quite clear that good men did no such thing, brutality was considered unacceptable, and few women obediently accepted marital attack. Besides, marital abuse is certainly not legal now – but it equally certainly exists.

Male and female were not equal of course, but nor were the inequalities as huge as some would like to have us believe.

The medieval period in England (I am particularly interested in the late 1400s) was not a time of puritanism. Sexual pleasure was sometimes considered by doctors to be a cure for particular ailments, and this applied to women as well as men. Although the church tried its level best to set strict moral standards, and after all the church of the time was a good deal more powerful than it is today, the general public did not behave and obey as meekly as it might sometimes be presumed.  Sex was not generally thought shocking, kings and lords openly kept mistresses (and certainly ordinary folk as well) and illegitimate children, although they could not legally inherit, were treated with normal respect and courtesy while the word ‘bastard’ was no particular insult.  Brothels were legal as long as they conformed to certain standards. The illegal sort were pretty common too.


Stich, Abbildung, engraving, gravure : 1909

It was the church, and the frustrations of a priesthood obliged to commit themselves to celibacy which has left us a record of indignation towards women in general. Their diatribes, sermons, legal strictures and basic beliefs  comprise the vast majority of surviving written documentation. A horror of womankind and the temptations of sexual attraction led many of the clergy to denigrate femininity. They blamed women for the temptations they felt themselves, and so have left us with a deluge of disgust regarding female anatomy and behaviour. But we should definitely not assume that men in general felt the same way.

Religious restrictions on sexual practise were rigorous, but how many people readily obeyed these demands can only be guessed at. The general public had a very clear example of clerical hypocrisy to follow.

Some brothels were accustomed to a clientèle where up to a third of all their customers were priests, monks and bishops. The so-called Winchester geese, who were the prostitutes of Southwark (south of London) paid rent to the Bishop of Winchester, in an area where Molly Houses (brothels where the prostitutes were young boys) also abounded, and where the taverns, slums and thieves’ gatherings were amongst the worst in the land. So the idea that the church preached one thing and practised another was fairly widely accepted. A general condemnation of adultery, fornication and sexual deviations was certainly demanded by the clergy – but just as certainly not always heeded. The very fact that priests and friars complained so frequently about immorality does not show how placidly controlled the public was. It shows the exact opposite.

The clergy bellowed about sin, then went off to sin privately themselves, bellowing again when they saw their neighbours doing the same thing. Errant priests were known to be put into the stocks and pelted with rotten eggs by their flock. Pregnant nuns were a great subject for gossip.

Within this confusion, some strange advice was given by the church regarding sin and sex. A good deal of anatomical and medicinal ignorance was the main reason. One piece of moral advice offered by priests which I find particularly delicious, was that a woman could calm her blatant but improper sexual desires by drinking the man’s urine. I can well understand how this might put her off. But unless she had already crept into his bedchamber to discover his chamber-pot and directly quench her thirst that way, I just cannot imagine her approaching the man of her passionate dreams, and demanding a nice cup of his urine the next time he went to the privy. I would love to see his expression.

Part Three, the final part, to follow.