Theme: Love, Sex and Desire

  • Ancrene Wisse
  • Ayenbite of Inwit
  • Hali Meiðhad
  • Le Morte D'Arthur
  • The Canterbury Tales

  • An Introdution to Love, Sex and Desire in Medieval Literature

    "Ah Babilones folc, þet ich ear nempnede, þe deofles here of helle, þet beoð flesches lustes ant feondes eggunge, weorrið ant warpeð eauer | towart tis tur forte keasten hit adun, ant drahen [hire] into þeowdom þet stont se hehe þerin, ant is icleopet forþi Syones dohter" ( Hali Meiðhad p. 2) ("But the people of Babylon that I mentioned before, the army of the Devil of hell, who are carnal lusts and the fiend’s temptation, constantly make war on this tower and attack it, so as to cast it down and bring into servitude the woman who stands so high inside it, and is called for that reason the daughter of Zion") (Trans. Millett and Wogan-Browne p. 5).

    Such is the martial language with which the author of Hali Meiðhad describes the spiritual threats posed to the soul of the virgin. From her (Hali Meiðhad has a female audience in mind) lofty chamber in Zion—i.e. Mount Zion, envisioned as a tower and synecdochally referring to Jerusalem—the virgin’s spirit looks down on the less fortunate people living on the levels below her, one of which houses the women who entered married life. Although they have been given a room along with the rest of the saved, married women are nonetheless "flesches þrealles" ( Hali Meiðhad p. 2) ("slaves of the flesh") (Trans. Millett and Wogan-Browne p. 3). whose Their spirits have become bound by wedlock not only to those of their lovers but also inevitably to the lures of earthly existence. Their relative lack of moral fibre is nothing compared to the depraved masses of ‘Babylon,’ however. Shorn of any chance of entering Heaven, these damned souls assail the walls of good Christians, reaching even the high seat of the virgin with their wiles and false assurances. The rhetorical flair of the author is effective and makes his lesson strikingly transparent: a Christian must be on his/her guard at all times, for the forces of the Devil are waiting just outside the door.

    Clearly, then,As this example illustrates, the medieval stanceviews towards sex and mutual love in the medieval period were contentious was a prickly business and often highly ambiguous. From a purely demographic perspective, sexual reproduction was of course necessary for the furtherance of humanity and the survival of aristocratic dynasties. Indeed, God Hhimself had stressed many times, by way of a direct order, to "increase and multiply, and fill the earth" (This is what God commands humanity in Genesis 1:28, quoted from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate). Yet medieval Biblical exegetes studying and extrapolating the consequences of the Fall, on the other hand, were more attuned to focused on the theological connotations of carnal desires. They noted that beBefore Adam and Eve violated God’s directive, perfect harmony reigned in Paradise. Reason kept the lower urges of human nature firmly under its control, and thiswhich meants that the sexual act, if Adam and Eve had ever undertaken it, would still have been untainted by the corrupting influences of sinful concupiscence (lit. ‘desire for earthly things’ but associated especially with sexual desire) (Payer p. 40).

    According to these theologians, then, sSex would thus have been an entirely neutral physical action, performed with God’s call for progeny in mind and, while lacking any kind of lustful associations (Payer p. 69). The expulsion from Paradise brought an end to this perfect equilibrium between virtue and procreation. Influential church writers such as Saint Augustine openly questioned whether in this postlapsarian world sex without sin was even possible in this postlapsarian world;, they wrote that for Reason no longer has the final say in the matter but has to vie for dominance with the forces of lust; sex hads become "a wild horse that has broken its reins" (Payer pp. 69). Marriage could substantially reduce the sinfulness of sex, but even this officially sanctioned union ultimately fails in eliminating concupiscence altogether ( Hali Meiðhad p. xxxi). According to these theologians, aA perfectly chaste marriage is simply beyond the abilities of ordinary humans.

    It is Tthis kind of apprehension surrounding sexual desire which fed intohelped to shape texts like Hali Meiðhad. The author of this religious guide was intimately aware of such patristic and theological traditions when he wrote down his own diatribe against the territorial encroachment of sin on the dwellings of the faithful (Millett and Wogan-Browne p. xvi). His recommendation to abstain from sex completely might, in fact, represent the closest possible affinity one could have here on earth to the paradisiacal ideal, since it more or less does away with the dangers of sex ( Hali Meiðhad p. xxx). Yet, even the virgin should watch his/her step, for while maintaining the purity of one’s body is a noble feat, it should always be matched with an unsullied mind. The chance that a virgin would start pridefully gloating about his/her asceticism was viewed as a genuine risk ( Hali Meiðhad p. xxxix).

    This war between mind and body retained its moral potency throughout the Middle Ages and, arguably, beyond—that is, until the Annus Mirabilis of 1963 when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse made its first headway into the public mainstream.. Nevertheless, medieval sexuality did not solely restrict limit itself to the stricturestortuous strata of scholastic treatises. Mystics, for example, made frequent use of erotic motifs and sexualized metaphorical language to express their spiritual closeness to God—even though they did not intend it to be an explicitly sexual connection.although such eroticism was, in many cases, not deliberate. Indeed, Albrecht Classen arguess, in fact, that in the Middle Ages that sexuality in the Middle Ages was considered to be "an essential fact of life" by secular and mystical writers alike (Classen p. 32). The language of sexual experience, with its orgasmic and transformative associations, was seen by some as a gateway into the realm of the divine (Classen p. 32). This Such forms of piety sexualizedarguably appear in piety also found its way into

    The Book of Margery Kempe. Although the devout Margery eventually renounces physical sex with her husband—after the latter agreed to her proposal to pay off all his debts and continue to eat at his table—her mystical connection with Christ takes on markedly sensual connotations instead (Dinshaw p. 234). Christ even addresses her as his spouse at the end of chapter 14 of Book I, Part I: "and, whan thow sorwyst for thow art so long fro the blysse of hevyn, than art thu a very spowse and a wyfe, for it longyth to the wyfe to be wyth hir husbond and no very joy to han tyl sche come to hys presens’" ( The Book of Margery Kempe ll. 721-24). Margery’s repeated convulsions and ecstatic screams could also be interpreted as the mystical alternative to the labours of childbirth (Dinshaw p. 234).

    A relatively positive outlook on ‘secular’ human love in the Middle Ages can be found in the knightly romances which witnessed their efflorescence in the centuries immediately following Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France’s rise to prominence. The knights and ladies who figure in these stories are usually interpreted as being bound to a body of conventions, or ‘code,’ on the practice of love—i.e. ‘courtly love’. The term itself was coined in the nineteenth century by Gaston Paris (amour courtois), and it has remained common currency among medievalists and literary scholars ever since.

    In essence, the male courtly lover was expected to adhere to what C. S. Lewis called "the four marks of Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love" (Lewis p. 12). Courtly love was fundamentally aristocratic, characterized by humble deference and debilitating lovesickness on the part of the knight and cold indifference on his beloved’s. Love in itself was a noble goal, with sexual intercourse as an alluring prospect, but was hampered by the clandestine and adulterous nature of courtly love (Bolton p. 23). The force of this love was such that it could actually subvert the balance of Reason and Desire described above. The tension between these forces is depicted powerfully in Chrétien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrette, in which Lancelot is described as wholly subject to Love’s whims: "Reason, who dared tell him this, spoke from the lips, not from the heart; but Love, who held sway within his heart, urged and commanded him to climb into the cart at once…since Love ruled his action, the disgrace did not matter" ( The Knight of the Cart (Lancelot) p. 212). Travelling in the cart driven by the dwarf—a mode of transport reserved for criminals and traitors—would be intensely disgraceful to any knight, but Lancelot is prepared to overcome his shame, because he is led by Love’s orders.

    Some caution is appropriate with respect to this discussion of with regards to courtly love, is appropriate here, however. Increasingly, scholars have questioned the historical as well as literary reality of the courtly love topos, noting, for example, that the first key theorization of courtly love did not appear until —it was only invented in 1883 after all. Indeed, D. W. Robertson Jr. , in fact, argued against its use by scholars altogether, describing it as a figment of 19th and 20thnineteenth and twentieth century scholarship with no basis in the Middle Ages and as "an impediment to our understanding of medieval texts" (Robertson p. 17). It should also be borne in mind that the independent voices of two important groups—, women and commoners—, are oftenvirtually absent from the extant textual records, which means our insight into courtly love is necessarily limited (Power p. 3). It is unlikely that the common farmer who had to eke out a living and rely daily on persons of the other sex—though unimpeded by the strict social surveillance endured by members of the nobility and clergy—would have thought along identical lines about the courtly, not to mention theological, implications of love and procreation.

    Lucas Gahrmann