Robert Bartlett examines the way we thought during medieval times. He unearths remarkable evidence of the complex passions of men and women during the Middle Ages.
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"I love you more than any.
"You alone are my love and my longing."
The world of medieval men and women
was shaped by strong and powerful passions.
"The name of wife may seem sacred,
"but sweeter to me will always be the word whore."
In the medieval world, women are adored...
..but also prompt loathing and disgust.
"Woman is but Satan's bait.
"Poison for men's souls."
It's a world in which priests accuse their flocks of fornication...
..where bishops grow rich on prostitution...
..and where virgins marry Christ.
"As I stood by the cross, I was filled with such fire,
"I took off my clothes and offered him all of myself."
It's a world in which God threatens to destroy mankind
for the sin of lust.
Sexual intercourse began in 1963.
Or so, at least,
wrote the poet Philip Larkin.
But that's not entirely true.
Sexual activity in the Middle Ages
was as vigorous and as varied as it is today.
Just how varied is made clear from the kinds of questions
that medieval priests were instructed
to ask their parishioners.
"Have you committed fornication with a nun?
"Have you committed fornication with your step-mother, your sister-in-law,
"your son's fiancee, your mother?
"Have you made a tool or device in the shape of a penis
"and tied it to your private parts and fornicated with other women?"
Priests might even ask female members of their flock,
"Have you done what some women do when they lie before an animal
"and encourage it to copulate by whatever means they can,
"and thus it copulates with you?"
Such questions suggest that sexual activity then was, shall we say,
as diverse as it is today.
But the world in which it took place
was a very, very different world.
The Middle Ages, between the 10th and the 15th centuries,
stand on the far side of a great divide in human history.
The experience of birth, life and death was different from now.
Whereas people in Britain today can expect to live
to their late 70s,
average life expectancy in the Middle Ages
would have been less than half that.
And just about everybody would have experienced death at first-hand.
Most people would have seen a brother or sister die.
Most parents would have lost one or more of their children.
In a medieval village of 100 houses,
a funeral might take place every eight days.
Malnutrition, infection, disease -
life in the Middle Ages was precarious.
It's easy to imagine medieval life as just nasty, brutish and short,
as the saying goes.
A basic struggle for survival, lacking in pleasure, passion or fun.
But is that really how it was?
Far from it.
Medieval records suggest a world of intimacy and sensuality,
with a keen interest in love, sex and reproduction,
and some exotic ways of enhancing them.
This recipe for conception
comes from a popular 13th-century medical manual,
The Secrets Of Women.
"If someone should wish to help a woman
"so that she might become pregnant,
"let him take the womb and intestines of a hare,
"dry them out and pulverize them.
"And let the woman then drink this mixed with wine."
"Then let her place a goat's hair in the milk of a female donkey,
"and let her tie this around her at the navel
"while she has sex with her husband.
"And she will conceive."
Medieval lovers who wanted sex but didn't want the consequences
could turn to the experts for contraceptive advice.
A French priest called Pierre Clergue swore by a certain herb.
He wrapped it in linen and tied it around the neck of his partner,
so that it hung between her breasts, and then made love to her.
The easiest way to avoid conception was to dampen sexual desire.
The Secrets Of Women's proposal for putting out the flames of passion
was for a woman to drink a man's urine.
You'd think that might have done it.
And it has further comments on contraceptive measures.
"If a woman eats sage that has been cooked for three days, she will not conceive for a year."
Or, more drastically,
"If a woman swallows a bee, she will never conceive."
medieval understanding of sex and reproduction was pretty basic.
The science of anatomy was not very advanced,
and dissection was rarely practised.
But this didn't stop some of the greatest minds of the age
trying to map the mysteries of sexuality.
In seats of learning all over medieval Europe,
scholars pondered the pressing question.
Just what was the difference between men and women?
The consensus reached by these male writers, many of them clerics,
was that women were the problem.
According to the classical theory of the four humours,
men were thought to be hot and dry, which was good.
Women were cold and moist, which was bad.
This made them sexually voracious.
"Woman has a greater desire for coitus than a man,
"for something foul is drawn to something good."
The real puzzle was just how the female anatomy worked.
Here, at Merton College in Oxford, the 14th-century doctor John of Gaddesden
expressed the standard medieval belief that menstrual blood
was actually female seed.
Evidently, women needed to purge themselves of this seed.
That's what happened every month.
Too great a build-up could lead to so called suffocation of the uterus,
making it difficult for her to breathe
and exposing her to convulsions and fainting fits.
She might even go mad.
No wonder women were predatory.
They needed sex to get rid of all that menstrual blood.
Worse, that blood was positively dangerous.
"This blood is so detestable that, through contact with it,
"fruits do not produce, wine turns sour,
"trees lack fruit, the air darkens,
"and dogs go wild with madness."
Medieval scientific thinking took it even further.
The eye, it argued, receives menstrual fluid during a woman's period.
The look of a menstruating woman, therefore,
could in itself cause disease.
Woman, in short, was literally poisonous.
Medieval thinking was just as logical as ours,
but it started from different assumptions.
And those assumptions were often based on religious doctrine
or ancient authority.
And the governing idea behind female sexuality
was the biblical story of the Garden of Eden.
In the story of original sin,
the Devil chooses to trick Eve rather than Adam,
attacking human nature, it was said, where it seemed weaker.
Eve was "Satan's bait, poison for men's souls,"
wrote the 11th-century Italian cardinal Peter Damian.
It was an act of betrayal that few churchmen could forgive.
"The wickedness of women," wrote one 13th-century abbot,
"is greater than all the other wickedness of the world."
One early church father reminded women,
"Do you not realise that Eve is YOU?
"YOU desecrated the fateful tree, YOU disobeyed the law of God,
"YOU persuaded the man
"against whom the Devil could not prevail by force.
"God's sentence passed upon your sex weighs still upon the world.
"You are guilty, you must bear its hardships.
"YOU are the Devil's gateway."
With women held in such low esteem, it's hardly surprising
that medieval courtship could be a rather unromantic affair.
Marriage then was quite different from today's romantic ideal.
It had very little, if anything, to do with love. That might come later.
It was an alliance between families
and an agreement involving the transfer of property.
And the wife could be seen as part of that property.
Like any piece of property, she needed close inspection before a deal could be done.
In 1319, Edward II sent the Bishop of Exeter to inspect
Philippa of Hainault as prospective wife for his young son.
The bishop's report reads like a property survey,
which is pretty much what it is.
"The lady has not uncomely hair, between blue-black and brown.
"Her eyes are blackish brown and deep.
"Her nose is fairly smooth and even,
"yet it is no snub-nose, her mouth fairly wide.
"Her lips somewhat full, and especially the lower lip.
"Her neck, shoulders, and all her body and lower limbs
"are reasonably well shapen.
"All her limbs are well set and unmaimed.
"And the damsel will be on St John's Day next of the age of nine years."
The report went down well.
A deal was struck.
Nine years later, Philippa duly married Edward's son, Edward III.
Rich brides came with land attached.
Substantial parts of Europe changed hands with marriage contracts.
Orkney and Shetland became part of Scotland
when a Danish princess brought them as her dowry
on her marriage to the King of Scotland.
A peasant girl might bring something more modest as her dowry.
A cow, or some geese or chickens.
But in all marriages, the woman's goods became her husband's property.
As, in a sense, did the woman herself.
The law often permitted husbands to treat their wives much as they wanted.
"It is legal for a man to beat his wife when she wrongs him,
"provided he neither kills nor maims her."
Condemned as the cause of original sin, feared for her sexuality,
married in exchange for property or goods,
sometimes subject to violence -
a woman's lot was not a happy one.
And then, quite suddenly, into this society that held women so low,
came a revolution that seemed to turn all this inside out.
It began in southern France in the 12th century.
Troubadours, wandering poets and musicians,
became to talk of women and love in a wholly new way.
They sang of an intense, idealised, sexual passion.
Their verses reached one of the most powerful women of her day,
the daughter of King Louis VII of France, Marie de Champagne.
Marie's court was home to singers, writers and poets.
Soon it was alight with the exciting ideas of the troubadours.
"When I lie down in the evening, all night and all day,
"I consider how I might serve you to your pleasure.
"My body leaps and bounds for joy,
"so much is my heart set on you."
The poets put women on a pedestal.
She was worshipped as distant and hard to attain.
He was her tormented lover.
"I have never had power over myself, nor was I mine
"from that moment when she let me look into her eyes."
The idea of falling in love was born.
Of course, people spoke about love before 1100,
but this was caritas, a spiritual love.
The poetry that captured the imagination of noblewomen
like Marie de Champagne was something quite different.
An idealised kind of sexual passion.
It's sometimes known as courtly love,
and its heady ideals spread from court to court
across the breadth of Europe.
A new generation of writers and poets began to explore
this new way of looking at love.
One of the most famous is Chretien de Troyes,
author of a revolutionary tale of adulterous passion.
His celebrated love story of Lancelot and Guinevere,
Arthur's greatest knight and Arthur's queen,
follows the exciting path of true love.
For his rich patron and the ladies of court,
it provided a whole new standard
by which to measure the behaviour of men
and learn about their own sexual identity.
The story begins when Lancelot falls in love,
and is almost incapacitated by his obsession.
"As long as she remained in his sight,
"he continued to gaze at her most attentively and with delight.
"But when he could see her no longer,
"he wanted to fling himself out of the window
"and shatter his body on the ground below."
For the courtly lover, love is an exquisite pain.
"If she does not heal my suffering with a kiss,
"she will murder me and damn herself.
"Yet for all the suffering I endure, I do not renounce sweet love."
Lancelot tries to win the queen's love.
He subjects himself to untold dangers,
including crawling over a bridge made from the blade of a sword.
Guinevere is eventually won over and arranges a midnight rendezvous.
"Tonight, when everyone is asleep, you can come speak with me
"at that window."
For Lancelot, the day seems to last a hundred years.
As night falls, the queen appears in a cloak of scarlet and fur.
But the iron bars across the window keep them apart.
"Lancelot grasped the bars and strained and pulled
"until he had freed them from their fittings."
At last, the adulterous love affair can be consummated.
"Now Lancelot had everything he desired. He held her in his arms.
"Their blows were so gentle, so sweet,
"that through their kisses and caresses,
"they experienced a joy and wonder the equal of which has never been known."
The impact of this daring new literature was dramatic.
Courtly love, unrequited love, adulterous love.
For the first time, noblewomen were exposed to passionate love literature
with its fantasy of the devoted knightly lover.
For a certain class of medieval society at least,
the map of the heart was being redrawn.
The new poets questioned the old certainties.
Could real love exist at all within marriage?
Or did love have to be freely given?
"When made public, love rarely endures."
"A new love puts an old one to flight."
"He who is vexed by the thoughts of love sleeps and eats little."
These rules were written by a man called Andrew the Chaplain.
We know very little about him, except that, like Chretien de Troyes,
he frequented the court of Marie de Champagne.
His three-part treatise, De Amore, On Love,
is the medieval equivalent of a modern-day self-help guide.
Writers such as Andrew the Chaplain cast themselves as love's explorers,
pointing the way through this brave new emotional world.
What's extraordinary is how far they ventured
from the decidedly unromantic arrangements usually made
by medieval men and women.
Why did the cult of courtly love inspire such devotion?
Was it an emotional pressure valve,
releasing some of the repressed sexual energy of the age?
Was it a natural development from religious love,
as the aristocracy refined their emotional manners?
Nobody knows for sure.
But the core ideas of courtly love
infiltrated the wider medieval culture.
And as they did, they caused scandal, even violence.
It was one thing to debate the new codes of love
in aristocratic courts.
It was quite another to live by them.
One of the most remarkable tales of the Middle Ages,
a tale that is passionate, dramatic, tragic and true,
is the love story of Abelard and Heloise.
Peter Abelard was a scholar who came to Paris in about 1100,
at the same time that courtly love was sweeping Europe.
In Paris, he met the young and beautiful Heloise.
She lived with her uncle, a canon at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
"I became on fire with desire for this girl
"and decided she was the one to bring to my bed."
Heloise's uncle employed the dashing Abelard as tutor to his niece.
"If he had entrusted a tender lamb to a ravening wolf,
"it would not have surprised me more."
"With our books before us,
"more words of love than of our reading passed between us,
"and more kissing than teaching."
"My hands oftener strayed to her bosom than to the pages.
"Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried."
Heloise became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy.
Her uncle was furious.
But when Abelard offered to marry her and placate the family,
he encountered an unexpected obstacle.
Heloise had her own rather unconventional views on the subject.
In her words, only "love freely given"
mattered to her, not what she called "the chains of wedlock".
"The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy,
"but sweeter to me will always be the word lover,
"or that of concubine or whore."
Heloise was using the arguments of the troubadours
and writers of the courtly love tradition,
that true love could only exist outside of marriage.
Such notions strained at the conventions
that bound medieval society together.
Eventually, Heloise agreed to a secret marriage.
Soon after, she took refuge in a nunnery.
Her uncle and his relatives presumed that they'd been tricked,
and that Abelard had backed out of his marriage to Heloise
by making her a nun.
Their revenge was swift and violent.
"One night, as I slept peacefully in an inner room in my lodgings,
"they bribed one of my servants to admit them
"and there took cruel vengeance on me
"of such appalling barbarity as to shock the whole world.
"They cut off the part of my body whereby I had committed the wrong of which they complained."
Abelard joined a monastery,
and Heloise this time truly became a nun.
The letters of the two lovers give us an amazing insight
into the workings of the medieval heart.
Years later, Heloise recounts how, though now an abbess,
she is still moved by strong erotic desire for Abelard.
"The pleasures we shared have been too sweet,
"and can scarcely be banished from my thoughts,
"bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies."
"Even during the celebration of the Mass,
"lewd visions of those pleasures
"take such a hold upon my unhappy soul,
"that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers."
The ideas that started with the troubadours transformed our culture.
The language of romance, of sexual longing,
unrequited love and desire was born.
And the codes created in the Middle Ages last to this day.
But while the ideas of courtly love seduced aristocrats and intellectuals,
the lives of most medieval people were guided by a more austere creed.
For the medieval Church,
nothing could be more offensive than the idea of sexual pleasure.
In 13th-century England, there were 40,000 clergy.
17,000 monks and friars. 10,000 parish priests.
And they were to become increasingly intrusive
in the sex lives of the faithful.
The Church's views on the pleasures of the flesh
were rather different from those of the troubadours.
"The foul embrace of the flesh exhales fumes
"and contaminates anyone who cleaves to it,
"nor does anyone escape unharmed from the bite of pleasure."
Celibate priests worked tirelessly to warn their flocks
against the dangers of carnal pleasures denied to them.
"That sinful act, that disgusting act,
"that bestial coupling, that shameless union,
"that foul, stinking, wayward deed."
One 12th-century religious writer had a useful tip
for controlling lustful desires for a woman.
Try imagining what the inside of her body would look like.
"If you consider what is within the skin and inside the body,
"what is more hideous to see, more disgusting to touch, more foul to smell?"
And if this wasn't enough, try thinking of her dead body.
"What is more horrible than a corpse,
"and what in the world would be more abhorrent to her lover,
"just recently so full of wild desire for that stinking flesh?"
In medieval thinking, human beings occupied a position
halfway between the animals and the angels.
In sex, it saw the animal triumphant.
Against the filth of sex, the Church promoted its alternative.
"Virginity is the highest virtue, a glorious beauty,
"the source of life, a matchless song.
"The crown of faith, the prop of hope,
"the mirror of purity, kindred of the angels,
"the nourishment and support of most enduring love."
This is Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, founded in 1232.
It was one of about 150 nunneries in medieval England.
Until the 16th century, nuns,
mostly ladies of good family, lived and worshipped here,
undertaking a life of reflection and celibacy.
Here, a young woman became a bride of Christ.
Virginity was a treasure to be dedicated to Christ,
the divine bridegroom.
There is something undeniably sensual
in the way a woman's passionate devotion to Christ
is often described in medieval texts.
Jacques de Vitry, in 1220,
describes some nuns so weakened by ecstasy of love for Christ
that they were confined to rest.
"They melted altogether in wondrous love for God,
"until they bowed under the burden of desire,
"and for many years, they did not leave their beds."
At times, the distinction between sensual and spiritual love
"Oh noble eagle,
"oh tender lamb, oh burning flame, embrace me.
"How long shall I remain arid?
"An hour is too heavy for me, and a day is as a thousand years."
The mystic Angela of Foligno took the idea of being a bride of Christ quite literally.
"As I stood by the cross, I was filled with such fire
"that I removed all my clothes and offered him all of myself.
"I promised him, though afeared, to maintain my chastity always
"and not to offend him by one of my limbs.
"Purer than glass, whiter than snow, more brilliant than the sun."
The cult of virginity exerted a powerful grip
on the minds of many medieval women,
sometimes threatening to tear families apart.
Take of the story of Christina of Markyate.
Christina was from a prosperous English family in Huntingdon.
A young man of her own class, Burthred, sought her in marriage
and gained her parents' consent.
Christina agreed on one condition -
that she remain a virgin all her life,
for this is what she had already vowed to do.
Her family were appalled.
They ridiculed her and tried to break her resolve
by stopping her going to church,
taking her out to parties, giving her love potions.
Finally, they did a deal with Burthred.
They agreed to let him in at night.
But Christina stayed up,
telling him exemplary stories of chaste marriages.
She promised to live with him, as she put it,
"So that other townsmen will not taunt you for having been rejected by me."
But still, it would have to be as a virgin.
Burthred left without having had sex.
His friends teased him, so he tried again.
He burst into her bedroom, determined to have her.
But she hid from him,
and miraculously, she managed to avoid detection.
Christina's stubbornness infuriated her parents.
Her father threatened to throw her out of the house,
while her mother grabbed her by the hair and beat her.
Only visions of the Virgin Mary
sustained Christina through her ordeal.
To avoid the fury of her family
and sex with her husband, Christina fled to live the life of a hermit.
After two years, Burthred gave up
and released her from her marital obligations.
Christina, and the cult of virginity,
emerged the victor from this bitter family conflict.
She founded a convent of nuns and died a virgin,
faithful in her marriage to Christ.
Most people, of course, preferred a wedding to a flesh and blood man or woman than to Christ.
They wanted marriage, sex, and children.
It was an area the medieval Church was keen to colonise,
right into the bedroom.
Early medieval marriage had little to do with the Church
and could be entered into quite casually.
This description of a peasant marriage
was given by a witness in a court case held in York.
About the third hour past the ninth, John Beke, saddler,
sitting down on a bench, called Marjory to him and said to her,
"Marjory, do you wish to be my wife?"
And she replied, "I will, if you wish."
And taking at once the said Marjory's right hand, John said,
"Marjory, here I take you as my wife,
"for better or worse, to have and to hold until the end of my life."
This casual approach horrified the Church authorities.
In 1218, the statutes of the Diocese of Salisbury make this clear.
They ruled that marriages should be celebrated,
"With reverence and with honour and not with laughing and joking,
"in taverns or at public feasts or drinking parties.
"Nor should anyone put a ring made of rushes or some other material,
"cheap or precious, on some girl's hand for fun,
"to be able to fornicate with her more freely.
"For he may find that,
"although he thinks he is joking,
"he has in fact bound himself to the obligations of matrimony."
CHURCH BELLS PEAL
Marriage, the Church argued, was not a mere contract.
It was a religious event.
In time, it was pronounced a sacrament,
like baptism or confession.
As for sex, the act of marriage did not excuse unrestricted lovemaking.
A saying of the great St Augustine became proverbial.
"Passionate love of one's own wife is adultery."
The only legitimate cause for sex within marriage was reproduction,
and that was a serious duty.
Failure to consummate a marriage was grounds for annulment,
something only the Church had authority to do.
In religious courts,
the Church probed just what had or had not happened in the marital bed.
John, a man from York, was accused by his wife of impotence.
Every effort was made to arouse him,
and the procedure was documented in court records.
"The witness exposed her bare breasts,
"and with her hands, warmed at the fire,
"she held and rubbed John's penis and his testicles,
"embracing and frequently kissing him.
"And she stirred him up to demonstrate his virility and potency,
"admonishing him to prove and render himself a man then and there.
"She says that the whole time,
"the said penis was scarcely three inches long,
"remaining without any increase."
The Church also set about regulating when, where
and with whom sex could take place.
Those who broke the rules,
even in thought, were to be punished.
In Rome in 1215, Pope Innocent III made a dramatic intervention
in sexual affairs.
All Christians were to confess their sins to a priest
at least once a year.
It was a move designed to help the clergy to root out depravity.
To help priests hearing confessions to decide what questions to ask,
the seriousness of the sins they heard, and how to deal with them,
encyclopaedic guidebooks known as confessors' manuals
were widely circulated.
The biggest single category in these compendia of sin was sex.
The message of the confessors' manuals -
sex should only take place within marriage.
Any other form of sexual activity was considered a sin.
But even within marriage, sex was no easy matter.
To avoid sinning, the Church had a checklist
that a husband should run through first.
Is your wife menstruating? Is your wife pregnant?
Is your wife nursing a child?
Is it Lent?
Is it Advent?
Is it Sunday? Is it Whitsun week?
Is it Easter week? Is it Wednesday?
Is it Friday? Is it a fast day?
Is it Saturday?
Is it a feast day?
Is it daylight?
Are you naked?
Are you in church?
If you answered no to all these questions, then sex was permissible.
But only once, and only in what is now called the missionary position.
Taking everything into account, the Church's sexual policing
permitted married couples to have sex, on average, just once a week.
Punishments, or penances,
involved a complex system of fasting and abstinence.
The manuals calibrated penance to fit each sin.
For adultery once, two years' penance.
For adultery twice, five years.
For sex with an animal, seven years.
There were special questions for women.
Had they consumed their husband's semen
in order to inflame their lust? Seven years.
Or put their menstrual blood in their husband's food
in order to excite him? Five years.
This process of confession and penance
mapped out every aspect of human sexuality
and codified a sliding scale of punishments.
And for those who chose to flout the rules,
the Church had a whole other level of investigation and retribution.
Away from the privacy of the confessional
was a more public court.
One where the sins of the faithful could be held up
and publicly condemned.
In the Diocese of Lincoln, suspects were brought here,
to the great cathedral.
Inside, clerics sat in judgement over the accused,
here in the chapterhouse.
The creation of church courts was an extraordinary extension
of the Church's control over people's behaviour.
Confession was a private matter.
This was something completely different.
You could be summoned before the court
on suspicion of your behaviour.
And again, it was sex
that preoccupied the minds of the authorities.
The judges who sat here could impose stern penalties -
excommunication, fines and very public penance.
This book contains the records of the court cases
heard in this chapter house
and in the parish churches of the Diocese of Lincoln.
"On Monday the 16th of November 1338,
"the court met and heard certain cases.
"John Warren, accused of fornication with Ellen Lanser.
"Both appear and confess the sin and swear not to sin again,
"under penalty of 40 pence.
"Ordered to be beaten three times around the church."
"Thomas of Thornton, priest,
"reputed to have committed fornication with Alice, daughter of Robert Master.
"She is ordered, as a penance,
"to be beaten 12 times around the market square
"and 12 times around the church, naked except for her chemise.
"Beatrice, daughter of William Duty, pregnant. It is not known by whom.
"Appeared in the chapterhouse at Lincoln and confessed the sin
"and was absolved. Swore not to sin again.
"Ordered to be beaten six times around the church
"on Sundays and feast days in front of all the procession."
Religious authorities relied heavily on fear and shame
to police their flock.
All over the country,
the full machinery of the Church was brought to bear upon the sexual activities of the faithful.
For the Church, sexual purity was an ideal,
but it was an ideal that was difficult to live up to,
even for members of the Church.
Take this book for example,
copied out by the monks of St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury,
around the year 1200.
The first half is fairly innocuous, a history of English bishops.
But at the end is a series of pornographic stories,
copied out and presumably enjoyed by the monks.
One of them concerns a man and wife
who went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
One evening, they took refuge in the back of a cave.
Nine Saracens come in, light a fire and strip off.
The woman sees their virilia, their virile members,
and becomes so excited
that she insists her husband make love to her.
After he's done so three times,
he can't manage a fourth and falls asleep.
And the woman then offers herself to the Saracens.
All nine of them.
Priests were supposed to be celibate,
at least in the later Middle Ages,
when the Church decided they could no longer marry.
But some lived with mistresses or had affairs with other men's wives.
They were the target of the occasional satirical poem.
"What do priests do with no woman of their own?
"They force themselves on others.
"They have no fear, they feel no shame.
"Take married women as their lovers."
Medieval clergy had other ways to satisfy their sexual desires -
by making use of an institution even older than their own.
The records of the brothels of Dijon in France
reveal that at least 20% of the clientele were churchmen.
Aged monks, mendicant friars, canons, priests -
all of them visiting prostitutes in the city's bathhouses.
A medieval brothel could provide a healthy income
as well as a sexual outlet for church dignitaries.
The Bishop of Winchester received a regular rent from the brothels
in the red light district of Southwark,
which is why the prostitutes from the area
were referred to as Winchester geese.
Regardless of the behaviour of its own clergy,
the medieval Church vigorously condemned and punished
most kinds of sexual activity.
But there was one sexual practice for which medieval society reserved
its most savage condemnation.
The sin of sodomy.
Male homosexuality was something medieval clerics knew about.
This was a time when thousands of men lived together
in communities, rarely seeing a woman.
These are the words of a medieval abbot writing to a young monk.
"My eyes long to see your face, most beloved.
"My arms stretch out to your embraces.
"My lips long for your kisses.
"Whatever remains of me of life
"desires your company to make my soul's joy complete for the future."
Such words sound erotic to the modern ear.
Yet such language was not uncommon between men at the time.
It didn't even imply a physical relationship.
In fact, these are the words
of perhaps the most virulent campaigner against the sin of sodomy -
Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury.
According to Anselm,
this deadly vice was spreading throughout England.
The country, he warned, was threatened with the fate
of the lustful inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Few historians have studied this dark chapter of medieval repression.
One who has is Bob Mills.
The Bible account in Genesis
tells of how, because of the sins of the inhabitants of these cities,
God rains down brimstone and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah
and destroys all of the city's inhabitants.
The penalties in medieval society are meant, in some ways, to reflect
the penalties imposed by God on the original Sodomites.
Fearing divine retribution, medieval society inflicted
savage punishments on any kind of sexual behaviour deemed "unnatural".
In Portugal and Castile, castration is imposed as a penalty.
In Siena, the penalty is to be hanged by one's virile members.
In 1288 in Bologna, the penalty is death by burning.
Sodomites in the afterlife fared no better.
There are certain images in late medieval Italy
which show sodomites actually being burned eternally in hell.
And one of these images shows a sodomite being penetrated
from the anus through to the mouth and in a sense being spit-roasted
by a devil, who's sort of turning the spit.
The other end of the rod then comes out of his mouth
and into the mouth of another figure who's sitting beside him.
So there's a clear allusion here
to the ways in which the penalties for sodomy
mirror the sexual practices of the sodomites.
So we've got an allusion to anal sex and the penetration of the anus
and then the penetration of the mouth alludes to oral sex.
In late 14th-century Perugia,
there's an Italian Last Judgement play
which describes the various penalties
that are going to be inflicted on sinners in hell.
At the very climax of this play, Christ describes the punishments for the sodomites.
"You, stinking sodomite, have crucified me night and day.
"Go quickly to hell to stay a while amid those punishments.
"Put him quickly in that great heat, since he has sinned against nature.
"You cursed sodomites,
"roast like little piggies."
Then Satan tells one of the devils to give the roast a good turning.
So a very explicit illusion to the idea of the spit-roasted sodomite.
Punishment for such unbridled sexual aberration awaited Christian Europe.
So claimed the prophets of doom.
And they would soon claim a terrible vindication.
In 1348, William of Edendon, Bishop of Winchester, wrote to all the clergy in his diocese.
"We report with anguish the news which has come to our ears,
"that a cruel plague has begun a savage attack
"on the coastal areas of England.
"Although God often strikes us to justly punish our sins,
"it is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan.
"But it is to be feared that human sensuality,
"that fire which blazed up as a result of Adam's sin,
"has now plumbed greater depths of evil,
"producing a multitude of sins
"which have provoked the divine anger to this revenge."
The Black Death killed half the population of Europe.
Those infected swelled up with boils the size of eggs or apples.
They vomited black and green fluid, they coughed up blood,
and it condemned them to a quick and painful death.
Relationships fell apart.
"Brother forsook brother, uncle nephew, sister brother,
"and oftentimes wife husband,"
lamented the poet Boccaccio.
For the Bishop of Rochester, Thomas Brinton, the onset of plague
was due punishment for the sins of his contemporaries.
"There is on every side so much lechery and adultery
"that few men are contented with their own wives,
"but each man lusts after the wife of his neighbour
"or keeps a stinking concubine -
"behaviour which merits a horrible and wretched death."
The Black Death was a 14th-century apocalypse.
But it was, tragically, of a piece with so much of life
as it was lived on the other side of that great divide
which separates the modern world from a more dangerous past.
The medieval world existed far more precariously than our own.
A complex world of passion and romance.
Misogyny and cruelty.
Infant death and everlasting love.
Piety and poetry.
Virgins wedded to Christ...
and priests wedded to the pleasures of the flesh.
A life that was, it must be said,
nasty for some, short for many.
But brutish, not at all.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Leading authority on the Middle Ages, Professor Robert Bartlett presents a series which examines the way we thought during medieval times. He unearths remarkable evidence of the complex passions of medieval men and women. The Church preached hatred of the flesh, promoted the cult of virginity and condemned woman as the sinful heir to Eve. Yet this was the era that gave birth to the idea of romantic love.