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Introduction: The Revel, the Melodye and the Bisynesse of Solas

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Cory J. Rushton
Affiliation:
St Francis Xavier University
Amanda Hopkins
Affiliation:
Warwick University
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Summary

The Background: Sexuality in the European Middle Ages

‘… “da mihi castitatem et continentiam, sed noli modo”.’

AN INDIVIDUAL'S sexual behaviour in the Middle Ages was not a personal matter. The twin powers of state and Church attempted to control every aspect of people's lives, and sexual behaviour was no exception: as Ruth Mazo Karras observes, ‘One's choice of sexual partner affected one's family and the inheritance of property. One's choice of sexual act affected the social order and therefore was of concern to the entire community’. The Church promoted chastity, and considered virginity to be the superior sexual state for men and women. Women were considered a disruptive influence and sexually predatory by both Church and state; clerical and secular misogyny were widespread; and in noble households the number of female inhabitants was kept to a minimum, their movements restricted: in aristocratic records, ‘courtesy and household books indicate a hostility towards the presence of any unnecessary women’. While the secular patriarchy was obsessed with the purity and continuation of bloodlines and the avoidance of female sexual incontinence, the Church was deeply concerned with the details of sexual behaviour in terms of specific activities and relative morality, the latter usually assessed on the basis of male sexual response.

Acceptable sexual practices were debated by canonists (celibate and, at least hypothetically, chaste men) and defined in canon law as the Church attempted to regulate every aspect of human sexual behaviour.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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