Savage Love Letter of the Day: A Medievalist Schools Dan on Medieval Attitudes Toward Sex

Comments

1
Fucking Slog ought to fucking hire this person, because I could read this shit all fucking day.
2
Speak it, brother!

3
Amen!
4
New Column: Ask a Medievalist!
5
11/10 would read again
6
Historians, they're the best.
MEDIEVAL, thanks for the lesson. Slog would be a better place with more of this kind of thing.
7
An anthropologist who rails constantly against the idea that one man-one woman nuclear families are the time immemorial form of marriage, doffs his hat and bows to the medievalist. Well done!
8
"And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages."

Well, sure, if religious conformity is enforced at the stake, faith is unlikely to be a marker of social identity since there was little public heterogeneity. But if you did deviate from orthodoxy, it sure as hell marked you socially. And while the priesthood has always found ways to express itself sexually, it doesn't mean that medieval societies didn't take "deviant" sexual behavior very seriously. Just taking pre-reformation England for example, there were a lot of men who lost their balls for stepping out of line. "Mutilation" was all too common a punishment for sexual as well as other kinds of misbehavior.
9
AWESOME letter! However, I think this writer is downplaying the role of religion in personal identity. Christian vs. Muslim was a big deal during the Crusades. I'd like to add, it's not so much religion or nationality that causes wars et al. It's the human tendency to classify people as "us" and "them." (And in one interp of the New. Testament, what Jesus was actually telling people to stop doing.)
10
I was going to say the same as others... can you hire this person?
11
Please give this guy Mudede's desk (and job).
12
Nicely put.
13
Not that it's not interesting and true, but there is no fucking way this was written by anyone but a procrastinating grad student. Not History either - stink of English is all over it.
14
This is like porn for history nerds.

Thanks!
15
@8, I agree, but would broaden your point to say that Medieval societies didn't tolerate *any* sort of deviant behavior, sexual or otherwise. And to MEDIEVAL'S point, issues of sex were way down on the list. FAR more important were issues of fealty and allegiance. Heresy and treason were the crimes punished most cruelly.

The main point is that the movement of the masses away from organized religion has made those religions far more intolerant and rigid. If everyone wears hats, it's not so important what kind of hat you're wearing. But once people start taking off their hats, the hat-wearers become more stringent on what kind of hats will be worn. As you say, this is all part of identity, rooted in the human social need to belong and be a part of a greater whole.
16
I'm a medievalist, and all the other medievalists in my network are trying to figure out who wrote this letter (seriously, there aren't *that* many of us). He/she/they are a hero!
17
Absolutely true, and if I may add a point, there are two entire books about this, written by political scientist Corey Robin, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin (which I always think of as "someone read all of Edmund Burke so now I don't have to") and Fear: The History of a Political Idea. I read his books, and this idea is spot-on.
18
This is great! More, please.
19
Medieval: if you're ever looking for someone to talk nerdy to, you know where to find me...
20
@9 you are confusing "personal identity" with "group identity"
21
I've always found the conversations between Settembrini and Naphta in The Magic Mountain to be a good dialog between traditional liberalism and conservative reaction. Now give me more of this Slog.
22
This early modernist is very happy about today's SLLOTD.
23
This is why I like reading slog.
24
If you are going to toss Foucault in this missive, I'm all ears. Were he here and surfing the Slog, he might chime in an say something to the effect that no one exists outside of discourse [.....], and that what is of interest in our use of term "medieval" is not the relative fidelity with which the term is used but rather how it illustrates our own embedded notions of sovereign individual and how it grounds contemporary notions of identity, yada yada.

Maybe...

Or maybe he go clubbing instead.

25
@24

Yeah, well, going clubbing might be why he's not here surfing the Slog.
26
Lordy this letter and the comments here make me happy. I hope they write again.
27
My response after the jump

......

kudos Dan...for letting it stand all on its own ;)
28
So can we get some suggestions for a book or two that an uneducated slob like me could read? Are Corey Robin's books reasonably accessible?
29
Agony - not from me... unless you want recommendations on science and nature non fiction.... i've got lots to say on that. :)
30
It was going so well until the last paragraph.
31
Fascinating. Thank you, Slog, for printing this letter, and thank you, Mediaevalist with Victorian BF, for writing it.
32
A nice change from enlightened people bitching about their enlightened problems.
33
love this letter and the comments. thanks for publishing, Dan, and thanks for writing MEDIEVAL. I've spent the last few days dealing with some extreme religious right folks and it's always good to have another way to put their opinions into perspective (politely not saying what some of the other ways are).
34
OMG - This is the best letter I've read from Savage Love in a few years. Don't change anything you've been doing, Dan. Just pepper what you've been doing with some of this once in a while. It's made my week.
35
Can't see any difference with the religious orders. They still fuck around and hold high office in the Catholic Church.
36
Fine letter, interesting letter. I agree with the chorus of praise...mostly.

The letter writer did lose me a bit toward the end. Abandoning modern notions of identity? What does that even mean? Humans love to organize, categorize, and we can't wish that away. We're identifying ourselves more readily than ever, and into ever more fine-grained identities, which we share with the world with a plethora of smartphone apps. And I find that comprehensible.

Abandoning identity, on the other hand, sounds vague and precious and fey--a process which attempts to make inscrutability a virtue.

I freely admit I'm a creature of The Enlightenment, and am very old.
37
Well damn, now I wish I'd actually done something with my history degree...
38
Oh Atheist; I was surprised he mentioned Foucault. A thinker popular in the 70s.
Thought all those guys went outta fashion. Like Freud.
I mean , Dan even cracks jokes about Freud.
39
An excellent letter! I've often noted that "Old Timey Religion" - at least in this country, is a 20th century phenomenon, for the most part. Thanks for posting this - a great education on Medieval Religiosity.
40
@38 - clearly you haven't been near an academic history department at a major university - Foucault and Diderot are alive and well in historiography (and rightly so, though it took me a long time to get my own head wrapped around it).

While I am, like @36, @30 & @22, a modernist (oh noes! Gertrude Himmelfarb!) Foucault's critique (and the LW's inclusion here) of the centrality of (sexual) identities is entirely appropriate - and George Orwell would most certainly agree.
41
I think "maybe through getting rid of identity as we know it" was a reference to the changing basis of identity, from fealty/alliance based medieval identity, to the current individual preference based identity. I do think there are obvious problems with the special snowflake era. My idea is to teach ethics in elementary school. I'd like to see identity become more humanist rather than so individual.
42
@28 Dinshaw's /Getting Medieval/ might be a good start. It focuses on sexual identity and communities. For a broader understanding of how the "self" exists in the (later) Middle Ages, David Aers's /Community, Gender, and Individual Identity/ is a good starting point.
43
@15 "Medieval societies didn't tolerate *any* sort of deviant behavior..."

Check out the Lateran IV Cannons (1213) and Jack Cade's Rebellion (1450-something) as bookends against that assertion. Much of the high Middle Ages *was* about what was and what was not 'deviant,' but to the OP's point it was centralization and the growth of the modern state (see Strayer, JR) that turned regional idiosyncrasies and local permissiveness into heresy and treason.
44
@ Philo 41 - teach ethics in elementary school.... best idea i've heard in a long time.
45
Thank you, Dan and MEDIEVAL and all commenters. This post, and the comments, made me sign up.
46
Foucault? Really? And blaming Islamist violence on 'anti-colonialism?' Try telling that one to people in India, or Greece, or Bulgaria.... hell, anywhere that Islam has waged 'defensive' wars. How did all that 'self defence' get them to conquer every thing from Morocco to the Philippines? Or from Zanzibar to the Alps?
47
I have a bit of a crush
48
He is talking about public opinion, though, not religious teaching. Shame about sex has been part of Christianity since the beginning (there are stories about ascetics efforts to " rise above the profane.") Of course people's identities were not so tied up in religion then, and societal pressures often contradicted religion.

But look at where the US came from. We talk about religious freedom, but often the freedoms the first Americans desired involved more stringent religious identities, not less. So our society developed a strong religious identity from the start, even though we did not share a religion. What many of us had in common was the fact that religion was important to us.

Of course, we have no medieval society to look back on, because the US did not exist then, and the societies from which it formed were varied. Was medieval Roman society the same sexually as rural English society? One thing were pretty sure about is that they all were violently opposed to same-sex relationships.
49
It's been many years since I've enjoyed a SLLOTD post this much. Thank you!
50
So ... I clearly need more medievalists in my life. Hell... I just need them to help me spell the word.
51
This feels like a letter that Andrew Sullivan would have received back in the day.
52
Oh MAN do I dig this kind of stuff! Thanks medievalist!
53
Holy shit that was awesome. Medieval needs to write a regular column to just school us on random shit.
54
To say that medieval religious leaders were hypocrites who kept brothels does not indicate that they were all that different from today's religious extremists. ISIS and similar extremist groups rape women and take "war brides," for example. George Rekkers and others of his ilk preach anti-gay Christianity while hiring male prostitutes. Sounds like today's fundies have a lot in common with their medieval counterparts to me. Both now and then, the rules were meant to be applied to everyone else, not them.
55
I find it interesting how many of the male commenters assume this was written by a man.

I'm an early modernist and I am trying to figure out who wrote it. If my guess is correct it was a woman who is, as you can tell, a great scholar and person.
56
@48 "Of course, we have no medieval society to look back on, because the US did not exist then, and the societies from which it formed were varied. "

Many (though certainly not all) Medievalists would counter that the beginnings of colonial America were the trailing ends of the Medieval, and of feudalism specifically; that our society is a religious What If? to Britain's secularism. The Medieval (though they didn't think of themselves as Medieval) certainly wasn't as far from them in time or culture as we might think. The founding of Jamestown (1607) is closer to the deaths of Martin Luther (1546) and Henry VIII (1547) than we are (2015) to the end of WWII (1945), and only an election cycle farther away from the end of the Hundred Years' War (1453) than we are to the American Civil War (1865).

As much as we might like to think that we're a melting pot of people and culture, our institutions are incredibly English. Try comparing our courts or our schools or taxes or legislatures with those on the European continent, let alone those beyond it.

@48 "Was medieval Roman society the same sexually as rural English society? One thing were pretty sure about is that they all were violently opposed to same-sex relationships."

I believe this is part of the point the OP is trying to make -- that the common perception of what is and what is not 'Medieval' or what is 'true' about the Medieval is actually more from the 17th - 18th century, the Victorians specifically, than from the 900s - 1400s.

Sexuality simply wasn't a significant part of individual identity in the Middle Ages, insomuch as individuals had identity beyond their familial or social associations. Religious Freedom wasn't even a thought really until Luther and Henry VIII (and/or Elizabeth I) and wasn't a Thing until the Enlightenment of the 1650s.

In sum, opposition to sexual expression wasn't nearly as vitriolic or 'violent' has we might think, and what care there was was mostly focused by the Church on the clergy, and not too much farther.

Also, as a quibble, there is no "Medieval Roman" culture if you mean the Roman Republic; axiomatically the "Middle Age" that is the Medieval is between the fall of Rome and the Italian Renaissance, during which time the people in the area did little more than get conquered and invent art and finance. Similarly "English" identity is a Victorian construct, or at least from the 17th century when Nationalism became a Thing.
57
This guy is not a midevialist, he is a dumb liberal prick of the Norman Lear mode, who thinks anyone should fuck anyone, anytime. That wasn't the fact in Midieval times. In fact, it would get you killed. If you fucked anyone, you were a whore, if you fucked someone from another race or religion, you were also a whore and would be killed or maybe a witch and be burned. As Henry 8 proves, in late Renaissance times, you could kill your wife with just accusations of infidelity. So he is, well, fucked.The real issue, for the rare thinkers who delight in thinking, and that dumb liberal prick "fuck anyone, anytime " folks cannot comprehend, is that, as Nietzsche said, in the 19th century, in his God is dead statement, is where will we find new morality, new morals and grounding when the old Christian god is dead? The problem for the late 20th and 21st century, is that when man's ingenuity has finally uncoupled sex from reproduction, what is the new sexual morality? Liberal pricks of the Norman Lear ilk, like our merry medievalist, would have you believe its, " fuck anyone, anytime " . Wrong!

58
@55 For some reason I pictured a lady writer. I have weird implicit biases that I still don't get sometimes.
59
For book recommendations, I would add (especially if you're interested in learning more about the Bishop of Winchester and his stake in the London brothels), Ruth Mazo Karras' _Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England_ (Oxford Univ Press, 1996).
60
@57: I'm actually surprised it took 26 hours and 38 minutes for an irate mouth-breather to drop in and deposit a turd in the punch bowl. In contrast to the well-written and research based letter write and most of the comments here we get: "a dumb liberal prick of the Norman Lear mode". Yep, you got us all there big fella.
61
AFinch. How'd you guess?
It's great, cause Foucault, as I skimmed round the sides, always felt interesting to me. The half finished, Mamoth biography of him, shows my affection.
My boyfriend in the early 70s, was so so in love with him. Wanted to move to Paris to study with him.
Still. Just another viewpoint.
Oh. And a male one.
62
@57; have we unhooked sex from reproduction, though?
Lot more unhooked then in those times to be sure. But still the same impulses.
I wasn't really sure what this LWs point was/ is.
Whatever one wants to call these barbaric patriarchal cultures, that are flourishing in the Middle East; doesn't really matter. They are just scary.
63
Whilst I agree with most of the essay I think that modern attitudes to self loathing and sex certainly have their roots in the early medieval period. The idea of 'sins of the flesh' was a a central plank in christian theology for most of its history and gave rise to hair shirts and flagellation.
Early theologians like Augustine taught that sex was inherently sinful, even sex for procreation would get you time in purgatory. This why the church had no marriage sacrament - marriage was seen as tainted by its association with sex. Its also the reason why priests were supposed to be celibate.
The fact that a powerful bishop ran a brothel simply shows the hypocrisy this created - I'm sure you could find plenty of Victorian clergy men visiting brothels and child brothels in Victorian London. But you would not say the Victorians were sexually liberal in their theology!

The BBC have a documentary about this very subject:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05…
64
Agree with all (or most all) - great letter. Some room for disagreement, but what complex thought doesn't have that? @4 - I love the "Ask a Medievalist" idea.

@57 - you are batting at ideas like a kitten with a yarn ball. If you really think you're on to something, slow down, gather your thoughts, do a little research, and get back to us. Hurry though - these comment threads don't last long!
65
And another individual falls victim to the Dunning-Kruger Effect @57.
66
I'm with Seatackled.
67
@61 - heh, it's a subculture for sure. Yes, it's another (male) viewpoint, but in many ways very very much in tune with your often expressed disdain for most common (and modernist) constructions.
68
Ugh this guy represents the worst of the postmodern rot in the humanities that inflated the egos of wannabe "theorists" so that they construct these complicated pseudo-historical "genealogies" by cherry picking the bits that fit their ideological frame. The reference to Foucault is telling - he pioneered these "method" but most people do not realize he was not a historian and had little or no training in historiography which accounts for his misapplication of Nietzsche's philosophical approach in Genealogy of Morals to intellectual/social histories of madness, prisons, and sexuality. Foucault was heavily influenced by the social and political chaos of his time and in many ways was reacting against the hegemony of the stalinism of the French Communists and as such incorporated much of the romantic anti-rationalism, anti-positivism, anti-empiricism, of Frankfurt critical theory, along with the anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism that motivated much of the Left's rage against Western capitalism and democracy. This medievalist shares a similar ideological opposition to modern modes of thought and discourse that we inherited from the Enlightenment but have continued to develop primarily through scientific and technical advances. His historical narrative is very appealing but ultimately misleading as evidenced by the impotence revealed in his last paragraph in which he basically throws his hands in the air and says he can't give any answers but he has succeeded in "troubling" our Enlightenment narrative. No surprise there because critical theorists never offer an alternative paradigm after they rubbish the Enlightenment and its supposed poisoned fruit. PS - Anyone familiar with Foucault's disastrous political views would never recognize the canonized saint of the humanities. He was so convinced that the West was so corrupt and evil that he supported the Iranian Islamic revolution to the dismay of the Iranian radical and liberal Left, particularly feminists who implored him to retract his endorsement before most of them were murdered or forced into repressive marriages.
69
In response to some of the commenters above: the writer is indeed male. Mathew Irwin. You can learn more about him and his thoughts on going viral here. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Medievali…