Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ruth Mazo Karras: "Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others": Review

Professor Karras’ subtitle conveys her thesis. Sex in the Middle Ages meant not what two people did with each other, but what one person did to the other. One person was active, the other passive. The action mattered more than the sex of the two people, at least in certain conventions. That is, what’s “normal” to us roughly equated with a medieval person’s what’s “natural.” People’s sex mattered less than what they did during sex. Acts were open to procreation and used the “natural vessel” properly or they did not—this led to a vague term still bedeviling us today of what we mean by our distortion of the sin of Sodom. The danger of uncontrolled sexual expression could lead to the undermining of marriage. This relationship mattered not for romance or self-fulfillment then. Marriage ensured that property could be transferred along clearly aligned lineages, and that legitimate heirs could be identified.

This in turn goes back to sexual intercourse as essential for continuity of families and power, whether among the poor or rich. Sexual activity meant the control of one person by another, and the monitoring of how the body could be taken under the supervision of authority. People thought about sexual actions therefore as who penetrated the other. Beyond our modern concepts of homo- or heterosexual, Karras appears to build upon the insistence of scholars such as Karma Lochrie (see her “Covert Operations” credited in the annotated bibliographical sources) that a medieval person would not recognize either homo or hetero as familiar classifications so much as how one person used another person’s body. Sex was not mutual activity so much as mastery.

Karras argues that this crucial distinction marks not only transitive verbs and direct objects, but the very idea of how sexual activity, perpetrated or contemplated, differed from our own times. Such differences fill these two hundred thoughtful, vigorous, and learned pages: Karras reminds us constantly how our conceptions of sex, gender, sexuality, and relationships have been deeply colored by the ubiquity of sexual material in our own era. While medieval people thought about sex perhaps no less than we do, they expressed it less in the contexts of the body and individual identity and self-expression which we moderns have constructed, and far more as related to the need for nourishment and the concern for the survival of the body after death. Karras’ conclusion emphasizes how food and religion subsumed sex within larger categories, ones that we have nonetheless inherited regarding sexual attitudes whenever we see a “bad girls” t-shirt worn, regardless of our own fidelity to the doctrines of a scriptural text or a fundamentalist doctrine.

The five chapters are organized logically. The first chapter gives an overview. She does not, in my opinion, go far enough to challenge scholars who have accepted Michel Foucault’s ungrounded assumptions of a neat Medieval “Other” (for this again see Lochrie), but Karras sufficiently reminds us that as we are faced largely with legal and literary descriptions, chronicled anecdotes, lyrical fancy, and canonical proscriptions from largely the elite superstratum rather than the testimony directly from the rural majority and the urban workers, we lack inevitably full understanding of what medieval people talked about when they talked about sex—and love, lust, fantasy, reverie, sin, and guilt. It’s often circumspect and tangential evidence, heavily filtered and probably distorted by the time it survives centuries of accidental or intentional, and often clerically or politically motivated, reasons of survival down to our time. Karras never forgets the danger of reading the texts out of context, as well as why the information would have been recorded and the purposes for which such sensitive data might have been gathered.

Chapter two, "Sexuality within Chastity," reminds us how much of what we know about the topic persists through a celibate clergy’s literacy, and Karras explains too the differences between Latin Christian and Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim societies who lacked the total ban on clerical sexual activity.

The third chapter investigates sex within marriage; Karras estimates, unexpectedly for me, that 15% of Western Europeans did not marry for a variety of reasons. This inevitably catch-all category does stress, in her interpretation, the separation of the religious and legal rationales for stable partnerships which would ensure the transmission of goods and land from one generation to the next with a surprisingly varied array of options within which men and women however bound by wedlock might manage—especially if predictably the married man with an unmarried or perhaps separated or widow woman—could expand the bounds of tolerated, if not exactly licit, sexual behaviors. This applied to men with men, arguably, as well as women with women. The whole problem same-sex relationships posits for modern readers is that we expect the explicit. Karras counters that we may differ fundamentally from what medieval people were able to understand as deep friendships, passionately declaimed in rhetorical tropes, but ultimately eluding our equation of desire with physical manifestation.

Women and men “outside marriage” then gain their own respective chapters. As Karras studies the evidence, the role of women appears decidedly subordinate to that enjoyed by men. Not groundbreaking material, you may aver. Karras, nevertheless, builds upon a wide variety of texts and situations: adultery and the vexed debate over “courtly love;” concubinage and quasi-marriage; unmarried women; violence and coercion; same-sex relationships. The difficulties posed by the dramatic changes five hundred years (let alone a thousand or a thousand and a half) from this period pose difficulty for anyone wishing to unearth the “reality” beneath dispositions and depictions. Karras reminds us that what we would classify as “quid pro quo sexual harassment” likely dominated many activities in this period, and the male—presumed the active force and forcer—likely dominated the relations whether explicitly or implicitly simply due to the power imbalance of the era.

I have already mentioned the resistance of applying “homosexual” labels to same-sex actions then. The chapter on men addresses the slippery state of the “sodomite” category, and the often mutable identities that proved, from the abundant if (of course) provocatively transgressive legal evidence reported from Florence and Venice. Men moved from passive to perhaps active roles in “sodomy” before most married late, in their later twenties or early thirties, compared to much younger ages of their brides—as well as younger overall ages for both betrothed in Northern Europe. Karras remains vigiliant in reminding us that we cannot make blanket statements about sexuality outside of local, and frequently very different, contexts, and she carefully notes again the distinctions between Catholic Europe and the Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and “heretic” communities that create such nuances. As far as the record shows, written of course by the literate who were often clerical or their allies, God mattered more than the needs of the body, all mortal things considered. This shows us too how far we have moved from the fixed systems and hierarchical nature of our medieval engenderers.

A couple of points somewhat eluded me. Avicenna and Albert the Great both discussed the “two-seed” theory of conception that assumed, building on Aristotle, that the man contributed “form” by his ejaculation in the vagina to the women’s “matter” that rested inert, waiting to mold the male injection. Galen and Hippocrates, I recall, also considered this theory, which battled a one-seed theory in the Middle Ages, but Karras appears to leave the foundation for this debate aside and the background remains unexcavated by her. I would have liked more coverage of the evolution of this crucial argument. The need for a woman to reach orgasm along with the man, so the “double seed” could take root in her, meant a somewhat different, and more participatory and equally shared, responsibility than many may assume for this period.

The intriguing and infamous relationship attributed to Edward II and Piers Gaveston seems downplayed by Karras. The charge of “sodomy” that led to the gruesome end of the English king after his scandalous affair supposedly carried out with his consort here gets downplayed. The evidence, Karras agrees, does not support a same-sex intimacy. Perhaps, but the perception that has persisted certainly exaggerated such an attachment, and the rumor, unsubstantiated though it may be, certainly accounted for the king’s symbolically appropriate skewering with the red-hot poker. Karras skirts this tale’s aftermath, undeserved although it may have been in her hindsight.

On a related matter, Karras agrees with those who would deny a “homosexual” gender role or a totally same-sex identification, arguing the anachronism of such classifications. However, I would have liked to see her incorporate the arguments made by Mark E. Jordan in his “The Invention of Sodomy” (also reviewed by me) more thoroughly, given that I suspect fruitful debate would emerge from Karras’ reluctance to grant a “communal” if largely underground status to the category of same-sex relationships. I find hints, compared with Jordan, that Karras may differ on such details with Jordan.

In the conclusion, Karras recalls the primacy of food and death within the questions which mattered most back then to our ancestors: how would I get enough to survive now, and how would the body I feed today fare once death and decay set in? Karras credits Caroline Walker Bynum’s “Holy Feast & Holy Fast” as essential in understanding the role that sex played, if subordinate to questions of endurance that we moderns would tend in turn to minimize compared to our sexual satisfaction. Such careful application of scholarship and how we contemporaries cannot fully enter into the medieval mindset speaks well for the cautionary commonsense with which Karras approaches this topic.

“Further Reading” comments briefly on her sources, primary and secondary. This satisfies the need for more arcane or less generalized research. She has read widely, and adds to her colleagues her own readings and ideas to expand the study of this difficult and elusive field of investigation that only in the past thirty years has truly been able to be delved into, thanks to pioneers from later centuries— albeit misinformed often on medieval perceptions and the alterity of earlier textual evidence-- such as Foucault.

Karras offers here the first “recent book-length study of medieval sexuality.” It's ideal for anyone approaching this field; if I could I would rate it 88/100. While not all's crystal clear, the compression of so much into about 160 pp. of narrative history, plus extensive notes and index all totalling but two hundred pages, makes for inevitable editorial excisions.

Few books, I have found in my own studies in the Middle Ages, remind me so well of how rigor and imagination need to be combined for any of us today who dare to re-read the scattered texts and enigmatic evidence in our effort to try to think more like our medieval ancestors within a vastly changed society. The author in her afterword counsels us not to be too smug. We cannot romanticize the brutal past, nor should we divorce it entirely from our own shared frailty and longing for union. Karras when read attentively will not let us forget, contrarily, that we still owe ourselves quite a bit to these forebears for our own legal, cultural, and religious understanding of how our bodies relate to one another, and the intimacy binding self with soul. We may think differently when saying “sex, gender, and sexuality,” but we share the frail humanity and mortally fragile longings with our ancestors many centuries ago.

(Posted to Amazon; image from the Bayeux Tapestry-- its meaning's debated still!)

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