From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Eroticism is rare in Early Christian and Medieval art. Pagan (meaning of classical antiquity) monuments were often overtly sexual, but Christian art shunned the world of physical love. Christianity is a non-sexual religion (Virgin birth of Jesus, Saint Paul advocating clerical celibacy). So, very much contrary to the sexual morality of antiquity, the Middle Ages were an era of sexual repression.
But there were exceptions of course. There were elegiac comedies such as the Comoedia Lydiae, erotic folklore such as the fabliaux, seductive enchantresses such as the Morgan le Fay, succubi and incubi, erotic church stone carvings such as gargoyle and Sheela na Gigs, erotic marginalia (known as drolleries) such as 'A demon firing an arrow into the buttocks of a merman', and the obscene wood carvings on choir stalls and misericords.
Lastly, the Christian repression of sexuality led to an exemplary tradition which served as a cautionary tale of the dangers of sex, displayed in the center and right panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch and to the depiction of erotic horrors in various frescos such as Giotto's Last Judgement.
Mores: the lusty woman stereotype
- "Contrary to the modern stereotype that views males as more susceptible to sexual desire than females, during the Middle Ages women were often seen as much more lustful than men. General opinion held that men were more rational, active creatures and closer to the spiritual realm, while women were carnal by nature and thus more materialistic. In the Decameron there are many examples of lusty women with insatiable desires. The nuns in III.1 ("whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy ten women," 198), Alibech, who develops a taste for "putting the devil back in Hell" in III.10, and the wife of Calandrino ("this woman's going to be the death of me... with her insatiable lust..." 661) in IX.3 are just a few examples." Decameron web
Among the other texts in the Exeter Book, there are over ninety riddles. They are written in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry and range in topics from the religious to the mundane. Some of them are double entendres, such as Riddle 25:
- I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation,
- a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens
- except my slayer alone.
- My stem is erect, I stand up in bed,
- hairy somewhere down below. A very comely
- peasant's daughter, dares sometimes,
- proud maiden, that she grips at me,
- attacks me in my redness, plunders my head,
- confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly,
- woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye.
From the Medieval period we have the Decameron (1353) by the Italian , Giovanni Boccaccio (made into a film by Pasolini) which features tales of lechery by monks and the seduction of nuns from convents. This book was banned in many countries. Even five centuries after publication copies were seized and destroyed by the authorities in the USA and the UK. For instance between 1954 and 1958 eight orders for destruction of the book were made by English magistrates.
The Canterbury Tales
Well-known stories include the marriage group and "The Wife of Bath" (trope of the loathly lady), "The Miller's Tale (trope of the misdirected kiss)," "The Merchant's Tale" (senex amans) and "Troilus and Criseyde" (love at first sight).
The Merchant's Tale
The Merchant's Tale is one of the bawdier tales of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Merchant's Tale is the story of a cuckolded an older husband and his young wife who by quick-witted lying get away with it. Though several of the tales are sexually explicit by modern standards, this one is especially so. One question that splits critics is whether the Merchant's tale is a fabliau. Typically a description for a tale of carnal lust and frivolous bed-hopping, some would argue that especially the latter half of the tale, where Damian and May make love in the tree with the blind Januarie at the foot of the tree, represents fabliau.
The fabliau (plural fabliaux or "'fablieaux'") is a comic, usually anonymous tale written by jongleurs in northeast France circa the 13th Century. They are generally bawdy in nature, and several of them were reworked by Geoffrey Chaucer for his Canterbury Tales. Some 150 French fabliaux are extant depending on how narrowly fabliau is defined.
Typical fabliaux concern cuckolded husbands, rapacious clergy and foolish peasants. The status of peasants appears to vary based on the audience for which the fabliau was being written. Poems that were presumably written for the nobility portray peasants (vilains in French) as stupid and vile, whereas those written for the lower classes often tell of peasants getting the better of the clergy.
Elegiac comedy was a genre of medieval Latin literature or drama popular in the twelfth century. About twenty such works survive, all of them produced in west central France, roughly the Loire Valley.
They were typically lyric complaints only sometimes mixed with amorous content. Their Classical forebearers were Terence and, more especially, Ovid. His Ars amatoria, Amores, and Heroides were highly influential. Plautus, though less widely read in the Middle Ages, was also an influence, as were the Scholastic debates concerning the nature of universals and other contemporary philosophical problems, with which the elegiac comedies often dealt, always humorously but no doubt sometimes to a serious end.
Christianity and sexual morality
Christianity supplemented the Jewish attitudes on sexuality with two new concepts. First, there was the idea that marriage was absolutely exclusive and indissoluble, thereby restricting the sphere of sexual activity and eliminating the husband's ability to divorce at will. Second, there was the notion of virginity as a moral ideal, rendering marital sexuality as a sort of concession to carnal weakness and the necessity of procreation.
Sexuality in Christian demonology
Christian demonologists agreed in the fact that sexual relationships between demons and humans happen, but they disagree in why and how. A common point of view is that demons induce men and women to the sin of lust, and adultery is often considered as an associated sin. Pierre de Rostegny supported the idea that Satan preferred to have sexual intercourse with married women to add adultery to her sins.
It was considered that demons always had sexual relationships with witches and warlocks in the form of incubi and succubae, and some witches had sexual intercourse with a male goat, as it was supported by Pierre de Rostegny. But common people, as it was believed, also were seduced by incubi and succubae, especially while they were asleep, and sometimes when they were awake, in the form of a beautiful man or woman that excited their desire to the point of not being able to resist the temptation, although the possibility of resistance always existed as asserted by Christian theologians, but the tendency to sin was stronger than their faith. Francesco Maria Guazzo offered detailed descriptions of sexual relationships between demons and humans.
First book burning, Decameron, Ovid and other "lewd" books
In 1497, followers of the Italian priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned pornography, lewd pictures, pagan books, gaming tables, cosmetics, copies of Boccaccio's Decameron, and all the works of Ovid which could be found in Florence.
In painting, the female beauty ideal in the Middle Ages is very peculiar, namely, a tight pelvis, wide waist and small breasts. These can be seen in The Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. Kenneth Clarke in his book The Nude calls this female body shape bulbous. Another female nude of this type can be seen in Italy, in Bellini's Vanitas . A last example is Liebeszauber ("magic of love"), perhaps the most perfect illustration of the medieval beauty ideal.
Erotic marginalia in medieval illuminated manuscripts
Erotic scenes in medieval illuminated manuscripts appeared, but were seen only by those who could afford the extremely expensive hand made books. Most of these drawings occur in the margins of books of hours. Many medieval scholars think that the pictures satisfied the medieval cravings for both erotic pictures and religion in one book, especially since it was often the only book someone owned. Other scholars think the drawings in the margins were a kind of moral caution, but the depiction of priests and other ranking officials engaged in sex acts suggests political origins as well.
- History of erotica
- Carmina Burana
- Biblical eroticism
- Controversy about the extent of the sexuality in courtly love
- The alternative convention
- Chastity test
- Texts on lust by the early Church Fathers Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome and Clairvaux
- Antifeminist literature of the Middle Ages
- Insatiability of women
- Romanesque erotic art
- Erotic marginalia
- The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (1983) by Leo Steinberg
- Was It Good For You, Too? (Medieval Erotic Art and Its Audiences) by Martha Easton
- Medieval Obscenities by Nicola McDonald, University of York, Centre for Medieval Studies.