Get Thee To A Nunnery!

One of the commonest myths of the Middle Ages is that the Church cracked down brutally on your premarital sex, provided that you were a woman. In fact the more potent variable was marital status: the Church was relatively lenient towards fornication on the part of unmarried people of either sex. For a single girl to sleep around was no tremendously big deal, not like a woman’s adultery. The mystery here is not why this should have been so, but why some moderns do not understand why putting a cuckoo in your husband’s nest is upsetting to him and socially disruptive.

In medieval Europe, the brothels were owned and run by either by the secular city authorities or by the bishops. There is an anecdote – si no e vero, e ben trovato – that when Nôtre-Dame in Paris was a-building, the architects were planning stained-glass windows showing the various guilds of the city who were contributing to the work; corporate sponsorship, as we would say today. The prostitutes’ guild wanted a window too, and there was no problem with this, until the bishop realised that the integrated design concept showed the guilds actually practicing their occupations. That was a window too far.

What is not all fictional is the thirteenth-century canonist Thomas of Cobham on the question of whether prostitutes’ alms should be accepted. He employed the “women’s work” rather than the “depravity” or “slavery” models: “They hire out their bodies and supply labour….” The profit was therefore honest and could be donated; unless, that is, the prostitution was “engaged in for pleasure, and the body is hired out so that it may experience ecstasy,” in which case “one’s labour is not being hired and the profit is as shameful as the act.” Thomas also reprobated the use of cosmetics to create a fake beauty, on the basis of what we would now call “truth in advertising”; in this case the deceitful vendor ought to return to the client the difference between what she took and what her real beauty would have commanded. Good luck with that.

At the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, the cadi to Saladin’s army reported on a Western business venture: “There arrived by ship three hundred lovely Frankish women, full of youth and beauty, assembled from beyond the sea and offering themselves for sin. They were expatriates come to help expatriates, ready to cheer the fallen and sustained in turn to give support and assistance, and they all glowed with ardour for carnal intercourse.” Al-Isfahani gives the impression that the women chartered the ship themselves, but that may only reflect his breathless prurience (he goes on about them at great length in vivid purple); it is a pity that we cannot know whether they were entrepreneurs or merely inventory.

In the Middle Ages it was said that the pilgrimage road to Rome was lined with English nuns selling sexual services. The standard assumption is that they had run out of money and were trying to get home. But at the same time it should be remembered that fierce enclosure of female religious belongs to the Counter-Reformation and that in the medieval period nunneries were treated as boarding-schools and country retreats by the nobility; nuns therefore gadded around the countryside. Guibert of Nogent mentions a “hermit” who lived in a cell with another monk, and was “in the habit of having intercourse with a certain nun from a well-known family”.

Now, if this monk had been having sex with a well-known family’s breeding-stock, its maidens or wives, we can imagine grave consequences; just look what happened to Peter Abelard. Might it be, therefore, that since nuns were clearly not the noble house’s breeding-stock, their relatives would not care very much whether and with whom they had sex? That would be a matter for abbatial discipline rather than blood-feud. This would make nuns a major resource for free sexual relationships.

Posted on April 28, 2010 at 11:40 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting On And Getting Off

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