- Handbook of Medieval Sexuality
Most of the eighteen essays in this volume were written by scholars who are internationally recognized authorities in their specialties. The lesser luminaries who contributed essays all appear to be competent scholars.
The volume is divided into three sections. The first, “Sexual Norms,” contains six essays: “Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages” (Pierre Payer); “Sex and Canon Law” (James Brundage); “Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy” (Joan Cadden); “Gendered Sexuality” (Joyce Salisbury); “Chaste Marriage in the Middle Ages: ‘It Were to Hire a Greet Merite’” (Margaret McGlynn and Richard Moll); and “Hiding Behind the Universal Man: Male Sexuality in the Middle Ages” (Jacqueline Murray). The same number of essays appear in the second section, “Variance from Norms”: “Homosexuality” (Warren Johansson and William Percy); “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages” (Jacqueline Murray); “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages” (Vern Bullough); “Prostitution in Medieval Europe” (Ruth Karras); “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages” (John Riddle); and “Castration and Eunuchism in the Middle Ages” (Matthew Kuefler). The final section, “Cultural Issues,” contains “A Note on Research into Jewish Sexuality in the Medieval Period” (Norman Roth); “A Research Note on Sexuality and Muslim Civilization” (Norman Roth); “Eastern Orthodox Christianity” (Eve Levin); “Sexuality in Medieval French Literature: ‘Séparés, on est ensemble’” (Laurie Finke); “Old Norse Sexuality: Men, Women, and Beasts” (Jenny Jochens); and “Sex Roles and the Role of Sex in Medieval English Literature” (David Lampe).
Most of the essays are very circumspect and nonsensational. Inevitably, some are controversial—the essay on “Homosexuality,” written by the late Warren Johansson and William Percy, probably the most so. Commendably, Johannson and Percy discredit John Boswell’s well-known attempt “to find Church toleration if not sanction for homosexuality” (p. 178). They rightly pronounce his efforts to “exonerate the Christian Church from guilt for persecution of gays” as “not dispassionate scholarship” (pp. 178–79); unfortunately, however, in going to the [End Page 487] opposite extreme from Boswell, they have produced an essay that is equally lacking in dispassionate scholarship. Seeing a pervasive intolerance throughout the history of Christianity, they denounce as implicitly “homophobic” those who even lauded virginity and chastity as Christian virtues—on which grounds they label that most moderate and irenic church father, Cyprian, a “fanatic” (p. 162). In their view, John Chrysostom “raved” (p. 163) along with such “fanatic friars” as Thomas Aquinas (p. 168) in expressing their “paranoid beliefs” and “paranoid delusions” fostered by “superstition and fanaticism” (pp. 172–76). Indeed, in the authors’ opinion, “the delusional world of the religious mind” is nothing more or less than “a complex of irrational beliefs” (pp. 178, 179). Such intolerance is not “dispassionate scholarship,” and hence mars an otherwise balanced volume. By contrast, Jacqueline Murray’s essay on lesbianism in the Middle Ages is an excellent example of a circumspect treatment of a controversial subject that avoids the Scylla of apologetic special pleading and the Charybdis of vitriolic denunciation.
Some essays are the authors’ distillation of their own massive tomes (e.g., James Brundage on canon law). Others represent, as Joan Cadden says of her study of views of sexuality in Western medicine and natural philosophy, “a progress report on a vast scholarly project, the outlines of which are not yet drawn” (p. 54). “This handbook,” the editors write in their introduction, “aims to address the needs of students (and even faculty members) who are interested in the study of medieval sexuality and who would like a guide to the sources and literature bearing on medieval sex” (p. xv). Although the lengths of the eighteen contributions range from ten to thirty pages, the average essay consists of fifteen pages of text, four pages of endnotes, and four pages of bibliography. Hence, this volume, with its excellent index, has admirably achieved the editors’ goal, especially as a “guide to the sources and literature” on sex in the Middle Ages.