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  • Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others
  • Juanita Feros Ruys
Karras, Ruth Mazo , Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others, New York/London, Routledge, 2005; paper; pp. viii, 200; R.R.P. £15.99; ISBN 0415289637.

Ruth Mazo Karras is well known for her pioneering work on the formation of masculinity in the Middle Ages and her study of medieval prostitution. This volume has been designed, however, as a more basic introduction to sex and gender in the Middle Ages for undergraduate or non-specialist readers. Footnotes have been kept to a minimum and quotations from medieval texts are given in modern English translation. Karras provides a 'Further Reading' section at the end of the volume which includes extensive specialised reading lists ('bibliographic essays') for each chapter, noting competing views and current academic disputes. [End Page 147]

Chapter 1, 'Sex and the Middle Ages', defines sex, gender, sexual orientation, sexuality and sexualities, and discusses whether post-Freudian concepts such as 'homosexuality' are applicable to the Middle Ages. Karras argues that a key distinction in the Middle Ages was between reproductive and non-reproductive sex (rather than straight or gay sex) and that sex was understood as a doing of something to someone else (hence the volume's subtitle).

In Chapter 2, 'The Sexuality of Chastity', Karras discusses the overlaps and differences between chastity, celibacy, abstinence, and virginity in medieval lives. The chapter focuses on Christian attitudes towards virginity, as medieval Judaism and Islam did not valorize life-long virginity in the same way. Karras discusses the manifold ways medieval Christians could lead non-sexual lives, including pre-marital virginity, widowed chastity, monastic virginity and chastity, castration, the growing issue of celibate clergy in the twelfth century in the West, and chaste marriage. Karras shows that choosing virginity could allow women to oppose marriage and hence patriarchal and social control; she also discusses work by scholars like Jocelyn Wogan-Browne concerning the later medieval reconsideration of virginity as a spiritual or moral rather than a physical state.

The third chapter, 'Sex and Marriage', addresses what constituted a marriage, treating issues of consanguinity, concubinage, consummation, consent, and sexual incapability. Karras notes the tension between the increasing Christian sacramentalisation of marriage and the Church's ambivalence about any form of sexuality. She then considers issues of non-procreative sex within marriage, including contraception. Karras here covers Muslim and Jewish attitudes towards marriage and marital sexuality as well, noting that these were more favourable towards contraception than Christian ones, and consequently, more empowering to women. Prohibitions on times and places for marital sex in both Christian and Jewish culture are discussed. Finally, Karras attempts to read from the literary and visual evidence what might have constituted 'typical' marital sex in the Middle Ages.

In Chapter 4, 'Women Outside of Marriage', Karras focuses on how women's sexual experience was curtailed. She points out that adultery was defined in terms of a married woman's sexual transgression, with her husband seen as the aggrieved party. Karras thus dismisses the idea that courtly love literature could really be taken as evidence of the acceptability of female adultery. Next Karras considers the class issues governing whether unmarried girls would be likely to sleep with partners prior to marriage, and how this would affect their subsequent [End Page 148] marriage potential. This leads her to consider concubinage, and thence prostitution, since medieval authorities had trouble determining what precisely constituted prostitution (payment? promiscuity?), the confusion arising because 'there was no conceptual space in the medieval scheme of things for a sexually active singlewoman who was not a prostitute' (p. 104). Karras considers the economic, social, and political issues associated with prostitution. She then addresses the silence in the literary sources over women's same-sex activity, suggesting that because women were traditionally seen as passive in sex, and sex was seen as an active 'doing unto others', there was little perception that sex could occur between women. Karras ends the chapter with a consideration of sexual violence (rape and incest) against women.

The final chapter, 'Men Outside of Marriage', deals with sodomy and its relation to heterosexual and homosexual practices, active and passive behaviour, and the blurred...


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