The Function and Language of Ancient Sexual Texts

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about a medieval classroom’s curriculum or what it might have been like to attend. Apparently they could be a lot more racy than you’d think. Chaucer’s story Reeve’s Tale, is about rape, for example. Poems about deflowered nuns and lascivious men whose sexual appetites earned comparisons to animals were read to children and adults. In a fascinating and fresh review-essay for the London Review of Books, Irina Dumitrescu looks at ancient depications of sexuality, and the idea of obscenity, through Carissa Harris’ book Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “In her meticulously argued new book,” Dumitrescu writes, “Carissa Harris shows that obscenity was used to convey vastly different lessons about sex and ethics in medieval literature. Focusing on sexual language in Middle English and Middle Scots, her study explores the way texts deployed for (heterosexual) erotic education often combined ‘the irresistible pull of arousal and titillation and the revulsive push of shame and disgust’.”

For much of the 20th century, academics argued that the concept of obscenity was born along with the printing press and state censorship of erotic material. One can understand where this idea came from: even a fleeting encounter with medieval art is likely to turn up lurid depictions of sex organs and bodily orifices. Take the naked man crouching at the bottom of the Bayeux Tapestry, his genitalia on full display. (In 2018, George Garnett achieved brief internet fame by counting the 93 phalluses, human and equine, shown on the tapestry, and documenting their states of tumescence.) Medieval manuscript pages often have a stately central text surrounded by rollicking activity. Nuns harvest penises from trees in the lower margins of a manuscript of the Roman de la rose, and a naked man presents his behind to be pierced by a monkey’s lance beneath the prayers of the Rutland Psalter. Pilgrim badges, popular medieval souvenirs made of cheap metal alloys, depict vulvas dressed as pilgrims, winged penises and female smiths forging phalluses. Erotic imagery is carved into stone corbels and on the undersides of wooden choir seats in medieval churches.

But none of this should be taken as proof that there was no concept of obscenity in the Middle Ages. The notion that some things are lewd or filthy is distinct from the desire to regulate them by political means. The influential seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville used the adjective ‘obscenus’ to describe the love of prostitutes and those parts of the body that excite people to shameful acts. In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux railed against heretics doing ‘heinous and obscene’ things in private, comparing them to the stinking behinds of foxes. In the Roman de la rose, the Lover upbraids the allegorical figure of Reason for using the word coilles (‘balls’). He argues that this isn’t dignified in the mouth of a courteous girl (an unwitting double entendre), but Reason defends her usage. God made the generative organs and women enjoy the pleasures these afford, whatever word is used to describe them. Not all medieval copyists of the Roman de la rose agreed with this argument: a number of versions leave out this passage. People in the Middle Ages certainly understood certain things to be filthy or shameful, but such topics could also inspire prayerful reflection or be used to explain the error of a poor line of verse.

Read the story