The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

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The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

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These Roman girls were the heroines of highly formulaic tales in which they converted to Christianity against the wishes of their pagan families and died in defence of their faith and their virginity, often after undergoing extreme physical and mental trials. Although Mary was pre-eminent among the medieval virgin-saints, she had numerous popular counterparts, notably the Virgin Martyrs.

Fornication was forbidden, though tolerated given what all accepted as the wayward passions of youth. parents arranged a marriage for her, she insisted that she intended to preserve her virginity for her heavenly spouse and cut off her nose with a sword. The Fires of Lust is a really solid synthesis of recent scholarship on the history of sex and sexuality in medieval Europe, written with a beginner audience in mind. It’s still worth remembering the people at the end of this shortened timespan were as distant from those at the start of it as we are from them. Katherine Harvey knows when to pull back from treating the content lightly, and the result is very effective.Some of it the content is bleak, of course; the chapters focusing on sex work and sexual violence, in particular, make for difficult reading. Her message is, depending on your perspective, reassuring: “then” is not all that different from “now” — when it comes to sex, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. We can sometimes reconstruct their general material culture, but how they understood and experienced their lives is lost.

There are passionate stories and horrible ones but the infatuation with the Middle Ages as a period so far and almost subhuman compared to our own allows us the pleasure of not recognizing our own flaws: something Harvey forces us to confront.One drawback, is that I would have liked it to go into more detail on certain topics, a big gap in the book (in my opinion) is the lack of discuss on child birth and birthing practices.

This was not a survival strategy that could endure, however, and he was tried as a sodomite and burnt to death. The church (then or now) hasn’t dared to admit just how blatantly ineffective it is to deny basic human needs and inclinations. By modern standards, medical knowledge, which Harvey is good at explaining, seems as bizarre as the love potions she describes.Like us, medieval people faced challenges in finding a suitable partner or trying to get pregnant (or trying not to). It was widely believed that she remained a virgin after the conception and birth of Christ, and indeed for her entire life; some even suggested that she had been impregnated by a ray of pure light, possibly through the ear.

Anybody going into this with a notion of the middle ages as "The Dark Ages" will hopefully begin to realise how misinformed they were. Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of such penitence was Mary Magdalene, whose cult exploded in popularity around 1200. Sex was something men did to women, preferably during marriage, though female pleasure was important because without it conception couldn’t occur. Really hope the author does more work for us general readers covering this period and its less well known subjects like Heresy etc.

As an overview the section zips over this vast field, tending to focus on the more well-known ribald and obscene examples. Despite the prohibition on clerical marriage, many priests continued to have sexual relationships and even formed long-term partnerships. An Englishman named John Rykener in the late 14th century sometimes went by the name Eleanor, lived as a woman for long periods, and had sex with men and women, including priests and nuns. A distinction was also made between a woman who had sex for pleasure and ones who did so for financial need and desperation.

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