Keith Busby

title.none: Baldwin, The Language of Sex

identifier.other: baj9928.9505.008 95.05.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Keith Busby, University of Oklahoma

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Baldwin, John W. The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994. Pp. xxviii + 331. $37.50. ISBN: ISBN 0226036138.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.05.08

Baldwin, John W. The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994. Pp. xxviii + 331. $37.50. ISBN: ISBN 0226036138.

Reviewed by:

Keith Busby
University of Oklahoma

This is a quite remarkable book. John Baldwin, the Charles Homer Haskins Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University, has written a study that deserves henceforth to figure on the basic reading lists of all scholars and students in literature and cultural history whose interests include the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By a careful examination of the primary sources, John Baldwin makes five distinct voices emerge and speak to us regarding views on sexuality in the high Middle Ages and encourages them to partake in what is a revealing and subtly shifting debate. The five voices are: Pierre the Chanter (Petrus Cantor Parisiensis), speaking for Augustine's theology; The Prose Salernitan Questions, for Galen's medical theories; Andre the Chaplain (Andreas Capellanus), for the Ovidian tradition of the schools; Jean Renart, for contemporary romance; and Jean Bodel, for the fabliaux. Having identified his major protagonists, John Baldwin broadens his definitions somewhat so as to include related material, such as works by the Chanter's disciples, other materia medica that treats sexuality, the Latin Facetus, and a range of vernacular romances and fabliaux produced in broadly similar cultural circles to those of Jean Renart and Jean Bodel; the predominantly masculine voices are tempered by consideration of the Lais of Marie de France and a Latin life of Marie d'Oignies. Interpreting the debate with his habitual sensitivity, John Baldwin is able to offer new insights into our understanding of sexual and social reality of the period which both utilize and complement studies by such scholars as James Brundage and the late John Boswell.

In the Introduction (xiii-xxviii), Baldwin situates his own work in relation to existing studies on medieval sexuality, briefly indicates the nature of the five voices, and exposes his theoretical and practical stances. Following mercifully without dogmatism some fundamental principles of modern feminism, Baldwin underscores the centrality of discourse as a means of access to the past, the discordant heterogeneity of the five voices, and the nature of sexuality and gender as non-essentialist social constructs which determine the particular alterity of the voices. Baldwin is aware that his surface interpretation of literary works may not do justice to their aesthetic charm and beauty, but his is not a literary study. Equally aware that literary discourse must be read through the mimetic prism, he maintains that information transmitted by literature is not necessarily off limits to careful historians.

Chapter One (1-42) is a more detailed presentation of the five discourses which provide the core of the book. No-one knows the work of Pierre the Chanter better than Baldwin, author of the now standard work on Pierre and his circle (1970). By the end of the twelfth century, a model of marriage applicable to the laity had been developed by clerics such as the Chanter, his pupils Robert of Courson and Thomas of Chobham, and Jacques de Vitry, author of the life of Marie d'Oignies (later incorporated by Vincent of Beauvais in his influential Speculum Historiale). Conflicts inevitably developed as to the jurisdiction of the Church in lay matters, the controversial marriage of Philip Augustus and Ingeborg of Denmark being something of a test-case. The Prose Salernitan Questions, compiled from various sources around the year 1200, in a sense represent the last stage in the development of Galen's influence, and date from just before the transformations that take place in the scientific world of the thirteenth century as a result of the rediscovery of Aristotle and his Arabic interpreters. The importance of this text lies especially in its combination of theological and physiological explanations of sexuality. Andre the Chaplain is a familiar figure to literary scholars, and his De amore (after 1174) has become a notorious text for many reasons. The De amore is cited variously as a treatise outlining the theory of courtly love, as an aid to the intrepretation of Chretien de Troyes's Lancelot, and as an obscene parody of courtly convention. Its modern celebrity is in part due to use made of it by Gaston Paris and C. S. Lewis. John Baldwin shows how Andre's work forms a bridge between the Ovidian tradition of the schools and the court, where it not only influenced Chretien and Marie de France, but was also translated into the vernacular. The paradox of Andre is succintly put by Baldwin: How could a hedonistic manual for seducers, which so vigorously recommended sex and adultery, be taught in the Middle Ages, an era when ecclesiastics closely linked sexual desire with sin and unequivocally condemned sexual activity outside of marriage (p. 23)? The aristocratic courts were both the setting and origin of the romances of Jean Renart and Chretien de Troyes, the Tristan stories, and the Lais of Marie de France. While their authors are aware of Andre and the Ovidian tradition, the romances are intended almost solely for court audiences; their presentation of sexuality is characterized by elegant euphemism and discretion, unlike that to be found in the fabliaux. If not the inventor of the genre, Jean Bodel certainly played a major part in its genesis, and John Baldwin supplements his voice by that from other fabliaux. Many of these tales are urban productions, but Baldwin understands that they must have been performed to courtly, perhaps even clerical, audiences as well. Their overt eroticism and scandalous vulgarity would have been shocking to the Chanter and the authors of romance alike.

Having revealed the voices, John Baldwin goes on in Chapter Two (43-87) to construct what he calls (p. 43) a sociology of sexuality. Physiological parameters were strictly defined, and such practises as homosexuality, masturbation, extra-vaginal and pre-pubescent sex are generally proscribed in all discourses. The traditional medieval division of society into the three orders is reflected in Andre's dialogues between men and women from different classes. Class and gender perception is largely responsible for determining the manner in which the interlocutors respond to each other and for their willingness or unwillingness to welcome sexual advances. The fabliaux confirm Andre's conviction that the vilains are incapable of love and the romances, the importance of class, and the dangers of mesalliance. Clerical lovers inevitably attempt to seduce the wives and daughters of peasants or merchants, rarely noblewomen. Interestingly, Pierre the Chanter made a plea, in vain, for the lower clergy to be permitted to marry; the Church prevailed in the matter of clerical celibacy. The romances often provide solutions to the moral dilemma of adultery, although as a theme it is by no means as universal as Marie de Champagne's celebrated dictum about the incompatibility of love and marriage might suggest. They also resolve issues that in reality often led to divorce and the dissolution of marriages, in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Church. The centrality of marriage also stressed extremes on the periphery: total abstention, as we have seen, and the promiscuity of prostitutes. The Ovidian tradition acknowledges the existence of prostitution, but the romances hardly mention them at all; they do play a minor role in the fabliaux, as might be expected, but most attention was paid them by physicians as the only available subjects for gynecological study. Prostitution in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was still unorganized, becoming regulated only in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Western Europe.

In Chapter Three (88-115), John Baldwin turns his attention to the sexual body, examining first medical and theological views of the pudenda and the process of insemination. While the Galenic tradition generally described the female by reference to the male and was not always concerned with proving male superiority, the theologians are remarkable for the lack of attention they pay the sexual organs. Ovidian discourse is a titillating combination of the revealed and the concealed; descriptions of feminine beauty often conclude with a remark such as what further particulars need I relate? Aristocratic women in the romances are often deshabillees, decolletees, but suggestively and never full-frontally naked; jewelry and other adornments work to the same end. Breasts could be shown, but not thighs or pudenda. The notable exceptions (such as Iseut's appearance in Beroul) evoke incongruity and point in the direction of the fabliaux, where, as Baldwin puts it, authors are fixated on the body below the belt (p. 112). The openness of the fabliau vocabulary is seen as a challenge to both Augustinian modesty and the discretion of the romances.

Chapter Four (116-72) deals with the topic of sexual desire. According to the theologians, even desire within marriage is tainted with concupiscence because of its association with Original Sin. Desire within marriage is justifiable because the end is procreation, but the solutions proposed are all somewhat uneasy and there seems to be a good deal of fudging. The Chanter and his circle played down the sinfulness of sexual desire for purposes of procreation, rendering the marital debt, and restraining incontinence, considering only true lust a mortal sin. His views were this geared to reducing the oppressiveness of the burden imposed on the laity by the Augustinian tradition. The Prose Salernitan Questions provided physiological and psychological alternatives to the theological theories, arguing that the delights of intercourse are caused by the discharge of superfluities, replenishment of bodily parts, and psychological fulfilment of desire. Maintaining that only the male produces seed, which is passively received by the female, the Augustinians and Aristotelians managed to disassociate female desire and reproduction, thereby removing female delight from the equation. Andre the Chaplain was familiar with both theological and medical views of sexual desire. For him, passio was an imperfect expression of a higher form of love formed in the mind; it could be both healthy and unhealthy, although, as Baldwin points out, he devoted disproportionate attention to the ills of love (p. 142). The romance tradition transforms Ovidian passio into joie, delit, deduit or solas, articulated around an axis of joy and anguish. John Baldwin offers readings of Thomas's Tristan, Chretien's Cliges, and the works of Jean Renart which show how each individual romance explores a different modulation of the joie-dolor theme; such mental and physical anguish is quite absent from the fabliaux, where sexual desire is not in the least threatening or destructive. The romances also refuse to name and describe the final, fifth stage of the quinque lineae amoris, so manifest in the fabliaux. An alternative path is suggested by works in the tradition of the Song of Songs, where the love and possession of God become the object of desire.

In Chapter Five (173-205) John Baldwin examines the differing descriptions of the sexual act, coitus, offered by the five voices. The desire for coitus, stimulated according to the physicians by the humors and according to the romancers by the seasons, was roundly condemned by the churchmen and proscribed on a whole series of feast-days, although by the late twelfth century these restrictions were beginning to lapse. The theologians also turned to Ovid, and against Andre, in associating the desire for coitus with food and drink; the association is made very clear in the fabliaux. Sexual activity is regarded as healthful for the male by both the Chanter and by Andre, but not for the female; chastity, however, is justified primarily on theological, not physiological, grounds. The linguistic treatment of coitus by the five voices closely parallels that accorded the body and described above. The medical theorists use metonymic expressions such as coniunctio, commixtio, and concubitus, while the Ovidian tradition of Andre, taken up in the romances, is one of discreet euphemism (solatium, solaz, sorplus, etc.); the fabliaux, to say the least, are somewhat blunt in this regard. The same is true of discussion of sexual techniques: largely ignored by Latin authors, it finds free expression in the fabliaux, but where it is by and large limited to natural genital practices. Rape is generally treated as a crime, especially in Chretien's romances, although it is accepted in Andre and the pastourelles when male aristocrats force sex upon female peasants.

Logically, Chapter Six (206-24), deals with the views of children (the final outcome of coitus) and reproduction. In essence, ancient medical theories of hot and cold, which supposedly determine the movement of sperm and the fetus, are reproduced in the Prose Salernitan Questions. There are few references to childbirth in the work of the theologians or in vernacular literature. The use of procreation to justify sexual intercourse meant that all means of contraception and birth control were forbidden, and abortion was specifically said by Thomas of Chobham to be homicide. Mutually agreed continence and the frequentation of prostitutes were the only acceptable means of contraception for the theologians, despite the many and detailed discussions found in medical writings which often drew on Arabic material. In the fabliaux, very few children result from the widespread fornication, and in the romances, fertility is often linked to the question of lineage and politics; the most attention paid to children in vernacular literature is to be found in the work of the one woman author, Marie de France.

In his Conclusions (225-45), John Baldwin argues that the views of the theologians was generally resisted by the other four voices. Not unexpectedly, the beginning of the thirteenth century is seen as transmitting a variety of attitudes towards sexuality, but which are mostly generated by the search for gender symmetry. Such symmetry and equilibrium is sometimes portrayed, especially in the romances and Marie's Lais, but it is soon imperilled by the renewed popularity of Aristotle's writing in the West. Discourse, concludes Baldwin, remains the major source of evidence for the study of human sex in any age. Three Appendices (239-54) present relevant texts by Pierre the Chanter and Robert of Courson. The Bibliography (255- 66) is followed by indispensable and copious notes (267-323) and an Index (325-31).

Specialists in theology, the history of medicine, and medieval Latin and French literature will no doubt cavil at details in The Language of Sex, but I will refrain from concluding with the reviewer's customary churlishness. John Baldwin has read and intrepreted all of his sources with both sensitivity and commonsense, from the abstract reasonings of the theologians to the joyous vulgarity of the fabliaux. He has made the five voices speak to us in a language that is at one and the same time familiar and alien in its resonance and accents. This is a truly exceptional book, interdisciplinary in the real sense of the word, which is surely destined to become a landmark in medieval studies.