Brian McGuire

title.none: Murray and Eisenbichler, eds., Desire and Discipline (McGuire)

identifier.other: baj9928.0104.001 01.04.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian McGuire, Roskilde University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Murray, Jacqueline and Konrad Eisenbichler, eds. Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xviii, 315. $60.00 0-802-00780-5. ISBN: $21.00 0-802-07144-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.04.01

Murray, Jacqueline and Konrad Eisenbichler, eds. Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. Pp. xviii, 315. $60.00 0-802-00780-5. ISBN: $21.00 0-802-07144-9.

Reviewed by:

Brian McGuire
Roskilde University

It is not easy to review a book of this type, for the reviewer's own person cannot help entering quite visibly into this discussion of human sexuality. The higher the monkey climbs, the more he exposes his ass, as the French saying goes. So let me expose myself from the start and say that I consider myself to be a medieval Christian, a member of a church that no longer exists. Ever since I was a teenager, I have found sex, love, feelings and friendship to be fascinating and problematic, and that is still the case. If this review says more about me than about the book, then I encourage the reader to stop here and to go read the book. For it is, indeed, a very fine book and important for medieval studies. The book consists of an introduction by Jacqueline Murray of the University of Windsor and fifteen articles based on papers at a conference at the University of Toronto in 1991 on "Sex and Sexuality in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance." It is interesting that the book title substitutes the original double periodization with the all-inclusive "Premodern", which in the course of the 1990s became an "in" word for North American researchers publishing on Europe before 1700. Murray defends the use of the term in a valuable note (p. xvii), and I wish she had spent more time on the question. We medievalists are almost afraid today of marginalizing ourselves, and so we define our field in relation to what is conceived as being modern. Is it wrong to claim that the sixteenth century is a watershed between the largely unitary christian world of medieval Western Europe and the fragmented world of its successor?

This quibble in no way prevents me from appreciating the tour de force Jacqueline Murray performs in introducing this collection of articles and showing its unity and diversity. Her point of departure is Foucault's work: Foucault, the revered theorist whose results on closer inspections often collapse, for they are often based on anecdote and overviews. Thankfully we do not have to relate to the volume on the Middle Ages that he did not live to write. Murray emphasizes that with and without Foucault, the new field of investigation of sexuality pre-1700 has blossomed. A case in point is this collection that "presents a diversity of theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary approaches" (p. xiii). I agree: art history, legal history, literary studies, gay and lesbian studies are all represented here, and much else. One of the great problems of the plethora of article collections in medieval studies today is that the individual articles do not always speak to each other. But they do so here, partly thanks to Murray's guidance.

Vern L. Bullough, a veteran in this area, provides reflections on a lifetime of research in his "Sex in History: A Redux." Bullough describes the silences and fears of his own career and academic milieu, in which it was clear from the start that it would have been professional suicide to concentrate openly on describing sexuality in the past. This article is most welcome, eventhough I would ask Bullough, as I would several other contributors: "Yes, I agree with you that people in the past had sex lives too. Sex is worth studying! But did these people express any connection between sexual acts and love, tenderness and feeling?" My fear is that our recent concentration on "Did they or didn't they?" means that we can ignore what people felt when they did -- or did not do -- the multitude of acts that today come under the heading of sexuality.

Bullough's close colleague, James A. Brundage, summarizes an impressive knowledge of medieval canon law with "Playing by the Rules: Sexual Behaviour and Legal Norms in Medieval Europe." Brundage shows how the concept of fama or public reputation by the thirteenth century provided a basis for allowing the prosecution of sexual offenders, especially in the Church. This development Brundage sees in the medieval Church's "need to implement" its "laws concerning sexual conduct" (p. 34). Here the emphasis on the regulatory Church is understandable but why did the Church act as it did? What about the Church's interest in the integrity of marriage? There is no reference to the important work done by the Toronto scholar Michael Sheehan, who died in 1992 and whose collected studies edited by James K. Farge and also published in 1996 by the University of Toronto Press deserve to be read concomitantly with this book.

A good follow-up to Brundage's emphasis on behavior and evidence is Roberto J. González-Casanovas, "Gender Models in Alfons X's Sieta partidas: The Sexual Politics of 'Nature' and 'Society'." This fascinating thirteenth-century legal text, which in the last decade or so has taken its rightful place in interdisciplinary medieval studies, is used in order to describe an idealized ordering of society, with themes touching gender models, friendship, patriarchy and power. The article is almost too brief for such broad themes, but it looks at the subject of sexuality in a much-needed larger social and political context.

Ivana Elbl, "'Men without Wives': Sexual Arrangements in the Early Portuguese Expansion in West Africa," provides a detailed study of actual behavior in a situation when European Christian men were outside their own society and dealt with their sexual desires. It is commendable that Elbl considers the reaction in terms of prevailing attitudes in medieval Europe, such as the view held by some Church authorities that prostitution was preferable to corrupting "honest women." The question of prostitution in moral theory and as social practice lies behind several of the articles in this collection.

Equally rich in its detail is Carol Kazmierczak Manzione, "Sex in Tudor London: Abusing their Bodies with Each Other," based on the records of two London hospitals in the second half of the sixteenth century. Manzione shows how already at this time the "moral policing" normally associated with Puritan England was underway. But she concludes that the hospitals main role was not authoritarian but caritative. The governors of these institutions provided "a systematic, complex, and sympathetic response to a social problem" (p. 98). I wonder if this response was a conscious form of compensation for the closing of medieval monastic institutions. But I am pleased that Manzione is able to look beyond the question of discipline and to consider the possible Christian idealism of men who might by another author have been dismissed as phallocrats.

The next two articles in this collection can be read in conjunction with each other. Robert Shephard, "Sexual Rumours in English Politics: The Cases of Elizabeth I and James I," compares the frequency and intensity of rumors about Elizabeth's heterosexual sex life with James's assumedly homosexual liaisons. Shephard shows convincingly how sex and politics were very much "linked" (p. 103) in the stories about Elizabeth. It is she who seems to have had the greater problem in ruling "as an independent woman", while James as "a homosexual man" was given more leeway, assumedly because "ordinary homosexual activity was largely invisible to contemporaries" (p. 117). The article is well argued, but it is based on the assumption that "misogyny was more potent than homophobia" partly because a homosexual way of life or orientation was not a recognized category of social behavior at the time. Joseph Cady tries to demolish this view in his "The 'Masculine Love' of the Princes of Sodom' 'Practising the Art of Ganymede' at Henri III's Court: The Homosexuality of Henry III and His 'Mignons' in Pierre de L'Estoile's Mémoires-Journaux". We find ourselves in the same period as Shephard's, in France instead of England, but with a description of sexual acts that in Cady's view provides irrefutable evidence that the author and his circle conceived of homosexuality as an identity. The hints dropped about King James I, mostly after his death, are replaced by detailed descriptions of what men did with each other at the French court. There is no room left for the imagination. This is an ambitious article, at times polemical in tone, which opposes those who would isolate homosexuality as a recognized form of behavior to the late nineteenth century and later. The two articles show how much disagreement there can be for the historian concerned with interpreting human sexual activity. Here the results of Guy Poirier would be relevant. Perhaps it is in defining the sexuality of "the Other" that Europeans best have revealed who they conceived themselves to be: "Masculinities and Homosexualities in French Renaissance Accounts of Travel to the Middle East and North Africa." But what about the heterosexual world? Dyan Elliott's "Bernardino of Siena versus the Marriage Debt" is the first of several articles dealing with women, marriage, the family, prostitution and sexual renunciation. Elliott challenges James Brundage's claim that the twelfth-century Church's emphasis on paying the marriage debt came to strengthen the position of women. For Elliott it was men who took advantage of the opportunity to tell their wives to fulfill their "obligation". But in the fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena, Elliott sees a churchman who did his best to defend the integrity of women and their right to say no. Elliott thinks that Bernardino was somewhat isolated in his view in the preaching literature, but she could also have considered the contemporary theologian -- and preacher -- Jean Gerson (d. 1429). Gerson did not go so far as Bernardino but in some of his sermons on penance did consider the woman's right to reserve the use of her body. Gerson might also have been a point of reference to refine the claims made by Ruth Mazo Karras in "Sex, Money, and Prostitution in Medieval English Culture". Karras uses mostly literary English sources in order to conclude: "A woman's sexual behaviour that did not conform to the norms was more important than a man's that did not conform, because a woman was defined much more entirely by her sexuality than was a man" (p. 211). This may have been the case for the prostitute in English late medieval literature, but for any male cleric trying to control his own sexuality, his adherence to norms was a central matter in his life.

In "Wives and Mothers: Adultery, Madness, and Marital Misery in Titian's Paduan Frescoes", Rona Goffen looks at several Titian pictures dealing with adultery and miracles in order to show the artist as fulfilling "the patrons' fundamental concern with family" (p. 233). These paintings cannot be dismissed as banal hagiography: Titian transformed a familiar legend and in so doing indicated that he "was rather more sympathetic to woman than has been realized" (p. 237). The reproductions are not very good but the article makes one want to look at Goffen's Titian's Women (Yale, 1997). A less optimistic view of medieval meetings between men and women is contained in Barrie Ruth Straus, "Freedom through Renunciation? Women's Voices, Women's Bodies, and the Phallic Order". Here we meet some of Chaucer's works together with Margery Kempe, who is perhaps the central female figure in this collection, for she appears in several articles. If I understand the article correctly, then Straus does not believe that medieval men could know what women wanted, for they were so caught up in themselves. I agree that we find, as in Margery, a "struggle for control of women's bodies and their sexuality by the Church" (p. 257). But I would add, as before, that men were also struggling for the control of their own bodies.

The last three articles of the book are full of surprises. Garrett P.J. Epp, "Learning to Write with Venus's Pen: Sexual Regulation in Matthew of Vendôme's Ars versificatoria", translates a number of the "dirty bits" in this little-known but important work for the grammatical training of boys. Epp argues convincingly that explicit references to sexuality were included as warnings to boys that they were to behave. Correct grammar and masculine control went together. Epp belies some of Matthew's own playfulness in his last sentence, where the reader inevitably reads "penis" instead of "pens": "...learning the proper use of their pens" (p. 276).

Andrew Taylor is even more bold, in "Reading the Dirty Bits" and discussing the connection between, to put it bluntly, reading and jacking off. I think he opens a subject which few medievalists or other humanists a few years ago would have dared to write about for an academic public. He asks whether we have become hardened to pornography because it is now "an electronic commodity". The presence of internet and video pornography today make it difficult or impossible for us to understand how it was for medieval clerics and bourgeois women who could find in a single verbal image something that would not leave their minds. Here again Gerson, as well as Christine de Pizan, in their fervid participation on the debate about the Romance of the Rose, come to mind as medieval people who can deepen such a discussion.

Finally, Nancy F. Partner, "Did Mystics have Sex?" asks us to explain what we mean by mystical experience, whether in Margery Kempe or anyone else. I applaud her desire to understand medieval people, but I am wary of her suggested explanation. Behind the brilliant fireworks of her refreshingly irreverent language, Partner seems to be saying that we can reduce the medieval search for God in mysticism to a universalized and timeless form of repressed sexuality. This reductio ad sexualitatem is a danger not only in Partner's article but in present-day concern for being explicit and honest about sexual behavior and attitudes in the past -- or in the present.

Many of these articles leave the reader with the desire to send an email query to one or more of the authors. I can imagine that today, almost a decade after the conference itself, a number of the contributors to this book would have new and different things to say about their perceptions and interpretations. I am grateful to Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler for the work they have done in producing this handsome volume with its sexy but also mysterious cover illustration from a fifteenth century French Roman de la Rose. But I would ask if we rightly can separate sexual acts from human feelings and the desire for intimacy and love. Ultimately, at least for our medieval ancestors, the quest for sex and the desire for God are part of the same search.