April Harper

title.none: McCarthy, ed., Love, Sex and Marriage (April Harper)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.012 07.04.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: April Harper, SUNY Oneonta,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: McCarthy, Conor, ed. Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xii, 292. $75.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 9780415307451, ISBN-10: 0415307457 (hb). ISBN: $25.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 9780415307468, ISBN-10: 0415307465 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.12

McCarthy, Conor, ed. Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xii, 292. $75.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 9780415307451, ISBN-10: 0415307457 (hb). ISBN: $25.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 9780415307468, ISBN-10: 0415307465 (pb).

Reviewed by:

April Harper
SUNY Oneonta

Conor McCarthy's Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages is the latest addition to Routledge's excellent series of sourcebooks on medieval topics and aspects of medieval life. Like its predecessors, McCarthy's book promises to be a valuable tool to students and teachers of sexual history and medieval history in general.

In his introduction, McCarthy states that his purpose in writing this book is two-fold: "to bring together texts that discuss the emotional state of love, the physical act of sex and the social institute of marriage, from a variety of sources" and to "demonstrate the varieties and differences that exist within medieval writing on these subjects" (22). McCarthy begins this task by introducing the reader to the scholarship and debates surrounding many of the texts he has chosen to include. The introduction is brief, yet informative. McCarthy condenses a large amount of material and debate into a scholarly, yet manageable reduction that is a helpful review for teachers and a fairly comprehensive background for students.

The work is organized both thematically and chronologically, making it an extremely adaptable source for a variety of teaching styles and flexible enough to fit virtually any syllabus on the subject. The book is easily navigable due to its tight organization and use of both left and right-hand running titles, though organization could have been aided even further by condensing the section and subsection titles on the left and using the right to note the individual source and author within the section. McCarthy's index is highly detailed, and the suggested readings for each source selected are superbly current, giving excellent background, provocative arguments on the topic and introducing students to the historiography of and authorities on the topics. Perhaps one of the greatest attributes, however, of his work is the extremely comprehensive bibliography he includes at the end of the work. It is large, current and reaches deep into themes proposed by the readings. The majority of the secondary material in the bibliography is available in online journal banks and therefore expands the students' reading base exponentially.

While McCarthy states that his focus for the work and the greatest emphasis is placed upon English sources from the Medieval period, he does include several important texts from the Latin tradition, a few Arabic sources and works of several continental writers. While some may bemoan the lack of a more varied approach, McCarthy's collection of sources is a useful basis to study the topic and is a good platform for students and teachers to explore other avenues, topical, geographic or chronological in nature within the subject.

The strengths of the collection are many. McCarthy has taken a varied approach to his collection, organizing the material to cover a wide range of sources that comment on his themes. Especially well chosen is the collection listed under the heading "Theology and Canon Law", which includes works by Gratian, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, and also includes documents such as Gregory IX's Decretals, The Fourth Lateran Council and English Ecclesiastical Statutes. It is the collection of works such as this that is the real strength of this book. Placing a variety of sources together in such a well executed chapter makes accessible a collection that would otherwise require students to buy many individual works or a teacher to spend a large amount of class resources and time to the photocopying or electronic databasing of these sources to make them available to students. McCarthy has used modern translations whenever possible and has included interesting readings which often interact well with readings in other sections such as his inclusion of fascinating works on love as a medical condition which contrast nicely to the images gleaned from the works of literature.

Whilst no selection of sources will please everyone, McCarthy has compiled a valuable, flexible teaching tool which could be used as one of a few core texts for a class on medieval women, marriage and/or sexuality or could just as easily compliment, in part or whole, a more broadly conceived class such as a general survey on the Middle Ages. There are, however, a few drawbacks of which students and teachers should be aware in using McCarthy's collection. The collection suffers from three problems in varying degrees throughout: 1) a dependency upon certain authors at the expense of variety and occasionally of a complete image of the subject, 2) an at times subtle and occasionally blatant agenda to point out the misogyny of the Middle Ages evident in source selection and/or in commentary and 3) a strong weighting toward the discussion of marriage and the marital state, stating little of love and being almost prudish in its treatment of sex.

McCarthy's reliance on certain authors at the expense of others is most problematic in three divisions of the work: first, in the subsection entitled "The Church Fathers" which consists of five works by Augustine of Hippo and an excerpt of Jerome's Against Jovian. This section on the Church Fathers could have benefited from a wider selection, perhaps including a work to contrast the opinions found in Jerome such as Clement's Stromateis III On Marriage which not only presents a very positive view of sex and marriage, but comments on contraception, aphrodisiacs, homosexuality and prostitution, all in interesting detail. In fact, other letters of Jerome could have been used to great effect, illustrating the effect Jerome's obsession with female sexuality had on later medieval society, especially in his use of science to back up his theological premises.

This single author focus is also found in the fourth section on literature. Though a much stronger collection, the weight given to a single author, Chaucer, was a bit disappointing. Four rather lengthy excerpts from the Canterbury Tales were not perhaps necessary, especially at the expense of including other texts from earlier time periods and other genres. As Chaucer is easily accessible on-line or in inexpensive paperbacks, perhaps a more well-rounded chapter including less readily available sources would have been more helpful.

The third section in which breadth of sources poses an issue is the final chapter. It is unfortunate that a weak chapter should close the book which otherwise does exhibit many strengths, but the greatest criticism of the piece must be in regard to the final chapter on "Medical Writings". It is a weak rubric for a chapter that does superbly address the topic of love, but says so very little of marriage or sex. Where is the Hippocrates, the Aristotle, or the Galen mentioned in the introduction to the book? These most pivotal works in defining what a man or woman is physically, sexually and intellectually--surely the very basis of any course in which this book would be used--are missing. Various sources throughout the book mention women's inherent weakness, coldness, men's heat and yet nowhere are the seminal works of the ancients included. The implications of the humoral theory in the definition of the sexes, in the process of love and sex and therefore marriage and the role of orgasm in conception are points upon which medieval law, theology and society interpreted the sexes and their relationships and yet are missing from this collection. Excerpts from Aristotle's On the Generation of Animals, Constantine the African's De Coitu and the Prose Salernitan Questions could have been easily incorporated in the section or perhaps grouped with the "Church Fathers" as an "Ancient Influences" section to set the stage for the later writings. This section then could have been further expanded by works such as the English physician Roger Bacon's discussion of the orgasm or even Hildegard of Bingen's Causae et Curae which combined these medical ideas with the theological to come up with the definition of male and female. While other sections are easily supplemented by inexpensive paperbacks or online texts, it is this section that would most benefit from the addition of more sources, especially as many medical texts are difficult to procure if teaching in a small institution.

The second criticism of the collection is perhaps most evident in the rubrics preceding individual works. McCarthy's tendency to lapse in his commentary from necessary background and dating of sources to unnecessary didactic prose was detracting and occasionally biased the students in their reading. The commentary does vary dramatically and while it is mostly highly academic and helpful, McCarthy does at times veer off course, providing redundant or biased commentary. Perhaps the worst example of the former is excerpt 16 on Late Medieval Wedding Vows in which he does not provide a date or background of the marriage ceremony, but summarizes the eight line passage in three lines, merely restating the punch line of the piece and rendering discussion of it unnecessary.

The labeling of many works as "misogynist" occurs throughout the book, and although occasionally appropriate, it often supplies only part of the image put forth by the piece. For example, the section 78 from The Pseudo-Albertus Magnus is headed by commentary that reads " is in fact more of a manual of anti-feminism: its primary purposes do not seem to be medical. The extracts below illustrate something of its sexual suspicion of women." However, what is not mentioned is that the piece is also abusive in its treatment of men who are repeatedly described as unskilled and rough lovers who make young women suffer from the "ineptitude of their penis". Whilst it may be merely a matter of style, I did not find it necessary to include in the commentary that sources are from "antimatrimonial poems" or "misogynist poems" as I would rather the students interpret the language of the piece; constant discussion of misogyny, anti- feminism and homophobia did not present a complete picture of sex in the Middle Ages. It did, however, provide an interesting classroom discussion on editorial intent and the equally misandrous depiction of the husband in many of the readings.

The third and most obvious difficulty I found when using the text was the inherent prudishness of the collection. Whilst both love and marriage are given ample attention within the collection, the topic of sex is treated in an often tangential manner. There is no mention of sex practices or positions, such as discussed in penitentials or in larger works such as that of Bartholomew of Exeter. Medical guides including Albertus Magnus, whose other works are found within the collection, or those of Maino de Maineri or Aldobrandino, among many others, frequently comment upon the proper use and execution of sex in their health regimens. The absence of such a discussion biases this collection's discussion of sex in the Middle Ages as purely theological and casts it in a negative light. It is not only prudish in medical sources but most obviously in literature. I was excited to see McCarthy's inclusion of a fabliau and thought perhaps rather than repeating so much of a familiar and readily accessible text such as Chaucer's, perhaps including another of the fabliaux would be both useful and engaging as it is a wide, varied and largely inaccessible genre for many students owing to the genre's largely untranslated state. The earthy sexual language and themes of the fabliaux would also be an interesting contrast to the image of love and sex in the lais and romances. The fabliau selected is one of the more tame and least sexual in the genre; the contrast with a more vivid poem or a comparison with two or three would have provided much fodder for discussion of entertainment, stereotyping, male/female characters and relationships as well as introducing a more sexual component to the book as a whole.

The criticisms made here are only to suggest the avenues in which one may wish to flesh out their materials to work in conjunction with McCarthy's text, for what McCarthy has produced is a most welcome aid for anyone teaching the subject. I have used it with great success and highly recommend it as part of a corpus of works to set in a course on medieval family, marriage and sexuality. McCarthy's collection, its layout, suggested reading and bibliography all prompt students to do history--to wrestle with the sources and perhaps even with the editor and to progress into deeper levels of research and analysis of primary sources and historiography.