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22.10.12 Harvey, The Fires of Lust

22.10.12 Harvey, The Fires of Lust


In this excellent book, Katherine Harvey first and foremost puts an end to the stereotypical image of medieval sexuality. She rightly wants to abandon the cliché that sexual intercourse in the late medieval world was uncomplicated, and that the way in which sex was experienced is completely different from how it is presented, for example, in series or films that claim to deal with the Middle Ages. Harvey shows that there was a great deal of variation in sexual relations and their regulation, but that the Middle Ages were not an “age of extremes,” as is often thought. “Just like today,” she rightly argues, “medieval sexual experiences could be horrifically violent or extremely funny, but most fell somewhere in between” (226). Moreover, Harvey cites convincing arguments to show that even in the Middle Ages there were in-depth debates about fundamental aspects of sex experience: common people had vivid discussions about what exactly consent of men and women means, lawyers had a wide range of state-of-the-art legal technology at their disposal when dealing with the validity of reasons for divorce, there was a lot of commotion about adultery and debate on abortion. For that reason too, the medieval world is much closer to ours than we sometimes suspect, and it is difficult to describe today’s standards as morally superior than the medieval ones.

An absolute plus of the book is the author’s scholarly knowledge. First of all, it gives an insight into the broad spectrum of many kinds of issues related to sex: cultural ideas and medieval literature about it, marriage norms and practices, prostitution and adultery, interfaith relationships, the violation of the norms and sexual insults, etc. With short and funny examples, Harvey provides a colorful insight into the multifaceted world of medieval sexual relationships. Secondly, Harvey’s book is not limited to the Anglo-Saxon world, which sometimes still happens too much. She gives examples from Western and Eastern Europe, consults medieval literature on Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, and elaborates on ecclesiastical ideas that have influenced the entire Christian world. In this book, the reader will therefore find many examples on all kinds of themes from different parts of Europe. This makes it a very useful handbook for many researchers, but also for laymen in the field Harvey’s writing style is very accessible to large groups of readers. Thirdly, her expertise is also expressed in an excellent bibliography, which can form the starting point for any scholar who wants to study the topic. In short, Harvey’s book is a seminal work for the present and future generations who wish to engage with this subject.

One thing Harvey perhaps does not elaborate enough on, in my opinion, is the explanation of the remarkable evolution that she sees at work in the late Middle Ages. In particular, she rightly states that there are changing patterns of shame throughout the period under study (12). In the fifteenth century the attitude towards the body changed remarkably: the emphasis on privacy became greater, the fear of showing the naked body was much more pronounced in the fifteenth century than in the preceding period (214). However, the reader does not get a clear explanation for these phenomena. Of course, this has to do with the fact that historians themselves disagree, but maybe Harvey should have presented the arguments in that debate to her audience a little more. Is it some sort of “civilization offensive” with which a wealthy elite hoped to show subjects that it no longer agreed with the way the latter behaved? Or is it the other way around? Is it the growing perception that there was a major discrepancy between the standards the Church imposed on society and the way clergy themselves did not follow those standards? Are possibly changing standards of hygiene the cause of changing patterns of, for instance, mixed bathing? I cannot give the answer myself, because opinions are strongly divided in the current historiography. I would have liked to have seen more of that debate in the book. It is true that it was written for a large audience and I understand that an in-depth scientific discussion deserves another forum, but also the less experienced reader can certainly handle being confronted with different points of view in this regard.

A final point that I would like to make, as it may also be the subject of an interesting debate, concerns the author’s claim about the tension between magic and religion. In the first chapter, Harvey discusses some Christian principles about sex. She calls them “guiding principles” (31): after all, according to her, many people had internalized the ecclesiastical theories and also the prevailing medical knowledge. This includes self-discipline within marriage, virginity as a virtue, a certain hostility to prostitution, celibacy as a Christian ideal, and so on. But on the other hand, many of these “guiding principles” constantly diverged from reality: sex work was not punishable, adultery was practiced by many, both male and female adolescents had premarital sex, priests lived undisturbed with concubines, etc. The Christian principles were therefore not the standard adhered to by everyone. In addition, there was a lot of superstition that reappeared in all social layers (whether among priests, at court, or among citizens and peasants). Against the prevailing medical standards, all kinds of magical rituals circulated to make sexual relationships more creative. A selection, to be found in the book: quacks eagerly sold drinks that would stimulate abortion, priests sprinkled holy water on pictures of women in order to seduce them, astrologers saw in the position of the planets whether a woman was still a virgin or not, etc. (ex. 44, 51). In short, there were a lot of superstitious and unconventional ideas about sex in the medieval world, both among the establishment and the common people. This, of course, may explain why ecclesiastical ideas were so much written down and proclaimed: the reality was different and the Church’s grip on society (and even on its own staff) was limited. The examples that Harvey cites therefore succumbed to the statement that the medical and Christian guiding principles were internalized by many. Indeed, they were widespread, but apparently not followed up. Much research remains to be done as to why this was the case. Harvey’s book is therefore not a definitive synthesis on this subject, but above all a very good starting point for new research.