Monday, December 22, 2008

Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times

962 words
19 December 2008
States News Service

A recently published book edited by a University of Arizona professor surveys the topic of sexuality in an attempt to understand why it has historically been and remains a highly contentious, and sometimes taboo, topic.

The book, Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, is a collection of articles written by scholars and historians in disciplines that include sociology, literature, art, music, history, religion and spirituality. The book is not written from a medical or psychological perspective, but from one rooted in cultural studies.

"Sexuality is, of course, of great significance for every culture, for every group, for every individual," said Albrecht Classen, a UA German studies professor who contributed to and also edited the book. "And so the topic proved to be a lens thorough which we could study the widest range of topics pertaining to human life, to human society, to power structures and so forth. When you're talking about sexuality you're really talking about power."

Shifting Views on Sexuality, the Body

Published during the fall semester, the book explores the ways in which sexuality is "one of the most influential factors in human life."

In particular, the book focuses on instances of sexuality found in medieval and early modern English, German, Spanish, French and English literature, music, artwork, scientific texts and legal documents. "There are so many poems for example and so many songs and so many images that play with sexuality," said Classen, who also is a University Distinguished Professor.

Whether in private or highly public displays, sexuality has the tendency to carry a tremendous amount of social significance, he said. One of the book's contributors studied biblical scenes soldered into stained glass windows of centuries-old churches and found very overt examples of sexual overtones related to fertility. The researcher found specific images of fertility, "and these images are very explicitly sexual - in the midst of a church," Classen said.

"So," he said, "you discover sexuality everywhere and it is expressed everywhere."

Analyses of the religious order are quite popular. One contributor wrote about ways that the Christian church used propaganda to find "heretics" to be punished. "One of the most devious yet also most effective propaganda tool was to claim that the heretics practiced group sex, or orgies, and hence were responsible for creating chaos in all of Christendom," wrote Peter Dinzelbacher, a researcher from Germany.

Dinzelbacher explained that only "narrowly prescribed forms of sexuality" were allowed and that heretics were also accused of involving cannibalism in sexual rituals. The topic of sexuality is predicated on questions about the body. "How do we view the body, particularly the naked body is a huge question," said Classen, who will be speaking about chastity belts during the American Historical Association's conference in New York next month.

In one of his articles, Classen explored the issue of nakedness during medieval times, stating that it had "become a dreaded condition that everyone tried to avoid, and this more and more since the 16th century."

During that time, it was more common for people to take baths together and to sleep in the same bed without clothing, as clothes for the evening had not been invented, Classen wrote. "Only by the 16th, and much more noticeably since the 17th and 18th enturies, did this innocence concerning the nude body disappear and make room or shame," he noted. "So, you discover sexuality is everywhere."

More Than 900 Pages of Research

Within the context of sex and sexuality, contributors to the 903-page book delve into topics related to culture, the use of parody, ethical and moral norms, shame and desire, fertility, marriage, chivalry and gender.

The book also explains the shifting or evolving definitions of sexuality and sex. The book's introduction reads: "To raise this issue also provides the immediate answer because no aspect of human life is meaningless, and everything we can learn about people in the past allows us to gain a more comprehensive and more complex picture, especially if our investigation leads us into the realm of people's motifs, secret plans, hidden agendas, emotions and dreams."

Such an understanding is born from the study of laws passed, institutions established and programs enacted - all of which provide "considerable insight into the complex structures of all of human life, taking us deeper down to the fundamentals than most chronicles or official documents ever could," the introduction continues.

The book was born out of a symposium Classen hosted two years ago, having invited scholars on the Middle Ages and the early modern times to present their research on the topic of sexuality. "The topic is viewed from many different perspectives, is evaluated very diversely and controversially and therefore quickly becomes a medium for the power struggle within society," said Classen, who has held such focused themed meetings for six years at the end each spring semester. "And you're not even talking about the usual conflict between the dominant heterosexual and the minority homosexual communities," he added.

That discourse is one part of what Classen said determines the larger picture of sexuality. "I believe that in order to understand such complex topics such as sexuality it is extremely difficult to look at it from the modern perspective. It is almost impossible to answer what is sexuality today because we are stuck right here in the world," Classen said.

"We are too close," he said. "We try to understand human life, but when we look at the historical challenges we gain some degree of objectivity as to what sexuality means for individuals, society and institutions."