Sex and Power in the Middle Ages

Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe

by James A. Brundage
University of Chicago Press, 674 pp., $22.50 (paper)

The Medieval Idea of Marriage

by Christopher N.L. Brooke
Oxford University Press, 325 pp., $29.95

Joan of Arc and Richard III: Sex, Saints, and Government in the Middle Ages

by Charles T. Wood
Oxford University Press, 269 pp., $34.50

The story is told of a young Oxford don, newly commissioned in the infantry at the outbreak of war in 1939, returning to his college after his first dinner with the regular officers of his regimental mess. He was asked what they were like. “Charming people,” he replied, “but quite extraordinary. They don’t seem to be interested at all in politics. They’re interested in sex.” A military man, musing on the three books under review on his way home from the Staff College (or the Pentagon), might be justified for thinking that, fifty years later, the shoe was now on the other foot.

As Professor Brooke writes early in his book, history in the scholarly tradition, under whose shadow he grew up in the 1940s, still fundamentally meant political and constitutional history. Since then, and especially during the last thirty years, social history has come into its own, lifted “on to a higher plane of intellectual and imaginative inquiry” by, above all, the French scholars of the Annales school. Virtually all historians would now agree that marriage and sexual relations must lie near the heart of social history, and have gained a right to a commanding interest among scholars.

Professor Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe is encyclopedic in scope. It opens with an examination of the debt of the medieval Church to Jewish and antique pagan teachings. Brundage stresses the emphasis of Jewish doctrine on the procreative purpose of marriage, and the sense that the sex act is to be associated with uncleanness, which can be purified through ritual. Among antique teachings, he singles out the influence of the Stoics, who took a stern and restrictive view of sexual pleasure.

The eclecticism of the early Church in fastening on these particular themes in the sexual teaching of Christianity’s parent cultures, he argues, had a profound and lasting impact. Their influence was complemented in the Church’s early period by two other strands of thinking, the emphasis of the Roman lawyers on consent as the vital factor in forging the marriage bond, and the very high valuation that the Christian fathers ascribed to virginity and the celibate life. Together these ideas dictated the shape and color of the medieval ecclesiastical jurisprudence of sex and marriage, and marked most subsequent Christian thinking on these subjects in consequence.

That jurisprudence achieved its fruition in the voluminous commentaries of the canon lawyers of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. Between their time and that of the Church fathers, the Church had had to grapple with the problem of communicating its sexual ideas and ideals, formulated in the late antique period, to the Christianized barbarians who invaded the Roman Empire, and whose customs were much less antipathetic to libidinousness, at least in males. In the fluid and politically decentralized conditions of what historians used to call “the dark ages” the clergy sought to exercise a disciplinary authority not principally through the courts, but through its penitential system …

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