Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Sex in the Middle Ages or "Privates on Parade" and 18th Century Womens Buttoned Up Fashions?

Just in time for Valentines Day.

Yes, either romance is in the air or the day is fondly regarded as 'singles awareness day' by some. And then there are those that are indifferent, single or not. The holiday itself is shrouded in mystery. Also known as St. Valentines Day, the holiday embodies both ancient Roman and early Christian traditions. The legends surrounding the person called St. Valentine are also pretty interesting (there are at least three known legends out there). In each legend, Valentine is shown as a romantic, heroic martyr who fought for love in one form or another. There are also theories as to why the holiday itself is placed in the middle of February. Some say this is the anniversary of his death (which likely occurred around A.D. 270) and others say it was an attempt by the early church to Christianize the pagan holiday Lupercalia (interestingly, a holiday dedicated to the gods of agriculture, though there was some 'marriage pairing' that took place at the end of the festivities). Lupercalia was later outlawed and Pope Gelasius declared February 14th as St. Valentines Day, but it did not become a day associated with love right away.
During the Middle Ages when the notion of courtly and romantic love became more widely spread and accepted (when knights were fighting in the name of their lady), Valentines Day became associated with it (at least part of this was due to the common French and English belief that February 14 was the first day of mating for birds). But amidst all the Medieval love that was going around, discourse was also present. Especially if it involved erectile dysfunction.

The Middle Ages, its reputation, and history is rife with romance, from the music of the bards to the poetry written, from the knights that thought so highly of their ladies they referred to them as midon (which can translate as 'my lord'). Then there are the studies of Eleanor of Acquitaine and her "Court of Love" in Poitiers, where she and her daughter Marie supposedly encouraged a romantic culture of troubadours and courtly love. This was also said to be a couples counseling court of sorts (there are debates among scholars over whether or not this actually existed...still, it makes for interesting pondering). There may have even been a little gender wars going on (when you take into account the Querelle des Femmes or "The Woman's Quarrel"/"Quarrel of Women" and put it along side with modern gender wars). Some scholars believe the querelles were religion-based while others say not so much. Both sides have compelling arguments, which leads me to say that human history is one giant cluster fuck (both literally and figuratively speaking in the context of this particular blog post). But I digress.

Some believe that in the Middle Ages, women did not have the option of divorcing their husbands if they wanted out of the marriage for any reason. But some research suggests that this wasn't the case (though of course we have to take into account the likelihood of different areas being governed under different sets of rules). In fact, there are recorded cases dating as far back as the Middle Ages in which women would take their husbands before magistrates and bishops on the grounds of wanting a divorce or annulment over impotency. Even today this can still be grounds for divorce or annulment in some areas and like this day and age, impotency was considered a rather serious issue.
The article written for deals with 14th century York:

Privates on Parade: Impotence Cases as Evidence for Medieval Gender’, by Frederick Pederson, a senior lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, analyses two cases where wives attempted to annul their marriages because they claimed their husbands were impotent. They are among six cases from the city’s records that deal with impotence that survive from the Middle Ages

Yes, we may chuckle at the idea of something being titled Privates on Parade (and I did take the liberty of borrowing it for the title of my blogpost...hope Pedersen doesn't mind), but this particular title isn't really that far off:

Pedersen notes that in the English cases the court would call upon a number of ‘honest women’ to perform a physical examination of the alleged erectile dysfunction. For example, in the case between Tedia Lambhird and John Sanderson, which dates from 1370, three women were charged with doing a physical examination of John, and reported back to the court.

There were even some instances where the man had to prove that he could 'get it up' in front of a panel full of people. Sometimes it involved the 'honest women' getting drunk in front of a fire with the man in question in the room with them before they started stripping off their clothing, rubbing on the man and trying to get him, well, aroused. And for those wondering, the court did end up annulling the marriage between Tedia and John. Within a few days, actually.
The Medievalist also mentions a similar incident with two individuals by the name of Katherine Paynel and her husband of (then) four years, Nicholas Cantilupe. This incident apparently led to the murder of Nicholas's brother, William in 1375 (and it seems Pederson likes the rather tongue in cheek titles, for the title of his paper concerning this case is Murder, Mayhem, and a Very Small Penis). The Medievalist also conducted an interesting interview with Perdersen on this very subject.

Now, fast forward to the 18th century. How was the female body viewed then verses today?
As someone who does work and costumed interpreting at a museum I do know a thing or two about womens fashions of the time. On one hand, modesty was encouraged, but on the other, many of the fashions did much to emphasize the woman's figure, particularly in the chest area. In fact, the very design of a stay (or corset if you want to go with the French term...stays is the English term) is designed to to just that. Abby Cox's well-written article explains how the societal views of "a lady's snowy bosom" has shifted throughout the centuries. Of how in the 18th century, society in general was more comfortable with the idea of emphasizing and (tastefully) exposing that part of the female anatomy as a normal part of everyday dress, as that part of the body was considered to be very beautiful and something to be celebrated. Cox writes:

"Young children to adult women could reveal shockingly (for 21st-century views) low necklines in the 18th century depending on what was deemed fashionable. To have a wide and low neckline flatters almost every female body and helps encourage the hourglass-like silhouette that is traditionally deemed the most attractive female shape. By having a low and open neckline it helps give the allusion of a broader and fuller bust, which then, helps create the illusion of a more narrow waist. The final addition of a false rump or hoops, which enlarge the backside and hips of the woman, complete the look."

Now, that doesn't mean that cleavage was always on display. Even at the museum we often wear neckerchiefs or tuckers (as many also did back then):

"Now, what is “appropriate” to wear in or around this low neckline depends...Especially in formal or very fashionable situations, it was expected that a woman wear a tucker vs. a kerchief, since, at times the kerchief might be deemed too informal for that particular social situation. So the rules of when to wear a kerchief vs. a tucker would change whenever fashion changed—which was very quickly. A kerchief is a large piece of fabric cut in a square or triangular shape that is tucked into the neckline of the outfit or even worn over top, depending on the fashion and woman’s preference. They too could be made out of a variety of materials including linen, cotton, and silk. They could be white or different colors, printed or woven with designs, trimmed in lace, or quite plain. It was up to the individual woman. It is important to note, that they are regarded as a highly functional garment commonly worn by working women to help maintain cleanliness and a fashionable appearance."

I do encourage you to read Cox's article in its entirety, as it does shed light on the fact that we might be more uptight about certain things than our predecessors were.  And I will discuss the Empire fashions of 1789 in another post. :)

References of Interest:

History of Valentines Day

A Medieval Murder: An Interview with Frederick Pedersen:

Gynocentrism and Its Early Origins

Early Feminist Theory and the Querelle des Femmes, 1400-1749 (preview excerpt) by Joan Kelly

Eleanor Acquitaine and the Four Kings, published by Amy Kelly in 1950

Musings from the Millinery: Revealing the Truth About 18th Century Womens Necklines

Tidings from the 18th Century, by Beth Gilgun


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