Sexuality in the Middle Ages

Authored by: Ruth Mazo Karras

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  October  2001
Online publication date:  September  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415181518
eBook ISBN: 9781315016207
Adobe ISBN: 9781136500053


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‘Sexuality in the Middle Ages’ seems to many to be an oxymoron. Michel Foucault’s influential History of Sexuality (1990) argued that sexuality itself was a construct of the bourgeois culture of the nineteenth century. Other scholars have taken up this theme: a book of essays on the ancient world was titled Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World (Halperin et al. 1990). Medievalists too have argued that there was no such ‘thing’ as sexuality in the Middle Ages, in that there was no term like ‘sexualitas’ that corresponded to the modern one, no unified field of discourse (Payer 1993). Medieval people, the argument goes, had sex, but they did not have sexuality, which is not just a series of sex acts but a category of human experience, a discourse about the body and what we do with it, a way of constructing meaning around behaviour. They had sex acts, but they did not have sexual identities.

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