Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, a 2005 book by Ruth Mazo Karras, illuminates readers about the realities behind medieval sexual practices and beliefs, and how such things have influenced modern ideals.
Karras’ book, with its clear writing style and tidy division of chapters, speaks to experts and non-experts alike. Those who know basics about the medieval time period, which in this book is considered roughly 500 to 1500 A.D., will be able to appreciate it and not feel overwhelmed by lists and catalogs of names. Though the book does contain certain historical figures, it is meant to deal with the generalities of the time period and therefore supplies specific examples sparingly and sensibly.
Medieval Time Period as a Whole
Because the book functions as an overview of a very large time period, it does occasionally get dry, in a rote spitting-out-of-facts way. Karras works to dispel certain misguided beliefs about sexual practices, though, and so manages to keep readers engaged in a book that could otherwise be difficult to read.
Karras gives an overview of the ways feelings and practices and laws changed over the middle ages, and her language never becomes explicit or inappropriate. Her book makes interesting reading for those already interested in the medieval time period.
Medieval Sexual Double Standards
As especially interesting portion of the book educates and expands on readers’ knowledge of sexual double standards. This idea, the importance of which is illustrated by subtitle of the book, begins with the concept that sexual intercourse was something done to a passive person by an active person. Karras does go into the differences between medieval and modern ideas, but without taking on a preaching tone.
She explains that people during the medieval times did not use phrases like “heterosexuality,” “homosexuality,” or “sexual orientation.” They engaged in certain acts, but did not, in general, differentiate between sex, gender, and orientation, even if the acts were considered unnatural.
Men and Women during the Medieval Times
Another common double standard Karras mentions is the idea that women’s desires were naturally lustful and polluting, whereas men’s desires were, if not always entirely healthy, at least normal. Similarly, the church demanded that sex remain inside of marriage and be used solely as a means of procreation— yet also said that sex, no matter the circumstances, was a sin.
Karras’ book shows that modern readers’ common ideas of medieval sexuality— namely, those of either “total repression” or those that were “sin-wracked” (2)— were both true and representative of the time period. She does so in a clear and readable format, allowing readers to get a fairly unambiguous view of a complicated era. Her book is a valuable read for those even mildly interested in the medieval times.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. Routledge, 2005.