Book Review: Sexuality in Medieval Europe

We take a break from the isn’t she done with the #AAAS notes already to bring you a brief book review.

Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others
Ruth Mazo Karras

I grabbed this book from work about three minutes after they said I could start checking things out from the University Library. It’s been floating around the “to read” list for a while. I’m not sure where I originally saw it.  I had started reading it via an ILL in Wisconsin but was side tracked by all the new and shiny and relevant to then-current-job children’s literature that kept floating by.

Not to imply that it’s really relevant to my job now…..

Anyway.

Karras pulls together a very readable narrative , examining perceptions of sexuality that we apply retrospectively and comparing it with what we know about the time. Her research, she readily and repeatedly reminds the reader, is hampered somewhat in that the majority of what remains to us is church writings and records, and legal and medical documents, which, while extensive, can’t provide the full picture of everyday behavior and expectations but instead hint at the everyday while discussing the unusual or unacceptable.

Over the course of the book Karras reviews sex in the middle ages, chastity, sex within marriage, extramarital sex for men and women. The most distinct difference that she highlights between medieval and modern understandings is the idea of an active and a passive partner, which causes for very different understandings of behavior, participation, gender roles, etc. Even the subtitle focuses on this–with sexual acts being something that one does to rather than with someone else.

However, it also showed some of the foundations for or contributions to the way we treat certain things today, including specific social rolls assigned to women, double standards between men and women’s behavior, expectations of men’s “needs” while still assigning blame to the tempting women.

It’s an interesting and engaging read. I was mostly reading it on the train and certainly got some unusual looks when fellow passengers would read over my shoulder for a few stops.