Sunday, 22 May 2005

Damsels in Control

If your idea of a medieval woman was that of a damsel in distress, passively waiting for her brave knight to save her then you are seriously mistaken. The passivity of Medieval women was a Victorian invention. On the contrary, sources of the time tell us of women who are expected to be sexually active and are. Damsels were married women in the service of noblewomen and it was common for them to take lovers. If their husbands expressed any complaints about this they could easily be silenced when the damsel in question would explain to her husband what a brave and famous knight she was bedding. Presumably, even if that did shut him up, it didn't eradicate his resentment.

Indeed, being a prude was not valued in the Middle Ages. In one of her letters to Abelard, Heloise declares:

"The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy, but sweeter to me will always be the word lover or, if you permit me, that of concubine or whore."

Another suprising fact of the time was that if a woman's husband turned out to underperform in the marital bed, or even if he was impotent, she had every right to publicise this fact. In fact, a 12th century manual advises that "wise matrons" ought to examine the said man's genitalia and even be present during the 'test drives' in the conjugal bedroom. The manual explains:

"A man and a woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man's member is always found useless and as if dead, the couple are well able to be separated."

An obvious case of 'bedroom court' but probably a good excuse for voyeurism too, if you ask me...
Apparently, a man called Walter de Fonte was subjected to this examination procedure, after a request by his wife, on the grounds that he was impotent. Twelve wise women were duly summoned to the bedroom and after the required proceedings, came to the conclusion that "his virile member" was "useless".

Although the Church as expected, was entirely against the enjoyment of sex. The 11th century cardinal, Peter Damian, advocated that "Women are Satan's bait, poison for men's souls." People took little notice of him as he was a monk and monks were expected to talk like that. Monks were clearly not taken very seriously and it is not really suprising that they weren't. People who dedicate themselves to poverty, self-denial and oaths of silence are never really popular on a large scale..


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to consider that because Damian was literate and moved in literate circles (i.e., the abbeys and cloisters and cathedrals), his words have come down to us in copious detail while stuff like voyeuristic matrons and damsels can only be unearthed with painstaking effort.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This is exactly what I keep screaming-- into the void of my social circle, of course, overenlightened as it is. Warms my heart.