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The defloration rite, 1484.

And the winner of the (medieval) Bad Sex in Fiction award is …

The winner of the Literary Review’s 2015 award for Bad Sex in Fiction will be announced on December 1, and the nominated extracts include the usual mix of overly specific descriptions, contrived imagery and unintentional comedy.

One of them, an extract from Norwegian author Tomas Espedal’s Against Nature, involves the infamous medieval lovers Abélard and Héloïse:

Héloïse has lost all sense of how she ought to behave, she practically throws herself at Abélard, pulls him to the floor and straddles him as if they’re two boys fighting. She presses him to the ground, pins his hands to the floor. She kisses his face and licks it. She bites his lip. She bites his cheek. She pants in his ear, shouts his name in his ear, she whips his face with her hair. She stops his mouth hard with her hand and takes his breath away. She rides above him the way she’d imagined that one day she’d ride a boy, a man, a beast …

But I think the real medievals can do better than that. And the appearance of Abélard and Héloïse in this year’s innings got me thinking: what depiction of sex might have won a medieval version of the award?

Abelard and Eloise confessing their love to his brother monks and her sister nuns. © Wellcome Library, London, CC BY

After some thought, I plumped for the following Anglo-Saxon riddle, from a tenth-century manuscript:

I am wonderful help to women,
The hope of something to come. I harm
No citizen except my slayer.
Rooted I stand on a high bed.
I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful
Peasant’s daughter, an eager-armed,
Proud woman grabs my body,
Rushes my red skin, holds me hard,
Claims my head. The curly-haired
Woman who catches me fast will feel
Our meeting. Her eye will be wet.

(Translated by Craig Williamson, A Feast of Creatures, 1982)

Ouch, right? The answer to the riddle is of course … an onion. But if you leapt to a sexual solution, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Generations of medieval monks knew the joys of the smutty double-entendre and the pose of moral outrage (“you thought it was a penis, Brother Alfred? I’ll pray for you … ”)

Such riddles are spoken by objects such as keys, pokers, helmets, dough and churns. The trick is that they make the reader think that they are “really” describing sexual organs. Other sexual riddles feature a Welsh slave-woman using a leather dildo by the fire, a cockerel and hen having sex in a courtyard, and the biblical character Lot getting incestuous with his daughters.

What the Church had to say

A Victorian portrayal of medieval courtly love. Leighton, 1900.

This might make you wonder whether we’ve actually become more prudish over the last few centuries. But do these texts actually tell us anything about how the Anglo-Saxons viewed sex? Or the kinds of sex they had, and how often? These are more tricky questions to answer.

One reason for this is that medieval sex is far more often discussed in penitentials – lists of sins (according to the Church) and the various penances that confessors should give the perpetrators for committing them:

  • Had sex with another man’s wife? Fast for one winter
  • Had a wet dream? Sing 23 psalms
  • Had sex with a pig? Fast for seven years

But we have no way of knowing how this related to real life practice. Just because a sex act is mentioned doesn’t mean that anyone actually performed it (shades of the Cameron biography here). We don’t know how often Anglo-Saxons had sex with pigs (if at all), whether they bothered to confess it to a priest, or whether the priest actually gave them the penance he was supposed to assign.

And, in theory, if you obeyed the Church, even marital sex was off the table for most of the year:

  • Not during Lent, Easter, Pentecost and various other feast and fast days
  • Not while the wife is menstruating
  • Not while the wife is heavily pregnant or for 40 days after she gives birth
  • Not on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday nights
  • Not during daylight

And the type of sex you could have was also limited:

  • No oral or anal sex
  • No masturbation
  • No positions other than the “missionary” position
  • No sex unless your express intent is to produce children and you’re not enjoying it too much
Italian portrayal of the missionary position, 14th-15th centuries.

It seems unlikely that ordinary people obeyed these prohibitions to the letter, particularly since historians such as Bede describe monks and nuns giving the Church a bad name through their drinking, gluttony, and fornication. No, religious documents don’t tell the whole story.

So perhaps we get a clearer picture from the literary descriptions. Does the “onion” riddle prove that Anglo-Saxon peasant women were enthusiastic and active sexual partners (note those verbs: grabs, rushes, holds, claims)? Or does it represent some monk’s sexual fantasy? The answers are not obvious here either.

The final tricky area is to do with sexual identity. In the 21st century, Westerners often like to divide people into straight and gay (even now we struggle to come to grips with categories such as bisexuality, asexuality, sexual fluidity). But the gay-straight opposition is only about 130 years old. Before that, people tend to talk more about what they do rather than what they are. In fact, if medieval people did think much about sexual identity, they may have been more inclined to do so in terms of categories such as virginity and chastity.

And that’s what’s really exciting about the Anglo-Saxon period. It’s not just the joys of good (or bad) sex in literature. Reading texts produced over 1000 years ago can make us think wider and deeper than the binaries and labels we fight over today. Asking questions about the past, it turns out, might help us re-envision the present.

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