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The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

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It’s an obvious but confronting thought that uncountable millions of people have lived and died without leaving the slightest trace. By exploring their sex lives, The Fires of Lust brings ordinary medieval people to life, and reveals details of their most personal thoughts and experiences. This allows the reader to make some judgements of their own, whilst still offering some suggestions and context where it is needed. The Victorians put up considerable barriers against coitus, believing that buttons, buckles, and corsets would frustrate physical intimacy — lovers were supposed to be kept at bay until matrimony.

Like us, our forebears were troubled by sexual violence, but they also shared our tendency to handle it badly’. Harvey’s specialism in the history of medicine provides particular depth, and is integrated with legal and cultural material to create a sparkling and convincing whole. She has written an entertaining but thoughtful study, descriptive without becoming didactic or pedantic. The paperback was published in October 2022, and was included in the Best Paperbacks of 2022 list in the Sunday Times.Reading Katherine Harvey’s The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, I found myself thinking: weird, weirder and, occasionally, whoa! It covers its chosen topic in an engaging fashion, presenting facts with little embellishment or external opinion, and does not seek to sensationalise the darker side of the subject of sex. We can sometimes reconstruct their general material culture, but how they understood and experienced their lives is lost. Forms of retribution could be over-the-top sadistic: one punishment associated with adultery demanded that the errant couple be stripped naked, bound together around their genitals, and then flogged as they were paraded through the streets. The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages was published in October 2021 by Reaktion Books, and is distributed by University of Chicago Press in the US.

As far as same-gender relationships are concerned, they were forbidden and could be punished by death. The most obvious embodiment of this ideal was the Virgin Mary, to whom many medieval Christians of both sexes were passionately devoted. Harvey notes that “According to the other monks, the elderly pair spent much of their time reading in the kitchen. The strengths and weaknesses of the book can be summed up by the fact that ‘sex in literature’ is covered in 6 pages.Every story and contradiction adds to the understanding of the complicated thing that is medieval sex history. Courtship was a family matter: the wealthy and titled wanted their children to marry into the same class but, even among the common folk, clan approval was vital. There is no better guide to what occurs betwixt the sheets of the medieval bedroom than Katherine Harvey. There was a strong desire to separate the Virgin from not only the indignities of sexual intercourse, but the related contaminations of the female body, so that it was widely believed that the birth of Christ was free from pain and from the polluting effects of afterbirth. The Fires of Lust is a really solid synthesis of recent scholarship on the history of sex and sexuality in medieval Europe, written with a beginner audience in mind.

It's definitely written with classroom use in mind, but I'd also recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about the subject.

The Virgin Mary seemed to have a particular weakness for sexual sinners, and collections of her miracles often include stories of fornicators who were saved by her intervention; the Castilian priest Gonzalo de Berceo (c. Not sure if it was just my narrator, but in the mention of the Me Too movement in the conclusion, the UK audiobook says "Harry Weinstein" instead of "Harvey"? Mary Flannery, Times Literary Supplement ‘An expansive, accessible and highly engaging account of what we do – and don't – know about western European sexual culture in the Middle Ages. Learned, fun, and full of surprises – a fascinating, wide-ranging guide to medieval sexual attitudes and experiences.

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