It’s a great pleasure to be invited to guest blog for the Manchester Medieval Society blogspot, for which I’d particularly like to thank the Treasurer, Hannah Priest. Hannah suggested I write something about my specialism – medieval sex – as a previous post with ‘sex’ in the title had proved rather popular. Well, I’ll do my best to hold your interest.
What I want to talk about is as much about gender as it is about sexual intercourse, and my idea was prompted by the title of next year’s MANCASS conference: ‘Manhood in Anglo-Saxon England’.
So manhood ... umm. A rather loaded term, wouldn’t you say? Is it a status or an identity? A taxonomy, perhaps? Is it even a reality?
The Anglo-Saxons, as you may know, generally used the word mann, the etymological root of present-day English ‘man’, to mean a person of either sex; and the word had, from which ‘hood’ derives, had the sense of rank, status, or position, something that was conferred and indeed could be lost. So, for example, a priest or a monk who seriously strayed from his vow of celibacy could have his had removed.
Today, the word ‘manhood’ is distinctly gendered. We’re not talking ‘personhood’ here. But the idea of status – legitimate or otherwise – seems to be integral to the concept. However, we often question manhood, we challenge it, and we even laugh at it at times. We may see ourselves or others as either living up to or not living up to one’s manhood. And, of course, at times we link manhood directly to sexual performance, which is often where the humour creeps in.
So what about the Anglo-Saxons? Did they have a concept of manhood that shares any of our preoccupations? How important, for example, was sexual performance in defining manhood?
One of the most useful resources for understanding Anglo-Saxon ideas of sex and gender is the collection of texts known as the penitentials. These handbooks of penance contain lists of various sins with a corresponding ‘tariff’ of penance: usually specified amounts of fasting.
In the past, scholars were somewhat scathing of the penitentials, thinking of them, especially when they dealt with matters of sex, as prurient taxonomy, an obsession with categorising all sin, and therefore not representative of what medieval people actually got up to. This is rather a narrow perspective, I would suggest, and one which speaks more about mid-twentieth-century prudery than it does a desire to accurately understand the past.
I think it is fair to say that we can gain much insight into the Anglo-Saxon world by carefully considering what the penitentials have to say about sex. It is helpful to think of the penitentials as narratives of life, in the sense that they capture in condensed form the many interviews between confessor (priest) and sinner that took place for centuries in England, as well as in Ireland and on the Continent. In other words, though the penitentials are not actual transcripts of dialogue, their form and content evolved out of innumerable conversations between priests and laypersons.
During the tenth and eleventh centuries, vernacular penitentials were produced to reflect English needs to equip priests with usable pastoral tools (the priesthood at the time was not considered especially skilled in Latin). Earlier Latin penitentials were not simply translated but were adapted to meet indigenous needs. The following two judgements, or canons, reflect a particular Anglo-Saxon take on manhood.
The first canon is arguably not even about penance, as no fasting is prescribed. This canon explains what a woman may do if her husband is impotent:
Wer 7 wif gif hig geþeodde beoð 7 se wer mid hire hæman ne mæge, þæt wif hine mot forlætan 7 hire oþerne niman, gif þæt on þone ceorl cuð byð.This canon may well be about unconsummated marriage, rather than about impotence after initial consummation, though this is not explicitly stated. The reason I say this is that Anglo-Saxon versions of Canon Law did not permit a man to leave his wife once they had sex, even if she was barren. (The presumption here was that barrenness was always seen as an issue of female infertility.) If the penitential statement above meant a woman could divorce her husband at any time that he was impotent, even if they had already had intercourse, then it would fly in the face of both Canon Law and Christian Scripture, which forbids divorce other than on the grounds of adultery. So it does seem that this penitential ruling anticipated later medieval laws in England that insisted on consummation as a requirement of marriage.
Man and woman, if they are joined [in marriage] but the man is not able to have sex with her, the woman may abandon him and take for herself another, if that is known about the man.
So what do we learn here about manhood? Well, imagine the scenario suggested by the language: if it is known about the man (here the word ceorl is used, by the way, meaning a freeman but not a man of nobility). A woman may well have had to prove somehow that her husband was impotent. A parallel canon in another penitential states just that – that the burden of proof was with the woman. How would she prove it? Would she have to subject herself to a physical examination of her hymen, for example? Whatever the case, the situation would have led to the husband’s status – his ‘hood’ we might say – coming under scrutiny. Since the Church’s model of marriage was that God created humans male and female, and that is why they were joined together, it is possible that an impotent man was not really seen as truly male. So it made no difference if the couple had been ‘joined’ in marriage: from the woman’s perspective the union was no longer viable or authentic. And as long as she could prove the man’s impotence, she would suffer no disapprobation from the Church should she choose to take another man as husband.
It is interesting that the word wæpnedman (literally, ‘weaponed man’) was not the choice of word by the writer of the penitential, but rather the basic word for man, wer, was selected. The euphemistic quality of wæpnedman (I assume I don’t need to spell out the euphemism) is important in another canon that relates to masculinity, where both virile men and ‘not-men’ are discussed:
Se þe mid bædlinge hæme, oþþe mid oþrum wæpned men, oþþe mid nytene, fæste x winter.This is one strange canon! First, what is a bædling? A number of scholars have discussed this very rare Old English word, for which there is no direct corresponding word in Latin. It may derive from OE bæddel which probably means ‘hermaphrodite’, thus making a bædling a descendent of a bæddel (the suffix –ing is used in Anglo-Saxon genealogies to mean ‘the son of’). The writer of the penitential above later explains that bædlings are ‘soft like a harlot’. The baedling thus seems to be considered effeminate in some way, which is the sense here behind ‘soft’ (OE hnesclic). David Clark considers bædlings as ‘not-men’, part of a continuum of gender including women, boys and effeminate men. There may be a clue of sorts to their identity in an earlier Anglo-Saxon text, Liber monstrorum (Book of Monsters), which refers to ‘the person of both sexes’ who looks physically more masculine than feminine in the upper body but loves feminine occupation (not specified), and who also goes around fooling ignorant men ‘in the manner of a whore’. Perhaps there is a link between this so-called ‘monster’ and the bædling.
He who has sex with a bædling, or with another virile male, or with an animal, should fast 10 years.
I believe the bædling was probably understood as a person of problematic gender, one who didn’t fit into the Anglo-Saxon ideal of manhood but was not exactly a woman either. What we can say for sure is that the penitential canon above does not show the bædling to be a wæpnedman, a virile man.
The curious thing, however, is that the sinner under consideration here – the ‘he’ of the sentence – can have sex with ‘another wæpnedman’. Scholars, mistakenly I feel, often tend to emphasize that in terms of sexual sin this canon is about penetrator and penetrated. Yet here we are told about a ‘he’ having sex with another virile man, or with a bædling, or indeed with a beast. Confused yet? Well the canonist goes on to also speak about baedlings having sex with each other!
What are we to deduce? The point I want to make is that though this canon is about ‘deviant’ sex (deviant from the Anglo-Saxon Church’s perspective), it’s also as much about gender. I would suggest that in Anglo-Saxon society, there was a perceivable ‘virile man’, a kind of default figure of manhood but whose status was not entirely, or simply, determined by the one with whom he had sex. Two wæpnedmen could have sex together and still be men, we might say. However, there existed (in the mind of at least the writer of the penitential) another type of person who was effeminate or soft and probably thought of as promiscuous like a female prostitute. These bædlings, it may well be inferred, would have sex with virile men or with each other – it wasn’t their sexual acts per se that defined them.
So manhood? Anglo-Saxon manhood? Umm ... a difficult one, that. Perhaps I should sum it up like this:
If you couldn’t quite manage it on the wedding night, then from your new wife’s perspective – and perhaps from the local community’s perspective too – you were not viable as a ‘true’ man. But if you didn’t need the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of Viagra, and no matter with whom you had sex, you could still be viewed as He-man. However, if you happened to be ‘a son of a hermaphrodite’, then you weren’t to even bother applying for ‘manhood’!
Useful reading: David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval English Literature (Oxford: OUP, 2009); R. D. Fulk, ‘Male Homoeroticism in the Old English Canons of Theodore’, in Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Carol Braun Pasternack and Lisa M. C. Weston, pp. 1-34; Allen J. Frantzen, ‘The “Literariness” of the Penitentials’, in Frantzen’s The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database; Christopher Monk, ‘Framing Sex: Sexual Discourse in Text and Image in Anglo-Saxon England’ (unpublished PhD dissertation, Manchester, 2012), esp. pp. 127-40.
About the Author: Dr Chris Monk is a freelance consultant, researcher and writer. He obtained his PhD at the University of Manchester in 2012, where until recently he also lectured on medieval literature and narrative art. His area of research is broadly Anglo-Saxon culture, and his specialism is the history of sexuality in early medieval England (c.700-c.1100). He is presently a consultant for Rochester Cathedral’s ‘Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expressions’ project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, carrying out research on its great treasure, the twelfth-century manuscript Textus Roffensis. His monograph, Sex, Genesis and the Anglo-Saxons is presently under review at Manchester University Press. He also writes feature articles for magazines, most of which to date have not been about the Middle Ages, though he has a few medieval themed pieces in the pipeline. Over the next few months Chris will be producing ‘The Sex Lives of the Anglo-Saxons’, a series of video blogs for his website.