Love and Sex in the High Middle Ages

In, Ennobling Love: In Search of a New Sensibility, C. Stephen Jaeger famously explores the gradual transformation of the concept of love in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages. Jaeger argues that, from the early to the High Middle Ages, the Western European aristocracy had developed two distinct forms of love. The first form, “Ciceronian” or old love, was based on Greco-Roman ideals that were adapted by the early medieval courts. This love was based on the nobility of a person’s mind and soul. So although the language may seem sexual to the modern observer, this shared love was chaste and a reflection of both parties’ superior virtue. The individuals were not in love with the other’s physical beauty, but with their inner worth, which made these relationships predominantly non-sexual.

To express this feeling of mutual excellence, this form of love needed to be a public affair, which perhaps explains the need by late antique and medieval men to record these exchanges. Such bonds between men had always been prevalent in warrior societies, where comradeship was vital for both the individual’s and the society’s survival. Jaeger observes a new pattern of courtly love emerging in the twelfth century, that of “Ovidian” or “new love”. He argues that this development reflected the increased inclusion of women in society and the proliferation, in learned society, of the sensuous poems of the Roman poet Ovid and the racy new literature of courtly love. This form of love differed greatly from its chaste Ciceronian counterpart, in that it involved women, and was sexual in nature. In this form of love the woman became the reward for the man’s moral improvement. Unlike the logical relationships between males, Ovidian love was highly passionate, and at times illogical. Love was portrayed as part of the natural world and came to be seen as beyond the control of human beings.

In a world where, following Biblical precedent, sexuality was viewed with suspicion, courtly literature sought to reconcile this physical love with ennobling love. For historians of sexuality, Jaeger presents the challenge of whether the study of “homosexuality” is even valid. He argues that modern scholars are too influenced by Freudian thinking and fail to comprehend the different mindset and aims of the medieval individual. So where John Boswell famously read in Anselm’s intense and emotive letters to his fellow monks and male students a sexual subtext, Jaeger, to my mind rightly, sees a typically chaste Ciceronian “love-affair” among like-minded men. Yet, as one observes in the letters of Abelard and Heloise, similarly emotive language may also be used by our medieval writers to describe both physical and spiritual love. Surely then, the language of Ciceronian love could be used to mask more physical, and by the twelfth century standards, more illicitly sexual relationships between men.

Somewhat ironically in an age where an increasingly centralised and reformed Catholic Church sought to monitor men and women’s relationships, there came to be a greater acceptance of the value of passionate love and, indeed, the sexual act. As Sally Vaughn has recently argued, the clergy played a part in this change. She shows that Anselm’s friendships extended to woman. Here, Anselm was more revolutionary. Vaughn suggests that the increasing adulation in the twelfth century of the Virgin Mary’s role as the theotokos had a somewhat unintended consequence. To borrow Vaughn’ words, “the union of God and Mary into one flesh, an analogy to the biblical metaphor for sexual union”, helped to redeem humanity from original sin. “In the recreation of the universe”, Vaughn continues, “perhaps sexual love was also transformed, because human beings sharing God’s nature, were freed from sin.”[1]

[1] Sally Vaughn, “Saint Anselm and His Students Writing About Love: A Theological Foundation for the Rise of Romantic Love in Europe,” Journal of Sexuality 19.1 (2010): 54-73.





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