Thursday, July 30, 2009

Medieval Times (by res ipsa loquitur)

Continuing to make my way through I Don't ...

Between the eras of Saints Paul and Augustine, men and women were apparently thought to lust after each other in equal measure. Marriage was seen by church fathers as what author Susan Squire calls a "lust containment facility". Best of all was to be an unmarried man, who would presumably devote his life to the lord. (No word on what status was accorded unmarried women, but I suspect it was the convent or worse.) Second best was to be part of a "spiritual" (read: sexless) marriage, wherein both husband and wife devote themselves to prayer. Less good was a marriage with sex on the menu, with mitigation if such sex was solely for procreative purposes. "Immoderate intercourse" (i.e., sex for fun) in marriage was a disaster, but fornication without marriage was the worst of all worlds. Through it all, various and sundry popes, bishops (arch and otherwise), and priests proscribe all sorts of rules and regs designed to do everything from exhaust (the more energy you devote to deciphering rules, the less you'll devote to pleasure) to punish (periods of self-starvation were often part of penance) would-be pleasure seekers. Example: no sex on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, "during menstruation, pregnancy, 33 days postpartum (for a boy) or 56 (for a girl), and 50 days each before Christmas and Easter."

Then the dark and middle ages hit, and something happens to the church's (and society's) view of equal opportunity lust. Specifically, women become raving nymphomaniacs and men become cuckolds. The author describes all sorts of stories, tales, and fables that feature men who accuse women of wanting them only for their bodies and sexual prowess and over whom the threat of impotence is a perpetually gathering storm. In many stories, women are tested. In one, a man says, "If I had lost my prick ... / You'd never love me". The woman protests. But then, often as part of some elaborate scheme, she's tempted by another man or told that her husband has lost his ability to use said prick to maximum (or any) effectiveness. The result? Overcome by desire, she strays and/or throws her husband over. She always fails the test.

My question is, "Why?" No, not, "Why does she always fail the test?" (that I know) but rather, why was she suddenly being tested in the first place? Why did the view of sexual desire morph during this period? Why were men and women once thought equal-opportunity offenders when it came to lust, but then suddenly, women were Public Enemy No. 1? Why was the woman of this era thought insatiable? And has there been a parallel shift since? At first, that section of the book made me think of the femmes fatales of film noir, of sexy powerhouses like Barbara Stanwyck and Mary Astor leading their men down the road to ruin in "Double Indemnity" and "The Maltese Falcon". Their primary motivation was money, but they put the men around them at similar unease. Is the war the modern analog to the dark and middle ages? Were both a period in which men had to reinvent their place in the world and did the attendant anxiety of that process cause an explosion of "She Done Him Wrong!" type tales?