Medieval -- the Language of Sex. Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 by John W. Baldwin / Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell

By Noonan, John T. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Medieval -- the Language of Sex. Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 by John W. Baldwin / Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell


Noonan, John T., The Catholic Historical Review


The Language of Sex. Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. By John W. Baldwin.

The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society.

(Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1994. Pp. xviii, 331. $37.50.)

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell. (New York: Villard Books. 1994. Pp. 390. $25.00.)

The Language of Sex, a carefully circumscribed and meticulously documented work by an accomplished scholar, is an admirable example of research into a subject recently troubled by partisanship and unscholarly propaganda.

The "five voices" of the title are (1) those of the moral theologians, notably Pierre the Chanter, Robert of Courcon, and Thomas Chobham, supplemented by that of Marie d'Oignies, a married conversa; (2) of the physicians in the tradition of Galen; (3) of Andreas Capellanus, the contemporary exponent of Ovid's view of the arts of love; (4) of Jean Renart, the pseudonym of the author of the Roman de la Rose, supplemented by his sources, the Tristan legend, the La de Lanval of Marie de France, and the writings of Chretien de Troyes; and (5) of the fabliaux of Jean Bodel, probably a jongleur of Arras, who began this new genre. The first three voices speak Latin, the last, two varieties of French. The period concentrated on is 1185 to 1215; the place, France, meaning in particular Brittany, Champaign, Normandy, and Paris. Baldwin, already known for his work on the Chanter, treats his data cautiously, is generous in his arguments, and modest in his conclusions. The Language of Sex is a measured work of mature erudition.

Baldwin consciously resists imposing modern categories on his material. I note a single deviation: he refers to the Fourth Lateran Council's requirement of annual confession as establishing "the mechanism to supervise the sexual lives of lay men and women throughout Latin Christendom" (p. 226). That is a Foucaultism, a transformation of a medicinal sacrament in the understanding of its sponsors into a tool of control. The only other point where it seems to me one might resist his observations is his contention that the five voices, when compared and juxtaposed, "point to a center where presumably lies social reality" (p. 238). I am not persuaded that one can go from the texts to a center of social reality. Andreas Capellanus worked in a special gene, and the seriousness of his intentions has been much disputed. …

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