Book Summary: The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

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The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega (Hardcover; 272 Pages)

Brief Overview 

The Middle Ages describes a span of world history taking place over a thousand years (about 500-1500).  It is a bridge between the ancient and modern worlds.  

Many people know very little about the Middle Ages as a whole.  This is unfortunate.   It is both interesting and important to help us understand where we came from and how things developed into the current times.  This includes learning about women’s roles in society.  

Eleanor Janega (Dr. Janega, if you’re nasty), a teacher and historical podcaster specializing in medieval and early modern history, is trying to help that.  The Once And Future Sex is her most recent book, following a graphic history of the Middle Ages.  

The book focuses on how women lived and were perceived in the Middle Ages.  We are first shown how women were understood (the “official line,” of course usually expressed by men), based on ancient beliefs.  Then, we learn about the medieval understanding of beauty, love and romance, and an extended look at the many types of work women did during the Middle Ages. 

The book finishes off with an argument that (to use the name of the podcast she co-hosts) “we’re not so different” today.  The author of an op-ed entitled Don’t Kid Yourself. The Black Death’s Aftermath Isn’t Cause for Optimism About Covid-19 not surprisingly has a somewhat harsh view of how women’s roles are addressed today.  Let’s say we need a lot of improvement.

A better future includes a better understanding of how we got here. This book provides an entertaining look through the eyes of an expert who knows how to translate medieval history for wide audiences.  Some of this material is “nasty,” but reading it will be quite enjoyable.  

Favorite Quote/Takeaway

Learning more about the world that made ours can be endlessly fun, if challenging, and it is a net good.  However, by looking more deeply into the medieval understanding of women, we also can divine our own world and its expectation of women.  

Eleanor Janega

This book aims to educate and entertain.  It teaches us about how women were understood and treated in the Middle Ages.  Women’s roles were deemed “natural,” but they were actually a construction of society.  The same applies, in our own fashion, in the modern day.  

Should I Read It?

Eleanor Janega is a teacher at the London School of Economics, but has also expressed her mission to make “medieval history accessible and entertaining for non-expert audiences.”  

This book is part of this mission.  It should be approachable for beginners though some might find it a bit too advanced at times.  This book does have “Intro to Middle Ages” college vibes at times as compared to a book aimed at young adults.  But, that should not scare you either.

[So, reviews will talk about how this book is an analysis of  “sex as a social construct” and so on, but that is not how the book is generally written.  It is geared toward a lay audience.]

Janega writes with an academic voice mixed with a light touch. The reader gets a good introduction to various basics with the chapter on women’s jobs to me the best.  The final (shortest) chapter on “Why It Matters” to me was the weakest.  It provided a brief summary of current views, which appears accurate enough, but too limited in scope to fully convince.  

Janega includes what women themselves thought in medieval times though the book is more focused on the “official line” that dominated the sources of the times.  Janega also overall provides a feminist voice while staying loyal to the duties of accurate historical analysis.  

The book is well-sourced, but the twenty-odd pages of endnotes suggest it is not meant to be an expert work. There are eleven black and white illustrations (a graphic showing how explanatory text surrounded biblical verses was a good touch to clarify the discussion) and an index.  

Comprehensive Summary

Introduction

The book starts with an account of a “suspect woman” in the 14th Century.  She was making a living selling herbs to care for head ailments.  Domka was suspicious for various reasons, including the troublesome fact she was independent of any masculine control.

We often think of the Middle Ages (or “medieval” times) as a backward time.  They are much more complicated.  European history between the fall of the Roman Empire and sometime in the sixteenth century, including its beliefs about women, is different but often in surprising ways.

The Middle Ages can help us understand our current beliefs on various topics, including gender norms, especially since it is a bridge between the ancient and modern world.  

Women still face a lot of challenges, including beliefs about their “true nature.”  Medieval society had its own assumptions about the nature of women, which greatly influenced how women were treated.  This book will provide a helpful window into the past.  

Back to Basics

Medieval views on women were guided by Ancient Greek medical and philosophical understandings of the human body.  There were a small number of educated women, but most of the thinkers here were male.  This clearly affected their conclusions.  

Men and women had different “humors” (bodily fluids), which led to different personalities.  Men were “hot and dry,” resulting in a calm and socially useful mindset.  Women were “cold and wet,” which did make them compassionate but also a bunch of negative things including irrational and deceitful.  This bit of confusion also factored into human reproduction.

Religion, including the principle of original sin (Eve to blame), also played a major role.  Again, there were a limited number of women spreading such views, such as educated nuns.  But, primarily (including universities only open to male clergy and sermons spread by male priests) men spread such views.  Secular avenues, such as bawdy plays, also were male-dominated.  

Men Looking At Women

Medieval ideals about beauty were guided by classical standards.  Classical standards, such as the works of Homer, were rather vague about what “beautiful” means. The ideal of beauty seemed to be “white and blonde,” a standard that was unrealistic except for the rich.  

And, it was felt to be inappropriate to try to become beautiful artificially though obviously, women did so.  Beauty was “natural” and artificial means such as cosmetics were understood not only to be fraudulent but dangerous invitations for sin and general immorality.  

“Sumptuary laws” were common in the late middle ages. They banned non-nobles from wearing certain clothing.  Sumptuary laws were a way for elites to enforce their privilege.  

The Middle Ages did develop some more detailed standards of beauty, including as expressed in works of art.  One difference between then and now is that small breasts were seen as ideal, which was unrealistic for many women particularly since so many breastfed their children.   

READ ABOUT THE BOOK Skimmed: Breastfeeding, Race and Injustice

The best age for a woman was “young,” which meant sexually mature but not sexually active.  The ideal maiden would be an older teenager before marriage age.  The overall ideal woman would be likely to be a well-off young maiden able to dress in the proper finery.   

How To Love

Sex was in principle sinful.  You were only supposed to have sex to have babies.  Sexual desire was understood in some fashion (perhaps even to make sure conception happened) to be necessary, for both men and women, to have babies.  There was even some thought that conception without sexual desire was impossible.  This made “real rape” allegedly very rare.  

Sex was also an appropriate part of marriage (this is cited in the New Testament), both to make sure we had children and as a means to channel our natural lusts.  

Medieval thought held that women were the ones with sex always on their minds, including (how irrational!) when they could not conceive.  Proper sexual practices had to address such things, including making sure men were in charge (including proper sexual positions).  

Fiction, such as Chaucer’s famous bawdy tales, portrayed a quite negative view of women here.  Women were often accused of sexually tempting men, including with magic and witchcraft.  

Concepts of “courtly love” (literally arising in royal courts, which had time for such things) arose.  Marriage was not for love; loving your spouse was actually somewhat questionable.  Poetic traditions arose honoring romantic love outside of marriage.  

Prostitution, if properly regulated, was allowed in the Middle Ages.  Prostitution partially was seen as necessary since men naturally had to have sex to have properly balanced humors.  Prostitution also was a sort of safety valve, a physical release of built-up energy.  

How To Be

There is a myth that women working outside the home (domestic work is both hard and important) are a modern phenomenon.  Women regularly worked in the Middle Ages.  

The average (85%) person was a peasant, a small farmer, usually one required to stay on a particular tract of land.  Both men and women did a range of farming-related work, including working in the fields.  Women were particularly given the jobs of washing and making clothing.  

Women also worked outside the home, often namelessly as part of businesses we know only from their husbands.  For instance, women brewed beer, a common beverage of the time.  Women also had some means to work independently, including at bathhouses.  People did wash back then! 

Women also had the chance to be members of the medical professions though they could not study medicine at the university.  Religious sects (nuns) often serve as nurses.  Women could also be barbers or surgeons as well as midwives, who often did more than take care of births.

Women also played major roles in not only running households but as part of the nobility. Women could be damsels (servants) for nobility, which could be a prestigious position.  Female nobility had many responsibilities, including running estates when their husbands were away.

Women played a major role in the Middle Ages.  They were often not seen as individuals but as commodities with the responsibility to do productive labor and have children. Women who worked for themselves were often seen as unreliable and dangerous.  

Why It Matters 

Medieval people had a different set of beliefs that guided how women were seen and the roles they were expected to follow.  We need to understand this to get an accurate picture of the age.  But, the fact they were different back then does not mean we are so much better now.  

Janega shows, for example, various modern-day “scientific” accounts about how the female brain works in ways supposedly different than men’s.  The evidence, which supposedly should guide sex roles, turns out to be thin.  Beauty standards also might be different than in the Middle Ages, but they still turn out to be stereotypical and unreachable for most people.  

And, are the expectations of what women should aim for truly different, even if some of the justifications have changed?  Girls are still taught the familiar fairy tales if tweaked to some degree.  Women as a whole are still expected to be mothers.  And, some of the “differences” (such as the idea women only worked in modern times) are fiction as well.  

READ ABOUT SYMBOLISM FOUND IN DISNEY FAIRY TALES

Gender roles then and now are in a large way not “natural” but flexible social constructions.  This provides a possible happy ending: we can do better.  

Points to Ponder

Critical Race Theory looks at U.S. history through the lens of systematic racism. It assumes that laws and culture throughout the centuries contain deeply embedded biases that have given white men an advantage, a privilege.   At its core, it shows the subjective nature of history.

The concept is very controversial in some quarters today, but there is a certain basic obviousness to it.  Well, that’s my sentiment.  And, we see the same thing in this book regarding sex and gender.  The book repeatedly shows not only how women lived, but the often dubious assumptions people (often well-off white men) had about them.  

Consider the idea that women were unreliable sex-crazed individuals. A look at actual reality makes this rather amusing (among other things).  WOMEN are the ones who could not control their sexual urges?  I’m a guy and you can imagine the “yeah okay” in my head of women readers.  

The book helps not only show us how to examine how people lived (and live today) but for us to consider how societal understandings factor in.  History does not just happen.  

FAQ

Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian that teaches medieval and early modern history at the London School of Economics.  

She is also the host of the Going Medieval series on HistoryHit TV, and the co-host of the history podcast We’re Not so Different.  Janega wrote The Middle Ages: A Graphic History.

Note: One of the more light episodes of the podcast was focused on the movie A Knight’s Tale, a goofy sort of film that includes the writer Chaucer (who pops up in the book here).  The hosts actually really enjoyed the film, which is charming.  I liked it overall myself  Fun movie. 

Is The Once And Future Sex A Reliable Source

Eleanor Janega is an expert not only on medieval times but medieval thought about sexuality in particular.  The book focuses on what she knows.  It also is well sourced.

The book covers a lot of ground, including discussing in brief ancient classical thought (citing a few Greek philosophers in particular) on women.  Reviews from experts in the field praise her knowledge along with her writing style (sample: “ witty, entertaining, and highly learned book”).  

The final chapter includes a summary of how women are understood in current society. The chapter provides some sources to prove the case.  It is acceptable as a thumbnail sketch, but it is neither as complete as the rest of the book nor her particular area of expertise.  

This book is a reliable source.  This judgment is particularly applicable to the first four chapters that focus on medieval history.  An analysis of current times is best found elsewhere.