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Gender, Sex and Sensuality: Writings on Women, Men and Desire

What did it mean to be a man or a woman in the medieval world? What ideas did ordinary people have about gender, sex, and sexuality? This collection brings together a diverse array of texts from different genres.

Concerning Man and Woman offers a snapshot of the dominant ideology of sex in medieval Europe: one which blamed women for men’s failings based on the Biblical story of Genesis. A more substantial example of European misogyny (hatred of women) is The Wicked Woman. An opposing view, showing the virtue and bravery of women in the face of cruelty, is offered by the martyrdom narrative The Passion of the Holy Virgins.

As for relations between the sexes, comic tales such as The Gosling and The Girl Who Wanted to Fly take a cynical view, contending that everyone is driven by sexual desire, even those who have taken vows of chastity. A more sombre take is provided byThe Charcoal-Burner of Nevers, in which a pair of adulterous lovers are forced to become each other’s tormentors in order to be freed of their sin.

Departing from Europe, the three anecdotes from the Record of the Listener provide fascinating snapshots into the culture of Southern Song Dynasty China. Yan Shu’s ci “To the Tune ‘Willows by the Mountain Pavilion’”, attempts to convey something of the life experience of a Song Dynasty courtesan.

British Library MS Royal 2 B VII f.216v [detail]