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Response to Review no. 497

I thank Professor Bullough for his comments on the book; it is a pleasure to have one’s work reviewed by the pioneer of the history of sexuality in the Middle Ages. I hope, given his kind remarks, that I do not seem ungracious in responding to a few points. With regard to the work of John Riddle, I do quote him on the types of contraception used in the Middle Ages. If I erred in not following Riddle’s argument on the prevalence and efficacy of their use, this is an error of judgment and not of ignorance. This is a matter of some scholarly debate, a debate I chose not to engage in depth, but those who are interested may wish to consult Peter Biller, The Measure of Multitude: Population in Medieval Thought (Oxford, 2000), pp. 136–37, and Monica Green, ‘Bodies, gender, health, disease: recent work on medieval women’s medicine’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, 3rd series, 1 (2005), 9–10.

A more fundamental disagreement between Professor Bullough and myself lies in our assessment of the appropriate scope for a book on sexuality in the Middle Ages. He is kind enough to cast these points as minor disagreements, but they derive from a difference in basic approach to the study of sexuality in cultures other than our own. He suggests, for example, that I pass lightly over transvestite saints. Indeed I do. Most cross-dressers in the Middle Ages (historical or fictional) about whom we have any information were women who dressed as men in order to pass in an all-male environment like a monastery or a university or to assume a male gender role, not because of erotic desires. Even in the case of a male cross-dresser like Ulrich von Lichtenstein, there is little in the text that relates his sartorial habits in any way to his (or anyone else’s) sexual desires. This cross-dressing is important to a history of gender but not central to a history of sexuality. The important work on medieval transvestism I would cite is by Bullough himself: ‘Cross dressing and gender role change in the Middle Ages’, in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (New York, 2000), 223–42. Although published in an anthology on sexuality, Bullough’s article, as its title indicates, analyses cross-dressing in terms of gender performance, without much attention to its relation to sexuality. And rightly so, because that is where the medieval texts point us. Just because transvestism may be a sexual preference or connected to desire in other eras does not mean it was seen as such in the Middle Ages.

Sado-masochism in the Middle Ages is a trickier question. There are certainly examples of medieval people taking pleasure in pain and suffering. Whether the pleasure is sexual is another question; it is difficult to know when to say something is erotic if medieval people did not perceive it that way. Medieval saints desired and took pleasure in union with God, and they desired and took pleasure in pain because it led them to God. I suggested in the book that in speaking of medieval culture it is not always possible to draw a line between the erotic and the divine, and this would be true of pain as well as pleasure. And those who inflicted the pain – the torturers of Christian martyrs – may, of course, have derived sexual pleasure from doing so. But the dynamic was different from modern sado-masochism, just as medieval same-sex relations were different from (though part of the history of) modern homosexuality. Just as many scholars, myself included, are reluctant to speak of ‘homosexuality’ in the Middle Ages because of all the modern baggage it carries, so it seems to me problematic to speak of ‘sado-masochism’ centuries before Sade and Sacher-Masoch.