Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

On the Continent the open acceptance of prostitution went considerably further. Queen Joanna, of Avignon, established a town brothel, as better than having indiscriminate prostitution, and when Sigismond visited Constance, the local prostitutes were provided with new velvet robes at the corporation’s expense; in Ulm, the streets were illuminated by night whenever he and his court wished to visit the town lupanar(154)

Yet with all this there went a kind of simplicity. Men and women could go naked, or nearly naked, through the street to the baths in a way which today would be impossible, except perhaps at a bathing resort, or for undergraduates living out of college at one of the major British universities. The daughters of the nobility thought it an honour to parade naked in front of Charles V. And it was by no means unheard-of for a young man to pass the night chastely with his beloved, as we hear from the romance, “Blonde of Oxford“.

One of the things which has done much to build up in our minds a false and idealized conception of the Middle Ages is the representation of King Arthur and his knights as paragon of chaste and gentlemanly behaviour. This has been done primarily by the Christian authorities, who rewrote the old British folk-tales so as to bring them in line with the approved morality of the Middle Ages, though the process was carried further by the romantics of the eighteenth century and by Victorian sentimentalism. The facts are very different. Gildas, as a Christian historian, is no doubt somewhat biased, but he describes the knights as “sanguinary, boastful, murderous, addicted to vice, adulterous and enemies of God”, adding “Although they keep a large number of wives, they are fornicators and adulterers.” The morals of the ladies are no stricter. At King Arthur’s court, when a magic mantle is produced which can only be worn by a chaste woman, none of the ladies present is able to wear it.

When we examine these stories in their original form, we begin to see, not immorality as such, but a completely different system of sexual morality at odds with the Christian one: a system in which women were free to take lovers, both before and after marriage, and in which men were free to seduce all women of lower rank, while they might hope to win the favours of women of higher rank if they were sufficiently valiant. Chrestien de Troyes explains:

“The usage and rules at that time were that if a knight found a damsel or wench alone he would, if he wished to preserve his good name, sooner think of cutting his throat than of offering her dishonour; if he forced her against her will he would have been scorned in every court. But, on the other hand, if the damsel were accompanied by another knight, and if it pleased him to give combat to that knight and win the lady by arms, then he might do his will with her just as he pleased, and no shame or blame whatsoever would be held to attach to him.”

As Briffault comments, however, the first part of the rule does not seem to have been regarded so strictly as the poet suggests. Traill and Mann say, “To judge from contemporary poems and romances the first thought of every knight on finding a lady unprotected was to do her violence.” Gawain, the pattern of knighthood and courtesy, raped Gran de Lis, in spite of her tears and screams, when she refused to sleep with him. The hero of Marie de France’s Lai de Graelent does exactly the same to a lady he meets in a forest — but in this case she forgives him his ardour, for she recognizes that “he is courteous and well behaved, a good, generous and honourable knight”. And as Malory recounts, when a knight entered the hall of King Arthur and carried away by force a weeping, screaming woman “the king was glad, for she made such a noise”.