Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In Christianized versions of early folk-tales, the knight or hero is often offered the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage if he performs the allotted task; but in the original versions the question of marriage rarely arises. Thus in the Chanson de Doon de Nanteuil, the warriors are promised that if they “hit the enemy in the bowels, they may take their choice of the fairest ladies in the court”. The knight who loves the chatelain of Couci exclaims simply: “Jesus, that I might hold her naked in my arms!” And this is precisely the reward which the ladies themselves frankly promise. In any case, marriage itself was often regarded as a temporary liaison, so that the reward of the hand of the king’s daughter implies few obligations.

It is noticeable how, more often than not, it is the women who made the advances: Gawain, for one, is pestered by women and they are sometimes curtly refused. They make their proposition in the clearest terms:

Vees mon cots, corn est amanevis
Mamele dure, blanc le col, cler le vis
Et car me baise, frans chevalier gentis
Si fai de moi trestor a ton devis.

It is a praiseworthy act to offer oneself to a valiant knight: “Gawain praises the good taste of his own lady-love, Orgueilleuse, for having offered her favours to so valiant warrior as the Red Knight. In a Provencal romance, a husband reproaches his wife with her infidelity. She replies:

“My Lord, you have no dishonour on that account, for the man I love is a noble baron, expert in arms, namely Roland, the nephew of King Charles.”

The husband is reduced to silence by the explanations and is filled with confusion at his unseemly interference.” (23)

It must be understood that in thus ignoring the Christian code, the knights were not abandoning morality, but were simply continuing in the manner which had been traditional before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, and which continued to be traditional for many hundreds of years after. Our knowledge of the behaviour of the Celtic and Saxon tribes is limited partly by the fewness of the written records they produced, and still more by the systematic way in which the Church destroyed them and substituted its own purified and moralized redactions. However, we do know something about the Irish in the first few centuries of the Christian era, for they produced a considerable literature. It shows us a people strongly matriarchal and with few inhibitions about sexual matters. Virginity was not prized, and marriage was usually a trial marriage or a temporary arrangement. Queen Medb boasts to her husband that she always had a secret lover in addition to her official lover, before she was married. Sualdam marries Dechtin, the sister of King Conchobar, knowing her to be pregnant, and when Princess Findabair “mentions to her mother that she rather fancies the messenger who has been sent from the opposing camp, the Queen replies:

“If you love him, then sleep with him tonight!”