book review, history

Review: The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega

The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega, professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at the London School of Economics, explores the roles of women in medieval society in terms of sexuality, beauty standards, occupations, religion, and much more. Dr. Janega writes in an accessible way, so don’t be intimidated by thinking this non-fiction work about medieval history is written in a stuffy way. Dr. Janega thoroughly gets the humor in the ridiculous, strange, and surprising beliefs of the time.

Some interesting and entertaining things I learned:

  • Medieval thinkers, getting their ideas from Classical philosophers, viewed women as inverted men. And by inverted, I mean they truly thought the penis was flipped up inside out inside of the woman to create the birth canal.
  • It was thought that women, along with men, had sperm, and that if a woman had too much or too little sex, they could develop a “suffocation” of the womb in which putrid sperm (from the man or from herself) would build up, give off smoke, and suffocate the womb.
  • The beauty ideal for women was snow white skin and blonde hair (no surprises there,) high forehead, but also a pear body shape with a bit of a pot belly!
  • By default, women were viewed as inherently horny at all times and because of this belief, could absolutely never be trusted. They may even be liable to use witchcraft to trap a man!
  • Higher ups in the clergy actually owned brothels as a means of peacekeeping (and, of course, moneymaking,) believing that men needed to regularly expend their hot/dry energy (this is in reference to the humors) by having sex.
  • It was thought that having sex with a menstruating woman would cause leprosy.

Those are just a few of the wild beliefs, all theorized and written by men who had no idea what they were talking about. The very few women who were writing at that time were nuns, one of the most well known being Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote about medical and scientific topics.

What Dr. Janega points out is that the Medieval period, in some aspects, is more “modern” than many think. For example, people did bathe and were encouraged to do so–however, most people did not have access to the facilities or means to do so. Another great example is the modern thinking of women not really joining the work force until after WWII. Women were integral to the workforce in the Medieval period from skilled trade, to farm work, to sex work, to brewers, laundresses, and so much more. Janega also points out the marked change in beliefs in our time, a stand out example being the modern sexist thought that all women are frigid and suffer through sex, while the Medieval belief was that women were always horny. The author also points out the similarities in thought, an example being that it is still common for some men and society at large to view women only as baby makers.

The Once and Future Sex was both interesting and entertaining. If you want a taste of what this book has to offer, here is a History Hit episode with Eleanor Janega talking about sex in the Medieval period: