Lovers and their critics: The medieval marriage and sexuality debates

Date of Completion

January 1998


Literature, Medieval|Religion, History of|Art History|History, Medieval




The role of sexuality in Christian marriage and Christian society was the subject of much heated debate during the medieval period. Although marriage as a Christian institution of mutual contract was well defined by the end of the twelfth century, the definition of acceptable sexual relations within a valid marriage continued to be problematical. An examination of primary sources, particularly from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, has shown that not all views of sexuality were negative, and that the topic was the focus of lively discussions within all factions of society.^ The west portal of Senlis cathedral, completed around 1170 under the tenure of Bishop Amaury, is presented as a monument which visually supported the marriage reforms of the late twelfth century. The strong association between Bishop Amaury and Pope Alexander III, a leading figure in marriage reform during this period, is examined. Alexander's insistence on mutuality of contract between the marriage partners is represented visually on the Senlis tympanum where the Heavenly Bride and Groom are given equal status.^ In the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose, Jean de Meun brings to the reading public for the first time in the vernacular, issues relating to the debate on the role of sexuality in society--matters which had been the topic of discussion amongst the literati before this time. In the form of an unresolved disputation, the characters in the poem address many aspects of human sexuality, but the issue of which "authorities" should dictate the sexual behavior of the individual remains unresolved.^ By the fourteenth century, Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales is still wrestling with the issue of the relationship between marriage and sexuality, particularly in his presentation of the Wife of Bath and her tale. Chaucer's garrulous pilgrim openly admits to using her sexuality for economic gain in her first three marriages and seems also to advocate "maistrie," for herself in her final marriage to Jankyn. However, in her tale, Alisoun is able to articulate a position of mutuality and equality in the concluding scene where both husband and wife contribute to the happy resolution. ^