The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France Around 1200

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France Around 1200

by John W. Baldwin, Baldwin

This study brings together widely divergent discourses to fashion a comprehensive picture of sexual language and attitudes at a particular time and place in the medieval world.

John Baldwin introduces five representative voices from the turn of the twelfth century in northern France: Pierre the Chanter speaks for the theological doctrine of Augustine; the

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This study brings together widely divergent discourses to fashion a comprehensive picture of sexual language and attitudes at a particular time and place in the medieval world.

John Baldwin introduces five representative voices from the turn of the twelfth century in northern France: Pierre the Chanter speaks for the theological doctrine of Augustine; the Prose Salernitan Questions, for the medical theories of Galen; Andre the Chaplain, for the Ovidian literature of the schools; Jean Renart, for the contemporary romances; and Jean Bodel, for the emerging voices of the fabliaux. Baldwin juxtaposes their views on a range of essential subjects, including social position, the sexual body, desire and act, and procreation. The result is a fascinating dialogue of how they agreed or disagreed with, ignored, imitated, or responded to each other at a critical moment in the development of European ideas about sexual desire, fulfillment, morality, and gender.

These spokesmen allow us into the discussion of sexuality inside the church and schools of the clergy, in high and popular culture of the leity. This heterogeneous discussion also offers a startling glimpse into the construction of gender specific to this moment, when men and women enjoyed equal status in sexual matters, if nowhere else.

Taken together, these voices extend their reach, encompass their subject, and point to a center where social reality lies. By articulating reality at its varied depths, this study takes its place alongside groundbreaking works by James Brundage, John Boswell, and Leah Otis in extending our understanding of sexuality and sexual behavior in the Middle Ages.

"Superb work. . . . These five kinds of discourse are not often treated together in scholarly writing, let alone compared and contrasted so well."—Edward Collins Vacek, Theological Studies

"[Baldwin] has made the five voices speak to us in a language that is at one and the same time familiar and alien in its resonance and accents. This is a truly exceptional book, interdisciplinary in the real sense of the word, which is surely destined to become a landmark in medieval studies."—Keith Busby, Bryn Mawr Reviews

"[Baldwin's] attempt to 'listen' to these distant voices and translate their language of sex into our own raises challenging methodological questions that will be of great interest to historians and literary scholars alike."—John P. Dalton, Comitatus

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University of Chicago Press
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Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society Series
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The Language of Sex

Five Voices from Northern France Around 1200

By John W. Baldwin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03613-7



Pierre the Chanter and the Augustinian Tradition

Pierre the Chanter originated from the lords of Hodenc-en-Bray, a family of petty nobility in the Beauvaisis. He appeared in Paris as a master of theology by the 1170s, perhaps after receiving an early education at Reims. In 1183 he became chanter of the cathedral of Notre-Dame by which title he was known for the rest of his career. An unsuccessful candidate for the bishopric of Tournai, and perhaps also of Paris, he was elected dean of Reims in the last year of his life but died in 1197 before assuming office. The popes frequently appointed him as judge-delegate while he was chanter of Paris to decide numerous cases of litigation in northern France, including King Philip's divorce. As a teacher at the cathedral school of Notre-Dame, he lectured on the Bible and became the first theologian to produce commentaries to the entire Scriptures. In addition, he debated practical problems of moral theology recorded in the form of questiones which were collected in a work entitled Summa de sacramentis et de animae consiliis organized around the sacraments but left unfinished. When the sacrament of penance was reached, the organization dissolved and the manuscripts merely transcribed questions on moral theology and casuistry without logical order. Addressing commentaries and questions to his students and colleagues, he also popularized his ideas to a broader clerical audience in a moral treatise, entitled the Verbum abbreviatum, whose near hundred extant manuscripts indicate wide circulation.

Pierre's distinctive interests in moral theology and practical ethics attracted a dozen students or more, including perhaps Lothario di Segni, the future Pope Innocent III. Characteristic of recruitment to the Parisian schools, almost half of the, circle came from the British Isles, two of whom, Robert of Courson and Thomas of Chobham, were numbered among his closest disciples. Of obscure origins, Robert was a master in Paris by 1200, canon of Noyon by 1204, and of Paris by 1209. Like his teacher, he, too, was frequently appointed as papal judge-delegate in numerous lawsuits including the king's tiresome plea for divorce. Pope Innocent III undoubtedly met Robert in Paris and elevated him to the rank of cardinal-priest of Saint Stephen in Mount Celius in 1212. The following year the pope announced his intention to convoke a universal council at the Lateran Palace in 1215 and commissioned the newly created cardinal as papal legate for France to prepare for the forthcoming event. In discharge of these duties, Robert held numerous local councils, became embroiled in local disputes, and drafted statutes for the newly emerging university in Paris in 1215. The summons to the council finally removed him from France. He died at the siege of Damietta in 1219 while participating in the Fifth Crusade to Egypt. He incorporated the results of his teaching in a Summa of questiones containing the incipit: Tota celestis philosophia ... Not only did he acknowledge his debt to his teacher throughout, but the entire work was organized according to the sacraments, as the Chanter's Summa.

An illegitimate son, most likely of a parish priest at Chobham in Surrey, England, Thomas's origins were as undistinguished as Robert's. Surfacing first as a master and cleric of the bishop of London, Thomas transferred his services to Salisbury where he rose to subdean of the chapter and the bishop's officialis before his death in 1233–36. Although his academic career is difficult to date, it may be inferred from his writings. Among attributed sermons one survives, entitled an inaugural lecture when he began teaching theology at Paris. Since it borrowed from the Chanter's Verbum abbreviatum, it indicates Thomas's close association with the master. This suggestion is confirmed by Thomas's Summa confessorum which also drew heavily on Pierre's questiones and applied the master's solutions to practical issues. The hundred surviving manuscripts indicate as wide a circulation as Pierre's Verbum abbreviatum.

Pierre the Chanter and his two associates discussed sexuality within the sacrament of marriage, the chief approach open to the Christian theologian. Each contributed in a characteristic manner. Pierre forged the basic elements in his scriptural commentaries and the Verbum abbreviatum, but he apparently had not yet written down his questiones on marriage. Still involved with the complexities of penance, the compilers of the Summa de sacramentis omitted sustained discussion of marriage. Robert's treatment of the sacrament, however, not only incorporated the Chanter's arguments and terminology but frequently referred explicitly to the opinions of "our master the Chanter," noting "as the Chanter was wont to affirm." On one occasion he specified that "just as the aforesaid Chanter, our master, asserted in the last year of his life when it was vigorously disputed ..." We are, therefore, justified in viewing Robert of Courson's Summa as the final version of the Chanter's on the subject of marriage in which he reduced the master's concepts to the form of the questio. Thomas of Chobham, for his part, adopted the Chanter's analysis and solutions and reformulated them as advice to the priest who administered penance in the confessional, particularly to those in England. Common questions, solutions, and vocabulary demonstrate that the three constituted a coherent theological school.

Among the theologians at Paris, the Chanter and his students comprised only one of three or four flourishing schools descended from Pierre Abélard, Gilbert de la Porrée, Hugues de Saint-Victor, and Pierre the Lombard in the first half of the twelfth century. In addition, canonists inspired by Gratian's authoritative Decretum compiled at Bologna also discussed questions pertaining to marriage. In the school debates, however, the Chanter's group ignored some, disagreed with others, took cognizance of the canon lawyers, but usually followed Pierre the Lombard most closely. Pierre the Lombard's Libri sententiarum, completed around 1154, was doubtless the Chanter's principal source of inspiration on marriage. By the turn of the century, theologians accepted it as their authoritative textbook, just as the canon lawyers chose Gratian's Decretum. On marriage and original sin the two collected and systematized the vast body of materials generated by the most influential of Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo. The Lombard himself depended on the work of Gauthier de Mortagne, bishop of Laon (d. 1174), who, in turn, was a later disciple of the theological school at Laon founded at the beginning of the century by Anselme de Laon (d. 1117) and Guillaume de Champeaux (d. 1122). Anselme and Guillaume began the monumental task of collecting and organizing patristic opinion according to subject matter, which were assembled in two basic formats. On the one hand, they appended the materials to the text of Scriptures as interpretative commentary, thus producing the Glossa ordinaria, which became the standard commentary for Bible study. On the other, they collected varied opinions of the Church Fathers, particularly of Augustine, in Sententie devoted to specific topics such as marriage and original sin. Treatises on these subjects became the first monographs of a nascent scholastic theology. By a laborious process of collecting and sifting, the school of Laon prepared the Augustinian materials for Pierre the Lombard, who transmitted them directly to the Chanter and his students.

Augustine's were not the sole views to be considered by the twelfth-century theologians, but they were the chief authority for the theological tradition inherited by Pierre the Chanter and his school. Although the Church Father's analysis was undoubtedly shaped by his own sexual experiences, so poignantly revealed in his Confessions, it was equally informed by the controversies that agitated the post-Constantinian Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries. His first sustained treatments were the De bono conjugali and the De Genesi ad litteram composed in the first decade of the fifth century to establish a middle position between two opposing extremes. On one side were the Manicheans, who, as radical dualists, sharply separated the goodness of spirit from the wickedness of matter and condemned sexuality, procreation, and marriage as ineradicably evil. On the other was the Roman priest Jovian, who depreciated the value of holy virginity and asserted that the married state was equally meritorious. Against the former, Augustine argued for the divine institution and positive value (bonum) of marriage; against the latter, he sought to demonstrate the corruption of human sexuality through the Fall into sin. Marriage, therefore, directly implicated the nature and propagation of original sin. Two decades later, when the British monk Pelagius had proposed a doctrine of the Fall that defined original sin as merely following a bad example rather than a corruption of human nature, Augustine replied with a polemic, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, against the contemporary Pelagian bishop, Julian of Eclanum. In this and other anti-Pelagian tracts, he deepened his exploration of sexuality and the transmission of original sin throughout the human race. About the same time, he included a summation within the fourteenth book of his monumental De civitate dei, which constituted his final and most sustained analysis.

The appearance of heterodoxy in France in the twelfth century gave new life to the fifth-century arguments over sexuality and marriage. The Paterini around Arras and the Cathars in the south, for example, rehabilitated Manichean dualism to impute evil to sexuality, propagation, and marriage. Once again the theologians revived Augustinian doctrine to contest these opinions. Although Pierre the Chanter did not engage the heretics in polemics directly, he was aware of their positions. Commenting on the Genesis (1:28) passage where God commanded the first parents to replenish the earth, he noted that God thereby instituted marriage between man and woman which, in turn, confuted the Manichean doctrine that no intercourse could be conducted without mortal sin. To the classic Pauline passage on marriage (1 Cor. 7) he added that Christ's presence at the wedding of Cana contradicted heretics who claim that marriage is not good. In another context he identified the Cathari as those who claim to be pure through opposition to second marriages but are, in fact, impure in contrast to their name. Robert of Courson denounced as semiheretics those who invoke the routine liturgical calendar to exclude the laity from having sexual relations throughout the week. As in the fifth century, the threat of dualist heresy in twelfth-century France compelled the theologians to reexamine the basis for human sexuality and marriage.

Pierre the Chanter and his circle were the last spokesmen for the Augustinian tradition of sexuality and marriage before it was challenged from the new direction of Aristotle. From the early Middle Ages into the first half of the twelfth century, the Greek philosopher was known chiefly as a logician. Throughout the second half of the century, however, his treatises on metaphysics and natural science were gradually translated into Latin from Arabic sources. Although they were probably available to the masters of arts and the theologians, those of the Chanter's school largely ignored them. When, however, they came to the full attention of theologians during the first decade of the thirteenth century, they encountered sharp hostility. The immediate circumstances were connected to a local investigation that uncovered a group of heretical clerics, some who had studied theology at Paris. Although the group held various heterodox views, the two chief members, master Amaury de Bène and master David de Dinant apparently shared common inclinations to pantheism. Robert of Courson and perhaps even Thomas of Chobham were among three theologians commissioned to investigate. In 1210 master Pierre de Corbeil, archbishop of Sens and a former theologian, and Pierre de Nemours, bishop of Paris, convoked a provincial church council at Paris which formally condemned the doctrines of Amaury and David. The Quaternuli of David de Dinant were to be brought to the bishop and burned, and it was further decreed that the books of Aristotle on natural philosophy and their commentaries were forbidden to be taught publicly or privately under penalty of excommunication. Robert of Courson renewed the substance of these decrees in 1215 as papal legate when he drafted the statutes of the university.

Among the views the contemporary chroniclers imputed to these clerics, few pertained directly to sexuality. Apparently some had asserted that fornication or adultery committed in charity or while possessed by the Holy Spirit were not sins. More important was the close connection between David de Dinant's condemnation and the prohibition against Aristotle which is now apparent from the fragments of David's Quaternuli which have been recovered. These include not only doctrines of philosophical materialism but also copious extracts from Aristotle's vast corpus on natural science and philosophy. We shall see that these writings contained new views about nature, sexuality, and women that challenged twelfth-century thought and eventually shaped the scholastic theology and philosophy of the thirteenth century. Pierre the Chanter and his colleagues, therefore, flourished at a moment just before the upsurge of Aristotelianism which engulfed the later Middle Ages.

As ecclesiastics, the theologians were fully committed to the church's program on matrimony. During the tenth and eleventh centuries, churchmen had begun to assert exclusive jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to marriage—and by extension to sexuality—in an effort to replace local and familial customs with a universal and uniform ecclesiastical law. By 1200 this jurisdictional supremacy had been carefully formulated, but the problem remained to persuade the laity's acceptance. In France churchmen started at the highest level of society with the royalty. Reviewing and contesting the marital arrangements of the kings Robert the Pious and Philip I in the tenth and eleventh centuries, these clerical interventions culminated at the turn of the twelfth century in the imbroglios between King Philip Augustus and Queen Ingeborg. After the hesitant initiatives of the aged Celestine III, the youthful Innocent III decided to open his pontificate with decisive action. Entering the dispute at the request of Ingeborg, the pope occasionally neglected his suppliant's plight to assure his ultimate goal of uncontested jurisdiction over the affair. Although Philip was able to bargain for personal accommodations, at each crucial stage he was forced to concede that Innocent enjoyed the final right to judge his marriage. Confirming this principle at the inconvenience of both the king and queen, Innocent undoubtedly hoped that the victory at the summit of royalty would facilitate the church's jurisdiction down through society.

By asserting exclusive jurisdiction, churchmen also assumed responsibility for defining this fundamental human institution with extreme care. At the end of the twelfth century, the canonists and theologians had come to a consensus over the major contours of a matrimonial model applicable to the laity. Circumscribed by a series of inalterable restrictions, Christian marriage was to be monogamous (limited to one husband and one wife), exogamous (exclusive of close relations defined by blood or other marriages), and indissoluble (terminated only by the death of one of the partners). It was the exclusive domain for sexual activity thereby rendering all extramarital behavior as subject to punishment. And finally, it was to be freely contracted by both parties, which raised an important question still under debate among canonists and theologians during the first half of the century: Was the ultimate foundation constituting marriage consent or intercourse? Posed in this fashion, the question highlighted the function of sexuality within marriage.


Excerpted from The Language of Sex by John W. Baldwin. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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