Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain 
by Carissa Harris.
Cornell, 306 pp., £36, December 2018, 978 1 5017 3040 5
Show More
Show More

In​ the early decades of the 11th century, a man called Warner who lived in Normandy wrote a very dirty Latin poem. Addressed to Archbishop Robert of Rouen, it relates the adventures of an Irish grammarian called Moriuht, who has a series of graphic and often disturbing sexual encounters while searching for his wife, who has been kidnapped. He is captured by Vikings, chained, flogged, urinated on, forced to gambol like a bear, struck by phalluses and raped. In Northumberland he is sold into slavery for a pittance. His new owners are a community of nuns, whom he methodically deflowers. This causes a scandal: he flees and is captured once again. Eventually he’s sold to a widow in Saxony. There he has sex with German ‘boys, monks, widows … and married women’, all the while weeping for his wife.

Moriuht is a monstrous figure. He and his wife are referred to as goats so often that you begin to wonder if either of them really is one. He searches for her using pagan magic; reading the viscera of a dead girl, he finds an appalling omen – his wife’s pubic hair. His bestial nature is reflected by his clothes, a patchwork of animal skins short enough to reveal his hairy genitals and behind. Warner’s descriptions build to ever greater absurdity: Moriuht’s anus is capacious enough for a pair of cats to winter in, and the forest of his groin can house a stork and a hoopoe – a display that horrifies the children.

Warner of Rouen’s poem is relentlessly nasty, but medieval children in Britain, at least those with access to education, were probably less easy to shock than modern adult readers. Medieval teachers often used obscene material in their lessons. The historian Nicholas Orme, who has done much to reveal the working methods of late medieval grammar school teachers, offers the example of a manuscript from Beccles in Suffolk, written in the 1430s. A series of English phrases appended to their putative Latin originals includes, ‘I saw a nakyd man gaderin stoonys in hys barm,’ followed by the Latin phrase it was attempting to translate: ‘Ego vidi nudus hominem colligere lapides in gremium suum’ (the diligent pupil would have noticed that the subject of the Latin sentence was naked, rather than the man he saw gathering stones in his lap).

Around the year 1000, Ælfric Bata composed a series of colloquies to help his pupils practise speaking Latin. The fact that he was teaching children in a monastery didn’t stop him including risqué scenes: brothers get drunk, an older monk calls a younger one over to help him in the latrine, another asks a boy for a kiss. At one point, two monks have a scatological argument, flinging such insults as ‘You goat dung!’ ‘You sheep dung!’ ‘You horse dung!’ Ælfric Bata prolongs the barrage of abuse, slyly teaching the children the Latin words for ten familiar animals.

In many medieval classrooms, boys learned Latin by reading works that depicted licentiousness and sexual assault. Ovid was a mainstay of medieval teaching, despite occasional complaints about his immorality. Ars Amatoria was glossed, commented on and translated; it served as a model for new Latin verse, and influenced the vernacular writings from which the modern notion of romantic love developed.

In Pamphilus, a short Latin comedy probably written in France before 1200, the eponymous hero falls pathetically in love with the virgin Galathea. Instead of attempting to win her heart, he pays an old woman to entrap her and, despite her protestations, rapes her. Early in the story Galathea is quite keen on Pamphilus, but being violated destroys any feelings she has for him. Although Pamphilus and the old woman argue that she should accept her situation, her last words are despondent: ‘There is no hope of happiness for me.’ Why was Pamphilus such a popular school text, circulating so widely that it gave us the word ‘pamphlet’? The medievalist Marjorie Curry Woods has pointed out that schoolboys reading Pamphilus may actually have identified with Galathea. As children, they were often physically assaulted and sometimes sexually abused.

Although Moriuht seems to be a poem for adults, children appear throughout the story. Sometimes they are victims. Moriuht practises his occult divination on the corpses of a girl and a boy. Saxony, we are told, will mourn the boys and young men he corrupted. Elsewhere in the text, the children have the upper hand, gathering around him and chanting: ‘Baldy, find your goat. Baldy, find your goat.’ Could Warner’s tale have been meant for the classroom? Scholars generally assume that he wrote the poem for a learned community familiar with classical and Christian literature, a degree of sophistication more easily found in an 11th-century monastery than at a Norman court. But the story reads like a fable; it’s full of the bears, dogs, horses and donkeys that populate Aesop’s tales. It’s possible that its dedicatee, Archbishop Robert, presided over a cathedral school at Rouen. More pertinently, after detailing Moriuht’s erotic escapades, Warner spends a fifth of the poem attacking the metrical errors in a single line of Moriuht’s verse. His disordered poetry, Warner adds, is shameful. This is the point of describing Moriuht’s perversity: a man who writes Latin in faulty metre has to be a monster.

For much of the 20th century, academics argued that the concept of obscenity was born along with the printing press and state censorship of erotic material. One can understand where this idea came from: even a fleeting encounter with medieval art is likely to turn up lurid depictions of sex organs and bodily orifices. Take the naked man crouching at the bottom of the Bayeux Tapestry, his genitalia on full display. (In 2018, George Garnett achieved brief internet fame by counting the 93 phalluses, human and equine, shown on the tapestry, and documenting their states of tumescence.) Medieval manuscript pages often have a stately central text surrounded by rollicking activity. Nuns harvest penises from trees in the lower margins of a manuscript of the Roman de la rose, and a naked man presents his behind to be pierced by a monkey’s lance beneath the prayers of the Rutland Psalter. Pilgrim badges, popular medieval souvenirs made of cheap metal alloys, depict vulvas dressed as pilgrims, winged penises and female smiths forging phalluses. Erotic imagery is carved into stone corbels and on the undersides of wooden choir seats in medieval churches.

But none of this should be taken as proof that there was no concept of obscenity in the Middle Ages. The notion that some things are lewd or filthy is distinct from the desire to regulate them by political means. The influential seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville used the adjective ‘obscenus’ to describe the love of prostitutes and those parts of the body that excite people to shameful acts. In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux railed against heretics doing ‘heinous and obscene’ things in private, comparing them to the stinking behinds of foxes. In the Roman de la rose, the Lover upbraids the allegorical figure of Reason for using the word coilles (‘balls’). He argues that this isn’t dignified in the mouth of a courteous girl (an unwitting double entendre), but Reason defends her usage. God made the generative organs and women enjoy the pleasures these afford, whatever word is used to describe them. Not all medieval copyists of the Roman de la rose agreed with this argument: a number of versions leave out this passage. People in the Middle Ages certainly understood certain things to be filthy or shameful, but such topics could also inspire prayerful reflection or be used to explain the error of a poor line of verse.

In her meticulously argued new book, Carissa Harris shows that obscenity was used to convey vastly different lessons about sex and ethics in medieval literature. Focusing on sexual language in Middle English and Middle Scots, her study explores the way texts deployed for (heterosexual) erotic education often combined ‘the irresistible pull of arousal and titillation and the revulsive push of shame and disgust’.

The ethical valence of this education varied widely. Lewd poems encouraged young men to prove their masculinity by enjoying lower-class women as sexual objects, while also holding these women in contempt. But poems could also teach empathy towards women who were sexually assaulted, and give a voice to women who gloried in their own erotic gratification. Harris identifies literary depictions of sexual violence while also defending the revolutionary possibilities of bawdy talk.

Informed by black feminist thinkers such as Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Patricia Hill Collins, Sowande’ Mustakeem and Kimberlé Crenshaw, as well as by feminist scholarship more broadly, Harris examines the susceptibility of particular individuals to sexual violence in late medieval society. Through close readings of pastourelles, song lyrics, literary invective and fabliaux, she teases out the experiences of the young, lower-class or single women whose bodies are violated in these rhymes. Interspersed throughout her book are reflections on her own experiences of harassment, and illustrations from contemporary events, most notably the case of the footballers Ched Evans and Clayton McDonald, who were accused of rape (Evans was convicted, had his conviction quashed and was acquitted on retrial), and Trump’s ‘Grab ’em by the pussy’ interview. These examples testify to the enduring structures of power that enable sexual violence, but never distract from Harris’s careful analysis of the late medieval historical context. She looks at English and Scots sexual vocabulary, tracks the texts’ manuscript transmission and examines late medieval records of rape and assault trials. ‘I want to hear the tapster, the milkmaid, the servant girl far from home,’ she writes.

Harris begins with Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, the story of Aleyn and John, two Cambridge students who get their revenge on a thieving miller by raping his wife and his daughter, Malyne. It was long considered an English take on the French fabliau, a genre known for witty stories of trickery and (mostly consensual) sex. In discussing it, scholars have employed every available euphemism to gloss over the behaviour of the students (one has intercourse with a young girl so drunk she has passed out, the other tricks a woman into thinking she’s having sex with her husband in the dark): ‘sexual play’, a ‘bedroom chase’, ‘galloping sex’ and ‘love-revenge’.

Chaucer based The Reeve’s Tale on a popular French fabliau in which the daughter allows one of the students into her locked chamber and willingly sleeps with him. Chaucer removed the consent. In his version, Aleyn attacks the sleeping Malyne so swiftly that there is no time for her to cry out before they are physically joined. John, in bed with the miller’s wife, ‘thrusts as hard and fiercely as if he were mad’. The situation can be hard to interpret because Malyne seems smitten by Aleyn after the rape, and the miller’s wife enjoys the sex for as long as she doesn’t recognise her partner. But this kind of narrative is a staple of rape culture: drunk girls are asking for it, and raped girls wind up liking it. While Aleyn attacks Malyne to revenge himself on her father, John copies his behaviour because he’s afraid that he’ll be mocked if he doesn’t. His choice, as he sees it, is between laughing at a violated woman or being laughed at himself.

But did they really think that way back then? One might argue that it was a medieval commonplace that women who drank alcohol were sexually uninhibited. Women did bring rape charges against men in medieval courts, sometimes successfully, but the victim was expected to have raised the alarm and to have shown her torn clothing and injuries to a local authority soon after the assault. The violation depicted in The Reeve’s Tale would have been in a grey area, but some contemporary readers would have thought the students’ behaviour unacceptable. Harris cites a 1292 case in which a Herefordshire surgeon, Ralph de Worgan, gave Isabella Plomet, a patient, a narcotic before raping her. He was forced to pay her compensation, suggesting that there was at least a local recognition that drugged sex was not consensual, even if the victim had willingly opted to be alone with her attacker. More telling is Harris’s study of a 15th-century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. While some early scribes censored its language, excising or replacing words such as swyve (‘fuck’), this particular manuscript was copied more or less accurately. One of the book’s later readers, however, scraped off the word ‘swyve’ – Aleyn uses it to announce his intention to have sex with Malyne – as well as some other aggressive sexual words (‘priketh’, ‘hard’, ‘depe’) used to describe John’s assault on the miller’s wife. Whoever this reviser was, she or he thought of obscenity in ethical terms. The descriptions of sex in other tales were not erased. Forced intercourse was.

It is impossible to tell whether these excisions are the work of a female reader or a male one. This ambiguity also exists in relation to the lyrics to which most of Harris’s book is devoted, many of which feature the voices of women, resisting or lamenting. (A number of the poems are included in the appendices.) Often depicting a powerful man’s sexual assault on a vulnerable young woman, these poems are usually thought to have been composed, or at least committed to the page, by men. But Harris points out that men copying women’s laments may have empathised with their plight, and that women often performed songs written by men. Anyone feeling lonely or abandoned might have identified with the maiden, seduced and left pregnant, who complains: ‘Alas that he/has thus left me/myself alone/in wilderness/remedyless/making my moan.’

Lyrics in women’s voices also celebrated erotic pleasure. In a brief anonymous verse from around 1300, a maiden complains that her lover can’t satisfy her: ‘Alas, that he so soon fell!’ In a 15th-century carol, a woman describes her snappily dressed boyfriend in loving detail, lingering over his trim shirt and coat, his hose of London black, his kiss that is worth a hundred pounds. Gloriously, the poem ‘I pray yow maydens every chone’ features a merchant offering his podynges (‘sausages’) to a group of young women. ‘Will ye have of the puddings come out of the pan?’ he asks, and they reply firmly: ‘No, I will have a pudding that grows out of a man.’ In these and other verses, women actively solicit sex, and teach their younger friends and male lovers how to have satisfying intercourse. A surprising side effect of Harris’s attention to rape narratives in medieval literature is to show how many medieval texts make female consent explicit. Medieval authors knew exactly how to depict a woman enthusiastic for intercourse. When they told stories of non-consensual sexual encounter, they did so on purpose.

Dirty words tell us plenty about power. They show us who can speak, enjoy or censor language. They also point to those who are violated, brutalised, silenced. But there is a playful side to obscenity. In the French fabliau La Damoisele qui ne pooit oïr parler de foutre (‘The Young Woman Who Could Not Bear to Hear Talk of Fucking’), an extravagantly prudish girl forces her father to do without help in the fields, for fear of having to listen to the coarse language of lower-class men. When a young fellow arrives pretending to be as squeamish as she is, she immediately makes sure he’s hired and arranges for him to sleep in her room. Once in bed he loses no time, touching her breasts and below her stomach, asking what it is he feels. The maiden, it turns out, has her own terms: a meadow that has never yet flowered, a fountain gushing for the first time, a horn player ready to sound the alarm. She proceeds to caress him just as boldly. At her request, he describes his colt, strong but thirsty, and the twin groomsmen who guard it. ‘Have him drink from my fountain!’ she says, and the two proceed to have vigorous sex four times. The story, when it begins, seems like a tale of trickery and innocence beguiled. It becomes a mutually gratifying encounter, made all the more ribald by the euphemisms both characters use. Harris’s compelling study shows that obscene language can be vicious or, in the right beds and in the right books, dedicated to pleasure.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences