The Fires of Lust

A new book brings medieval sex lives - and the age itself - vividly to life

In 1354, a prostitute with a tragic background called Rolandina came before a Venetian court: she had been born a man, Rolandino Ronchaia, but with strong female characteristics.

He/she married a woman but the marriage was a failure: despite having breasts, Rolandino’s male genitalia was completely non-functioning. When Rolandino’s wife died of plague he/she eventually moved to Venice to become a prostitute, now working as Rolandina. Fellow prostitutes and clients were convinced Rolandina was a woman, for she concealed her penis and only practiced anal sex. What caused the Venetian judges most outrage was that she had seduced her many clients into committing sodomy, then considered an egregious crime. Although probably identifying as a woman and thus transgender, Rolandia was tried as a sodomite – a man who had had sex with other men – and was sentenced to death by burning.

Those who have watched Game of Thrones are forgiven for believing that life in the Middle Ages really was almost always this nasty, brutish and short. Poor Rolandia’s ‘crime’ and its punishment would seem to bear this out. We’re also encouraged to think of the medieval period (1000 to 1500) as one replete with every sort of sexual violence and oppression, a time when the strong could abuse the weak, when rape or droit de seigneur were prevalent; a time when if you were poor or of low birth and suffered sexual abuse, any recourse to justice through the courts of law was so meagre as to be pointless.

But the reality was far more complex – and interesting. From the very start of her magnificent The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, Katherine Harvey soon disabuses us not only of our Game of Thrones illusions about that period’s sexual mores but also about the social structures that contained them: the dynamics were very different. Men and women had to walk a tightrope of constraints that stretched tautly between Church and State, both of which did their utmost to foster a patriarchal and restrictive society. But at different levels, those who lived before and after Chaucer’s time faced many of the same social and sexual problems that we encounter today. Sometimes these were dealt with humanely and sensibly and sometimes not – certainly by today’s standards. Even so, sex crimes were taken seriously and were punishable by a whole raft of different laws.

Indeed, it is the medieval legal system and its chroniclers that have handed Harvey such a rich vein of history to explore and illuminate for us. She does so with a combination of authoritative writing and a delightfully engaging style. This lack of academic aridity makes for a really splendid read; I can’t think of a more brilliant Christmas book to give to one’s significant other if they have even a passing interest in medieval Europe or the rich and extraordinary sex life of its inhabitants.

Katherine Harvey, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, Reaktion Books.