Monday, November 09, 2009

Sexuality in Late Medieval Iceland

Is there anything more private than sexuality? And more political? Sexuality has always been used for political purposes, and there are many examples of historical changes where political and sexual strategies of power have interacted. In his dissertation, historian Henric Bagerius at the University of Gothenburg, examines the relationship between politics and sexuality in late medieval Iceland. The results of his research show that sexuality was often used to mark boundaries of various kinds: between chivalrous and common, human and monstrous, and masculine and feminine.

When the Icelandic political elite was reorganized toward the end of the 13th century, eventually developing a stronger aristocratic identity, their sexual views also changed. Emphasizing certain sexual norms was a way for the elite to define its own identity. This is especially apparent from the many romances written in Iceland during the late Middle Ages. Sexual self-control determined whether or not one was recognised as chivalrous. A true knight seldom allows his desires to overpower him. This distinguishes him from heathens, berserkers and slaves, who can rarely control their urges in the romances.

During the late Middle Ages, the elite’s interest in virginity increased. An aristocrat who wanted to be certain of the paternity of his eldest son chose to marry a maiden. However, the attitude of the elite toward virginity was an ambiguous one. Virginity was both enticing and frightening. A maiden was admired for her chastity and pure thoughts. She retained the innocence that other women had lost. On the other hand, a maiden was not considered to have had any essential experiences of being a woman. She had never experienced sexual intercourse, and therefore did not know what it meant to be a wife and mother. That made it more difficult for her to control her sexual desires and resist men who wanted to deprive her of her virginity. From this perspective, the maiden was a source of deep worry.

"Studying late medieval sexuality is challenging," writes Henric Bagerius in his dissertation. "It forces us to abandon for a moment our contemporary view of sex as an interaction between people, something mutual. In the Icelandic romances, intercourse is most clearly defined as an act performed by one person against another. Violence and humiliation are often present. Scenes of rape are transformed into romantic adventures that end in a happy marriage. When the knight deflowers a maiden, he makes himself the owner of her body, after which she belongs to him and no one else. In other words, the sexual act establishes a hierarchical structure between the sexes. It is an event that makes the knight a man and the maiden a woman."

Henric Bagerius dissertation, Manhood and Maidenhood: Sexuality, Homosociality, and Aristocratic Identity in Late Medieval Iceland, was written in Swedish, with an English summary. You can access the full text of the dissertation here.