Culture and Morality in the Middle Ages

It’s very easy to look at our own times and bemoan the general moral failings and cultural decadence we see around us. But perhaps we should reconsider. There is a good argument to be made that modern society is, in many ways, not less but more moral than in times past.

When we think of classical art we think of Greece. And then, many centuries later, perhaps of the glories of Michelangelo, (born in 1475), and his fellow Florentines. And when we think of classical literature we think of the majestic Gutenburg Bibles, or perhaps of the ancient works of Homer. We think of these great works because they have survived the test of time, and been passed down to us. But did you know that, much like modern times, pornography flourished in the Middle Ages?

According to William Manchester’s best-selling book, “A World Lit Only by Fire,” illustrators of erotica sold their work in all the major cities of Medieval Europe. The work was sold by postmen, strolling musicians, and street hawkers. Lewd poetry was also very popular; Pietro Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi were sold in Augsburg and Paris, and even in the Vatican. As in our own time, writers and “artists” sought renown and commercial success by outdoing each other in outrages against the public morals. Aretino’s sonnets were considered to be the outer limit of what one could get away with. Then Francois Rabelais, a priest, published “Gargantua,” using language which shocked even Aretino. And, of course, “Gangantua” sold even better than Aretino’s lewd sonnets.

The stories of the Knights of the Round Table, of Arthur and Guinevere are well known. Not so well known is the fact that in the original tale, Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte de Arthur,” Guinevere is stark naked when Arthur takes her by the hand. And Guinevere, in the original story, was an adulteress.

While teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbirths are serious problems today, few realize how conservative modern society is as compared with Medieval society. In the 1500s the news of an impending marriage was most often initiated by the obvious pregnancy of the supposed bride-to-be. It was not uncommon for the fatherhood to be a question of serious doubt, leading the most likely candidates to draw straws for the honor of the woman’s hand.

Social critics of the time, Erasmus among them, bemoaned the end of the institution of arranged marriages. Females could legally marry at age twelve, with or without parental consent. If a woman was not married by age 21 the only future which lay before her was as a nun or a spinster. A quote from Martin Luther during this period sounds very much like the laments of many elders today: “Young women have become immodest, shameless … The young people of today are utterly dissolute and disorderly.” Once a couple was engaged, they openly slept together.

Next week we will continue our focus on morality and sexuality, comparing the reality of the past with the reality of the present.

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