The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages – An intimate read

Book review: Historian Katherine Harvey’s engaging study is an absolute page-turner

This lively, engaging study combines a scholarly rigour with a sharp eye for telling detail, told in a fluid style that keeps the pages turning. Photograph: De Agostini via Getty Images

This lively, engaging study combines a scholarly rigour with a sharp eye for telling detail, told in a fluid style that keeps the pages turning. Photograph: De Agostini via Getty Images

If you’ve ever said “that’s so medieval”, you should read this book. Katherine Harvey begins by ruthlessly demolishing stereotypes held by everyone except medieval historians. For example, the infamous droit du seigneur is a myth: there is no evidence that medieval lords were entitled to take the virginity of a bride on her wedding night.

Unsurprisingly, religious teachings on sex feature prominently throughout. The moral strictures of Christianity dominated medieval life, ordering intimate relations between men and women as well as in same-sex encounters. Virginity was prized above all other states because every virgin got into heaven. Yet virginity was not purely physical – it was also spiritual, and these two states were not mutually dependent. Hence 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe, a married mother of 14, could be “a maiden in [her] soul”.

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