This paper deals with the way a male-dominated society understood women’s sexuality in the Middle Ages. It is likely that women of different social statuses entered into relationships differently. Certainly working women had different choices about refusing marriage—a “lesbianlike” behavior—than aristocratic women did. (Karras 1996) However, the bulk of discussion in medieval sources about women’s sexual behavior deals with their heterosexual behavior. The men who wrote the texts, whether legal or literary, discussed here were concerned with the women’s availability (or not) to men and with the legitimacy of children they might bear. (Karras 1996)
Despite a set of dominant discourses that described all women as sexual and all sexuality as sinful, medieval society in fact had different expectations for different women. The construction of prostitution through legislation, legal practice, and literature was aimed at the control of feminine sexuality generally. By recognizing the existence of commercial prostitutes, yet delineating a category of “whore” that did not necessarily require financial exchange, a variety of discourses worked together to conflate any sexually deviant woman with a prostitute. (Walkowitz 1980) Yet, though the thrust of medieval thought agreed with Chaucer’s Manciple that the two were the same in their basic feminine (sinful and sexual) nature, an aristocratic lady who had an affair outside of marriage was obviously not the same, in terms of her life experience or her subjective sexuality, as a streetwalker. (Walkowitz 1980)
For other periods, particularly the nineteenth century, historians have focused on the variation by class in sexual norms. Middle-class regulators, for example, attempting to control the lower classes, focused on the sexual behavior of working-class women. They deployed the label of “prostitute” to control these women’s independence and mobility. In the Middle Ages, the bourgeoisie did not control the dominant discourses in the same way. (Walkowitz 1980) True, in late medieval towns there was a developing upper stratum, which was afraid of the social disorder that the poorer people might cause; this is one reason for the prominence of the rhetoric of social order in legislation about prostitution. The women whose behavior was regulated most directly did in fact tend to be the poorer women. But in the Middle Ages the aristocracy was also an important social force, and there was in addition the discourse of moral theology that emanated not so much from any particular level of society as from a long tradition.