Category Archives: Comparison Essay


The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 7)

Prostitutes embodied the specifically lower-status version of the “woman as disorder” topos. They were accused of causing disorder in their neighborhoods, and the specifics of these accusations go beyond the formulaic “to the nuisance of her neighbors.” (Bloch 1991) Angelo Taylor’s stewhouse in the London suburb of East Smithfield was accused of causing “many quarrels, beatings, and hues and cries at night.” (Bloch 1991) Several “malefactors and disturbers of the peace” who were harbored at Petronilla Bednot’s stew “about midnight, on several nights, when the neighbors living thereabouts were in their beds, came with sticks to their windows and beat on them maliciously and said to the neighbors, you who are in there, come out and be beaten!” (Bloch 1991) Like inner-city residents today who resent having their neighborhoods relegated to drug dealing, residents did not appreciate the disturbances prostitution caused. Thus, whatever they thought of the prostitutes’ sexual morals, they suffered from the effects of commercial sex. (Bloch 1991)  

Some people showed their lack of acceptance of independent feminine sexual behavior by taking direct action against brothels in their neighborhoods. In 1305 the Prior of Holy Trinity in Aldgate Ward, London, was accused of trespass in the house of his neighbor; he responded that because it had been presented at the Wardmote that prostitutes lived in the house, and the owner had not removed them, “the beadle gathered the neighbors, including the Prior and others, and removed the doors and windows.” (Karras 1996) The Prior won his case. The Vicar of St. Sepulchre claimed that the doors of the butcher William Cock in Cock’s lane were torn down for identical reasons. (Karras 1996) This was not spontaneous action by the neighbors of the brothel, but rather was instigated by an ecclesiastical institution in each case. Nevertheless, the neighbors were willing participants.

  Just because groups at various levels of society had the same view of marriage, however, does not mean that they regarded in the same way women who transgressed against marriage. Poorer women might have run a higher risk of abandonment and destitution and would be more likely to turn to prostitution; they might also be more likely to be labeled as whores if they transgressed against their marriage vows. Yet accusations of whoredom were not limited to the poor, and other women ran similar risks. The clear recognition that commercial prostitutes were women of the lower classes, that is, below the level of the gentry or merchant class (leaving aside the issue of courtesans, for which there is little evidence for England), and that women of the lower classes can be expected to be whores did not mean that other women could not be accused. It is impossible to discern from the records exactly what was the social status of most women involved.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 6)

This assumption of privilege that makes the will or consent of the lower-status woman simply irrelevant is clearly reflected in descriptions of rape in literature, from Andreas Capellanus’s recommendation on how to deal with a peasant woman onwards. (Karras 1996) The Old French pastourelle is a genre in which one basic plot line involves the rape of a shepherdess by a knight. The texts assume that the woman is there for the taking. As Kathryn Gravdal writes, “The pastourelle genre mediates class conflict by displacing it onto a sexual axis where its violence can be directed at the figure of the woman.” (Karras 1996) The consent of the woman is not always irrelevant here: in many of the poems the woman ends up enjoying the rape, even asking the knight to return. Only in about eighteen percent of the poems in the genre does the knight rape the shepherdess; in the others she freely consents. This norm of consent would have created expectations that justified the rape in the other poems. The poems work to naturalize the sexual access aristocratic men had to women of lower social standing.

The heterosexual behavior of men, in literature and in practice, varied according to the social status of the women (and men) involved. (Walkowitz 1980) It is more difficult to determine how poorer men and women felt about elite male sexual privilege. In a community where poor, unattached women did sometimes work as prostitutes on a casual basis in order to make ends meet, this behavior might have been accepted by those around them, and this acceptance might have helped make it possible for men to assume that such women were generally available for sex.

It seems more likely, however, that even lower levels of society accepted the church’s sexual norms and therefore treated women who did not meet those standards with lack of respect. In other words, women of lower social standing were in a double bind: the expectations of their behavior in practice were quite different from those for elite women, but they could still be criticized for not adhering to the same standards as elite women. The degree of respect prostitutes received, or did not receive, from the communities around them provides an illustration.

Prostitutes did not compose a separate subculture, especially since many worked as prostitutes only occasionally or were labeled as such when they were not involved in commercial sex. Nor were they effectively limited to a particular district: legal brothels were in one particular area of each town, and towns attempted to restrict clandestine prostitution to one part of town as well, but this was often not effective. These women lived among and interacted with the rest of the townspeople. Nevertheless the stigma placed upon the prostitute did affect her relations with her contemporaries and was not just a legal fiction. (Karras 1996) The attitude of the authorities, religious and secular, towards prostitution cannot be taken as reflective of the attitude of society in general, but it did have a deep effect on it. Though not necessarily shunned or ostracized, prostitutes were never considered quite respectable.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 5)

Most cases of rape by individuals (as opposed to gangs) in the Middle Ages seem not to have been deliberate attempts at social control or at the demonstration of masculine power over women, but rather served these functions as by-products of an assumed, unquestioned gender and status privilege. Thus rape was directed especially against women of low social status. To the man the rape was not violence but sex; the consent of the woman, at least one whose family was not important, simply did not matter one way or the other. (Walkowitz 1980) Echoes of this attitude may still be seen today.

A rape case from fourteenth-century London provides a good example of the pervasive attitude stemming from social privilege. Joan Seler, the eleven-year-old daughter of a saddler, claimed that she was raped by Reymund de Limoges, a foreign merchant, who saw her outside her house, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to his dwelling. Reymund was eventually acquitted on technical legal grounds. (Karras 1996) If one assumes that the accusation was a true one, the question arises of Reymund’s psychology. Perhaps we might call him a pedophile, but an eleven-year-old would not be considered a child as would a girl of the same age today; girls were able to marry legally at twelve and occasionally married younger.

John Marshall Carter suggests that this was, in modern psychological terms, an “anger rape, ” because of the violence involved. (Walkowitz 1980) However, the language of violence is highly formulaic. “Force and arms” had to be alleged to bring the matter into the court. “Vilely and cruelly handled her limbs” is vague; Barbara Hanawalt suggests that this referred to injuries “that are often encountered when an adult male has forced intercourse with a young girl.” (Bloch 1991) The only reference to physical violence that mentions specific injury to a specific part of the girl’s body is to the penetration itself. With no evidence of pain for the sake of inflicting pain, the most likely scenario seems to be that the rapist saw the young woman, desired her, didn’t care whether or not she desired him, and based on their relative social standing (a member of a family of a not particularly prosperous craftsman, versus a wealthy merchant) thought he could get away with rape. In the course of events this turned out to be a fair assessment of the situation.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 4)

Female servants were generally considered sexually available to their employers even if the latter did not prostitute them to others. The records of ex officio prosecutions in any late medieval church court reveal frequent accusations of men having sex with their female servants. In many cases, of course, this may have been consensual, at least insofar as a woman who chooses to form a liaison with her employer in order to improve her financial position or guarantee herself a job can be said to be acting as a free agent. In other cases, though, it clearly was coerced, whether by physical force or by threats of economic ruin. Whether or not coerced, this sexual behavior differed substantially from that expected of elite women, and the women servants were often blamed for it, both in court and in the writings of moralists.

Just as the regulation of prostitution indicates standards differentially applied, the legal treatment of rape also reveals different expectations of sexual behavior at different social levels. The records of late medieval London indicate that it was especially young women in domestic service who were considered fair game for rape. The reasons for this may have been largely practical: rape was a difficult crime to prove and convict in any case, but this would have been especially so for young women without family or resources (and many of these young women in service came from outside the town). (Bloch 1991) Thus men looking for sex felt that there were certain women they could rape with impunity.

In fact, any woman seen walking in the street after curfew—presumably poorer women, or servants who had errands to run—was a potential sexual partner. When John Britby was arrested in 1394 for having sex with another man, John Rykener, he testified that he had approached the latter, “thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” (Karras 1996) Any woman found in the streets of the City of London on an evening was assumed to be sexually available. In the case of the transvestite Rykener, this assumption was well founded. In other cases, the assumption led to rape. In 1440 a “young girl” named Margaret testified that “she went to a gentleman of my lord of Gloucester called Caxton to bring a bag there, and the said Caxton kissed her and lay on top of her on the bed and repeatedly violated her…, ” (Karras 1996) The fact that the man was not prosecuted for rape (a woman who was accused of arranging the encounter was sentenced to the pillory for bawdry) is an indication of the level of sexual availability assumed in late medieval society, at least when the man was of high rank and the woman was not.

The problem of underreporting complicates the use of judicial evidence for the incidence of rape at different social levels. It is precisely those women who were the most vulnerable—the poor, the servants raped by aristocrats—who were the least likely to have reported it, because they knew how slim were the chances of conviction. Thus, rape of poor or dependent women is likely to have been even more common than the sources indicate. Of course, according to scholars who have studied rape in medieval France, the rape even of a well-off widow, when committed by clients of a powerful man, could also go very lightly punished, and such rapes may sometimes have been a prelude to forced marriage. (Walkowitz 1980) Rape could also be used as a tool of social control, a way for groups of men to punish women who had done something they thought was inappropriate: priests’ partners, servants who had sex with their masters, wives separated from their husbands. (Bloch 1991) Women had several incentives not to report such rapes: not only might the chances of conviction be slim but publicizing the crime would create a stain upon the woman’s honor.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 3)

Women who were actually what we would call prostitutes, engaged in sex for money (and this can often only be determined when they were working in the officially sanctioned brothels that existed in many parts of Europe) tended, as one would expect, to come from groups of low social status. (Walkowitz 1980) Perhaps more relevant than working prostitutes, however, is the greater number of women whom the justice system called “whores” but who may not have been engaged in commercial sex. Here, too, it seems likely that the conflation of extramarital sexual behavior with prostitution was more pronounced for urban workers or the poor than the bourgeoisie or aristocracy.

The courts do not get very specific about the social backgrounds of women accused of being “whores”, or of repeated offenses of fornication or adultery with a number of different men. Nevertheless, while any woman who engaged in sex outside of marriage fell within the purview of legal regulation, poorer women were more likely in practice to bear the brunt of enforcement. (Bloch 1991) Certain occupations were seen as particularly suspect of sexual deviance, for example, laundress or washerwoman. London citizens who wished to keep bathhouses had to give sureties that they would not permit laundresses to enter: it was assumed that they would be there for sexual purposes.

Similarly brothelkeepers in the legal stewhouses of Southwark were limited in the number of laundresses they could have, again probably because there was a danger of unofficial prostitution taking place alongside the sanctioned trade. (Bloch 1991) Court records reveal laundresses and accused whores lodging together; they came from the same social milieu. Courtesy books warned against the dangers to a noble house’s honor of having too many women servants in the household, especially laundresses. (Bloch 1991) This sort of warning is particularly telling, because it implies that within the aristocratic establishment it was not elite but subordinate women who were seen as the bringers of sexual disorder. (Bloch 1991)

Laundresses were perhaps the clearest example of a group suspected of sexual immorality based simply upon occupation. They had free access to houses (including those of celibate men), had knowledge of intimate details of status and behavior, and were associated with filth. But all female domestic servants were potentially sexually available to their employers or men of their employers’ milieu in much the same way and were seen as disruptive because of this. Women who came to the city in search of domestic work might end up working as prostitutes — because of deception by wicked bawds, they claimed, although it is possible that some entered the sex trade because of financial necessity, fully aware of what they were doing. (Karras 1996) Even those who did find domestic or other work might find themselves prostituted by their employers.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 2)

The urban regulation of prostitution supports both the idea of differing treatment of social groups and the idea of a universalizing discourse on feminine sexuality. The regulation affected poorer women most directly, but by applying one standard of behavior to women generally, towns threatened any sexually deviant woman with classification as a whore. This, of course, is not unique to the Middle Ages: even in contemporary society the regulation of prostitution reinforces all women’s dependence on men. (Bloch 1991) The regulation of prostitution, though it may have been directed mainly against one group of women, functioned—and may have been deliberately intended by legislating authorities to function—as a vehicle for the control of all. But in practice it was poor women whose behavior was regulated as prostitution, both because regulation was designed and implemented in part to control the behavior of the lower levels of society generally and because the poorest women were the ones most likely to take up the not especially attractive working conditions implied in the provision of sex for money.

Sumptuary legislation indicates that a main problem towns perceived with prostitution had to do with women claiming a social standing beyond that ascribed to them. The legislation lumps prostitutes (or women of suspect sexual morals generally) with urban working women. The purpose of this regulation is not so much to distinguish prostitutes from chaste women but to distinguish different levels in the social hierarchy. This was, in fact, the general purpose of sumptuary legislation in many parts of Europe. 13 But in the case of prostitutes other reasons also became important: distinguishing them in order to advertise their availability, to prevent the harassment of respectable women who might be mistaken for prostitutes, to prevent the contamination of those respectable women, or even to keep the expenses of the bourgeois household down by prohibiting certain kinds of expensive adornment to the chaste. (Karras 1996)

This combination of motives for sumptuary legislation—marking both social standing and sexual deviancy—became important in the later legislation from London. The Liber Albus, a customary from the early fourteenth century, did not give a reason for its prohibition on prostitutes’ wearing furred hoods or gowns, but an ordinance of 1351 provided that no “common wanton woman” should wear fur or other noble lining, because they “have recently from time to time taken up the fashion of being dressed and adorned in the manner and in the dress of good and noble ladies and damsels of the realm, against reason.” They were to wear unlined striped hoods so that everyone “could have knowledge of what condition they are.” (Karras 1996) Clearly the legislation was intended to keep such women in their place, whether that place was a social class position or a position on the margins of society based on sexual behavior.

The Unrealized Importance of Women in the Middle Ages (part 1)

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.

The Sunni and the Shiites (part 3)

One of the most important distinctions between Shiite and Sunni belief is the profound respect of the imams. Most Shiites believe that there were 12 legal successors to Muhammad as caliph, and that the final imam, now termed the Mahdi, disappeared when he was lifted up in the hands of God. The Shiite lot believes the Mahdi will come back to earth one day and take the role of their savior. A war between the good and evil forces will follow, ending in a 1000-year domination of peace and the end of this world.  

By latest research an estimated eighty five percentage of Muslims are Sunnis, thirteen percent Shiites and two percent members of other groups. Other than Iran, Iraq has evolved as a major Shiite government when they gained political dominance in 2005 under American occupation.

These two sects have always remained independent, coming into contact regularly only during the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. In certain nations like Bahrain, Iraq, Syria etc the two sects have mingled and married. Shiites have been treated rudely in several nations dominated by Sunnis, notably in Saudi Arabia. Some Sunnis have complained of ill treatment in the Imami Shiism dominated states of Iraq and Iran (, 2002).

 As we all know Osama bina Laden belong to the Sunni sect. For him the end of the rule of the caliphs in the 1920s was a calamity, as he made clear in a videotape made after 9-11. On the tape, broadcast by Al-Jazeera television on 7th October, 2001, he said: "What United States tastes now is just a copy of what we have encountered. Our Islamic country has been suffering the same for more than 80 years, humiliation and dishonor, its sons martyred and their blood shed, its sanctities treated with contempt”