John W. Baldwin, The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern

France around 1200, Chicago, 1994; review published in International Journal of the Classical Tradition 5.2. (1998), pp. 301-302.




    Having already demonstrated a remarkable range of interests and abilities as an intellectual historian in Masters, Princes and Merchants: The Social Views of Peter the Chanter and his Circles (1970), and in The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages (1986), John Baldwin in this book attempts to illuminate medieval sexuality by "listening to what a few men (and an occasional woman) say about a biological function that most men and women perform with regularity (p. 225)."


   In the first chapter Baldwin describes the five Northern French discourses (four of which are in Latin) among which he intends to provoke a symposium: (1) a theological text, Peter the Chanter's Verbum Abbreviatum; (2) a medical treatise, The Prose Salernitan Questions; (3) an exercise in Ovidian rhetoric, Andreas Capellanus' De Amore; (4) a romance, Jean Renart's Escoufle; (5) Jean Bodel's fabliaux. The next five chapters -- Participants, The Sexual Body, Sexual Desire, Coitus, Children -- demonstrate that the texts described in the first chapter share a significant amount of material. The conclusion, "Sexuality, gender, history" argues that a "pronounced gender reciprocity" was achieved at the time in which these texts were written, but that it dissolved in the next century.


    In the course of his fastidious poaching on literary genres, Baldwin proposes to consider the relationship between discourses and historical as well as sexual reality. On romance he offers the conventional notion that the romances provided ideals, molding and directing social practice, while the other discourses were understood literally, and sometimes figuratively, by readers who could also "appreciate" them, although he declines to investigate the reasons for their appreciation. To go any further, he might have made use of twentieth-century students of sexual psychology, like Freud and Lacan, as well as R. Howard Bloch (whose ingenious study of the fabliaux depends upon Freudian and Lacanian terminology combined with etymological concerns), but, after acknowledging their existence in his opening chapter, and having admitted his "hermeneutical shortcomings" in the preface (p. xi), Baldwin dismisses modern sexual scientists as "essentialists". As a result, juxtapositions and descriptions comprise most of the book, as Baldwin’s solution to the problem of determining what effects Andreas Capellanus was trying to produce with his Ovidian rhetorical routines in the De amore clearly demonstrates:


   I have abandoned the search for overarching consistency and am content to       

   accept the work as an encyclopedia rich in amatory lore, replete with

   contradictions, perhaps irony (whether intentional or not), and maybe even

   humor (p. 19)


    Since the first two books of the De Amore consist of strategies to seduce women, with copious examples of how to deal with every imaginable problem that might come up, and the third book argues against having any interest in women at all (clearly patterned on Ovid’s two books of the Ars Amatoria and its sequel, Remedium Amoris), to conclude that the De Amore is “perhaps” ironic and “maybe” humorous seems an instance of hyperbolical litotes. No one who reads Andreas’ rules of love (e.g., rule 14, “every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved”) could think that the voice in the text is earnest. When the man of the higher nobility says to a woman of the same class that pure love “consists in the contemplation of the mind and the affection of the heart; it goes as far as the kiss and the embrace and the modest contact with the nude lover, omitting the final solace,” certainly any adult reader or listener of normal intelligence would reply, as the lady herself does immediately, that the notion is ridiculous.


    On the other hand, by allowing the texts to "talk to each other", assuming and further establishing the intertextuality of Latin and vernacular discourses (following the agenda established more than fifty years ago by Ernst Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages), he manages to catch many of the ambiguities and confusions about sacred and secular love that penetrate them. By showing that medical and theological commonplaces appear in the fabliaux, in Andreas' Ovidian "encyclopedia", and in the other "literary" texts, Baldwin provides essential information, particularly useful for first-year graduate students, as I learned this semester in the course I gave in Chaucer. However, his book should also stimulate further research in related areas: his remarks on the five extant French pastourelles can be developed and refined by considering the Latin and Middle High German analogues; his remarks on Thomas' Tristan should stimulate research on Gottfried von Strassburg's far more elaborate, tortuously ambiguous Tristan.


    Since the index of The Language of Sex is exiguous, and Baldwin provides no alphabetically arranged comprehensive list of books and articles consulted (substituting instead a list less than two pages long of selected books, but no articles), a scholarly reader must search through 56 pages of notes to find where and how certain authorities are treated. My final comment, perhaps a quibble, is that Baldwin's contention that the coital position sometimes known as the missionary position is "suggested by the metaphor of riding horseback" (p. 199) seems anatomically counterindicated, if not what Huck Finn calls "a stretcher."