The Story of Beatrice, a nun who became a prostitute and then reformed. The illustration of this manuscript is both integral to its story, forming the initial letter, and a marginal decoration. --The Koninklijke Bibliotheek


All cultures have their own particular understanding of what constitutes gender and sexuality. In the process of creating these definitions, every culture arrives at an understanding of what is acceptable and what is problematic. From this perspective we have assumed medieval culture also follows this pattern. Furthermore, we have come to understand in our study of medieval cultures that in considerations of gender and sexuality, that which was perceived as problematic became marginal. The categories which were considered problematic in the Middle Ages included prostitution and same-sex relations. In addition, medieval culture problematized the specification of what did and did not constitute marriage.

Compared with other groups which we study as marginal in relation to medieval society, the parameters of sexually marginalized groups were more fluid. Examining this fluidity proves to be indicative of medieval fears regarding the power relations of social and gender hierarchies and traditional roles. The fluidity of marginal categories meant that there were often differences between the rhetoric of marginality and the actual implementation of policies.

Because we consider sexuality to be contextually constructed, it is important to remember that contemporary ideas about sexuality influence the way in which we examine medieval constructions. It is unavoidable for us to examine gender and sexuality unbiased by our current view. Therefore our study of gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages entails attention to issues in modern sexualities as well. By realizing the limits of our own constructions of gender and sexuality we may allow ourselves a greater insight into the constructed nature of the catagories in any culture.

To aid you in the study of gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages, we have included an array of documents and links. Primary sources and secondary sources alike reveal the ways in which gender and sexuality are utilized as constructions both to control the balance of social and gender hierarchies and to explore the idea of otherness. In addition, we have included images which may illustrate the medieval conception of differing images of gender and sexuality.