Look out for my new video blog series The Sex Lives of the Anglo-Saxons.
Over the next few weeks I will be exploring the little-known world of Anglo-Saxon sex. You may know something already, of course, about the sex lives of Anglo-Saxon kings and queens. Who married who, and what their children were called, for example. But I want to delve into the sex lives of ordinary Anglo-Saxons, the everyday folk of early medieval England.
Episode 1: Female Desire
I wanted to share with you one of the weirdest (and, to my slightly prurient mind, one of the funniest) rules I've come across in the Irish penitentials.
I also wanted to revert to my stereotype of the Anglo-Saxon scholar that "does sex", as someone once described me. If you think that medieval sex is all I write about, then you missed my last post on ape suits! (OK, I did mention the word 'naked' a couple of times.)
But I digress ...
This rule is essentially about naughty Irish monks who can’t quite control themselves. A penchant for exhibitionism, shall we say. It’s found in the Penitential of Columbanus, and was probably written in the late sixth century:
‘If anyone, desiring a bath, has washed alone naked, let him do penance with a special fast. But if anyone, while washing lawfully in the presence of his brethren, has done this standing, unless through the need for cleansing dirt more fully, let him be corrected with twenty-four strokes.’
What’s this all about then?
First, it’s clear to me that sixth-century Irish monasteries hadn’t cottoned on to the benefits of en suite facilities.
Second, it would appear that no sixth-century monk or novice would have been allowed a private bathroom anyway, as communal bathing was the rule of the day. No washing alone – and certainly not while you’re naked!
Third, and this is where it gets really weird, whilst engaging in a spot of united lathering – look but don’t touch, mind you – do not, on the penalty of two dozen lashings, stand up!
How the heck were you meant to get in and out of the bath, brethren?
The issue seems to be that the monk who stood up to do his sluicing was in danger of being considered a bit of a show-off, if you get my drift. You know the type. I can’t be the only one with slightly disturbing memories of communal showers post-P.E. at school.
But! Thank Columbanus! There was a get-out clause ...:
“Oh brother, I need to stand up as I need to cleanse more fully. Would you mind terribly?”
“Not at all, brother. Go ahead. Though my brethren and I first need to fully ascertain that it is purely for the removal of dirt that you wish to stand erect in the bath.”
“Why of course, go ahead and ascertain.”
“What say you, good brethren?”
“Twenty four strokes! Minimum!”
Work consulted: Ludwig Bieler (ed.), The Irish Penitentials (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1963)
Disclaimer: Sorry, I couldn't find an authentic picture of a sixth-century Irish bath, nor Irish monks from the sixth-century. Thought this fourteenth-century Italian health spa (from the Vatican collection, no less) conveyed rather well the issues at stake. Poor sod who's dropped the soap! That's all I have to say on the matter.
Abundant thanks to The Mackinney Collection of Medieval Medical Illustrations.
Go on ... you know you want to! I'd love to hear your thoughts on this piece.