Telling the Truth about Sex in Late Medieval Paris
By Ruth Mazo Karras
Reading Medieval Studies, Vol.40 (2014)
Introduction: Court records that record witness testimony are a rich source for attitudes if not for actual behavior; they provide first-person accounts from people who are otherwise silent in the medieval record. The problems in using them as sources have been much discussed. The most basic problem has to do with the way the information was elicited and recorded. This is especially true with information about sex, which was often discussed in allusive and euphemistic, if not actually deceptive, ways. Historians of sexuality typically claim that we do not need to know who did what with or to whom; sexuality is the meaning that cultures place on bodies and on behaviors, constructed through language rather than a series of acts. But knowing what the relationship is between discourse and experience is not irrelevant to analyzing the discourse.
We may never be able to know whether a given person actually performed the acts to which s/he confessed, or of which s/he was convicted. However, the question of truth is not irrelevant. Scholars must read testimony with attention to the principles on the basis of which the court decided cases, and the constraints that impelled people to shape their stories in a particular way. All testimony cannot be true – it is often contradictory – and it is unlikely all to be false. A great deal of negotiation went on backstage and we cannot assume that the testimony in court as recorded reflected anyone’s lived reality. And yet, even people who were relatively sophisticated about the law did not always craft their stories to obtain the best result, perhaps in part because they took the truth seriously.
Cases about sexual relations involve a particular gendered dimension as well. The vast majority of matrimonial and sexual cases in medieval church courts involve heterosexual acts, and therefore the two parties are a man and a woman. The stories women tell resemble each other, as do the stories men tell. How do we make the leap from gendered stories to gendered lives? Charles Donahue discusses the prevalent narrative pattern of the ‘wronged woman’, seduced and abandoned. Surely in some of these cases the man did promise the woman marriage and then backed out after they had sex. Surely in others there was no promise and the woman was trying to trap the man into marriage. And surely there is yet another group of cases in which the common pattern masked a complicated set of facts that we cannot begin to glimpse.
In many medieval church court cases both parties admit that sexual intercourse took place. The outcome hinges on the circumstances surrounding that intercourse – whether promises of marriage were exchanged, and the woman ‘s sexual history. He-said/she-said disputes develop, as does a gray area, in which the two parties may have understood their words and actions in different ways. It is not difficult to imagine a case in which one party sincerely believes that the couple are legally married and the other does not, although wishful thinking may playa role. The church courts had a very detailed process to get at the facts of what happened, and court procedure, including especially the swearing of oaths, was designed to guarantee not only probity of reputation and a just result but the accuracy of specific facts. If we, five hundred years later, can’t really ‘know the truth ‘ we can at least recognize the importance of truth in the proceedings.