Herman Pleij

Exercises in Pleasure

Love and Lust in the Late Middle Ages

The sexual revolution you haven’t heard of

For centuries, the church held the medieval body captive; temptations of the flesh were to be resisted and earthly urges mastered. Marriage was to serve reproduction and quell lust. Pleasure was out of the question. But in the 14th and 15th centuries, popular entertainment increasingly began to question those assumptions, unleashing nothing less than a sexual revolution. Turning to text, art and song, emeritus professor Herman Pleij brings the medieval imagination to life in all of its lewd and lascivious detail.

After the fall of Adam and Eve, the body was considered weak and sinful, at permanent risk of falling into the devil’s clutches. St. Augustine saw the wild bestiality of Satan in uncontrollable erections; abbesses poked their eyes out and monks bit off their tongues to banish sinful thoughts. With the rediscovery of nature, however, the Bible’s interpretation began to shift. If our bodies were created by God to feel earthly pleasures, wasn’t it only natural to enjoy them? Wasn’t the sensual Song of Songs
in effect a handbook? In the Late Middle Ages, the fantastic world of literature was the unconsecrated ground where artists experimented with new lifestyles and gave their imagination free rein.

Performed in public rather than read, these plays, poems and songs entertained but also informed their audiences. The Low Countries were on the rise, and in the growing cities there was a hunger for information, a desire to know more about mechanics and positions, anatomy and foreplay. Inspired by the Romance of the Rose, authors and performers began by projecting wild sex onto the caricatural lives of peasants and the clergy, feigning moral outrage. By 1500, they were crafting a modern literature that plainly glorified pleasureful sex. It was a new world that required a new vocabulary and a new language, and it is almost shocking to read how these virtually unknown texts by leading authors of the day artistically cast graphic obscenities.

Suddenly sex was seen as healthy. The Greeks and Romans offered the arguments for women to take an active role and make sexual demands, and couples were taught to enjoy pleasure together. Nevertheless, these would remain times of intense misogyny, as it also became popular to believe that assault and rape belonged to the higher forms of lovemaking. Repression would follow halfway through the 16th century, and sex once again vanished from the public eye as the church forced pleasure back into the function of reproduction.

Pleij leaves no stone unturned in this rich and vivid portrait of a society wrestling with complex questions about sex, love and desire — questions readers will be no doubt be surprised to recognize today.

With his mediagenic performances, the emeritus professor creates certain expectations but Exercises in Pleasure is no popular history, nor just a quickie. It is primarily an elaborate, richly-illustrated voyage of discovery by the literary Herman Pleij on how “eloquently-expressed obscenities” paved the way for a short-lived period of sexual liberation, which the church soon put a stop to. Which in turn planted the seed of last century’s sexual revolution.

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Herman Pleij

Herman Pleij (b. 1943) is an emeritus professor of medieval literature at the University of Amsterdam. His work focuses mainly on the cultural history of literature, the development of commonplace morality and the formation of Dutch identities in general. Previous titles include the bestselling The

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Oefeningen in genot. Liefde en lust in de late Middeleeuwen (2020). Non-fiction, 435 pages.

English sample available

Themes: middle ages



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