If you’re reading this, you probably know that most of the stereotypes we have about medieval people and sex aren’t true. When I go and talk to kids about medievalism, they often tell me they think medieval people were like chaste, courtly Disney characters – and I love to shock them by showing them illuminations of bare buttocks and naked revellers in manuscript margins. I tell them about Chaucer and the Wife of Bath. It’s not hard to find evidence that medieval sexuality was just as complicated, messy, and sometimes absurd as ours. 

I want to tell you about a specific example, though, which shows medieval women using technology to get sexual pleasure. Yup, that’s right – medieval sex toys. I’m a literature scholar, so this is an example from a romance: it didn’t really happen. But it tells us it was on somebody’s mind. Fifty Shades of Grey is (thank goodness!) not a true-life account, but we can still read it and learn something about sex in early 2000s culture. The same applies here.

Let me set the scene. The romance is called Hunbaut. It is – I’m sorry to say this – a bad romance. The author is quite bad at rhyming, which is a fairly important prerequisite in a genre written entirely in rhyming couplets. It’s essentially a medieval buddy movie: Sir Gawain, well-known medieval ladies’ man, goes on a quest with his goofy, useless assistant Hunbaut. Various hilarious episodes ensue, of which this is one of the following.

Gawain is lost. Hunbaut, along with the other knights of the round table, is trying to find him. They come across a lady’s castle, and – quelle horreur! – think that they have spotted him in the lady’s bedroom, beside the bed! They troop in and look at him. But they have been duped, for as we are told by the narrator: "In her room the maiden had a perfectly-sized model, which an artisan had made so well, that one could not but mistake it for Sir Gawain."

A lady tempts Sir Gawain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

And why has she had this model made? Well, we are told, she loves Sir Gawain dearly. She thinks of him often at night, and feels pain when she thinks of him. But the perfectly made and proportioned statue she keeps by her bed gives her "comfort," and then she feels at ease again. 

Perhaps, of course, she is getting "comfort" from simply looking, and this is indeed a possible interpretation – in which case, the Gawain model is not so much a sex toy as a piece of 3D porn, which is interesting enough in itself. But the passage tells us, again and again, what perfect proportions the statue has – exactly the same as Gawain’s. Gawain is a well-known womanizer in Arthurian literature, and I rather suspect that talking about his proportions came with exactly the same connotations as it might now.

The Lady is almost certainly the fictional creation of a male writer, but we often see real anxieties about women’s autonomy and desire reproduced in fiction. We can therefore still see her – and her wonderfully proportioned replica of Gawain – as evidence of women taking control of their sexual pleasure in surprisingly innovative and imaginative ways.

--Melissa Swan

Feature image of Gawain and his lady via Wikimedia Commons.