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The Sex Lives of Monks

The Sex Lives of Monks

Chapter:
(p.191) 4 The Sex Lives of Monks
Source:
Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages
Author(s):
Robert Mills
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226169262.003.0004

This chapter considers how twelfth-century monks in the abbey church of Vézelay experienced Ovid in translation. Undertaking a detailed analysis of carvings from the church’s sculpted capitals with sexual themes, the chapter focuses on the medieval monastery as a site for what (after Virginia Burrus) might be called the “countererotics” of religious enclosure. The chapter begins by discussing the abbey’s dedication to Mary Magdalene, whose reputation as a penitent prostitute provided monks with a model for their own pursuit of chastity. This is followed by a detailed analysis of a carving within the church representing the rape of Ganymede; a capital showing an episode from the life of Saint Eugenia, which highlights the protagonist’s ambiguous gender identity; and scenes depicting the sexual temptation of Saint Benedict. These examples demonstrate the transformative work of religious art as a means of fostering chastity and the love of God. The chapter concludes by considering the role played by age hierarchy in erotic scenarios, such as the myth of Ganymede. Why did age-structured pederasty—so troublesome from the perspective of modern sensibilities—occasionally play a symbolic role within medieval Christianity?

Keywords:   Vézelay, monasticism, Mary Magdalene, Ganymede, Saint Eugenia, Saint Benedict, pederasty, chastity, age difference

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