Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Household Games and Erotic Education: Elite Medieval Women at Play

Nichola McDonald, University of York

The medieval household, understood as both a physical space and a social network, is readily identified as a key site for medieval women’s education and in particular gender and sexual socialization. Research, especially since the early 1990s, has demonstrated the role of the household (and the networks of women readers it supports) in the development of women’s literacy and in the delineation and enforcement of the codes of female conduct; that research has tended to focus on devotional and didactic texts (i.e. those texts that can most easily, and in the largest numbers, be identified with women readers) and on the sexually restrictive, often socially conservative ideologies that they espouse. This paper offers, in contrast, a reading of the household, in particular the elite, late medieval household in England and tangentially in France, as a social space that, on certain explicitly ludic occasions, is distinguished for impious erotic education it offers women and for the sexual license it promotes.

‘Elite Medieval Women at Play’ explores the aesthetics and social function of two erotically charged society games, Ragman Roll (addressed exclusively to women) and Chaunce of Dice (designed for mixed company), extant in two manuscript anthologies that can be identified with gentry/elite urban households in the second half of the fifteenth century (Oxford Bodleian Library MSS Fairfax 16 and Bodley 638); it also examines the games’ continental French analogues (some extant in English manuscripts and thus readily available to England’s bilingual courtly elite), in particular the vast and enormously popular genre of demandes d’amour; almost 400 demandes survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and they were printed (in two editions in the same year) by Colard Mansion. The games are distinguished by an insistently corporeal logic, a polyvalent lexis shot through with heated, charged sexual innuendo, and an almost obsessive attention to those things that, in so-called polite discourse, usually remain hidden or ignored: the sexually available lover’s body and its basic urges. The games are, to the modern eye, remarkable for their sexual explicitness, bawdy humor and direct engagement with women’s erotic desires; they offer a, to-date virtually untapped, source of evidence for a rather different community of women readers than we are accustomed to seeing and thinking about; and they demand that we recognize the complexity of medieval women’s lives that are not simply regulated by piety and prayer. This paper argues that it is the distinctive environment of the elite medieval household at play, an intimate erogenous zone of mixed company, a social grouping that is ad hoc and fluid, drawn together for the purposes of recreation, that licenses these women’s erotic conduct and permits us to see their lives as, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, “dispersed, contingent, and multiple.”


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