An Interview with Albrecht Classen on marriage, family, and sexuality in the Middle Ages

Classen PhotoProfessor Albrecht Classen has authored or co-authored more than 70 books and eight of his own poetry collections. He is the University Distinguished Professor in the Department of German Studies at the University of Arizona. In addition to his prolific writing career he has won numerous faculty and teaching awards, the chief of which came from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2012.

He studied at the universities of Marburg, Erlangen (Germany), Millersville, PA (USA), Oxford (Great Britain), Salamanca (Spain), Urbino (Italy), and Charlottesville, VA (USA). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1986. He recently spoke with MRB about marriage, family, and sexuality in the Middle Ages.


MRB: You have a broad educational background, having studied all over Europe and the US, but recently you came home to Germany for a research and lecture visit. We’ll talk in just a bit about your lecture in Göttingen on women in the Reformation, but first tell us about your earlier education, and how you found an interest in the subject that has been at the center of much of your research: marriage, family, and sexuality in the Middle Ages.

AC: Very simply, I discovered in the course of my research that these topics have almost always been of prime concern for people throughout time, especially since the high Middle Ages. Insofar as I am working on the history of literature and the culture of that period, it was very natural for me to turn to those topics. Amazingly, they continue to be of greatest relevance today, maybe even more than ever before because we have lost the ability to reflect on them more theoretically and thus are not well prepared to handle them when they occur in our lives. But medieval poets were at the forefront of the critical examination of those topics, so it was of supreme importance for me to study those texts and to teach them to the modern generation.


MRB: In 2005 you published Childhood in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Give us a window onto the daily life of a child during this time, and what differences would we notice as we travel around Europe?

AC: While Philippe Aries had argued most influentially in 1961 that there was no real childhood prior to ca. 1800, our research has by now confirmed the very opposite. You have to look at the right texts, images, and documents. We know of countless toys for children, of their lives within the family, parents’ love for children. I cannot simply answer your question without writing a whole book, once again. It all depends on the social class, and also time, but the key issue is that children were treated as children and grew up as children do, also in the Middle Ages.


MRB: But the difficulty is that we have third-person accounts of childhood, right? Or do we have anything better?

AC: Indeed, that is the very point. We have discovered countless examples of how adults perceived children, and we understand much more than before the history of emotions during the premodern period. There are nursery rhymes, toys, images of children, and also many historical documents that confirm how much parents loved their children. Of course, in many cases they had a rough time, but this is the same as today.


MRB: Would medieval nursery rhymes or children’s play songs make sense to kids today? I should think it would be fascinating to have a book of these for parents to use today.

AC: In fact, many of the “modern” nursery rhymes go actually back to the Middle Ages. Since they are simple rhymed poems/songs, modern children would probably respond to them in a similar fashion. I have not done much research on this topic, but I know that the collections of such rhymes take us back at least to the sixteenth, and maybe also fifteenth century. Before that we don’t seem to have significant documentation.


MRB: To go to the other end of the spectrum, you’ve also published on Old Age in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Tell us about that.

AC: My interest focuses on dealing with all the fundamental aspects of life in the pre-modern era, since I want to combine literary with cultural-historical studies. Old age is just as important as childhood. We are dealing with a significant stage in human life, and both poets and artists, not to mention chroniclers, reflected on old age. But it is not easy to say simply how old age was viewed, since there were so many contradictory perspectives: love and respect for the old, ridicule and hatred for the old, all depending on the context. The very plethora of attitudes toward and ideas about old age confirms that it was regarded in a most diversified manner.


MRB: Sexuality touches every aspect of life in the modern world, but that was also the case in the Middle Ages. What kinds of anxieties and concerns about sexuality characterized the period? And I suppose one could ask whether they were at all different to the ones that characterize our own time.

AC: To begin with the extreme case, homosexuality was most harshly condemned, and there was no chance for any kind of toleration. But otherwise, the similarities are striking. Sexuality was of great concern, though it might not have been as hush-hush as we imagine it today for the premodern era. The human body is easily eroticized, and poets were at the forefront playing with erotic images.


MRB: You say it was not as “hush-hush.” Does that mean, for example, Christian churches would not necessarily have spoken about sexuality as much as they do today? Some observers might feel that contemporary Christian culture has created an unhealthy opposition to sexuality, and has thus turned it into something of shame.

AC: No, I mean the very opposite. First, every preacher/priest had to know his Penitentials to be ready for confessions. Those books contain references to all and every possible sexual deviation or practice. The confessor needed to know them so that he could give the appropriate penalty, after which he finally could give the absolution. In sermons those topics were regularly mentioned, and of course in a most critical fashion. The Church fought vehemently against sexuality, but could not repress it, naturally. Since the eleventh-century Gregorian reform, celibacy was introduced, forcing all clerics to abandon marriage. Many conformed, but there were constant battles against the new rule and many transgressions.


MRB: You also published a book of Erotic Tales from Medieval Germany. Although similar to the Old French fabliaux and the Latin ridicula as a genre of erotic stories, the German approach was not as explicit as these other neighboring counterparts, was it?

AC: Maybe not as pornographic, and maybe more combined with didactic goals. The number of maeren, as we call these verse narratives, was huge, so again it is not easy to make simple statements. But they are delightful, instructive, humorous, and insightful.


MRB: Are these erotic texts misogynistic?

AC: Sometimes, but sometimes not at all, rather the opposite, giving women greatest respect for their morality and virtues.


MRB: In a book you edited on urban space in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, one of the topics approached is the problem of gender conflicts and moral-ethical concerns that urban development caused. What kinds of difficulties are we talking about here?

AC: In the cities it was much more important than ever before for husband and wife to collaborate. Most craftsmen relied heavily on their wives and family, especially when they were away on a business trip. We have learned that women were much more involved in craftsmanship, merchandising, and other trades than we had assumed traditionally. This caused, however, also numerous frictions between the genders, and many Shrovetide plays and a variety of texts produced for the urban audiences reflect on those.


MRB: That brings us up to speed with your recent lecture in Göttingen on Women in the Reformation. What can you tell us about women in the history of the Protestant Reformation?

AC: The Catholic Church did not allow women any say in matters of theology and they could not teach. Moreover, the Church also had imposed celibacy on the clergy since the 11th c. (Gregorian reform, as I mentioned above). The Protestants fought against both, dissolved the monasteries, and allowed the ministers to marry. But they quickly aimed at subduing women as well, not allowing them to speak up in the Church, which was the topic of my lecture, highlighting two feisty women, Argula von Grumbach and Anna Ovena Hoyer, who did it after all.


MRB: Would you say we know more about women in the Middle Ages now than previously?

AC: I have written several books about them, and many of my colleagues have done so as well. Almost every month there are new studies on medieval women, and we constantly learn more about them. We know about women’s literature, women’s private lives, gynecology, fashion, religion, economy, political roles, etc. Many female medievalists are working hard on this topic, and many male medievalists like me join them in this effort.


MRB: What are the sources?

AC: Literature, chronicles, hagiographical texts, songs, last wills, funeral sermons, etc.


MRB: Tell us why you’ve defended so vigorously the study of women’s literature in the first place.

AC: Male dominated literary studies have subdued them for too long, and women simply constitute 50% of the population. So it is very natural to study women’s lit separately. It allows us to gain important insight into the history of medieval or any other culture.


MRB: Let me ask one more question. Why should the Protestant Reformation concern us today?

AC: It revolutionized the world and we are still under the deep impact of that. We have gained a completely different approach to the Bible, to the divine word, to the numinosum, since Protestantism basically says that you as an individual can and must reach out to God personally, while the ministers serves as a teacher, but no longer as the intermediary or confessor. Consequently it was very natural for Protestant ministers to marry. We could say that Luther internalized religion, and he also made God’s word, the Bible, directly accessible to people through his new translation, which was no longer based on the Vulgate by Saint Jerome, but on the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts.

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