Let’s Talk About Sex (And Early Normandy)

Were I to note that Norman sexual culture around the year 1000 appears to have been unusually bawdy in comparison with the principality’s neighbours, I would not be the first to make this observation. This is, after all, the culture which gave us Moriuht, the only Latin poem which requires the phrase ‘homosexual Viking gang bang’ in a plot summary. However, the topic is of more than simply literary interest. In the moments I can snatch between revising dative prepositions, I’m currently writing up a couple of papers I gave last year, about the surprisingly key political role masculine sexuality played in legitimising the Norman dukes; and maybe this will interest you all.

Who am I to not make the most obvious reference I could? (source)

But first I need to introduce to you Dudo of Saint-Quentin. Nothing about his background suggests he was at all unusual: he had a traditional education in north-eastern Gaul, and a respectable if not distinguished career as a canon in Saint-Quentin, in eastern France. Even his name suggests an origin amongst the middling nobility of the West Frankish/Lotharingian border. However, the work he produced, the Historia Normannorum, is tremendously weird. Written in around 1000, it is a series of biographies of the earliest dukes of Normandy, written in Latin at the commission of Duke Richard I and later his half-brother Count Ralph of Ivry. It presents the first Norman duke, Rollo, and his descendants as saints, blessed by God with the highest level of divine virtue and earthly success. Because of this, it is notoriously unreliable in matters of fact and actively tendentious. However, it also provides key insights into the earliest days of Norman political culture, and in its form and detail is comparable to no other contemporary text about a non-royal ruler.

And it’s full of sex, in a way which one can’t really parallel from other tenth-century texts, certainly not ones which purport to describe saintly laymen. St. Gerald of Aurillac, whom we have discussed here before, is a case in point: part of his holiness is his rejection of sex, in order to live more like a monk. Even St. Gangulf of miraculous farting fame, whose marriage was accepted by his hagiographer, was sex-neutral.

In Dudo’s work, however, the right kind of sex is actively good, as it demonstrates the right kind of masculinity, the kind necessary to rule as virile a people as the Normans. Book 3, the biography of Normandy’s second duke William Longsword and easily the most interesting bit of the whole work, illustrates this rather neatly. One of William’s big problems – and believe me, it’s presented as a bad thing – is that he wants to leave the world and become a monk; consequently, he avoids sex. His other main problems is his tendency to avoid fighting. Between them, these are the great detriments to his authority over the Normans, and they are linked – at one point, his men accuse him of being ‘frigid in arms’, and no, you’re not projecting the double-entendre.

Consequently, the narrative is structured so as to resolve both problems together. This accusation by William’s men as they debate how to react to a violent rebellion against William. William proposes to retreat into Frankish territory to seek help from his relatives, and his men categorically refuse to follow him, making plain the text’s fundamental point: ‘a girly man like you can’t rule over us real men’ (non vales nobis ultra viribus effeminatus praesse). This outrages William, who goes and slaughters the rebels more-or-less single-handedly. As he stands on the battlefield, surrounded by gore and corpses, a messenger comes to tell him that his wife has born him a son. His skill in arms and ‘arms’ proven, no further challenges to his authority arise during the text.

This is not to say that this is an autochthonous Norman development, however. For one thing, Dudo’s background was not Norman. For another, it wouldn’t do to paint Frankish culture as necessarily prudish. The notoriously-filthy Liutprand of Cremona is evidence enough against that, although his sexual invective is doing very different things to Dudo’s work. From Normandy’s next-door neighbour Flanders, however, comes a genealogy written by a priest named Witger, which discusses God’s special favour for the counts of Flanders in terms of their reproduction and thus, implicitly, sex. It’s nowhere near as explicit as in Dudo, and neither masculinity nor violence play much of a role, though.

So what I think we’re dealing with in Normandy is a situation where a strand of ideas about sex present but muted in Frankish culture found a more fertile ground in a territory where humour was more risqué and political authority was more explicitly gendered. Dudo’s work is part of an ongoing dialogue of legitimacy between ruler and ruled, picking up on its audience’s ideas and trying to steer them in one particular direction: that the Norman dukes are the best rulers because they are the best men, not least because they have the best sex.

(Incidentally, at one point Dudo describes William Longsword’s sword as having about six pounds of gold on the hilt; Eric Christiansen did the maths and reckoned that, to be balanced, it would indeed have to have been a long sword…)


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