A vibrant and illuminating exploration of medieval thinking on women’s beauty, sexuality and behaviour
What makes for the ideal woman? How should she look, love and be? In this vibrant, high-spirited history, medievalist Eleanor Janega turns to the Middle Ages, the era that bridged the ancient world and modern society, to unfurl its suppositions about women and reveal what’s shifted over time—and what hasn’t.
Enshrined medieval thinkers, almost always male, subscribed to a blend of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and Christian theology for their concepts of the sexes. For the height of female attractiveness, they chose the mythical Helen of Troy, whose imagined pear shape, small breasts, and golden hair served as beauty’s epitome. Casting Eve’s shadow over medieval women, they derided them as oversexed sinners, inherently lustful, insatiable and weak. And, unless a nun, a woman was to be the embodiment of perfect motherhood.
In contrast, drawing on accounts of remarkable and subversive medieval women like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Hildegard of Bingen, along with others hidden in documents and court cases, Janega shows us how real women of the era lived. While often mothers, they were industrious farmers, brewers, textile workers, artists and artisans and paved the way for new ideas about women’s nature, intellect and ability.
In The Once and Future Sex, Janega unravels the restricting expectations on medieval women and the ones on women today. She boldly questions why, if our ideas of women have changed drastically over time, we cannot reimagine them now to create a more equitable future.
"[An] eye-opening and provocative account of the lives of women in the Middle Ages…[Janega] builds a convincing picture of the positive and resourceful part that women played in medieval society, not only as adjuncts to their husbands and fathers, but in their own right." — Christina Hardyment, The Times
"Both the subject matter and the author’s engaging conversational style make this a book of many delights… very entertaining" — Gillian Kenny, The Spectator
"A robust and well-sourced academic book. The primary sources Janega draws on are remarkable in their variety… There are colourful anecdotes on almost every page" — Rachel Cunliffe, The New Statesman
"Provocative, colloquial and entertaining.. As The Once and Future Sex makes clear, misogyny, oppression and conflicted ideas about sexuality and desire have not vanished, they just now take different forms." — Carolyne Larrington, The Times Literary Supplement
"Entertaining and revealing... Janega skilfully weaves a modern cultural commentary through her research into the medieval world, highlighting similarities and differences to today's world for women and focussing our attention on the importance of analysing history as a way to understand the present. " — Emily Staniforth, All About History
"[A] lively exploration of medieval women’s social roles" — Laura Kalas, The Conversation
"A hugely entertaining and informative account of medieval thinking about women…this is a highly rewarding read, which reminds us that we can only tackle present injustices if we remember that there is nothing universal about the ways in which people treat one another." — Hannah Skoda, BBC History Magazine
"The Once and Future Sex is a bracing and witty exploration of how gender is constructed. Eleanor Janega shows it is high time we stop using 'medieval' as a pejorative and we stop patting ourselves on the back for our supposed progress. Combining incisive cultural criticism, meticulous research, and juicy historical tidbits, The Once and Future Sex proves that the path towards a more equitable future can be found by way of the medieval past." — Shelley Puhak, author of The Dark Queens
"A startling rethinking of why the medieval past still matters. Eleanor Janega tells how women’s roles are fundamentally constructed and the ways they have both changed over time and unfortunately stayed the same. With erudition and humour, this book offers the reader a perfect case study of how a fuller accounting of the past opens up new, better possible worlds." — Matthew Gabriele, co-author of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe
"In this witty, entertaining, and highly learned book, packed full of colourful characters and the texture of a long-past time, Eleanor Janega never loses sight of the bigger picture: how these old ideas underpin our own conceptions of gender and how modern conceits of progress are no less deeply flawed than those of the past." — Patrick Wyman, author of The Verge and host of The History of Tides podcast
"Reading this book is like hanging out with your brilliant, hilarious historian friend, raging together at misogyny’s extraordinary adaptability over time and plotting how to change the world once and for all." — Carissa Harris, author of Obscene Pedagogies