Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain
As anyone who has read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales knows, Middle English literature is rife with sexually explicit language and situations. Less canonical works can be even more brazen in describing illicit acts of sexual activity and sexual violence. Such scenes and language were not, however, included exclusively for titillation. In Obscene Pedagogies, Carissa M. Harris argues instead for obscenity’s usefulness in sexual education. She investigates the relationship between obscenity, gender, and pedagogy in Middle English and Middle Scots literary texts from 1300 to 1580 to show how sexually explicit and defiantly vulgar speech taught readers and listeners about sexual behavior and consent.
Through innovative close readings of literary texts including erotic lyrics, single-woman’s songs, debate poems between men and women, Scottish insult poetry battles, and The Canterbury Tales, Harris demonstrates how through its transgressive charge and galvanizing shock value, obscenity taught audiences about gender, sex, pleasure, and power in ways both positive and harmful. She focuses in particular on understudied female-voiced lyrics and gendered debate poems, many of which have their origin in oral culture, and includes teaching-ready editions of fourteen largely unknown anonymous lyrics in women’s voices. Harris’s own voice, proudly witty and sharply polemical, inspires the reader to address these medieval texts with an eye on contemporary issues of gender, violence, and misogyny.