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Permalink to original version of “Sexual feudalism: a history of the female sex role” Sexual feudalism: a history of the female sex role

The gynocentric customs guiding relationships between the sexes originate in old Europe in the form of chivalry and courtly-love. The tradition began in 12th century France and Germany and spread rapidly to all the principle courts of Europe. From there it filtered into popular culture, being transported eventually to the new world on the wings of colonial expansionism – to the Americas, India, Australia and so on.

Why is this history important to women? Because it’s a history we continue to enact today, unconsciously, and its consequences for women have far reaching psychological implications.

In the medieval model women offered themselves as vassals to men who took on the status of overlords in sexual relations – this because men were widely viewed as women’s moral superiors. As evinced by the first troubadours, women pledged homage and fealty to men who actively played the part of woman’s superior. This feudalistic formula, which I will tentatively label sexual feudalism, is attested by writers from the Middle Ages onward, including by Lucrezia Marinella who in 1600 AD recounted that men of even lower socioeconomic classes were treated as superiors by women who, he recounts, acted as servants or beasts born to serve them.

Many male and female writers stated this belief, including Modesta Pozzo who in 1590 wrote, “don’t we see that women’s rightful task is to go out to work and wear themselves out trying to accumulate wealth, as though they were our factors or stewards, so that we can remain at home like the gentleman of the house directing their work and enjoying the profit of their labors? That, if you like, is the reason why women are naturally stronger and more robust than us — they need to be, so they can put up with the hard labor they must endure in our service.”

And there is much more to this model than women laboring for men’s material benefit. It also includes a belief in men’s corporeal, moral and spiritual superiority, of which we shall say more below.

Sexual feudalism

I came to the phrase sexual feudalism as a shorthand for the sex-relations model of gynocentrism, and have since discovered the phrase used occasionally in literature; here are a few examples carrying the same meaning:

Camille Paglia (1990):

“…a sexual feudalism of master-slave relationships.”

Marjolijn Februari (2011):

“Actually it’s arguing for a dictatorship, the dictatorship of the vagina, a kind of sexual feudalism which you wouldn’t want our international relations to be governed by in the future… those men aren’t the least concerned about war and peace as a matter of principle; all they’re concerned about is securing their own interests.”

Adam Kostakis (2011):

“But what are the men’s rights advocated today? The right to confiscate women’s money, the right to commit parental alienation, the right to commit maternity fraud, the right to equal pay for less work, the right to pay a lower tax rate, the right to mutilate women, the right to confiscate sperm, the right to murder children, the right to not be disagreed with, the right to reproductive choice and the right to make that choice for women as well. In an interesting legal paradox, some have advocated – with success – that men should have the right to not be punished for crimes at all. The eventual outcome of this is a kind of sexual feudalism, where men rule arbitrarily, and women are held in bondage, with fewer rights and far more obligations.”

When did it start?

Below are compiled a series of authoritative quotes on the subject. Each points to evidence of the beginnings of sexual feudalism in early Europe, along with other contributing factors such as veneration of the Virgin Mary and its influence on men’s status.

H.J. Chaytor, The Troubadours: “In the eleventh century the worship of the Virgin Mary became widely popular; the reverence bestowed upon the Virgin was extended to the male sex in general, and as a vassal owed obedience to her feudal overlord, so did she owe service and devotion to her gentleman… Thus there was a service of love as there was a service of vassalage, and the lover stood to her gentleman in a position analogous to that of the vassal to her overlord. She attained this position only by stages; “there are four stages in love: the first is that of aspirant (fegnedor), the second that of suppliant (precador), the third that of recognised suitor (entendedor) and the fourth that of accepted lover (drut).” The lover was formally installed as such by the gentleman, took an oath of fidelity to him and received a kiss to seal it, a ring or some other personal possession.”

man pedestalC.G. Crump, Legacy of the Middle Ages: “The Aristocracy and Church developed the doctrine of the superiority of men, that adoration which gathered round both the persons both of the Virgin in heaven and the gentleman upon earth, and which handed down to the modern world the ideal of chivalry. The cult of the Virgin and the cult of chivalry grew together, and continually reacted upon one another… The cult of the gentleman was the mundane counterpart of the cult of the Virgin and it was the invention of the medieval aristocracy. In chivalry the romantic worship of a man was as necessary a quality of the perfect dame as was the worship of Goddess… It is obvious that the theory which regarded the worship of a gentleman as next to that of Goddess and conceived of him as the mainspring of brave deeds, a creature half romantic, half divine, must have done something to counterbalance the dogma of subjection. The process of placing men upon a pedestal had begun, and whatever we may think of the ultimate value of such an elevation (for few human beings are suited to the part of Stylites, whether ascetic or romantic) it was at least better than placing them, as the Mothers of the Church had inclined to do, in the bottomless pit.”

C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: “Everyone has heard of courtly love, and everyone knows it appeared quite suddenly at the end of the eleventh century at Languedoc. The sentiment, of course, is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, and the Religion of Love. The lover is always abject. Obedience to her gentleman’s lightest wish, however whimsical, and silent acquiescence in his rebukes, however unjust, are the only virtues she dares to claim. Here is a service of love closely modelled on the service which a feudal vassal owes to her lady. The lover is the gentleman’s ‘woman’. She addresses him as midons, which etymologically represents not ‘my gentleman’ but ‘my lady’. The whole attitude has been rightly described as ‘a feudalisation of love’. This solemn amatory ritual is felt to be part and parcel of the courtly life.”

Joan Kelly, Did Men have a Renaissance?: Medieval courtly love, closely bound to the dominant values of feudalism and the Church, allowed in a special way for the expression of sexual love by men… if courtly love were to define itself as a noble phenomenon, it had to attribute an essential freedom to the relation between lovers. Hence, it metaphorically extended the social relation of vassalage to the love relationship, a “conceit” that Maurice Valency rightly called “the shaping principle of the whole design” of courtly love… Thus, in Medieval romances, a parley typically followed a declaration of love until love freely proffered was freely returned. A kiss (like the kiss of homage) sealed the pledge, rings were exchanged, and the dame entered the love service of her gentleman. Representing love along the lines of vassalage had several liberating implications for aristocratic men. decaprioMost fundamental, ideas of homage and mutuality entered the notion of heterosexual relations along with the idea of freedom. As symbolized on shields and other illustrations that place the dame in the ritual attitude of commendation, kneeling before her gentleman with her hands folded between his, homage signified female service, not domination or subordination of the gentleman, and it signified fidelity, constancy in that service.”

Peter Makin, Provence and Pound: “William IX calls her gentleman midons, which I have translated as ‘my Lady’. This midons is, as Pound said, ‘inexplicable': it is used by the troubadours, of their gentlemen, and in the later troubadours we find it everywhere–Bernart de Ventadorn used it twenty-three times. Its etymology is (?mi-) dominus, ‘my master, lady’, but since it is used only of men – its pronoun is ‘he’ – glossarists have difficulty assigning it a gender. Though Mary Hackett has shown that it was not felt to mean on the primary level ‘my quasi-feudal lady’ by the troubadours who used it, these women knew their Latin and must have been aware of its origins and peculiarity; in fact it was clearly their collective emotions and expectations that drew what amounts to a metaphor from the area of lordship, just as it is the collective metaphor-making process that establishes ‘baby’ as a term for a boyfriend and that creates and transforms language constantly. In the same way, knowing that Dominus was the standard term for Goddess, and that don, ‘lady’, was also used for Goddess, they must also have felt some connection with religious adoration. William IX echoes the scriptures when she says

Every joy must bow down before his

and every pride obey Midons

No one can find a finer gentleman,

nor eyes see, nor mouth speak of…


The incantatory fifth stanza of this song enumerates powers that were evoked every day in the Virgin and the saints. William IX is, metaphorically, her gentleman’s feudal vassal as well as his worshipper. So that there are three structures in parallel: the feudal, the courtly-love, and the religious; the psychological structure of each followed that of the others, so that it was difficult to think of any of them without transferring the feelings that belonged to the others. The gentleman was to lover as Goddess to woman, and as feudal lady to vassal; and feudal lady to vassal was as Goddess to woman. Our socio-economically minded age would say that the forms of feudal society must have shaped relationships in the other two spheres, and it is as likely that aesthetics and ethics moulded economics and vice versa. Of course, courtly love was not ‘religious’ in the sense of being part of any Christian ethic; it was a religion in its psychology. The courtly lover did not think of her gentleman as the Church thought of him, but as the Church thought of Goddess.”

Irving Singer, Love: Courtly and Romatic: “Since the social structure of the Middle Ages was mainly feudal and hierarchical, women were expected to serve their ladies while men were required to show fidelity. In courtly love this was transformed into meaning that the lover would serve her gentleman and that he would be faithful to her. Courtly love is often said to have placed men on a pedestal and to have made women into dames whose heroic lives would henceforth belong to elevated gentlemen. The idea arises from the fact that women frequently used the language of chivalry to express their servile relationship to whatever man they loved, and sometimes they described him as a divinity toward which they might aspire but could never hope to equal… that she must prove herself worthy of him and so advance upward, step by step, toward a culminating union at his level; that everything noble and virtuous, everything that makes life worth living, proceeds from men, who are even described as the source of goodness itself. But though the gentleman now discourses with his lover, the women frequently cast themselves into the typical posture of fin’amors. On their knees, hands clasped, they beg the beloved to accept their love, their life, their service, and to do with them as he pleases.”

Gerald A. Bond, A Handbook of the Troubadours “The extent of the penetration of feudal thought into the conception and expression of courtly love has been apparent to all modern investigators: the poet-lover portrays herself as a vassel (om), the gentleman is treated as a feudal lady and often addressed in feminine form (midons/sidons), and contracts (conven), reward (guizardon), and other aspects of loyal and humble service are constantly under discussion. In a profound sense, courtly love is quintessentially feudal (Riquer 77-96), for it imitates the primary hierarchical principles increasingly employed to control as well as to justify hegemonic desire in the second feudal age.”

Sexual feudalism today

Twilight: Edward proposes to Bella with the ‘vassal’s kiss’.

Twilight: Edward proposes to Bella with the ‘vassal’s kiss’.

Despite occasional hand-wringing by the media about a decline in chivalric service to men, it appears to be alive and well. Not only are females continuing to go down on one knee to pop the question as dutiful vassals, but sexual feudalism remains a popular staple of romance novels, Disney movies and cinematic blockbusters such as Twilight, and in popular music like Taylor Swift’s Love Story which celebrates courtly love. Women are still willing to die, work, provide for, adore, and pedestalize men, and men are only too happy to be treated to such a dignifying display.