Salacious literature of Medieval Spain: the Ribald and the grotesque

Stephen Floyd discusses the very ribald and salacious nature of Medieval Spanish literature at the 2016 Mensa Annual Gathering.

Stephen Floyd discusses the very ribald and salacious nature of Medieval Spanish literature at the 2016 Mensa Annual Gathering.


SAN DIEGO — Literature filled with tales of adultery, stories that are sexually explicit, plus works littered with grotesque descriptions of what most would consider embarrassing body functions, often attributing them to the richest and most powerful in society …
The current crop of bestselling potboilers available in bookstores today? Actually, as Stephen Floyd noted, anyone looking for truly ribald jokes mixed with scatology and lots of flatulence gags should visit their local library, and ask where they keep their collections on Medieval Spanish literature. From poems about pederasty (sex between men and boys) to illustrations of Jesus’ problems in human form with passing gas, the Spanish accepted few limits to their passion for very bad taste, he noted.
“I cover the time from 1100 to 1600 — a thousand years of written porno, if you will,” noted Floyd, an Iberian scholar and resident of Phoenix who most recently taught Spanish at Northern Arizona University.
Floyd is also a longtime member of the organization American Mensa, made up of people in the highest percentile of intelligence, and he gave a lecture on “Medieval Titillation: Salacious Stories from Old Spain” during Mensa’s Annual Gathering 2016, held at the Town & Country Hotel in San Diego.
This salacious literature was written by different groups, he noted, including the Spanish, Jews and Moors. It sensed an early, irresistible interest among the people for subjects like sex and those crude body functions.
“Treating sexual matters in an indecent way or showing undue interest in sex — yes, that’s us,” Floyd said. “All of this is a euphemism for being an adult.”
And adult literature is what the people got, he noted, with a series of recurrent themes throughout the writings.
“I put them in order of increasing offensiveness,” he said, starting with misogyny and racism first and foremost.
“Next we have low humor — flatulence, incontinence, constipation, diarrhea and scatology,” he said. “Next is sexual pleasure and hedonism.”
In the pre-19th Century era, it was easy to find writings on subjects that would later become taboo, even if they’re not still taboo today, including lesbianism, he noted.
In those days, “They weren’t worried about them. They didn’t care. They weren’t threatened by them.”
Homosexuality was common as well, including in works like “The Book of handsome Men,” in which “They describe them with beautiful eyes and eyelashes, which sounds like they’re describing women,” Floyd said.
He added, “The homosexual was not always relegated to the dark corner of Golden Age literature. There was a lot of it in Hebrew writings. According to various scholars, there was no specific prohibition against homosexuality because that wasn’t even a (sexual) category until the 19th century … and we all know rich people do whatever they want.”
The Spanish would eventually come to classify homosexual behavior simply as “sodomy,” and come to believe it needed to be punished severely — by burning gay men to death.
“The attack on sodomy was aimed at the Jews and Moors,” Floyd said, adding that men on the receiving end of anal sex, the “bottoms,” got the worst punishment.
“The bottoms were the social outcasts,” he said. “They had no upstanding witnesses to call, no money to pay a fine. The bottoms were severely punished. Adult males were burned at the stake.”
Teens believed to be into sodomy, on the other hand, faced a very different fate.
“The authorities felt these souls could be saved from eternal damnation,” he said, “and were usually sent to the church to be rehabilitated … by the priests.”
Of course, religion was a major source of ridicule in Medieval Spanish literature, he noted.
“One talked about how Christ came down to Earth and took on human form — and all their human frailties,” including a heavy dose of flatulence, he said.
There were also illustrations of priests using anal trumpets to sound the call, and nuns harvesting erect penises in their garden.
Literature, he noted, was often used as an attack on the powerful.
“What you had in Spain was a general lack of intellectual activity,” he said. “There was less demand for written culture because most people couldn’t read. And power was concentrated in the hands of the few.”
Lucas Fernandez, for example, wrote short plays about digestive disorders — including “The Farce of Pravos and the Soldiers,” which as Floyd noted was “about windiness of the bowels.”
Others focused on “medieval peasant themes –gluttony and digestive issues,” Floyd said. “The poor were concerned primarily with biological functions, like eating and sleeping and sex.”
Some wandered into themes still taboo by today’s standards, like the Jewish scholar and poet Samuel Hanagid, who wrote about the love between men and boys.
In one poem, Floyd noted, Hanagid wrote about “the boy who told me ‘Pass some honey from your hive,’ and who wrote that ‘A woman is a duty, but a boy is pleasure.’ ”
Many of these writings also promoted social attitudes that would be viewed as sexist today, he said, particularly on subjects like adultery, which was a big theme in these literary works.
“They had adultery, which was any married woman with anybody,” Floyd said. “A married man could go to a prostitute and that wasn’t considered adultery.”

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

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