cover image The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society

Eleanor Janega. Norton, $30 (272p) ISBN 978-0-393-86781-7

This incisive revisionist history tracks “societal expectations of women” from the Middle Ages to today. Blogger and historian Janega (The Middle Ages: A Graphic History) notes that early Christian theologians relied on ancient and scientifically erroneous assumptions to argue against women’s education, sexual agency, and professional equity, and examines how these viewpoints still influence modern schools, churches, and workplaces. Throughout, she documents the gap between the Middle Ages’ virginal ideal of womanhood and women’s actual roles in society, noting that medieval women farmed, brewed alcohol, and ran large estates while taking primary responsibility for homemaking and childcare, or outsourcing those duties to other women. Janega also shows that modern and medieval women faced similar pressure to effortlessly achieve the right body shape (hourglass today; pear-shaped in the Middle Ages) and dress stylishly, and draws on theologian Hildegard of Bingen, poet Christine de Pizan, and other medieval women to offer an alternate perspective on their era. Accessible, informative, and clear-sighted about the insidious workings of misogyny, this is a persuasive call for deconstructing the past to create a more equitable future. Illus. (Jan.)