Cover Image: The Once and Future Sex

The Once and Future Sex

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Member Reviews

I like that author analyzed misogyny and its affects on all classes rather than just the focus on the rich that we often see if historical texts
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Fabulous non-fiction book about misconceptions and realities of medieval women (and since). Once again, history was written (poorly) by men and now we women must come and clean it all up.
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Actual Rating 3.5 stars 

A full review will be posted on January 10th  on Instagram and Goodreads @abookwormsgarden
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The genre of witty history books is increasingly expanding, a phenomenon I first noticed with the work of Emma Southon. This book found the right balance between historical analysis and sarcastic remarks, something not all of the books in this category have managed. Maybe this was because of the topic - niche enough to have a lot of interesting stuff to say, but broad enough and containing enough misconceptions to warrant some modern commentary.

This book makes medieval women - specifically the brand of working-class women we don't hear a lot about - incredibly accessible to a general audience. Even though the main purpose of this book is to emphasize that history and progress are not linear, there are enough moments of similarity to give the contemporary reader a point of access. I would read an entire book on medieval skincare products. But maybe I am in the minority as an absolutely huge nerd.

Janega's tone is casual without losing the necessary aura of expertise. It feels as though we are two people discussing the appeal of pear-shaped bodies in medieval art over a cup of coffee.
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The once and future Sex is a great resource for any student of gender studies or history. I liked the easiness of reading this, with lots of facts and references.
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I have nothing but the upmost praise for this book. What a wonderful exploration of women's history and gender roles. I found this book to be informative, empowering, entertaining, accessible, devastating, and relatable. I will be recommending this book to everyone (especially women) for a long time to come. I really think Janega has some incredible insights that society needs to hear about women's history. Not only would I recommend this book as a required reading for a European Women's history class, but also just as a book that everyone should pick up and read with an open mind and heart. This is not just a book for feminists. This is a book for society. Janega addresses many very dark and complex issues in women's history, but her conversational and intentional tone lends itself towards accessibility. An absolute five star read.
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A truly fascinating and absorbing account of the lives and roles of Medieval women and their place in society.
There were many, thought provoking, comparisons to modern day women including angles I had known or previously considered so that was very refreshing and enlightening.
The book was packed full of interesting information and references and is clearly well researched and comprehensive. I found it very educational but also enjoyable and accessible to all. The fact it is written by an American confused me slightly due to the differences in spelling etc when writing about British life but this is not a criticism.
I would absolutely recommend this to anyone and I liked it so much I may well revisit it in the future.
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This was a great overview of the roles, ideas, jobs, and expectations of women in medieval times. It was a quick read and funny at times.
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Have I just found my favourite non-fiction book of 2022? I THINK SO. 

If the title and cover of the book are not reason enough to pick it up, what's beyond the cover is the juiciest historical exploration of the medieval period you will ever read. 

So, what's it about? WELL. It's about women in the middle ages. This book is here to tell you what life was ACTUALLY like. The day-to-day lives of your average man or woman. Social attitudes. Religion. Work. Family. Sex. All the good stuff. 

The writing style is exceptionally witty. Janega's sense of humour is dry and sarcastic and she makes history FUN. It feels like we're all in on the same joke. (Are we just laughing at ourselves? How far have we actually come?)

But was the medieval period actually that bad? No. It wasn't all witch burning and disease and no hygiene. Women were working alongside men (history has scrubbed out their names in favour of 'wife of....' or the family name). Women were trying out all the latest beauty trends and gossiping about their friends. People were still having a lot of sex (although, religion dictated it should be the least enjoyable and purely perfunctory activity possible - just straight-faced missionary folks). 

Religion also held up 2 standards for women = eve and mary. Most women were eve's - lustful and wicked. And beauty standards were carried over from greek / roman history. You could also be a Helen (blonde with white teeth and a nice forehead is about all the description we get). But the most important thing was to try not to look beautiful. To be beautiful naturally. To be beautiful but not care about your beauty. Sound familiar?

Anyway, what better way to learn about the future than look back to the past in an absolute riot of an analysis? If we have changed our ideas about women so much already, why can't we change them again to reach a more equal future? And, on the flip side, we are no less flawed than the society of the middle ages. Oppression is still there, it's just less covert and has changed faces along with the changing landscape.
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The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega is a look at Medieval history and how it impacts the ideas of women today. 

During the Medieval period more men learned to read and write and therefore create written ideas.  Women were portrayed through these writings as sex starved seductresses with a weak conscience.  The perfect woman on the other hand was a young maiden without any sexual desires.  Janega notes, “…It perfectly encapsulates how (like the studious inventory of beautiful women) the very concept of maidenhood was invented purely in the heads of men. Maidens were everything that a woman could be without all of the inconvenience of being an actual person with needs, opinions, and complaints.”  Seriously, f*ck that!  Virginity was placed on the highest pedestal, even married sex was considered impurifying to women.

Much of the views on women came from Christianity and the Bible.   The view that women were the original “sinners”, and therefore weak, was a common belief.  Because women were “weak”, med should have control of women.  Unfortunately, we still see many of our views of women and gender today through the lens of religion.  Whether you practice a religion or not, the dominant religion affects the culture as a whole.  We need to recognize this to make any change today.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in feminism or medieval history.  I often forget easily we pass down ideas through the generations from one to the next, on and on.  

Rating:  4/5
Genre: Non-Fiction/Feminism/History
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Medievalist Eleanor Janega (with an MA in Mediaeval Studies and a PhD in History) states that her intent is to look to the past in order to understand our present, and hopefully, to construct a future that sees more equality between the sexes. In The Once and Future Sex, Janega primarily focusses on how the people of power and influence in the Middle Ages regarded women in four broad categories — how their weird bodies worked, ideals of beauty, fears of their sexuality, what work they did outside the home — and while this book is loaded with frequent quotes and citations, it didn’t really add up to a cohesive thesis to me. I enjoyed the factoids, I liked the often ironic tone, I appreciate the intent, but I seem to be missing the throughline; I don’t know that these facts from the past explain women’s place in modern society. Certainly not a waste of my time — there is much of interest to be found here — I’m simply left wanting.
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Janega aims to explore medieval attitudes towards women in a variety of contexts - appearance, sexuality, education, work, maternity and so on - and to show how that is similar to, different from, and informing modern attitudes. I think she does an excellent job on the first, but I think there's something lacking in the second. 

The introduction to the concept of "the Middle Ages" is excellent, as is her argument for why studying this period is important, both for understanding the development of attitudes towards women and more broadly. Janega uses an excellent variety of sources to demonstrate how medieval society - particularly at the elite level, but also how that percolated through the other 99%  - developed their ideas; through theologians (mostly male, but also Hildegard de Bingen of course), and medical texts, becoming educational manuals, as well as through 'pop culture' like ballads and Christine de Pizan's poetry, and visual art as well. She also destroys some really important myths, like the notion that women as workers is a modern invention (you think a "farmer's wife" is sitting around doing nothing?) and that beauty standards are in some way objective and timeless (all those images of nude Eve with a wee pot belly). 

I do think that some of the ideas Janega draws together from medieval and modern are really important. The thing about beauty, for instance: that only the wealthy could attain what was regarded as truly beautiful, but that women shouldn't be seen to work at BEING beautiful; if you did work on being beautiful that was vain and therefore sinful; if you were poor and somehow, miraculously, beautiful, you were clearly meant to be amongst the great instead... and so on. Also, beauty and virtue going together. It's painfully clear how these things resonate today, with issues of cost as well as luxury time all coming together - think of women who are on public transport in their sneakers, with their high heels in their bag. Beyond the beauty issues, Janega talks about a lot of other issues for modern women and how these are similar to/different from our medieval counterparts. However, I didn't feel like the links were drawn quite strongly enough between the medieval and the modern to show how one developed from, or reacts again, the other. 

Overall I do think this is a very good book about historical European ideas of women: who they are and can be and should look like. Janega does make some imortant commentary on modern women, too - the fact that I wanted a tighter connection does't detract from her powerful statements. This can definitely be read with little knowledge of the European Middle Ages.
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A fabulous, well-researched, slightly tongue-in-cheek tale of how it was and oh, how it could have been. A must for anyone interest in feminist history and why things are the way they are. Eye-opening!
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The Once and Future Sex is well researched, through, and detailed. I really like how Janega wrote it in an accessible and understandable manner that allows the reader to absorb all the research without needing a history degree. It was very thought provoking.
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3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thank you so much to W.W Norton and Company and NetGalley for an e-arc of this book.

I did find many aspects of the book interesting, it delved into how ideas of the humours affected perceived notions of the feminine and masculine and how church ideals permeated culture in European medieval society.

I did however sometimes find the text and the flow a bit disjointed, it didn’t seem to move naturally from idea to idea and some things were shorehorned in without having overmuch relevance to the narrative.

It was a quick read however and as I said posits some interesting ideas and concepts so would recommend to readers interested in this time period.
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This non fiction book takes us back in time to the medieval period and explains how women were viewed, what they were expected to do, and the consequences they faced if they didn't follow the status quo. I found this book incredibly informative, interesting in certain parts and was well written in an academic style. As it is a non fiction book I don't give star ratings, I say you cannot rate facts but you can rate creativity. It took me longer to read this than any fiction book but I do think it was because of the writing style, I didn't really feel connected to it but I did end up skim reading certain parts as they were quite repetitive. Definitely pick this up if you're interested in feminism, views on women and or religious control.
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The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega was such a refreshing book! I can't believe in my lifetime there is a book about beauty that talks about Hildegard of Bingen. So very happy!
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Thank you to Netgalley & W.W.Morton & Company for this advanced reader copy. This book is for you if you have ever wondered about sex and its early beginnings. STIs make an appearance as early as the 1400s!  What makes a woman sexually desirable? The attributes may not be what you might imagine. Each chapter tells a bit more about sexual health, the act of sex and how it is labeled, sexual wellness, and the history of sexual desire. Who would think too much fun sex could be bad? Take a weekend and read it if you are wondering or interested in the history of sex.
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The Once and Future Sex by Eleanor Janega .

I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed the book in as much as it is quite academically written , but it is certainly a very interesting , and insightful differences between how women were seen and the expectation on them sexually in all aspects of the medieval world.
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** Thanks so much to NetGalley, Eleanor Janega, and W. W. Norton & Company for this ARC! The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society will be out on January 17th, 2023!

"...while many of our attitudes toward women's sexuality have changed since the medieval period, one thing has remained the same: women are not sexual in the correct way."

In reading this book, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by Rebecca Solnit: “The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view.”

The Once and Future Sex undermines the inevitability of several narratives we have about women in the present-day, including the biological understanding that women are "naturally" less interested in sex than our male counterparts. Janega discusses the ways in which beauty standards, understanding about women's sexuality, and the roles played by women in society, have changed between now and the medieval period. In doing so, she highlights that one of very few stable perspectives on women is that we are inferior. The reason for this, and the rationale behind it, has shifted from religion to science, but the narrative that we are lower is consistent. In expressing the ways in which thoughts about women have changed, Janega highlights that they are constructed and opens us up to changing them.

This was a fascinating book. I had no idea that for much of written history, women were seen as the ones with insatiable sexual urges who could not be held responsible for their efforts to get sexual release. I loved realizing how everything from our conceptualization of women's sexuality to our beauty standard has shifted over time. This was the kind of book that made it difficult to remain quiet - I kept sharing facts with my partner as I read.

Highly recommended :) I'll read anything this author writes in the future!
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