On medieval interfaith insults

In the fairly early days of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, dissing each other with crude language was all the rage. Alexandra Cuffel’s new book Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic (2009, University of Notre Dame Press) shows how late antique purity laws and biological theories help provide a repertoire of filth from which the rival religions used to demonstrate their superiority over the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fecal matter, decay, disease, blood (particularly menstrual blood) and even women’s bodies all fell under the naturally disgusting category and became essentially all that was antithetical to the divine and holy.

… woman’s menstrual blood served as the symbolic locus through which notions of disease, decay and corruption intersected. While many examples underscore how symbolic imagery having to do with blood and decay does refer back to female menstruation, those relating with food and animals point in other directions that have little to do with gender. For example, the Jewish, Roman and Latin condemnation of pork connote fleshly desires for vice; images or depictions of animals with no cloven hooves that are not cud chewers denote those who stray from virtue. [source]

‘Sinfulness’ sometimes manifested in the form of dark skins and epidermal disorders. By the mid-fourteenth century, haemorrhoids were often compared with menstruation, and used to emasculate men who were said to bleed like women. Even the womb was repulsive. The womb as a contaminated place complicated the debate of the divinity of Jesus – this resulted in the many religious arguments that put were forward to distinguish Mary’s womb from the wombs of ordinary women. Medieval Jews then took this opportunity to argue that Adam was superior to Jesus because he was brought to life from clean earth rather than the filthy womb.

The medieval view of women was profoundly influenced by the proto-scientific theories of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. According to Galen, women’s bodies are less developed than men’s. Because of the lack of heat generation (in the womb), the female sexual organs have retreated internally – “she is incomplete, colder, and moister in dominant humours”. Being the moister sex by virtue of possessing the ability to menstruate and lactate meant that a woman constantly needed to purify herself (usually via menstruating) as her body is innately impure.

Indeed, the female body as a form of insult has survived the test of time. One doesn’t need to look very far to find them in this day and age – they’re everywhere and women use them too. Unfortunately such rhetoric has been used by religious groups to forge crucial differences, usually at the expense of women. On a slightly off-tangent note, I remember a remark made by a religious teacher in primary school long ago about beer, saying that it was the urine of the devil. Yeah, eww. That would put anybody off beer.

2 thoughts on “On medieval interfaith insults

  1. Haha, ‘urine of the devil’? BEST way to discourage kids ever! Neither moralistic nor self-righteous. I *like* it!

    When I first came across the theory that women lacked the heat generation necessary for genitals to hang out, I immediately thought of the other protruding bodypart that seems to distinguish women from men, and thought, “what’s the connection there?” Still haven’t come across any, but if you do, please let me know!

  2. Jha,

    Yeah, if you’re familiar with ‘Mastika’ magazine then you know that gross-out moralisms seem to work with a lot of people. Kids, especially of course.

    Actually I don’t really understand the whole heat generation thing in men and women. But I can tell you that the penis certainly generates more heat than women’s breasts!

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