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Lust and Vice: On the Cult of the Body in the Middle Ages – Culture

Lust and Vice: On the Cult of the Body in the Middle Ages – Culture


Even in the Middle Ages, people cared about looking attractive. A current show about medieval body images shows what they thought was modern, beautiful, and healthy.

“The body is amazing. We live in a time when the body is beautified, trained and improved. “We want to show what it was like in the Middle Ages,” says art historian and curator Christine Keller. care about. Martyred.” The show offers several starting points to bring a slice of the Middle Ages closer to a wide audience.

The Medieval Body: Very sexy

The tour begins with a vivid depiction of court fashion trends: noble ladies in flowing robes, with pale makeup and golden hair waiting for knights to pay their respects. They are soon shown wearing tight pants and wearing a capsule over their genitals.


Graceful and noble: this couple reflects the beauty ideals of the time. He wears tight trousers with a pubic capsule and long pointy boots, an unmarried woman's braided hairstyle, and a long dress with a high belt.

Albertina, Vienna

They carry oscillating scent balls with them to counteract any sweat odor. They attract the desired woman and put their pointy shoes in her place. This is more than just a fashion statement: “When paintings and engravings are about lovers, the pointed shoe plays a role as a sexy symbol,” says Christine Keeler.

In the pleasure garden

Erotic motifs can be found in many pictorial representations. It's funny, but it's also rough. The Christian moral club often resonates: Vanity was considered a vice, and lust a mortal sin. Enjoyment at the pleasure park is often followed by jellyfish.

The order was negotiated in several different ways. The attractive body looked impressive even in the Middle Ages. Nobles had better cards to deal with wigs, powders, and perfumes, while farmers and artisans struggled with lice combs.

But what they have in common is the joy of cleaning in the bathtub and socializing in the public bathroom. However, it lost its reputation in the 13th century as a syphilis hotspot.

One painting shows a swimming pool with half-naked and half-naked people jumping in and around it


At the medieval resort, young and old enjoy and socialize over food, drink and music. It sounds great, but: Ah, bacteria! People soon contracted a sexually transmitted disease here. Bad zu Lock (?), Hans Bock the Elder, ca. 1597.

Art Museum Basel

The monks had advice when it came to serious illnesses. They translated medical knowledge from the Arab region into Latin and transferred the knowledge to other monasteries.

The patients were then treated with herbal extracts and under a good star. Bloodletting and cupping ensure the balance of the body's humors. However, all this hardly helped in cases of plague, typhus, or difficult childbirth: women usually did not live until their fortieth birthday.

Mysterious miracle peoples

As the exhibition impressively shows, ideas about corporeality in the Middle Ages went beyond the individual body. Entire peoples were imagined as different creatures.

clarification.  Two naked, sexless people, surrounded by zodiac signs, stand back to back.


Astrology is a huge trend again today. Even in the Middle Ages it was believed that human well-being lies under the influence of the stars. Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410–1485.

Cliché RMN / Bibliothèque et Archives du Château de Chantilly

These peoples sometimes had large feet that protected them from the rain, and other times long ears that provided shade in the desert: the so-called “miracle peoples” not only inspired the imagination, but were present on maps of the world in the 12th century, according to exhibition curator Christine Keller: They sent commercial travelers and pilgrims to look for these people. But of course no one came back with reports from these people.”

Whether imagined, desired or tortured: the exhibition at the State Museum succeeds in providing a diverse and surprisingly light-hearted presentation of how medieval people viewed the body.

SRF Radio 2 Culture Cultural News April 10, 2023 at 7:06 am