What did they believe about sex during the medieval period?
What did they do that was weird? And what did they have in common with us?
In April we’re looking at a sex through the ages series. Sometimes we think of sex as biological, hard-wired, everything-has-always-been-exactly-how-we-think-of-it-now-and-ever-shall-be.
That’s why it’s useful to look at how they thought throughout history so that we can get a better look at what may be cultural in our own time, and how we can focus on what God meant for sex.
Last week we looked at sex in Roman times–and now we’ll fast forward many centuries to the medieval period! I asked Connor to do some research for me, and here’s what he came up with:
1. People Believed that Sexual Sin Brought Divine Punishment
And it kind of made sense to think that at the time. There was a lot of disease, including STIs. But medical science still wasn’t great, and there were a lot of misconceptions about how the body worked. But what people observed was that when a man slept with numerous women, or had sex with a prostitute, he tended to get a horrible leprous disease on his genitals that would sometimes prove fatal, and almost always prove unpleasant.
2. Too Much Sex Was Bad, But So Was Not Enough Sex
There are numerous accounts of deaths of prominent clergy members, and men who were away from their wives on military campaign whose deaths were attributed to their celibacy. A lot of medieval medical science was based off of the model of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) that composed the human body and temperament. It was believed that these four humours must be kept in balance by managing what what went in to their body, and what came out.
Ever wonder why ancient medicine was so obsessed with leeches? Bloodletting was one of the ways that people tried to balance the humours. If a person has a certain illness or personality issue, they must have too much blood. Well that line of logic extended to semen as well. It was believed that if one did not have sex for a prolonged period, semen would build up inside their body, causing a number of issues and potentially resulting in death.
3. Clerics Had to Choose
Since celibacy was regarded as an unhealthy choice, clerics had a tough choice to make. Preserve the spirit, or the body. Their religion told them to be celibate, but when they became sick, medical professionals would tell them that if they didn’t abandon their celibacy, they would only get worse and possibly die. And clerics would sometimes believe it, but choose to remain celibate anyways.
4. Women Weren’t Safe From This Build Up Either
Because it was observed that conception relied on the semen released from male climax, people believed that the woman must also produce some form of ‘seed’ within her that was released during sex. And just like a man, she would suffer illness if that seed built up from a lack of action.
5. There Were Recommended Alternatives to Sex
TW: Physician sexual abuse
Physicians would encourage a number of solutions for a woman who was unmarried, whose husband was away, or who could not have sex for some other reason, or for celibate clerics. They could take certain herbal supplements or vinegar suppositories, avoid certain foods like wine and red meat, or masturbate. One could stimulate themselves, or often just have their physician perform the therapeutic ‘genital massage.’ Of course, the church did not approve of this last solution, so many opted out lest they face mandatory penance.
Other solutions favoured by the church involved various methods of balancing the humours by excreting other fluids that were believed to derive from the same source as semen. Sweating through vigorous exercise, bloodletting, and lachrymose weeping prayers were all solid options.
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6. Sex Was Considered a Sin, But One That Was Made Permissible if Performed in Marriage for Procreation
Sex was bad, and sexuality was bad. But it was also a medical necessity, so people were expected to get married and then have sex to produce offspring. Since missionary was believed to be the best position for reproduction (due to gravity affecting the sperm), it was regarded to be the natural and appropriate sex position. Other positions were often frowned upon, and other forms of intercourse such as manual, oral, or anything else really were considered sinful and labeled sodomy.
7. Women Were Actually Believed to Be MORE Sexual Than Men
The Church and society believed that women were more desiring of sex, and more prone to sexual temptation. This may have been influenced by the story of Adam and Eve, but also appears to come from the observation that women were sometimes horny even while menstruating or pregnant (times where sex would not lead to reproduction).
8. Despite This, There Was a Heavy Double Standard Favoring Men
While women were supposed to be more prone to sexual temptation, there was far more of an emphasis on fidelity and chastity for a woman than for a man. Upon getting married, control over her sexuality was symbolically handed over to her husband. All of her worth and value was in her faithfulness and chasteness. It was of utmost importance that she remain entirely faithful. Meanwhile, prostitutes existed mostly for men. While prostitution was frowned upon, it was considered a necessary evil to keep sexual sin from running rampant. If a man wanted to do something degrading to a woman, people figured it was better that he do it with a prostitute, who was already considered depraved, than with his wife who should remain chaste and pure. Likewise, if a man wanted to have sex outside of his marriage, people figured it was better to do it with a prostitute than with someone else’s wife, because to sleep with another man’s wife was to strip her of all worth.
9. Women Didn’t Have a Lot of Opportunities to Have Sex
As previously mentioned, people were only supposed to have sex within marriage. And while men weren’t really punished for soliciting prostitutes, and received minor charges for adultery, extramarital sex was very serious for women. But even within marriage, to do anything other than regular penetrative missionary sex was frowned upon and potentially illegal, which ruled out a lot of more reliable routes to female pleasure. And there were even further constraints. Women weren’t supposed to have sex on certain days of the week, feast days of the saints, lent, advent, during menstruation, during pregnancy, or while breastfeeding. And since the church only accepted sex as a form of procreation, women were just supposed to churn out a steady stream of children. A man could bypass this by just having sex with a prostitute, thereby not damaging his wife’s purity or having sex with her when she was impure (menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding), and would maybe receive a lecture from the church, but the wife could face severe social and legal consequences should she deviate from what the church and society approved.
10. Courtly Love was Coming into Vogue
The idea of romantic love was beginning to be popularized–that you would be head over heels in love with someone. However, that “someone” was rarely a spouse, as marriage was seen as a contractual arrangement.
Courtly love was also often not seen as sexual, but was about poetry and love songs and flowers and such, while often sex was still reserved for prostitutes. We find in some of the medieval literature the idea of courtly love starting, as people were often married off without ever knowing their future spouse, and then, over time, they would find the real one that would stir their heart.
As I look at this list, I see shame–and little opportunity for women to have pleasure.
Sex is seen as bad, even if it’s sometimes necessary, and all kinds of efforts were made to control it.
And, even though they acknowledged women had sex drives, they seemed to do their utmost to make sure women didn’t have a lot of pleasure.
Also, similar to sex in Roman times, sex is never considered an intimate, bonding experience, but rather something that is simply medically necessary.
I’ll let you all debate why that is as we lead up to tomorrow’s post on Victorian sex!
Okay, amateur historians! Anything else to add (like any commentary on The Canterbury Tales and sex?) Or did any of those stand out to you? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sex Throughout the Ages Series
- 8 Weird Facts about Sex in Roman Times (April 6)
- The Significance of 1 Corinthians 6-7 in light of Roman culture (April 7)
- A Romp Through Medieval Times and Sex (April 13)
- 10 Weird Pieces of Victorian Sex Advice (April 14)
- The Contagion Theory of Sexuality--and How to Change It (April 19)
- 12 Pieces of Advice from a 1970s Sex Manual (April 20)
- 12 Ways the Christian 1970s Culture Tried to Be Sex Positive--While Also Fighting Back against the Sexual Revolution (April 21)
- A Look at Christianity's Response to the Sexual Revolution: Kinsey, the 1970s, and the Early Christian Sex Books (our April 22 Podcast)
- How Youth Group Changed After Generation X (and what it was like before purity culture) (April 26)
- Is Porn the New Purity Culture? (April 27)
- A Liturgy of Lament for the Teaching We Received about Sex and a Prayer for Healing (April 30)
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