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If someone says the words “sex history”, the Middle Ages probably aren’t the first thing that springs to mind. The term usually conjures up the old myth about Victorians inventing vibrators to masturbate hysterical women or images of Masters and Johnson finally applying a “scientific” approach to sexuality. After all, how can the overtly religious and misogynist world of the medieval period produce a sexual culture? And even if it did, what does it have to tell us in our progressive sex-positive society a thousand years later?
The simple answers to these questions are: “pretty easily” and “a lot”, respectively.
To learn from this we first need to unpack what a “religious” society is and how that impacts concepts of sexuality within it. Europe in the Middle Ages was absolutely a religious place. In some ways we can actually define the medieval period as the time after the fall of Rome and before Protestants became a thing.
In other words, for something to be medieval, that means it was happening at a time when the Church more or less dominated the cultural landscape. Jewish people were certainly present in Europe at the time. Muslims were very much a part of say Sicilian on Iberian culture, but the great majority of medieval Europeans were Christian.
The balance of sex with religion
This is notable because, famously, Christians are pretty down on sex. But that doesn’t actually mean that much. Even now, here in the UK, the majority of people (60%) still call themselves religious. As you may have noticed all of that praying doesn’t seem to stop sex from actually happening. The same thing was true in the medieval period. Sure, people wanted to stay on God’s good side, but they also agreed that sex was pretty fun. So, what’s a God-fearing horny person to do?
One obvious workaround was to get married. For Christian thinkers virginity was the highest state of being, but if you were interested in having sex, then, as 1 Corinthians 7:9 put it, “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The married sex thing had a hitch though, as a Frankish church council reminded the faithful in 829, “Carnal connection with wives must take place for the sake of offspring, not pleasure”.
In other words, you might really want to have sex with your spouse, but if you did you had to ensure that it was likely the sex would result in pregnancy. This meant that married couples were meant to avoid sex while the woman was pregnant, breastfeeding, or of course menstruating.
So far, so dull, right? This doesn’t differ that much from what is taught today in any religious school, or any abstinence-only “education” course in America. A major difference, however, is that for the medieval period in order to have the best possible chance of procreating you had to ensure that women orgasmed during sex.
The need for good sex and orgasms
The reason for this thinking was scientific. If men released their seed as a result of orgasm (which is not actually necessarily true, but hey), then it followed that women released their eggs the same way. If you wanted a baby, you had better get to making with the good sex then.
Even aside from its theoretical link to pregnancy, the idea of pleasurable sex was explicitly written into marriage as well. In Iceland, for example, where divorce was permissible, Njal’s Sagapresents us with the story of the unfortunate Unn who wished to leave her husband Hrut Herjolfsson, and justified this decision to her father because “[h]e is not able to have sexual intercourse so that I may enjoy him”.
The idea that in marriage you had to provide your spouse with good sex if they wanted it was common even outside of Iceland, though. The was codified into an actual religious principle called the “conjugal” or “marital debt”, which held that within a marriage a partner had the right to have sex with their partner under reasonable circumstances.
The “reasonable” dictate here also is key, because it meant that women, in particular, were disadvantaged in this exchange. It would be “unreasonable” and even dangerous for a woman to request sex while she was having her period, for example. Not only would she be unable to get pregnant, but medieval thinkers also cautioned men to avoid menstrual fluid for fear that their “whole body will be infected and greatly weakened, … [by] a menstruating woman, because from this foulness the air is corrupted, and the insides of a man are brought to disorder.”Nice.
The marital debt
Women were also cautioned that there would be times when men would simply be “unable” to pay the marital debt. It was, therefore, their job to be aware of any signs that indicated their husband might be indisposed to sex when asked.
While this seems all very medieval emotional labour, you’ll be happy to know that this went both ways. Men were supposed to be on alert to signals from their wives that said they were ready to get down. Saint and Church philosopher supreme Thomas Aquinas advised that “the husband, because he has the more noble part in the conjugal act, is naturally more disposed than his wife not to be ashamed to ask for the debt.”In other words, because men were considered to be more “active” during sex and women more “passive”, men were also more active in terms of asking for sex than were women. The idea was that men asked, and women signalled for sex. So married men had better get good at body language.
In Jewish marriages, meanwhile, this right to pleasure was also present, but crucially only for women an idea called “onah”. Jewish women, unlike Christian women, also had the marked advantage that they didn’t have to have a “reasonable” reason to want sex. A married woman could request sex from her husband even if she was pregnant or had undergone menopause.
The greater sexual license for Jewish women seems to have stemmed from a desire to keep women from cheating on their husbands. If a woman was granted sexual licence within her marriage, so the thinking went, she wouldn’t have occasion to stray.
Of course, all of these perfectly acceptable (if highly regulated) sexual activities were just what people were supposed to be doing. As anyone who ever attended a Catholic high school can tell you that doesn’t count for very much. Medieval people, much like people today, were as into getting it on as anyone else. If God didn’t like it, well, they could repent
Virginity at marriage, or maybe not?
As a result, medieval people didn’t have a huge expectation of virginity at marriage, no matter what the Church felt about it. In rich circles, there was more of a preoccupation with women being virgins at the time of marriage, but this didn’t have to do with a worry about chastity as a holy good. Virgins were just a bigger draw when negotiating marriage contracts. If you wanted to connect two great houses, it helped to prove that the woman you were putting into the deal couldn’t be pregnant. For everyone else, virginity was less of a thing.
When I say, “everyone else” I mean, of course, “the vast majority of people”. We estimate that around 85% of the population of medieval Europe were peasants. On top of that, you have merchants, sailors, all the sundry occupations that meant you worked for a living. In this case, about 90% of people just weren’t all that fussed about making sure they were “pure” for marriage, and boy did they make that clear.
Popular medieval writing, AKA the stuff that regular people liked, is full of stories that hinge on young unmarried people getting it on, and in some detail. One English fifteenth-century poem “A Servant-Girl’s Holiday” talks frankly about how a young woman is looking forward to having sex on her day off, saying:
Jack will pay for my share
On Sunday at the ale-fest;
Soon he will take me by the hand
And he will lay me on the ground
So that my buttocks are in the dirt
Upon this high holiday.
In he thrust and out he drew
The poor maid in question eventually has her fun spoiled by an unplanned pregnancy, but the savvy medieval girl had ways of getting around that, and the poets documenting it had some great euphemisms. To wit, fifteenth-century poet Oswalf von Wolkenstein tells us a romantic tale at the climax of which:
The young maiden gently let him
pour into her mouth
the Saint John’s drink of love
Yes, that means what you think it means.
Both these poems give us a glimpse into an underlying truth about sex before marriage for medieval people: there was a worry about pregnancy outside of wedlock. For this reason, in general women having sex before marriage faced greater social stigma than men did. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) If a woman became pregnant before marriage, she was kissing goodbye her potential marriageability, whereas men had a lot more room to manoeuvre, and they were happy to use it.
A focus on sexual fulfilment
Medieval men were more than happy to get sex where they could find it, and if they weren’t worried about sex outside of marriage, they were also pretty unworried about having sex inside someone else’s. That concern in Jewish marriages that women might stray if sexually unfulfilled? It was common among Christians too. In fact, the idea that bored wives would be happy to jump into bed with another guy was common enough that it was a literary trope.
Several Canterbury tales hinge on the idea of men seducing married women, for example. In the “Merchant’s Tale” a young wife has sex with her lover in a pear tree while her blind, elderly husband sits below. In the “Miller’s Tale” a wife cheats on her husband with the couple’s lodger through an elaborate ploy involving convincing him that a flood was imminent. (It’s complicated.) The “Reeve’s Tale” is a two-for when two young clerks manage to have sex with a miller’s wife and daughter after he cheats them.
But say our young men can’t find a likely serving girl or married woman to have sex with. What was a boy to do? According to the foremost religious thinkers at the time, the answer was to find a sex worker.
Society’s view of sex workers
That might be surprising news, but medieval people agreed that sex workers were absolutely necessary in order to keep society peaceful. The thinking went something like this: men, in terms of humoural theory were by temperament hot and dry, in opposition to women who were cold and wet. During sex, the release of semen helped to drain off some of that heat, and contact with the theoretically cold body of women cooled men down. (So much so that some warned against having too much sex with women lest a man became too cold and died.)
If a man didn’t have the opportunity to let off some of that heat he might, then, become violent. A violent man was bad enough in a small community. In cities, the worry was that it could mean mass violence and rioting.
St Thomas Aquinas and virtually all medieval theologians were in agreement that the solution to this was for unmarried men to periodically see sex workers, who he charmingly referred to as “like the cesspool in the palace. Take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place.” In other words, maybe sex work wasn’t big on his list of things, but it was absolutely necessary in order to make sure that a bunch of horny guys didn’t burn the joint down.
The sex workers were also seen as a sort of stop-gap that preserved the chastity of all those wives and unmarried young women that would otherwise be the focus of young men’s affections. After all, boys will be boys so you had better build a bulwark of disposable women to prevent them from perverting decent society.
As all of this evidence makes clear, medieval people were what we historians refer to as “extremely horny”. If we can read about the ways they try to organise their society to accommodate sex, their sexual habits, and even their sexual fantasies hundreds of years after the fact, it means that medieval people were DTF. If this is what has survived for centuries think of all the sexual literature we have lost between now and then.
So OK medieval people liked sex. What does that mean for us?
First of all, it’s a helpful reminder that when you hear people make heart-felt please that we return to a Godly society where women submit to their husbands’ will and sex only happens inside the bonds of loving marriage, that no such time period ever existed. The Middle Ages were an intensely religious time period and that stopped precisely five people from having sex before marriage. There were certainly reasons for people, and women in particular, to weigh up whether premarital sex was too much of a gamble to participate in. The worry of pregnancy was generally more of deterrent for women than a nebulous idea that they must remain holy and chaste, though.
Even if medieval people were happily married, that doesn’t mean that they were strictly monogamous either. In fact, sometimes people had sex in marriage specifically to stop women from going out to find sex somewhere else.
The medieval preoccupation with wives cheating and wanting sex is another big red flag when we consider the tradwife brigade. The idea that “traditionally” woman sat at home and were the passive breeding receptacles for men has no historical basis. Medieval people were more likely to think that married women were actively looking to shag the next cute young thing that wandered by than they were to stay at home and knit.
The obligation of pleasure
Medieval people were also arguably more concerned than basic men now are about women enjoying themselves during sex. Sure, sex was supposed to be about getting someone pregnant, but there was fun that could and needed to be had along the way. Within marriage, pleasure was something that someone’s spouse was obliged to consider and deliver. Without pleasure, many medieval people thought pregnancy just wouldn’t happen.
Medieval people also had a much more enlightened, if not unproblematic, relationship to sex work than we do now. Was it their favourite thing? I mean apart form the sex buyers … not so much. However, they recognised it as a part of everyday life, and sex workers weren’t criminalised. If you were a sex worker, you were a recognised part of society and wouldn’t be arrested just for doing your job. We could all learn something from this.
While these takeaways are pleasant, there are a lot of medieval conceptions about sex that we are still struggling against today. In particular, you’ll have noticed that there are rather a lot of unpleasant gender stereotypes within medieval conceptions of sexuality. Women, although they enjoy sex, are to be understood as passive and unable to articulate their desire. This means that “active” and virile men are meant to read and pursue women in order to achieve sex. This has the double effect of putting all the onus for initiating sex on men, while also casting women who are vocal about their desire for sex as unfeminine or unnatural. Sound familiar?
Further, while the idea that pleasure should be considered during sex is overall great, linking that specifically to orgasm is dangerous. Firstly, the idea that pregnancy can only occur as a result of orgasm makes it really easy for men to refute accusations of rape if their victim is pregnant. Lest you think that is just a medieval throwback, might I remind you of the case of the American Senatorial candidate who insisted that abortion was unnecessary for rape victims because “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Similarly, the idea that we owe each other sexual pleasure within marriage is a large part of the reason why we have only recently begun to criminalise marital rape.
Another big issue is the idea that pleasure and orgasm are synonymous within sex, is that it puts way too much pressure on all of us. It’s important to remember that people have sex for a lot of different reasons and it’s perfectly possible that someone might enjoy sex without orgasming.
At the same time, all the medieval emphasis on sex leading to pregnancy makes the case that sex necessarily means penis in vagina sex. If sex is only legitimate if someone can get pregnant, that discounts all the other sex that people could be having and enjoying as not real. We’ve inherited this idea, and that makes it hard for people who aren’t that fussed about PIV to ask for what they want because they feel like they should be having “normal” sex. It excludes many queer and disabled folks from having sex that we think of as “real” and acceptable.
The medieval approach to sex work also has some seriously bad ideas about sex workers that our society still upholds. Sex workers are not, in fact, a sort of sponge that soaks up the worst and most violent men in order to protect “decent” women and society. This particularly ugly trope pops up pretty much every time a terrible incel with a gun kills a bunch of people in North America. Saying that men like this should “just see a sex worker” means explicitly putting sex workers in harm’s way to protect others.
All of this shows us why sex history matters. First, it gives us a way to push back against bad societal messaging. Second, it gives us an opportunity to hold a mirror up to our worst ideas about sex and change them for the better. If we ignore medieval history, we can’t do this, so let’s not.
Monumenta germaniae historica, Legum, Vol. 1, ed. Geroge Heinrich Pertz (Hanover: Hahn, 1835), p. 345.
Njals Saga, 6-7, in, Complete Sagas of Icelanders, vol. 3, ed. Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Erikisson, 1997), p. 9.
Helen Rodnit Lemay, Women’s Secrets(Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), pp. 88-89.
Burndage, Law Sex and Christian Society, pg. 69.
Quoted in Ruth Mazzo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others(London and New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 134
Quoted in Rasma Lazda-Cazers, “Oral Sex in Oswald von Wolkenstein’s ‘Es Susst dort her von orieent’ (Kl. 20),” in Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: New Approaches to a Fundamental Cultural-Historical and Literary-Anthropological Theme, ed. Albrecht Classen (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), p. 598.
Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian specialising in social history with an emphasis on sex, cities, and apocalyptic thought. She teaches at the London School of Economics, and blogs at going-medieval.com Her first popular medieval history, The Middle Ages: A Graphic History, will be out with Icon Press next year.
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