The Middle Ages are often seen through the unfamiliar realms of knights and castles, jousts and banquets, crusaders and kings. One of the most natural human experiences is often overlooked in the period however – sex.
Taking most of their ideas about sex from the classical word and infusing them with a deeply Christian worldview, the medieval sexual experience is characterised by the struggle between the views of the Catholic Church, and the real-life encounters of the people who lived under it.
With far different outlooks and habits to our own, here are 5 surprising facts about sex in the Middle Ages:
1. It was believed that both men and women had to orgasm in order to procreate
The dominant belief was the two-seed theory, popularised by the great physician of Rome, Galen of Pergamum. His theory stipulated that both men and women produced ‘seed’ or semen which joined in the womb to create a child, and that both parties had to orgasm for this to be achieved.
As such, pleasure for both men and women was a highly important aspect of procreational sex. This created problems for many in the medieval Church however, who saw extensive pleasure as highly immoral. Influential Roman theologian St Augustine linked sexual pleasure to the Fall of Man, while in the 13th century philosopher Thomas Aquinas condemned ‘lascivious kisses and shameful embraces’ as dangerous.
The darker side of the two-seed theory also had horrific repercussions for women. If a woman was raped and became pregnant, the man had jurisdiction to claim that she had enjoyed the experience enough to orgasm, and would likely have the case thrown out.
2. The Church viewed any form of non-procreative sex as sodomy, yet most people just ignored this
As the Church was suspicious of pleasure during sex, it certainly was not interested in any forms of sex meant solely for fun, and actively viewed it as sodomy. For the Church, the only acceptable sexual activity was male/female procreative sex, with the sole aim of having a child. Limitations were even placed on that however – sex of any kind was forbidden on Sundays, feast days, during Lent, and at Christmas.
The Church was not an all-encompassing presence in medieval society however, and many people ignored these rules. For example, the culture of courtly love within the upper classes of medieval society had its own conduct, with marriage and pregnancy largely separate from love and romance.
As such, married men and women often undertook romantic relationships outside of their spousal relationship, and required forms of sex that would not result in childbirth. This largely consisted of oral and foreplay intended entirely for pleasure, which was largely enjoyed far more than the ‘accepted’ forms of sex shared in the marriage bed. Even many in the church ignored these rules!
3. Sex toys were not unheard of in the Middle Ages
With sexual pleasure not as taboo in the lived experience of many in the period, the existence of sex toys may not actually seem too out of place. Receipts from leatherworkers describe commissions of elaborate dildos which could also be sold alongside harnesses, hinting to their use in lesbian relationships.
This is also described in penitentials from the medieval period, which were intended to give guidance to priests receiving confessions from their congregation, and offered examples of appropriate penances.
One such, written by Burchard of Worms in the 10th century, prompts them to ask:
Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do, that is, to make some sort of device or implement in the shape of the male member, of the size to match your desire, and you have fastened it to the area of your genitals or those of another with some form of fastenings and you have fornicated with other women or others have done with a similar instrument or another sort with you? If you have done this you shall do penance for five years on legitimate holy days.
Though they may have engaged in what a modern audience would call homosexual activity, medieval people had no concept of homosexual or heterosexual terminology. Instead, you were either a sodomite or you weren’t, and with sodomy pertaining to any non-procreative activity, many viewed masturbation, foreplay between men and women, and the use of sex toys between two women as one and the same.
4. Sexual desire was viewed as a feminine trait
Unlike stereotypes in the modern day, intense sexual desire was seen as a particularly feminine trait in the Middle Ages. Women were considered sexually insatiable and constantly on the hunt for sexual encounters, using their feminine wiles to ‘trick’ men into sleeping with them.
As they were supposedly weak-minded and more susceptible to emotion, women were believed to act more on their animalistic urges, and particularly as daughters of Eve they were deemed inherently sinful.
Men on the other hand were seen as more rational and holier than women, and thus more able to resist temptation. They were even viewed as more feminised if they were openly too interested in sex!
5. Sex workers were seen as a vital part of a well-organised society
Despite their supposedly more rational temperaments, it was believed that men would descend into violence without sexual release. As such, sex work in the medieval world was not only legal but viewed as a necessity to maintain order in society. Thomas Aquinas compared the sex trade to the sewers running beneath great palaces, stating:
Take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place
As the Church only approved of penetrative sex, it was more acceptable to have partnered sex with a prostitute than masturbate alone, and they often gave the go ahead for such establishments to exist. Prostitutes in London known as the Winchester Geese for example derived their name from the Bishop of Winchester, who licensed their work within a certain area of Southwark.
Just because they were essential does not mean brothels and sex workers were viewed positively however. Most brothels were built outside the city walls where people would not have to regularly mix with them, and in some places sex workers had to identify themselves by wearing ‘hoods of ray’.
Sex work was not a lifelong condemnation however. Those who chose to renounce their profession could do so by going to their parish priest and performing penance in order to marry and re-enter society. There were also orders of nuns who accepted reformed sex workers into their communities.
If they were not reformed by the time of their death however, sex workers had to be buried on unconsecrated ground outside of the Church’s remit, such as the Cross Bones Graveyard where many of the Winchester Geese were buried.