Love, Sex and Marriage in Medieval Times | History Hit

Love, Sex and Marriage in Medieval Times

Miniature featured in the Codex Manesse, c.1305-1315.
Image Credit: Public domain

In medieval society, it was thought that the heart and mind were symbiotically connected. As the blood-pumping organ at the centre of the body, medical and philosophical thought placed the heart as the catalyst of all other bodily functions, including reason.

Naturally, this extended to love, sex and marriage, with the invocation of the heart being used to communicate truth, sincerity and serious commitment to matrimony. A popular proverb of the time stated ‘that which the heart thinks, the mouth speaks’. However, the medieval period was also infused with other ideas about how love should be communicated. Ideals of chivalry and courtly love represented the pursuit of love as a noble aim.

In practice, romance was not so romantic, with married parties often not meeting before saying ‘I do’, women sometimes being forced to marry their abusers and the church creating strict rules about how, when and with whom people could have sex.

Here’s an introduction to love, sex and marriage in the medieval period.

New ideas of ‘courtly love’ dominated the period

Lore, song and literature written for royal entertainment quickly spread and gave rise to the concept of courtly love. Tales of knights who were willing to sacrifice everything for honour and the love of their maiden encouraged this style of courtship.

‘God Speed’ by English artist Edmund Leighton, 1900: depicting an armoured knight departing for war and leaving his beloved.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Sotheby's Sale catalogue

Rather than sex or marriage, love was the focus, and characters rarely ended up together. Instead, tales of courtly love depicted lovers admiring each other from far away, and normally ended in tragedy. Interestingly, it has been theorised that ideas of courtly love benefitted noblewomen. Since chivalry supposedly held women in such high regard and men were supposed to be utterly devoted to them, women were able to exercise more authority and power in the household.

This was particularly pronounced with an emerging class of wealthy townsfolk who owned significant material goods. In addition to demonstrating love through obedience, it was now more usual for women to be the head of the family and control all important matters when the lord was away, in return for his love and honour. Chivalric codes became a useful tool for a more balanced marriage. Naturally, these benefits did not extend to poorer women.

Courtship was rarely prolonged

In spite of the lovelorn image painted by chivalric ideals, medieval courtship amongst more wealthy members of society was normally a matter of parents negotiating as a means of increasing family power or wealth. Often, young people wouldn’t meet their future spouses until after the marriage had already been arranged, and even if they did, their courtship was tightly monitored and controlled.

It was only amongst the lower classes that people consistently married for love, since there was little to be gained materially from marrying one person versus another. In general, however, peasants often never married, since there was little need for a formal exchange of property.

Marriage was deemed to be acceptable as soon as puberty hit – for girls from around age 12 and boys 14 – so betrothals were sometimes made at a very young age. It is said that women first gained the right to propose marriage in Scotland in 1228, which then caught on in the rest of Europe. However, this is more likely a rumoured romantic notion that had no basis in law.

Marriage didn’t have to take place in a church

According to the medieval church, marriage was an inherently virtuous sacrament that was a sign of God’s love and grace, with marital sex being the ultimate symbol of human union with the divine. The church communicated its ideas about marital sanctity with its laypeople. However, how much they were followed is unclear.

Marriage ceremonies didn’t have to take place in a church or in the presence of a priest. Though inadvisable – it was useful to have other people there as witnesses to avoid any uncertainty – God was the only witness required to be present. From the 12th century onwards, church law determined that all was required were the words of consent, ‘yes, I do’.

Detail of a historiated initial ‘S’ (sponsus) of a man placing a ring on a woman’s finger. 14th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Other forms of consent to marry included the exchange of an item known as a ‘wed’, which was normally a ring. In addition, if an already engaged couple had sex, it meant that they had given consent to marry and equated to a legally binding marriage. It was crucial that the couple be already engaged, otherwise it constituted sinful pre-marital sex.

Legal records showed that couples married on roads, at the pub, at a friend’s house or even in bed. As time passed, individuals were given more and more rights that meant they didn’t need family permission to marry. The exception was for the peasant class, who had to ask their masters for permission if they wanted to marry.

Marriage could be forced, sometimes violently

The line between coercion and consent was sometimes thin. Women had few options to deal with highly ‘persuasive’ or violent men and consequently had to ‘agree’ to marry them. It is likely that many women married their rapists, abusers and abductors because of the damage that rape caused to a victim’s reputation, for instance.

To try and counteract this, church law stated that the degree of pressure to encourage a marriage could not ‘sway a constant man or woman’: this meant that family members or a romantic partner could exert some level of pressure on another person to express consent, but it couldn’t be too extreme. Of course, this law was open to interpretation.

Sex had lots of strings attached

The church made extensive attempts to control who could have sex, and when and where. Sex outside of marriage was out of the question. Women were presented with two options in order to avoid the ‘sin of Eve’: become celibate, which could be achieved by becoming a nun, or get married and have children.

Once married, there was an extensive set of rules about sex that constituted a grave sin if transgressed. People could not have sex on Sundays, Thursdays or Fridays or on all feast and fast days due to religious reasons.

Abstinence was to be observed when practicing Christians were fasting, and also when a woman was considered to be ‘unclean’: when menstruating, breastfeeding and for forty days after childbirth. In all, the average married couple could legally have sex less than once a week. For the Church, the only acceptable sexual activity was male-female procreative sex.

Dr Eleanor Janega investigates medieval sex life. Warning: Very strong language and sexual content.
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In much of medieval Europe, masturbation was considered to be immoral. In fact, it was deemed to be less immoral for a man to visit a sex worker than to masturbate since the sexual act could still result in procreation. Homosexuality was also a serious sin.

In spite of these limitations, sexual pleasure was not entirely out of the question and was even encouraged by some religious scholars. However, it couldn’t dominate a couple’s sex life: sex was for procreation, and enjoyment was a side-effect of that aim.

Divorce was rare but possible

Once you were married, you stayed married. However, there were exceptions. To end a marriage at the time, you had to either prove that the union had never existed or that you were too closely related to your partner to be married. Similarly, if you had entered into a religious vow, it was bigamous to get married, since you were already married to God.

A man could not divorce his wife for failing to give birth to a male heir: daughters were considered to be the will of God.

Newborn Philippe Auguste in his father’s arms. The mother, exhausted by childbirth, is resting. The father, amazed, contemplates his descendant in his arms. Grandes Chroniques de France, France, 14th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Surprisingly, another reason you could file for divorce is if the husband failed to please his woman in bed. A council was set up which would monitor the sexual activity of the couple. If it was deemed that the husband was incapable of satisfying his wife, the grounds for divorce were permitted.

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Lucy Davidson