10 Things To Know about Medieval Sex

by | Apr 13, 2021 | Uncategorized | 29 comments

10 Things to know about Sex in Medieval Times

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!

10 Things to Know about Sex in Medieval Times

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)
  • 10 Weird Things to Know about the Kinsey Report (April 19)
  • 10 Pieces of Advice from a 1970s Sex Manual (April 20)
  • 10 Ways the Christian 1970s Culture Tried to Be Sex Positive–While Also Fighting Back against the Sexual Revolution (April 21)
  • 5 Ways Millennials Grew up More Conservative than Generation X in the Church (aka Purity Culture!) (April 26)
  • The Contagion Theory of Sexuality–and How to Change It (April 27)
  • A Liturgy of Lament for What We Taught our Kids (April 28)
  • A Liturgy of Lament for the Teaching We Received about Sex and a Prayer for Healing (April 30)
Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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29 Comments

  1. Anon

    Love this series!
    What I find both interesting and sad is that a lot of this thinking has continued in the church even if it has changed a bit. Specially the double standard where it’s almost ok for men to do certain things but it’s not for women.
    There is a certain school in the study of history that studied mentalities. It basically says that certain mentalities , certain ways of thinking can be passed on from way back even until our time. And I think sadly that the way many churches view sex and relate it to men and women are these mentalities that have been established long time ago. That’s why I also think it’s taken so much time to start changing them.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, very definitely! I think the shame and the separation of sex from intimacy and the “sex is bad and needs to be controlled” is there from a long way back. Really, the medical stuff and approached has changed with science, but often not the underlying attitudes.

      Reply
      • Dorthea

        I love your cover photo it’s so funny! Great way to help lighten the mood about after this past weekend.
        It’s really scary how familiar these beliefs are. These mentalities are very much alive in the denomination I grew up in just under different names. The shame and double standards though have not changed.

        Reply
  2. Whitney

    The most reliable way to ensure your lineage was in tact was to limit the ability of women to have sex. Ergo the higher punishment for women having sex outside of their marriage.

    Reply
    • Jane Eyre

      Yes. I think we forget that reliable contraception and DNA testing have only been around since the 20th century. Maternal mortality was also quite high, about 2% per birth. It is terrible to die growing your own family, and even worse to die giving birth to your adulterous lover’s baby.

      Reply
      • Connor Lindenbach

        And apparently one of the huge fears was that you might unknowingly raise a son that wasn’t yours, because the blood was more important than the relationship.

        Reply
  3. Katydid

    Currently, the Catholic Church maintains that a man must ejaculate inside the woman’s vagina, and it is actually a mortal sin to deliberately ejaculate outside of the vagina. All acts of sex are supposed to end with the openness and possibility of procreation, even if medically impossible (infertility, menopause). Oral and manual sex is allowed as non-ejaculatory foreplay, or to climax for women. Mutual masturbation is allowed as foreplay (no climax) but subtly discouraged. Solo masturbation is still considered a mortal sin and disordered use of our sexual faculties.
    Sex, to Catholics, is meant to be uniting and procreative to married heterosexual couples. Even if infertile, sex should follow “openness to life.” Sex outside of that is forbidden and our sexual drive outside of the marriage bed is to be an exercise in self-control and “suffering” (a difficult or unpleasant occurrence, or fighting temptation that we can “offer up” for God’s glory and our sanctification and “dying to self”).
    Men, especially, are encouraged to gain strong Christ-like self-control over their sexual urges inside and outside of marriage. A woman is never a sex object. A wife is never a “semen dump” or “outlet.” Women are to be given repect and deference as “earthly icons” of Our Blessed Lady and co-creators with God (babies!!)
    For when women conceive, they are touched by the Lord to give a soul to the child within. Anything touched by God is sacred (and anything sacred is veiled, which is a reason women were traditionally encouraged to veil their heads and bodies and why even our genitals are veiled rather than exposed like a man’s).
    It’s an interesting theology, though I know many disagree here, but I often hear high marital satisfaction among my Catholic peers, and many of the happiest, healthiest marriages I know are Catholic ones, even among lukewarm Catholics.
    It’s certainly a far cry from the “sex at any cost” and “you owe me, I own you” attitude among evangelicals.

    Reply
    • Andrea

      I have to admit that only being allowed to ejaculate inside a woman’s vagina seems completely contradictory to not seeing women merely as semen dumps, but I think you’re really onto something about Catholic men not degrading their wives in bed the way Evangelicals do, I’ve been hearing about this a lot lately. In fact, it was an Evangelical pastor, Mark Driscoll, who called women penis homes and I’ve just never heard of a Catholic priest using such language. I’ve been wondering if it has something to do with the high regard for Jesus’ mother, which makes Catholics regard women better in general and/or the fact that Evangelical men watch more porn than Catholic men do (see research by Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead). I’d say that Catholics practice benevolent sexism and, while Evangelicals practice hostile sexism. Mark Gungor’s recent interaction with Sheila is another sadly excellent example of the latter.

      Reply
      • Katydid

        By modern definition, yes, you could call Catholicism benevolent sexism albeit one intended to favor and protect women, children, the family unit.
        In modern Catholicism women have tremendous freedom and agency. Marry, single, religious life, consecrated life, layperson…there are female doctors lawyers teachers theologians psychologists, radio and TV personalities, etc. They just can’t be within the priesthood because women are on the mother lineage, not the father. They cannot act in persona Christi just as men cannot be co-creators with Christ to bear children. (Funny how men don’t cry unfair about that. They just lowered it in their estimation to feel better about not having that glorious experience alongside God.)

        Reply
    • Chris

      Katydid, I am a practicing Catholic who was also raised Catholic and we were not taught that sex was only for procreation. That of course is part of it but we were also taught that it was highly unitive and sacred. We were taught that sex was reserved for marriage yes, but the whole “purity culture” mind set was NOT part of it. The sin was clearly labeled though. Sex by teo non married people was the sin of “fornication” and if one of the people (or both) were married to someone else, then it was adultery. You had to know which one you were in confession for.
      It’s funny though. As Catholics, we are accused by the outside world as hating women. But the mainline protestants accuse us of worshiping one. I guess we just can’t win.

      Reply
      • Katydid

        Indeed, I did say uniting and procreative. 🙂
        On this side of dissecting toxic evangelical teachings we are going to find some progressivism and modernism that we won’t all agree with. I’m still more traditional and gendered than many other supporters are.
        My mother did endure a level of purity culture and shame, but oddly enough my grandparents, her parents didn’t. I think my mom’s was in response to the sexual revolution…a pendulum swing. She still can’t even say the word sex.

        Reply
      • Jane Eyre

        Yes, but… Catholics are taught that marital sex is unitive (put penis in vagina, marital harmony results), not that spouses have a duty to make it unitive. This leads to the obvious disaster of them not understanding that pleasureless sex erodes the marital bond.
        The procreative element always comes first: man must ejaculate into woman without artificial contraception. Then maybe someone comes along and says, it’s nice if the wife also enjoys this. But mutual enjoyment is always so secondary and is not treated with the same stridency as the procreative aspect. No one ever says that men are sinning against their wives if the sex is lousy for her.

        Reply
      • Jane Eyre

        Actually, you made my point for me.
        The USCCB merely says that “self giving” is important, without spelling out that it means women must experience pleasure. Trust me, men hear that and then get all happy that their orgasm is self giving, not selfish.
        Your second, non canonical, link says this: “Too often, the most explicit thing Catholics are willing to say about sex is that the husband has to ejaculate in his wife’s vagina.” Which is exactly my point.
        Pope Pius merely said that it’s not a sin to see pleasure, which is NOT the same thing as saying that men have a duty to do more than stick it in there.
        I’m Catholic and the Church has zero, no resources for sexual dysfunction except to tell me to be selfless in bed and make sure he ejaculates into me.

        Reply
      • Bakhita

        Hey Jane Eyre,
        Catholic spouses have a duty to love and respect each other. It seems hard to spell out what that would look like since it is different for every couple. The couple has to figure out how to actually make each other fulfilled, not the Church. Your marriage will be happy if you are both giving 100 percent, not just you giving 100 percent, so you need to communicate what you need! 🙂
        God bless!

        Reply
      • Caitlin

        Jane Eyre, I hope you see this even though the blog post is a couple months old already… pgs. 273-277 in Love & Responsibility (please note, NOT love&respect) by Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope Saint John Paul II writes specifically in a chapter called Sexology and Ethics about the DUTY of husbands to please their wives sexually. He doesn’t just say “it’s important”, or “would be a nice bonus if they could”, but it is their obligation.

        Reply
  4. Emmy

    Very interesting. Makes me think of Boccaccio’s Decamerone. When I had to read it as a part of my literature studies I thought it was a very naughty book, but I can understand the characters of the book a little better even though some of them were quite naughty indeed. People just did their best to survive and have some nice things in life.
    In one of those stories, there is a greedy physician who persuades a fat man to believe he is pregnant. The man is shocked, of course, and blames his wife who wanted to be on top every time.: “That’s what you get, Ma’am! You wanted to be on top, and see, now I am pregnant!” The physician, however, is able to relieve the distressed guy from “pregnancy” by donating a lot of food and money to him.

    Reply
  5. Boone

    In Medieval England a wife could divorce her husband on the grounds of impotently. This had to be proved in open court.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I am trying to picture what that last sentence would actually look like! Wouldn’t basically any guy go impotent if trying to prove it? And what would be the incentive to get him to prove it? OH, dear. That’s awful!

      Reply
      • Boone

        As I understand it the burden of proof was in the wife. She had to do everything possible to get her husband to rise to the occasion. If she didn’t put enough effort into the task. The court would dismiss her case.

        Reply
  6. Ember

    So a couple things as I am a history nerd (especially when it comes to medieval, Tudor, Elizabethan, and Victorian British history). The four humors, you’re right about the fluids, but these four fluids were seen as the result of the four humors: hot, cold, wet, and dry. So the fluids were examined or treated, but it was more of if you were hot and dry, the physician would prescribe something to make you colder and wetter.
    Also, it’s interesting to note, that if a couple wanted to conceive, it was believed that a woman would need to achieve orgasm to conceive. So more care was taken to ensure a woman reached climax than even today. Because of this, though, if a woman was raped and became pregnant, it was assumed that she had an orgasm and therefore it wasn’t rape.
    The missionary position was also encouraged by the church because it kept women in their subordinate place. So, to be dominated by her husband on top.
    A man’s impotence could be grounds for a woman to get a separation as medieval women were considered to have a right to an orgasm.
    A REALLY good book by my favorite historian to read is “If Walls Could Yalk” by Lucy Worsley.

    Reply
    • Andrea

      There are pastors today who preach from the pulpit that the sex act (by which they mean intercourse in the missionary position) is proof that women are supposed to be subordinate to men. And if you think about the low orgasm rate among evangelical women and the entitlement to sex that the evangelical men are raised with, you can totally see how regular pleasureless missionary penetration would be an effective way of keeping her in her place.

      Reply
    • Connor Lindenbach

      Thank you for the clarifications. It’s always good to have people who know their stuff come on and contribute, since history is not my area of expertise. I definitely know my explanation of the humours was vastly oversimplified though, haha. If I learned anything, in psychology, it’s that the humoural framework was complicated, and often improvised by the physician. Like astrology but for medicine.

      Reply
  7. Dorthea

    The beliefs about people choosing to be celibate and how that was considered dangerous to their health has me wondering how much of a need is sex really, by today’s standards? Some resources lead you to believe that for men it is as much of a need as food and water. But I know a couple who could not physically engage in sex for health reasons and their marriage did not suffer, in fact the husband didn’t miss it. He misses his wife, not sex which leads me to believe maybe it’s not as much of a need as I’ve been lead to believe. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    • Ember

      Yeah. A man will NOT die if he doesn’t have sex. So sex isnt a need. There are married couples where one person has an STD so they go their whole marriage without sex. We need to stop saying, “a man has sexual needs” or, “a man’s sexual needs” because it implies that their hyper focus on sex is just a part of their genetic makeup and puts the responsibility of that “need” on women. People have sexual desires and wants, but no one needs sex. In fact, some women have higher sex drives than some men.

      Reply
  8. Jeff

    Have you done a post about sex in Biblical times or did I miss it?

    Reply
    • Lydia purple

      „Biblical times“ is really broad and not one era. Many different times, cultures and the discrepancy of practice vs biblical ideology. The Roman era that was covered falls into biblical times but there is a world of a difference between sex in the garden of Eden vs. tribal practices in Abraham times vs when the Israelites were slaves…or in the Babylonian Exile.
      Probably one of the more persistent ideas throughout the Bible is that adultary and idolatry are related, so sex is spiritual in nature as well as physical. King Solomon was lead astray from following whole hearted after God because of his many wives from different cultures and religions. But then Solomon was a powerful King and not necessarily representative of the practices and beliefs of the common folk.

      Reply
  9. Rebekah

    My high school freshman read parts of Canterbury Tales for class, a small selection! I wanted to read it too and have gotten maybe 25% through. Many are incredibly bawdy! I was kind of shocked and realized I shouldn’t be. I mean Shakespeare had plenty of bawdy jokes too! The Chaucer tales were such a spectrum: women are pure, women are aren’t trustworthy, they want pleasure to, they should be tested, I’m an old man and played the field but now I want my young chaste wife to take care of me, marriage is the best, marriage is the worst.

    Reply
  10. Headless Unicorn Guy

    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.

    That hung on among the upper classes into at least the 18th Century.
    “To our Wives and our Mistresses – May they never meet!”
    Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

    Reply

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