Historian Ruth Mazo Karras on church court records, means of contraception, and sex and gender roles in the Middle Ages. We can all agree that sex is pretty awesome. But, alas, it wasn't always this way. Sex during medieval times was pretty disgusting in certain aspects, from the. We all love sex, don't we? And, I imagine that sex has gone through a huge change simply from a cultural perspective, and perhaps we'll keep.
In a Q&A with Dr Juanita Feros Ruys from the University of Sydney Medieval and Early Modern Centre, we take a look at medieval sex and the impact it's had on. We can all agree that sex is pretty awesome. But, alas, it wasn't always this way. Sex during medieval times was pretty disgusting in certain aspects, from the. Sex is a complicated thing. Most people want it; getting it and doing it well have been elusive goals for thousands of years. (Just ask.
Medieval female sexuality is the collection of sexual and sensual characteristics identified in a woman from the Middle Ages. Like a modern woman, a medieval woman's sexuality included many different aspects. Sexuality not only included sex, but spread into many parts of the medieval. We all love sex, don't we? And, I imagine that sex has gone through a huge change simply from a cultural perspective, and perhaps we'll keep. Sexuality not only included.
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Lyon, BM, Msfol r. Photo courtesy Discarding Images. Katherine Harvey. She lives in London. Brought to mwdieval by Curioan Aeon sxe. Edited by Sam Haselby. In the popular imagination, the history of sex is a straightforward one.
Medievzl centuries, the people of the Christian West lived in a state of sexual repression, straitjacketed by an overwhelming fear of sin, combined with a complete lack of knowledge about their own bodies. Those who fell short of the high moral standards that church, state and society demanded of them faced ostracism and punishment. In reality, the history of human sexuality is far more interesting and wild. Many prevailing sex about the sex lives of our medieval ancestors are rooted in the erroneous belief that they lived in an unsophisticated age of religious fanaticism and medical ignorance.
While Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they mesieval rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices, long before the sexual revolution.
The case of the French cleric Arnaud de Verniolle medoeval the sophistication of medieval sexuality. One day in the early 14th century, when Arnaud was a student, he had sex with a prostitute. Several years later, he confessed this lapse to the Inquisition, explaining that:. Many medieval men found themselves with undesirable symptoms after a brothel visit, and attributed their plight to their sexual behaviour. Among the various medical miracles attributed to St Thomas Becket, for example, was the cure of Odo se Beaumont, who became leprous immediately after a lateth-century visit to a prostitute.
Much has been made of the medieval tendency to interpret disease as a product meedieval sexual sin. Too much. In fact, the medieval tendency to see disease as sexual sin was not solely based on moral judgments — there were also strong medical elements. C oncerns about the sexual transmission of disease via prostitutes were often addressed in an entirely rational manner.
Moreover, the concerns of the people of Southwark were rooted in sex theory. When the penis of the healthy man came into contact with this vapour, the heat of his body would ensure that it was absorbed through his open pores. Sores would soon appear on his genitals, before spreading around his body. Fortunately for Arnaud, and many others, it was often possible to treat sexually transmitted leprosy. The 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden suggested several protective measures that a man should take after having sexual relations with a woman he believed to be leprous.
He should cleanse his penis as soon as possible, either with his own urine or with vinegar and water. Then he should undergo intensive bleeding by a phlebotomist, followed by a three-month course of medieval, ointments and medication. He treated this unfortunate individual by cutting away the dead flesh with a blade, then applying quicklime. If such prophylactic measures failed, then the patient might need one of the many remedies for swollen, itchy or pustulent genitals esx in medical treatises and recipe collections.
Such a man should use a poultice to reduce the swelling. Such preparations were undoubtedly unpleasant, but the surgical medidval recommended by the 14th-century English surgeon John of Arderne were downright brutal. Arderne treated this unfortunate meideval by cutting away the dead flesh with a blade, then applying quicklime — a process that must have been medleval painful, but apparently produced a cure.
However, neither author explicitly identifies their remedies as cures for diseases transmitted by sexual contact. The man with the swollen yard might well have been viewed by his contemporaries as sex victim not of infection, but of overindulgence.
M edieval physicians medieval too much sex as a real medical concern. Conventional merieval held that several noblemen died of sexual excess. Today, his symptoms would suggest venereal medieval, but his contemporaries would probably have seen parallels with the case of Ralph, count of Vermandois. This 12th-century French nobleman had recently married his third wife when sex fell seriously ill. During his convalescence, he mrdieval advised by his physician that he must abstain from intercourse, but disregarded this warning.
The humours system derived from the idea that health was based on an equilibrium of the humours, and illness the product of imbalance. Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of dex healthy life for most men, but moderation was key.
Too much sex would leave the body depleted; in the most serious cases it could have fatal consequences, as Count Ralph found to his cost. On the other hand, medieval medical authority held that too little sex presented a medical problem: celibacy was potentially detrimental to health, particularly for young men. Long-term celibacy meant the retention medieval excess semen, which would affect the heart, which in turn could damage other parts of the body. The celibate might experience symptoms including headaches, anxiety, weight loss and, in the most serious cases, death.
Although celibacy was highly valued as a mediegal virtue in medieval society, in medical terms the celibate was as much at risk as the debauchee. Conventional opinion attributed his death to the resulting celibacy, making him the most famous victim of death by celibacy. Mevieval to the 12th-century Norman poet Ambroise, abstinence claimed many victims:. For most crusaders, sexual abstinence was at most a temporary inconvenience, to be endured only until they returned home and were reunited with their wives.
Becket lived for many years after this and ultimately died a martyr at the hands of an assassinbut other bishops were less fortunate. An unnamed 12th-century archdeacon of Louvain, having struggled to remain celibate for a long time, was promoted against his will to the bishopric of the same city.
For a month, he abstained sxe all sexual activity, but soon his genitals swelled up and he became seriously ill. Within days, he was dead. Non-saintly celibates who faced the challenge of celibacy tended to favour the obvious cure.
Others, hoping never to face this predicament, adopted behaviours informed by medical theory believed to protect the health of a celibate man by promoting alternative forms of excretion. Humours-based medical theory held that all bodily fluids were processed forms of blood, and that their common origins rendered them interchangeable.
Weeping for example, the lachrymose prayers favoured by pious individuals could also serve as an alternative to sexual intercourse, with the blood that would have been converted into semen instead producing tears. Exercise medidval bathing, both of which produced sweat, were also useful for those who wished to practise long-term abstinence. As well as taking measures to encourage the excretion of superfluities, medieval celibate man needed to be careful about what he medievxl into his body.
Diet thus directly related to sexual health. The problem was threefold. Firstly, the proximity of the genitals mefieval the stomach meant that the former would be warmed by the food or wine contained in the latter, providing the heat that defined the male body, and was necessary for the production of semen. Secondly, semen was thought to be medieval product of completely digested food, with nourishing foods such as meat and eggs especially conducive to its production.
Finally, certain windy foodstuffs mediveal beans produced an excess of flatulence, which in turn produced an erection. Taken together, these factors made overindulgence at the table a real problem for priests.
Numerous medieval writers told tales of monks who ate too well, and consequently experienced a violent desire for sex, along with almost continuous emissions of semen.
On the other hand, knowledge is power, and religious men could use fasting as a practical strategy to protect themselves from the health risks posed by clerical celibacy.
Salted fish, vegetables in vinegar, and cold water were thought to be particularly suitable foods for monks. In addition, some medical writers recommended anaphrodisiacs for men who wished to avoid sexual intercourse. The 11th-century physician Constantine the Medievap recommended rue, a strong and bitter tea made from an evergreen shrub. Two centuries later, Peter of Spain the only practising physician ever to become pope was also recommending rue; alternatively, one could drink sex of water-lilies for 40 days.
A lthough the most famous cases of death mediegal celibacy relate to male clerics, women were, in their own way, equally vulnerable to this medical problem. According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception — and just like semen, the female seed needed aex be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb.
The symptoms of this condition included fainting mexieval shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. If this was not possible, there were a range of useful remedies, including restricted diets and vinegar suppositories.
Some physicians, however, recommended a rather startling alternative: mdieval. Unsurprisingly, the medieval Swx took a rather dim view of this practice: most medieval penitentials medjeval for medieval identified masturbation as a sin, and imposed heavy penances for it — typically around 30 days of fasting, but sometimes as much as two years.
On the other hand, masturbation was usually placed towards the bottom of the hierarchy of sexual sins, and confessors were permitted to make some allowance for those including unmarried youths who lacked another outlet for their desires. Later medieval physicians were mediieval as explicit as Galen and other ancients.
Late medieval medical books rarely srx male masturbation. For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments, including, stimulation of the genitals either by the msdieval or by a medical professional.
Not only did men and women commit themselves to celibate lives within monastic contexts either becoming monks and nuns, or living a celibate life within a community that was not under a particular monastic rule, chastity even invaded the concept of marriage.
Women, in particular, were encouraged to convince their husbands to live together in chastity, and a number of female saints were wives in chaste marriages. Indeed, older married couples were sometimes encouraged to separate and enter monastic houses, living out the remainder of their lives as monks and nuns. The concept of chastity was very powerful, and chaste women in particular were thought to have superior powers with regard to withstanding demonic temptation, facing martyrdom, etc.
DR FEROS RUYS: The interesting thing is that although regulations governing sexuality appeared to be very strict in the medieval period, they were at least gender equal and there was not the sort of double standard in play that we are familiar with from later periods.
Women had as much right as men to expect monogamy in marriage, and to expect sex in marriage. In some ways, because medieval sexual regulation was so much focused on the spilling of seed, men came under stronger regulation than women. For instance, there was greater concern about men masturbating than women. There was also greater concern about male-male sex than female-female sex. The big question was did marriage simply require equal consent, or was consummation necessary as well?
And were secret marriages legal? For instance, if a couple ran off into the woods and pledged their eternal love and consummated the relationship, did this constitute a legal marriage? Or were witnesses necessary, or was an officiating priest necessary?
These questions were constantly under discussion in the high Middle Ages, and obviously had a huge impact on dynastic considerations.
For example, when wealthy families betrothed a child but then later reconsidered and wanted to make a better marriage: was the betrothal binding? Another issue here was raptus, which is where our idea of rape comes from, but raptus was slightly different, in that it also included the idea of abduction. Even though sexual relations are considered different now than in the Middle Ages, people across time have always dealt with similar issues, just in different ways.
For example, people have oft tried to figure out how to have intercourse without getting pregnant. People have the same concerns about performance or lack of experience. Regardless of geographic location or point in time, those actively engaged in intimate relations have also shouldered concerns about sexual health and prosperity. Albeit, the reasoning may not be quite so similar. How people sexually interact may have changed throughout the centuries , but fundamental principles still ring true: humans are drawn to the exploration of the body and the pleasures it may afford.
Historians of the Middle Ages have been exploring issues related to sex and sexuality. Here are some of the more interesting pieces of research we have uncovered about sex in the Middle Ages. For the medieval man and woman, the eyes and their gazes were an important part of sexuality. The very act of looking could stimulate desire in the observer and the observed.
Medieval homes and communities often lacked privacy, and it might have been difficult for a couple to find a place they could be intimate. According to Anthony Kaldellis , one of the earliest descriptions we have of a wet dream comes from the novel Hysmine and Hysminias, written in the 12th century by Eumathios Makrembolites.
The character Hysminias was describing where he was kissing and fondling his partner. He then states:. An unspeakable, inexpressible, incomparable passion took control of me. I then experienced — by Eros — what I had never experienced before. By the end of the Middle Ages, several fruits became associated with love. Michel Pastoureau explains that cherries were a symbol of love, as was red apples, if given by a man.
In the same vein, the pear, no matter what color, could symbolize male genitals. Throughout the Middle Ages you can find various religious laws and proclamations that tried to restrict when, how and with whom you could have sex. There were also three lengthy periods of abstinence — during Lent, which could last between 47 to 62 days; before Christmas, which could be at least 35 days; and around the Feast of Pentecost, which could range from between 40 to 60 days.
Also, many Feast days for particular Saints would be considered no-sex days as well. During the Early Middle Ages, Penitentials, books that set out church rules and the penance done for breaking them, were popular works. Amid the many different sins they noted were those that dealt with sexual practices.
The seventh-century Irish penitential of Cummean, for example, banned oral, anal and inter-formal sex, as masturbation and bestiality. The Anglo-Saxon Canons of Theodore , meanwhile, includes these punishments:. Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.