Sex in the Middle Ages

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.


In the Middle Ages, everyone noticed the eyes first

For the medieval man and woman, the eyes and their gazes were an important part of sexuality. In her book, Medieval Life, Roberta Gilchrist explains that according to medieval theories about sight, “the eye was not a passive receiver but was instead active in sending out rays of sight toward the object of vision. The very act of looking could stimulate desire in the observer and the observed.” Women were typically advised to avoid looking at men so as not to tempt them.

Where can you have sex in the medieval village?

Medieval homes and communities often lacked privacy, and it might have been difficult for a couple to find a place they could be intimate. Ruth Mazo Karras notes that “the church, safe, dry, and deserted for much of the day, might have been the equivalent of the back seat of a car.”

The Medieval Church did not like sex (in the church or otherwise)

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. For example, people were not to have sex on Sundays, because that was the Lord’s Day, and also on Thursdays and Fridays, which were supposed to be days preparing for Communion. 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.

Here is a helpful chart:

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. Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years….

If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days. He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days. If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him….

Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.

While it was permitted to have sex with your spouse, only one type of position – the Missionary – was allowed, on the basis that this provided the least pleasure for the couple.

Penitentials gradually fell out of favour during the Middle Ages, and were rarely produced after the twelfth-century.

What kind of man did a woman prefer? A Jewish Rabbi answers…

Writing from southern France in late 13th century, Rabbi Isaac ben Yedaiah notes that the circumcised man should make sure that his wife does not sleep with an uncircumcised man. Otherwise:

She too will court the man who is uncircumcised in the flesh and lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her a long time because of the foreskin, which is a barrier against ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasp him, holding on to his genitals, and says to him, “Come back, make love to me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles – sinews of iron – and from his ejaculation – that of a horse – which he shoots like an arrow into her womb. They are united without separating, and he makes love twice and three times in one night, yet the appetite is not filled.

Click here to read more from Decoding the Rabbis: A Thirteenth-Century Commentary on the Aggadah

Has someone really tried to research this?

In A Cultural History of Sexuality, Ruth Evans notes that “semen stains on medieval manuscripts have yet to be discovered.”

Is the answer really ‘a key’?

Medieval riddles, such as this one found in the Exeter Book, often seem to have double-entendre meanings:

A curiosity hangs by the thigh of a man, under its master’s cloak. It is pierced through in the front; it is stiff and hard and it has a good standing-place. When the man pulls up his own robe above his knee, he means to poke with the head of his hanging thing that familiar hole of matching length which he has often filled before.

The medieval stories you don’t read in grade school

Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, tales known as  fabliaux were popular in France. These were comic stories that frequently included wives and other women in sexual escapades with a variety of men. The stories include The Maiden Who Couldn’t Hear FuckThe Knight who made cunts speak, The priest who peaked and Berangier of the Long Asshole.Click here to read Berangier of the Long Asshole

Dealing with prostitutes in the medieval town

While prostitution was considered a sinful act, in urban areas throughout medieval Europe it was tolerated as a necessary evil. Some regulations of prostitution still survive, such as Regulations concerning Prostitutes Dwelling in Brothels, which was part of the Nuremberg city ordinances from about 1470. One section states:

Also, the brothel keeper, man and woman, must provide the women living in their house with chambers, bed linens, and decent food, and they must feed them two meals a day and at every meal two decent dishes; and for such expenses each common woman living in the brothel must give the brothel keeper separately the sum of forty-two pence weekly, whether she uses the food or not. In addition the brothel keeper must make and hold a bath at least once a week in the house for the women living in the house, and this at his expense, not the women’s.

Click here to read more about Prostitution in the Middle Ages

See also:

Medieval Viagara – Over a thousand years before Viagra was invented, medieval men were looking for ways to treat treat erectile dysfunction. We take a look at the prescriptions offered in one of the most popular medical textbooks from the Middle Ages.

How to restore virginity – advice from Caterina Sforza – If you follow the advice of Caterina Sforza, “you will see that thing become so narrow that you yourself will be in admiration.”

The Cross-dressing Women of Medieval London – Women going around dressed as men, wearing men’s hats, and even having their hair cut short, was not an acceptable practice in medieval society. However, in late medieval London there were at least 13 cases of women accused of doing just that.

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