Sex in the Middle Ages, between truth and legends

Jacques Rossiaud’s Sexualités au Moyen age reveals some interesting trivia about sexuality in the Middle Ages. The essay by the French historian illustrates medieval sexual habits and beliefs, denying some clichés on the subject and revealing many little-known curiosities. Here are some examples.

Abstinence

No sex was allowed between spouses at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Assumption - when the brothels could remain open.

Positions

Until the 12th century, the only acceptable position was the missionary, considered the most suitable for procreation, as it was thought that “deviant positions provoke God’s wrath”. Sometime later, tolerance started to increase, but the position of the so-called “erotic horse” (when the woman is above) remained inadmissible: theologians condemned it and doctors even considered it dangerous.

Brothels

Prostitution was tolerated as a lesser evil: it was better for men to meet a prostitute than to corrupt their wives or, worse, to find satisfaction on their own. For this reason, brothels were open all year long (except on Good Friday) and were also frequented by priests, who actually accounted for 20% of regulars in the 15th century.

Contraception

There were different contraceptive methods, but they were very often ineffective: from amulets to genuflections, from decoctions of lettuce to injections of ice-cold water “to cool the seed”.

Chastity belt

This was an invention of the Renaissance - but we already knew this.

Masturbation

It was blamed, but to varying degrees. Unexpectedly, it was almost tolerated for women and harshly opposed for men, for whom it was “worse than eating meat on Fridays”.

How many times

Couples were widely recommended not to exceed two intercourses per week, as “too many orgasms shorten life, drain the body, reduce the brain and destroy the eyes”.

Vow of chastity

The chastity of priests was not as highly valued as we would think. The bishop Hugh of Lincoln, questioned by an unsatisfied wife, suggested this remedy: “Do you want your husband to rediscover his ardor? I will make him a priest. As soon as a man becomes a priest, he burns with passion”.

The right moment

According to Platina, a humanist and papal librarian of the mid-15th century, “this act must be avoided when one is full of wine or other types of meat” but also “when one has an empty stomach and is very hungry”. So when is the right moment? “The right time to do this is when the food has almost been digested, when you don't want to sleep or do something different”.

Sodomy

As a matter of fact, all acts of pleasure that do not aim at procreation - from oral sex to masturbation – were called “sodomy sins”. Homosexuality began to be violently condemned only from the 12th century: for St. Thomas and his followers the sin of sodomy was almost as serious as cannibalism.

Virginity

According to a 1428 Statute of Belluno, “one cannot assume a woman over twenty years of age is a virgin unless her chastity can be proven”.

It's all natural

In spite of everything, sex was considered a natural act, a “gift of creation”: according to the 12th century philosopher Guillaume de Conches “only hypocrites do not take it into account”.

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