Medieval sexuality and the Catholic Church

What’s known about sexuality in medieval England is limited enough that I’m not going to mess with the rest of Britain. The picture’s already murky without asking extra figures to wander through the fog. And to complicate the picture, a few bits of information that I found seem to apply generally to Europe, although presumably also to England. 

I’ll focus on Christian England, since religion is central to the discussion, but not everyone in medieval England was Christian. In 1290, when the Jews were banished from England, 16,000 left (they were counted out automatically as they went through the turnstile), so let’s use 16,000 as a rough estimate of the size of the medieval Jewish community. They lived by their own rules, not the Catholic Church’s.

Muslims can first be spotted in England in the sixteenth century, so in the era we’re talking about they were sitting in the sun somewhere and not part of the picture we’re trying to make out in the fog.

Most of what’s known about medieval attitudes toward sex comes from–where else?–written sources: church writers, court records, and literature, all of which had their biases.

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms.

Source One, the Catholic Church, had bet its chips against sex. Or not quite against sex, since in its core document god tells his creations to go forth and multiply, and (spoiler alert) that involves sex. But they had bet, at least, against anyone having fun while doing what they’d been told to do.

Either all or many of the monks and priests who wrote about sex had taken vows of chastity, so at least in theory they had either no first-hand knowledge or only a distant memory to draw on. We can’t know how much their attitudes coincided with what people outside the church thought–or more to the point, did. We can know that they weren’t your average medieval person.

Did you notice how weaselly I was about monks and priests having taken vows of chastity? That’s because it’s hard to date set a date to when that was became an issue. You can find discussions of it in the eleventh century and also the fifth. And the ninth. And if I looked further, I’m sure I could find a few more centuries. Let’s just say that it took hold gradually and didn’t win without a fight.

Source Two, the courts–and there were both church and secular courts–only dealt with people who’d broken a restriction or had been accused of it, so there’s a bias built into the sample. But they leave a good record of–well, not necessarily of what people did, but at least of what someone thought they did. And what the authorities thought they shouldn’t be doing.

Source Three, literature, hadn’t caught the idea that it should reflect real life. A lot of it still hasn’t. I wouldn’t want to base a study of modern sexual practices on a quick troll through a bookstore and far less on a survey of movies.

But there’s a fourth source, medical books, and some were concerned only with the practicalities of medicine, not with the shoulds and shouldn’ts of people’s behavior, although others did a good bit of finger wagging and not all medical writers were good observers of the real world.

A major problem with all these sources is that peasants were illiterate. They not only didn’t read, they didn’t write, so they didn’t leave a record. Their lives went largely undocumented and what documentation we do have came from other people–literate people from the upper classes.

A fifth source is illustrations–tapestries and book illustrations–but they’re hard to interpret. The Bayeux tapestry shows a man with an erection running toward a woman. Is he threatening some random stranger? Is she glad to see him home? We don’t know how to interpret the image and we don’t know how someone of the time would have interpreted it.

We’ll work with what we’ve got. Don’t mistake any of it for the definitive truth.

The going assumption was that women were either either chaste or sexually ravenous–the old virgin / whore thing, but more so. Women were thought of as sexually disruptive. I’ve seen the word predatory used, and men’s fear of women’s sexuality fueled their fear of witchcraft. Hell, a woman could turn a man on by looking at him, because the eye didn’t just take in, it sent out seeing-rays that affected what they saw. 

That last link is the only source I could find for that, but I think it’s legit.

So sex was a danger and the church dealt with it by restricting it–less so at the beginning of the medieval period and more so by the end. Keep that in mind, because I haven’t been able to date any of this.

According to church rules, you weren’t supposed to have sex either before you were married or outside of marriage, but even inside of marriage, you had to be careful. The only approved way to have sex was in the missionary position. Anything else might lead to a deformed child and was a sin anyway. (These restrictions also come from the link above and I haven’t been able to back them up with a second source.)

You also couldn’t have sex on a Sunday. Or a Thursday or Friday. Or during Lent. Or before Christmas. (So what do you want for Christmas, dear?) Or on assorted saints’ days and feast days.

Or during your lifetime or anyone else’s.

Having sex when a woman had her period would produce a child with epilepsy or (or possibly and) leprosy, according to one medical treatise.

In case you weren’t inclined to take all this seriously, a child could be considered a bastard if a couple conceived it when they shouldn’t have had sex. 

How would anyone know what they did in the privacy of their bedroom? Two ways.

Way one, confession was part of the culture. People told their sins to a priest–either all of them or enough to keep up appearances. So everyone had an informer built into their lives.

Did I say their lives? Into their very selves.

Way two, people didn’t have bedrooms. If they had any privacy at all, they didn’t have much. Entire families slept in one room, making sex something people were necessarily open about. 

Partway through the medieval period, the rich began building solars–separate rooms where they slept and could withdraw from the public mayhem of the hall. But even in the houses of the rich, everyone else slept in public spaces. (If you google solars, make sure you ask about the medieval kind, otherwise you’ll be sent weeks’ worth of ads for solar panels.)

One source I found speculates that empty churches might have functioned as the medieval equivalent of the back seat of a car. Two people who weren’t married would want a bit of privacy, not because sex was private but because sin was. Breaking the rules was. A person wanting to masturbate might also want a bit of privacy. And I’m willing to bet that anyone seen to be enjoying a bit of privacy for anything other than prayer and penitence was suspect. 

In all of this, keep in mind that marriage among the upper classes wasn’t about love or attraction, it was about land and money and power. If married people were tempted to look outside their marriages for a bit of joy, it was hardly surprising.

Masturbation was a sin, but no more so than a thousand other things. It was also a sin for a man to have sex with an effeminate man or with another man. (In the source where I found this, these seem to be separate categories, although I’m not sure how much weight to give that.) But homosexuality as we think of it not only wasn’t a sin, it wasn’t a concept. Their categories were different than ours, and their thought patterns were different than ours. The best I can do by way of explaining it to myself is to say that it wasn’t about who you were but what you did.

Rape wasn’t much of a concern for the courts or the church. The assumption was that men took what they wanted. But it would’ve been a concern to the person who was raped and, if it was a woman, to her family, since a family’s honor depended on its women’s sexual–ahem–purity. And among the upper classes, a girl or young woman’s virginity was worth money: finding her a good marriage depended on it, and marriage, I repeat, was a financial arrangement, not just for her but for her family. So her virginity was her family’s concern at least as much as it was hers. That meant the sexual standards for women were stricter than for men. A man’s misbehavior dishonored only himself, and I’d at least consider the possibility that some misbehaviors didn’t dishonor him for long.

Prostitution was a sin but at the same time it was tolerated, and even considered necessary–so much so that brothels were often publicly owned. Yes indeedy, kids, it takes some work to bend our modern minds into the medieval mindset. In court cases where a man was claimed to be impotent–impotence being one of the few reasons a marriage could be dissolved–a prostitute might be brought in to a test the claim. If he wasn’t interested, it would’ve been hard for him to claim he was.

Presumably, if he wasn’t interested in one woman, he was assumed not to be interested in any.  

Although the clothes prostitutes wore marked them as prostitutes, they weren’t necessarily shunned by lower-class communities. Some women worked as part-time prostitutes, adding their earnings to whatever other income they had. The ways a single woman–whether she was unmarried, widowed, or abandoned–could make a living were limited and people did what they had to.

So on the one hand sex was highly restricted and on the other hand people were very open about it. Metal badges–the kind pilgrims brought back from holy sites–have been found with images of flying penises on them. What did they mean? It’s hard to know. Maybe people liked flying penises. Maybe the badges were supposed to restore a man’s ability to make his own penis feel like it was flying. It’s all guesswork after this many years. It seems like a safe bet, though, that a flying penis wasn’t considered offensive. 

Early in the middle ages, couples didn’t have to be married by a priest and marriages didn’t have to be recorded. In villages, I I doubt there’d have been much question about who was married to who–everyone knew everyone else’s story for generations back–but in less cohesive communities that could get messy and courts occasionally saw couples, or non-couples, or semi-couples, where A claimed to be married to B but B claimed not to be married to A.

Medicine, in the absence of anything approaching science, ranged from imaginative to hallucinatory. One writer claimed that if a woman ate sage that a cat had ejaculated on, she’d have kittens.

Don’t try this at home, kids. It might work and you’ll have a hell of a time explaining it to your family and friends and neighbors.

Some medical writers considered sex necessary to balance the humors, and everyone agreed that good health depended on balanced humors. They considered masturbation–or at least wet dreams–inevitable. Some even recommended it to celibate people. Galen (pre-medieval, but much admired in the period) suggested that physicians or midwives could “’place hot poultices on the . . . genitals’ of a celibate woman and ‘cause [her] to experience orgasm, which would release the retained seed.’“

What was in the poultices? Fairy dust, and if I can get a supply, I’m going into business.

So orgasm was okay but it was for medicinal purposes only. If you enjoyed it too much, that would be voluptuousness, and the church said voluptuousness was bad.

Since female virginity mattered so much, some medical writings listed ways to figure out if a woman was a virgin, including “observing a woman’s behavior, urine inspection, and sometimes actual intercourse. Other texts offer not only the tests, but also ways to restore a woman’s virginity.”  

And if that sounds bizarre–and it does–all you have to do is google secondary virginity to find that the idea of restoring virginity is still with us. Some fundamentalist Christians call it born-again virginity or second-generation virginity. You can even get re-hymenized. 

Assuming, of course, that you’re not male.