Sex in the Middle Ages
The medieval world was a place of big contrasts when it came to sex. Sometimes and in some places, people were open-minded and sex and sexuality, while at other times it was a topic and practice that was shunned or even made illegal.
Medieval historians have been exploring issues related to sex and sexuality. Here are some of the more spicy pieces of information we have uncovered about sex in the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages, everyone noticed the eyes first
For medieval men and women, 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.”
Byzantine wet dreams
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 twelfth century by Eumathios Makrembolites. The character Hysminias was describing where he was kissing and fondling his partner. He then states:
I was in pain and distress, trembling in a strange way; I couldn’t see well, my soul softened, and my vigor left me entirely as my body grew weak, It was hard to breathe, my heart beat faster, and a sweet torment poured over my limbs, almost tickling me. 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 were red apples if given by a man. “As for figs,’ he writes. “with purple rather than red exteriors, they were charged strong exotic connotations and directly evoked the female genitals. In the same vein, the pear, no matter what color, could symbolize male genitals.”
Guides to Better Sex
Many texts from the Middle Ages talk about sex and how to do it better. These would be written for men, and include details on methods and products to improve your sexual ability (think of medieval versions of Viagra). The Encyclopedia of Pleasure, which dates from the tenth century, offers this advice on what a man needs to do:
Know that women prefer a man who knows how to behave well in all circumstances and how to be in harmony with them. They reject a man who has no knowledge about women and do not love him even if he is exceptionally handsome and rich. Then again, they love a poor and disgraced man who is devoid of praiseworthy manners as long as he is well-informed about women and knows how to be in harmony with them. Therefore, the man has to endeavour so that her orgasm coincides with his at their first meeting. That will make her heart favourably disposed to him and it is the most powerful way of strengthening love between them. If it happens in the beginning [of their relationship], their love will last and their affection be complete.
The Catholic 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:
Penitentials were books that existed in the early Middle Ages that set out rules and the penance done for breaking them. Among the many different sins they noted were those that dealt with sexual practices. The seventh-century Irish Penitential of Cummean, for example, banned oral and anal sex, even masturbation. Another early work known as Paenitentiale Theodori includes these punishments:
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.
A Jewish Rabbi on women’s preferences
Writing from southern France in the late thirteenth 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.
For Arīb al-Ma’mūnīya, the superstar singer in ninth-century Baghdad, the question was posed to her what she looked for in a lover. Her response:
My conditions: a penis of steel and nice body odor. If in addition, he has loveliness and beauty, then he will be more worthy to me. But the first two are a must.
Has someone 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 answer is ‘a key’.
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 sexual escapades between men and women. The stories include The Maiden Who Couldn’t Hear Fuck, The Knight who made Cunts Speak, The Priest who Peaked and Berangier of the Long Asshole.
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.
Names for a Penis
The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight is one of several books written in the medieval Arabic world that deals with sex and sexuality. Written in Tunisia in the early 15th century, it offered candid advice on lovemaking between a man and his wife. In one chapter, the author lists the many names a penis could be called:
stud, standard, organ, pigeon, jingle-bells, stroker, shifty, poker, jerk, dozy, butter, basher, knocker, thirst-quencher, screw, plunger, intruder, cyclops, weeper, long-neck, baldy, peeper, goat, grouse, cheeky, bashful, tearful, rocker, roller, ravisher, rummager, drip, tinkler, frotter, snout and scout.
‘No greater human pleasure’
One of the most famous philosopher-scientists of the medieval Middle East, Nasir al-Din Tusi, also wrote a book about sexuality, where he criticizes those who think sex is somehow harmful. “Rather, it is hugely beneficial” he exclaims, adding “there is no greater human pleasure than that of sexual intercourse.” He goes on to describe the various aphrodisiacs one could use to have better sex, noting with one that “it has been tried and tested” and that when you take another “you will see that it works wonders.”
Some book recommendations
If you want to learn about sex in the Middle Ages, you could start with books such as Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others by Ruth Mazo Karras, The Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women: An Inside Look at Women & Sex in Medieval Times by Rosalie Gilbert, and The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, by Katherine Harvey. Another book to check out is Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia: Spicy Stories in The Book of Songs by al-Isfahani, translated by George Dimitri Sawa.
You can read more on Medieval Sexuality here
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 19 D. I, f.4v
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