Beliefs about Human Sexual Function in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Female genitourinary system with pregnant uterus as shown in the Hebammenbuch of Jacob Rueff, 1583.

Beliefs about Human Sexual Function in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

By Thomas G. Benedek

Human Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. by Douglas Radcliff-Umstead (Pittsburgh, 1978)

Introduction: We want to examine the major beliefs about human sexual anatomy and function that prevailed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and some of the medical practices that were related to these beliefs.  Historically, these were not ‘Medieval beliefs,’ because virtually all were ancient and underwent very little evolution from at least the second to the 16th century.  Most were deeply ingrained in the folklore not only of Europe, but of substantial portions of Asia as well, and were not restricted to the intelligensia.  Certain of the anatomic and physiologic ideas were ennunicated by Hippocrates in the 4th century B.C., and the majority were accepted from the writings of the second century Roman physician, Claudius Galen (ca. 129-201)

Four illustrations of female anatomy will demonstrate the lack of progress in the understanding of anatomic structure and relationships well into the 16th century. The first is very primitive and is believed to have been drawn in about 1400. Essentially the same illustration was used in the Fasciculus medicinae of Johannes de Ketham, in 1491. We see almost no true proportions or relationships.  The gravid uterus appears as an inverted flask and is not differentiated from the vagina. A fetus is almost standing at attention within. The little knobs on the sides of the abdomen are the kidneys, and no gonads are shown.

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The next illustration is from the second edition of the same work, which was published in 1495. This is the earliest known illustration that may have been based on a human dissection. The intestines have been removed and the vagina has been opened anteriorly. A rather accurately drawn cervix can be seen and the gonads also are fairly well placed. The strange horizontal structures are not thigh bones, but the alleged horns of the uterus.

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