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.”
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 12th 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 was 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.”
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 men did women 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.
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 Fuck, The Knight who made cunts speak, The priest who peaked and 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.
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 that 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.”
Medieval Viagra – 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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