The Greeks and Romans are known for being a bit of a freaky bunch. But the general assumption is that medieval Europeans were stilted, non-sexual beings, instructed by church doctrine that sex was for procreation, not recreation.
That’s not a million miles away from the truth. However, like all medieval societies, they believed some funny things surrounding the whole concept of sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages; a few of which may be surprising. In some ways, sex in Medieval Europe wasn’t quite as straitlaced as one might imagine.
7. The Church Allowed 5 Sex Positions
The Church was medieval Europe’s moral compass. It told the average person how to behave, what was permitted and right in the eyes of God, and what was not. As may be expected, folks were very religious, following church doctrine to the letter, and following strict rules on sex, even during marriage.
Catholics are known for their abstinence, lack of contraception, and disapproval of anything perceived as “sexually deviant” – so it may come as a surprise that they weren’t all about the missionary position. In fact, 5 positions were “church-sanctioned” although only missionary was fully acceptable.
Albertus Magnus, who lived approx. 1200-1280 is considered by historians and scholars today as one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of Medieval Europe. In one of his works, he spoke extensively about medieval sexuality, laying out the 5 positions for marital sex he deems acceptable in the eyes of religion. They are, in order from best to worst:
- Side by side
- A Tergo (doggy style)
It’s important to note he does say missionary is the only completely natural position, but he considers the necessity of others for those who may be unable to *ahem* complete the deed, missionary style.
A tergo Doggy style was the recommended method in cases of obesity. Therefore, these four other positions were “morally questionable but not mortally sinful”. In other words, God would forgive you.
Admittedly, it’s still nowhere near as juicy as ancient societies. But at least our ancestors were having slightly better sex in the Middle Ages than we all thought.
6. Celibacy = Death (for men)
Medieval Europe followed the work of the ancient Greeks, notably Hippocrates and his medical belief the body was controlled by the balance of four “humours”. An imbalance of these humours is what led to illness or even death.
It was believed that for men who were unable to…. release… an excess of semen inside their bodies would suffer an imbalance of the four humours.
Believe it or not, lack of masturbation and sex was what they think killed King Louis VIII of France because he didn’t get his jollies off during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29). Bet no one thought that a bizarre death would be a side effect of fidelity.
5. Masturbation for Women
Unsurprisingly, the medieval Church took a rather dim view of this practice. Most medieval penitentials (handbooks for confessors) identified masturbation as a sin and imposed heavy penance for it. Typically punishments were around 30 days of fasting, but could increase to a whole two years.
On the other hand, masturbation was usually placed towards the bottom of the hierarchy of medieval sexual sins. Confessors were permitted to make some allowance for those (including unmarried youths) who lacked another outlet for their desires.
This caveat reflects the Church’s awareness of contemporary medical teachings. It was impossible to ignore the fact that medical authorities from Galen onwards had recommended masturbation as a form of preventative medicine for both men and women.
In fact, Galen changed medieval beliefs about sexuality, suggesting the need for sexual activity and relief was comparable to a need to evacuate your bowels. Although hopefully far more enjoyable.
Late medieval medical books rarely mentioned male masturbation. For medieval women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments, including stimulation of the genitals (either by the patient or by a medical professional). If such a woman could not marry (for example, because she was a nun), and if her life was in genuine danger, genital massage might be the only solution, and could even be performed without the same sin as medieval sex.
The 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden thought that such a woman should try to cure her condition through exercise, foreign travel, and medication. But ‘if she has a fainting fit, the midwife should insert a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb, and move it vigorously about’. A sure cure that sounds more like medieval torture to us.
4. Prostitution was A-Okay
Prostitution is something that you don’t imagine pairing well with church doctrine. But strangely enough, the church was okay with it. Or at least, they believed it was a necessary evil. We imagine this may have something to do with the previously mentioned imbalance of humours caused by an excess of semen. If a man’s only way to release was via prostitution, then this was acceptable to the church.
Without going into all the reasons that’s infuriating, we’ll instead refer to the charming St. Thomas Aquinas who referred to prostitution as a necessary evil – “like a sewer in a palace.” Despite the outward condemnation by the Church both in doctrine and moral teachings, they generally turned a blind eye to prostitution, accepting it as part of society’s tapestry and a way to help curb male sexual desire.
In other words, they didn’t practice what they preached.
3. Female Virginity – a bird’s eye view
Gatekeeping female sexuality isn’t new. Ridiculous claims like knowing the number of sexual relationships a woman has had by the tightness of her vagina is a belief that stretches back centuries.
Plus, did you know that how you walk might be telling the world you’re promiscuous? According to theologist and philosopher Ibn Rushd, you could tell if a medieval woman was chaste simply by their “sense of shame, modest gait, glance and good manners.”
Hilariously, they also believed sexual intercourse affected your pee.
Yes, that’s right, having sex apparently changes the color of your urine. If the woman was a virgin then her urine should be clear and sparkling white. However, if it turns golden then she has a strong desire for sex and you better marry her off fast lest she brings shame to the family.
That’s almost as bad as some of the beliefs about women that led to the Salem witch trials in America not too long after.
Albertus Magnus, our medieval sex position guru, also believed that women received greater sexual pleasure from intercourse than men. A sure sign he wasn’t having sex himself.
2. Sex and its effect on baby’s gender
There are still some people who ascribe to old wives’ tales for getting a baby of a particular gender. If you have sex on a full moon, legs straight up in the air, with incense burning from a window facing the northern star you’ll almost certainly have a boy…. 50% certainly anyway.
While we may laugh at these sorts of notions today, medieval people didn’t have the same medical knowledge we have. And if you think about it, without any modern understanding, the conclusions they reach almost make sense.
For example, they believed that the testicle the sperm came from and the ovary the egg came from impacted both the gender of the child and whether their nature would be masculine or feminine.
They also thought that semen needed heat and blood from the woman in order for procreation to occur.
1. Homosexuality as a sin
You may be surprised to learn that early medievalists didn’t actually have that much of an issue with homosexuality. Given everything we know about the church and medieval sexuality this may come as a shock. But it was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that the references to homosexuality started to increase in books of penitentiaries. This is thanks to the work of Thomas of Aquinas who alongside other contemporaries defined homosexual sex as against nature.
This implies that until church doctrine changed around this medieval period, people sort of regarded homosexuality a tad uncomfortably. Like your neighbor masturbating outside or having sex with a sheep without the decency to hide behind a hay bale.
Prior to this period not much is known about medieval sexuality beliefs in Europe. Still, much like prostitution (and very unlike the Ancient Greeks), it seems that “unnatural” sex acts were looked at less as outright wrong, but rather frowned upon, and came with some light punishment when discovered. That is until Thomas of Aquinas stuck his nose in Church doctrine and changed perceptions of medieval sexuality.