Sex-in-the-MA-art - 7/6/01
"A Little Bit of Sex in the Middle Ages" by Lady Eden Blacksmith.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at:
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
NOTE: This article was first printed in the Renaissance Web Magazine. www.rencentral.com
"A Little Bit of Sex in the Middle Ages"
by Lady Eden Blacksmith
If the question is 'Did they have sex in the Middle Ages'...the answer is yes. A very definite and resounding yes. We mostly have Pope Gregory IX (13th Cen.) to thank for most of our perceptions and laws regarding sex. The Church also gave standards for us on the levels of sexual sin: Masturbation, Mutual Masturbation, Interfemoral Intercourse (the placement of the penis between the thighs of the passive partner) and Anal Intercourse. Sex, it was taught, was a necessary (reproductive reasons) evil introduced to humanity by the Devil. Sexual feelings and urges were not fully under the control of the human will. And, since women as 'the daughters of Satan' were the reasons for those urges women were liable for the introduction of sin through sex. That is not to say the Church did not see sex as necessary and even profitable. Prostitution for example:
How old is Prostitution? Writings dated back to 1750 BC state that it was old even than. Thomas Aquinas said: "if prostitution were to be suppressed, careless lusts would overthrow society." Pope Gregory IX (13th Cen.) Founded the St. Mary Magdalene (White Ladies), these were previous prostitutes who though the kindness and generosity of good Wives were given dowries and sent to marry somewhere else...much emphasis given to somewhere else. Stews (brothels) were regulated and inspected and taxed by the government for most of the Middle Ages. Please note in some places and times the Church was the government. Many 'women of the night' rose to unbelievable heights: Tullia d'Aragona who was not made to wear the 'whore's mirror' (professionals in 16th. Cen. Florence had to wear a veil with a yellow stripe on it), or Rosa Vanozza who had a great career till the age of thirty when she settled done with Pope Alexander VI and birthed him four love children. However, for each Tulla or Rosa countless women were tormented and killed. Those women who chose or were not permitted to belong to a Stew were at the mercy of the populace and the law. In the 12th Cen hamstringing was a common practice in parts of France. Some of them were exhibited in cages, mutilated, given to prisoners, ducked to death in the river, branded, body parts chopped off (like a nose or breast) or worse. The Church taught it was better for a man to have nonprocreative sex with a prostitute than with his innocent wife. (Sex was for only reproductive reasons). To better understand the view the Church taught about when it was ok to have sex with ones wife it is easier to state when was sex forbidden.
SEX IS FORBIDDEN WHEN A WOMAN IS MENSTRUATING, PREGNANT, NURSING, DURING LENT, ADVENT, WHITSUM WEEK AND EASTER WEEK. ON FEAST DAYS, FAST DAYS, SUNDAYS, WEDNESDAYS, FRIDAYS AND SATURDAYS. DURING THE DAYLIGHT. IF YOU ARE NAKED. IF YOU ARE IN A CHURCH. UNLESS YOU ARE TRYING TO PRODUCE A CHILD. NO FONDLING. NO LEWD KISSES. NO ORAL SEX. NO STRANGE POSITIONS. ONLY ONCE. TRY NOT TO ENJOY IT. WASH AFTERWARDS.
Canon Law and ecclesiastical councils had, by the end of the 12th century, effectively stigmatized homosexuality. The Church had no formal laws against lesbianism. In their view it did not exist, therefore there could not be punishments for it. Yet, the Church did have rules regarding where and how the Sisters were to sleep. For male homosexuality the Church had many regulations and punishments pertaining to it. Mutual Masturbation by men over twenty first offense might be 40 days penance or fined, while Anal Intercourse could be a penance of 7 years , a fine or forfeit of life.From the 6th to 11th Cen. homosexuality was given very little consideration by the Church. Societies in different times and places had varied dispositions on the subject. The Vikings had words for the different aspects of homosexuality: a man who shunned marriage was called a fuoflogi (man who flees the female sex organ), while a woman was a flannfluga (woman who flees the male sex organ). History of the Vikings shows us that there was nothing unusual or shameful about male homosexuality as long as you were the dominant partner, however the passive partner was ridiculed. The Germans also had a word for Renaissance Florence; Florenzer in German means 'Sodomite'. In the late 15th Cen. one in two Florentine men had come to the attention of the authorities for sodomy by the time they were thirty. In the 70 years from 1432 to 1502, some 17,000 men in a city of only 40,000 were investigated for sodomy; 3000 were convicted and thousands more confessed to gain amnesty. The attitude at that time seems to have been age-defined; boys under 18 the passive partner, youths in their 20's the dominant participant, and men around the age of 30 put aside such sport to settle and marry. Throughout the medieval time period the homosexuals we know best were Royalty: King James I & VI, King Henry II and III, King Richard I, Robert, Duke of Normandy as well as many others. We should also not forget the 14th-century union between Edward II and his queen, Isabella of France. It was a relationship not without its stresses, including the fact that Edward had a stable of perfumed male lovers. Isabella was sufficiently dissatisfied with this arrangement that she staged a rebellion with her lover in 1326, forced her husband to renounce the throne in favor of their son, Edward III, then had the former king murdered in a particularly distressing way involving a red-hot poker.
The Medieval Church was against any form of contraception, whether it was certain positions, herbs, devices (such as a condom) or the popular, but not very effective rhythm method. Below are some methods used to prevent pregnancy:
Condoms: Historians disagree about how condoms got their name. Some say a "Dr. Condom" supplied King Charles II of England with animal-tissue sheaths to keep him from fathering illegitimate children and getting diseases from prostitutes. Others claim the word comes from a 'Dr. Condon' or a 'Colonel Cundum.' It may be more likely that the word derives from the Latin condon, meaning 'receptacle.' Condoms were made from sheepskin, snakeskin, other animal intestines and later linen. Sometimes with lemon juice and vinegar added which acted as a spermicide. They did not understand that the lemon and vinegar changed the PH level in the vagina, they just knew it worked.
Pessaries (vaginal suppositories): According to an ancient medical manuscript called the Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC), women were advised to grind together dates, acacia (a tree bark), and a touch of honey into a moist paste, dip seed wool into the sweet gel and place in the vulva. It was very effective, for Acacia ferments into lactic acid, a well know spermicide, it also could have sealed up the cervix. Women were also told to put into themselves cotton mixed with lemon, dried fish mixed with lemon, wool soaked olive oil (Aristotle's suggestion, various herbs or cow dung mixed with honey. The Kahun Papyrus (1850B.C.) refers to a pessary of crocodile dung and fermented dough.
Coitus Interruptus: The act of interrupting intercourse before the man had ejaculated was a common practice, which was as effective then as it is today.
Plants: Plants have been used as birth control and as abortifacients for centuries. One of the oldest known effective plants for birth control was called silphium, a member of the Ferula genus. The plant was used well before 370 B.C. And was so popular and effective it was used to extinction by the 3rd or 4th Cen. There are many different plants that have been used over the years, most are poisonous and the effective recipe lost. One of the most effective and used as long ago as 2,000 years is Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot. Hippocrates wrote of it and in the late 1980 scientists began studying it and found (in mice) that it blocked the production of progesterone and inhibited fetal and ovarian growth. Queen Anna's Lace is also known as Mother Die, because if you brought it into the house (according to superstition) your mother would die. Other plants long known for contraceptive properties include: pennyroyal (very toxic), asafoetida (related to silphium), myrrh, rue, willow, date palm, pomegranate (the skin), cabbage, pine, onions, and acacia gum. The problem with plants is that nature is every changing, it is difficult to evaluate a productive dose. For last year's plant would have only needed a drop to work, while this year's might need a tablespoon. Also identification, the risk of over medication, not having the correct recipe and the risk of illness or death make contraceptive plants a subject needing extensive study. Something a little different: Countless women died because of childbirth, and in some cases one more mouth was one too many, and there was those women for whom a baby (or, his baby) would be very inconvenient. So numerous things were tried: potions, dances, positions and superstitions. Women were told to undulate their hips during the act (to drive the sperm away), after sex they should get on their knees and sneeze. To place pepper into the mouth of the uterus, as if to 'sneeze' closer to the source. Bloodletting was a common practice. Jumping up and down after was thought very effective. As was douches made of herbs, blood, oils and animal excrement. The douches probably did produce results; the infection (from placing such items within) could have produced an abortion.
The study of sexual practice, beliefs, views and superstitions is a enticing subject. Our forefathers and foremothers explored many facets of the sexual experience. One of the major changes to the medieval sexual world was one the crusaders came home and brought many new and delightful ideas with them such as the Kama Sutra. It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun and this holds true within the medieval sexual world. Sexual devices, S&M, zoophillia, chastity belts, castration, sexual positions sexual perversions, and sexual abuse were well known to them.. Though the Church taught that sex should not be enjoyed, history shows that it was and much attention was given to its fulfillment. We have proof of this because of the introduction and role aphrodisiacs played in society. Take the peach for example: The Chinese have long associated the peach with ripe sexuality. Its red blush color, silken fuzzy skin, juicy flesh and aroma make it a natural choice. Take a peek at Edouard Manet's once controversial painting, Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, and while your eye will first turn to look at the beautiful nude woman sitting next to the two clothed scholars, you will also notice the succulent peaches and other fruits she has brought to this very sensuous picnic. Everything that is ripe, sensual and arousing, the artist has placed in her corner of the painting. Very stimulating.
Copyright 2000 by Eden Blacksmith, 1730 Gates, Kingman, AZ 86401.
Edenblacksmith at hotmail.com. Permission is granted for republication in
SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.