Very, Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women
Sex, Contraception and Sexuality
CHURCH PROHIBITIONS - SEXUAL HEALTH - PROCREATION
CONTRACEPTIVES & ABORTIVES - PROSTITUTE- THE CULT OF THE VIRGIN
- - ADULT THEMES - -
Unlike today, a woman's status in
society wasn't gauged by her age or profession, but by her sexual
status. She was either a virgin, a wife or a widow. Her rights
and obligations were dependent on these. Holy women, who may have
at one time been wives or widows and may no longer have been actual
virgins, were considered virgins as brides of Christ and usually
fell into the same category as unmarried, and therefore chaste,
women. An unmarried woman who was not a virgin, either because
she was a mistress or prostitute found herself on tenuous ground
both legally and in society.
the subject of sex, the church had much to say. Not only did it
have differing opinions of the goodness women in general, it also
recognised the need for men to marry and produce heirs. 11th century
cardinal Peter Damien wrote that;
woman is Satan's bait.. poison
for men's souls..
The church acknowledged that a woman
was required as part of God's play to go forth and multiply. A
woman shouldn't, however, enjoy sexual relations. It was
something to be endured for the sake of procreation. Since sex
couldn't be forbidden entirely, restrictions on when relations
could take place were in place. Listed below are some of the times
when it was not permissible to have sex, even with one's own husband.
Sex was not permitted on a Wednesday, or a Friday, on a Sunday,
or Saturday, on any of the 60 church feast days, during lent,
during Advent, during Whitsun week, Easter week, while a woman
is menstruating, while a woman is pregnant, while a woman is breastfeeding,
within the walls of a church, during daylight, if she is completely
naked, for the eight days leading up her husband taking the Eucharist
or if the couple was related, even by marriage. The only permissible
position was the missionary position.
The church confessional became increasingly personal. Priests
could ask the most personal questions about a woman's most private
practices. Among the questions listed in an 11th century Confessors
Manual, are questions specifically aimed at women-
Have you made a tool or device
in the shape of a penis and tied it to your private parts and
fornicated with other women with it? Have you swallowed semen
to enhance your husbands desire? Have you put menstrual blood
in his food to enflame his passion?
The fact that the church felt the
need to even ask this question tells us a certain amount about
sex practices which were frowned upon, even if they didn't involve
sex with men.
It was believed that sex was a requirement for a woman's ongoing
good health. A husband's impotency was taken quite seriously,
as it was believed that a woman needed regular sexual intercourse
for her emotional and physical well-being. The humors which would
build up inside her if she was denied her could lead to madness,
convulsions, fainting fits, suffocation of the womb and hysteria.
A woman could divorce a man for his inability to perform.
of Chobham devised a method to determine if a husband was was
absolutely impotent. He approved a physical examination of the
man's genitals by 'wise matrons', followed by a bedroom trial:
'after food and drink, the man
and the woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise
women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And
if the man's member is found to be useless and as if dead, the
couple are well to be separated.
There are documented court cases
in both 1292 at Canterbury and 1433 in York where wise women testified
against the husband in cases such as this. It was not unusual
that the wise matrons were family members or known to the man.
This could hardly improve performance issues he may have been
having. Shown at left is a detail from the 1400-1409 painting
Paul The Hermit Sees A Christian Tempted.
Sex for procreation
Producing an heir was serious business for the medieval family
and a woman was expected to provide a male heir to keep the family
name, business and land holdings. A marriage was often not deemed
proper until coitus had taken place, sometimes with witnesses.
There was much advice on the best times for sex to produce male
heirs and there were many recipes to guarantee a pregnancy. The
image detail at right comes from a 13th century manuscript the
Maciejowski Bible, from France. It shows a king in bed
with a woman who has her hair sensibly arranged in a coif.
Contraceptives and abortives
Rather surprisingly, medieval women did know about and use contraception.
Since childbirth was so perilous, many women desired contraception
which was roundly condemned by the church. St Augustine declared
that any woman, whether she was married or otherwise, became a
whore in the eyes of God if she used contraceptives, as the only
reason for sexual intercourse was procreation.
Abortion was also frowned upon as it was stated in the dictum
that a fetus had a soul of its own after 40 days. In both civil
and canon law in 13th century England, abortion was condoned in
certain conditions only- in the case of an unborn child endangering
the life of the mother, it was the life of the mother who was
to be saved. Debates on contraception for a woman who had previous
complications with pregnancy were held with great seriousness.
Should a woman refrain from sex so that she might not conceive
and possibly die in childbirth when sex was necessary for her
health and well-being? Were contraceptives permissible in situations
such as these?
Luckily, breastfeeding and poor nutrition
provided a certain amount of contraceptive measure for peasant
woman. Women in higher society were more likely to have wet nurses
and better diets and thereby ran the risk of pregnancy sooner
than her poorer counterpart.
One contraceptive measure recorded
by medieval German women is using beeswax and rags to form a physical
block. Other popular herbal compounds used rosemary and balsam
with or without palsley (parsley?). Douching and eating
lead was also believed to alleviate potential pregnancy while
Albertus Magnus prescribed consuming myrrh and coriander to abort
a fetus. Trotula offered many helpful herbal remedies, and a few
rather strange ones:
Take a male weasel and let its
testicles be removed and let it be released alive. Let the woman
carry these testicles with her in her bosom and let her tie
them in goose skin or in another skin, and she will not conceive
A plaster made of hemlock, pictured
at right, applied to the testicles of the husband prior to the
sexual act was also recommended as a contraceptive. Surprisingly,
this helpful advice comes from a treatise written by the future
catholic Pope John XXI in The Treasure of the Poor. Dampening
the man's desire for coitus was also a form of avoiding pregnancy.
This could be done by drinking a man's urine.
Women who made their living in the sex industry were as active
in the middle ages as they are today. Prostitutes were looked
down upon but deemed to be a necessary evil- something that society
needed but would rather not talk about.
At times women who were prostitutes wore visible markers on their
clothing to identify them with their trade. Ironically,
at certain periods over the Middle Ages, prostitutes were exempted
from sumptuary laws because it was acknowledged that a women in
that line of work required certain things to make her desirable
in order to make a living. Dress in the Middle Ages by
Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Maine state that:
The striped cloak .. in Marseilles..
the striped hood worn in England, the white hood of Talouse,
the black and white pointed hat of Strasbourg were increasingly
replaced by bands of fabric stitched to the sleeve or the shoulder,
then by tassels worn on the arm.
The church, as much as they denounced
men fornicating with any woman than a man's own wife, were not
above being involved in the industry. A brothel in Dijon, France,
lists twenty per cent of its clients as churchmen. It's also recorded
that the Bishop of Winchester received regular rent from the brothels
of Suffolk. Guidelines were needed to regulate the hours and wages
of prostitutes so that the women might not be taken advantage
of. In one instance, a complaint was made against a certain woman
who had been keeping prostitutes. She had been working the women
at spinning wool in their spare time, which not not deemed as
acceptable. There is a record in the 12th century that the Guild
of Prostitutes in Paris made a donation for a stained glass window
to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Cult of the Virgin
Many clergy despised woman as instigators of original sin and
for their general weakness although there was the issue of the
Virgin Mary who really made things tricky. Mary was a woman, and
Christ's mother, and therefore the holiest and purest of all women,
and as an example of womanhood, could not be faulted. Many female
saints were also virgins, and the church could not deny their
holiness. This caused a catch 22 situation, where women were to
be loathed and reviled, but also revered and worshiped.
While sex was regarded and somewhat necessary for procreation,
many women chose to live a life of celibacy and religious devotion.
This was often seen by family as a blessing. Clearly, a way to
salvation for themselves, it was to be admired. Prayers from a
nun were believed to be more powerful than prayers from a lay
woman. A dowry was not required for a marriage that would never
happen and it many cases, it was the only way for a girl to obtain
a really good education.
In many instances, the choice for a woman to remain a virgin,
even after marriage was not enthusiastically greeted by the family
or spouse. A woman who remained chaste, although admired for her
purity and devotion to God, was certainly putting her health at
risk by not gaining enough male seed or by the poisonous humours
which were not being released.