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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.