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 - -
Very Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women is now a book! You
can find information about it in the BOOK
tab at the top of the page. This page contains a very, very small
overview of some of the key elements in a medieval woman's private
Unlike today, a woman's status in
society wasn't gauged by her age or profession, but by her sexual
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.
On 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. Obviously,
all women were sinful descentants of Eve from the Garden of Eden,
who was not loved much by the church. This feeling was echoed
from the pulpit by men who weren't very keen on women as a gender.
The 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?
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.
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
Thomas 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
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 left 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.
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? 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.
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?) 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.
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 right is a detail from the 1400-1409 painting Paul The Hermit
Sees A Christian Tempted.
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
The church 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
Cult of the Virgin
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.
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.