The Very, Secret Sex Lives of Medieval Women
Sex, Contraception and Sexuality



The 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 life.

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.

Church prohibitions
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.

Sexual health
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.

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 having.

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. Herbal books such as the Tacuinum Sanitatus from the 14th century offered herbal remedies almost certainly guaranteed the gender of choice.

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.

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? 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?) 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.

Medieval prostitutes
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.

Shown 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 arm.

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 of.

The 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.

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.


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