Foxtel
TV Guide Menu
Subscribe to our eNewsletter

Articles

Medieval Sex and Sexuality

20 Aug 2013

It may be surprising but many of the modern day attitudes towards sex and sexuality had its origins in the Middle Ages, a period that stretched roughly from the years 500-1500.

In a Q&A with Dr Juanita Feros Ruys from the University of Sydney Medieval and Early Modern Centre, we take a look at medieval sex and the impact it’s had on modern society.

HISTORY: What were the main attitudes towards sex prior to the Middle Ages?

DR FEROS RUYS: Prior to the widespread imposition of canon (Church) law across Europe in the Middle Ages, the primary forms of law regulating sexuality were Roman law (in areas under the governance of the former Roman Empire) and various forms of pagan law in areas that had not been Romanized (for example, some Germanic areas and Scandinavia).

Roman law differed from canon law in not prosecuting same-sex sex-acts (unless an adult male allowed himself to be penetrated by an inferior eg. a slave), in allowing divorce, in not recognizing adultery by a married man (though a married woman would be punished for adultery), and in showing no moral concern over masturbation.

HISTORY: How did it shift by the time the Renaissance period emerged?

DR FEROS RUYS: In many ways, the sexual mores that came to be confirmed through the medieval period did continue on through the early modern period and really, can be seen in evidence up to around the turn of the twentieth century, especially considering attitudes towards masturbation and same-sex sexual relations.

Perhaps the biggest revolution was the ‘invention’ of the idea of sexual identity and particularly homosexual identity in the later nineteenth century, and the advent of the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis that allowed sexual identity and behaviour to be recognized as fundamentally constitutive of a person. 

HISTORY: What was the main driving factor that influenced these shifts in attitude? How much of a role did the Church have?

DR FEROS RUYS: I would say there were two driving factors here that actually led in different directions.

Firstly, society had become much more mercantile (commercial, bourgeois) by the later Middle Ages and families began to have inheritances to bequest to their children. They thus began to insist on having a greater say in the regulation of marriage, divorce, and the idea of sexual sins outside of marriage (eg. the fornication of younger, as yet unmarried children) which could affect their financial and social status as a family.

Secondly, heresy became a growing problem by the time of the later Middle Ages, and was increasingly associated with sexual sins, especially sodomy. Sodomy became increasingly harshly punished, including by death. Equally, as the witchcraze began to gather momentum into the early modern period, the sexuality of women became increasingly suspect and they were seen as particularly susceptible to demonic penetration.

HISTORY: How big was the idea of sin during the Middle Ages?

DR FEROS RUYS: The idea of sin was absolutely fundamental to any understanding of sexuality and sexual behaviour during the Middle Ages. Sexual actions outside those prescribed by the Church (virginity, monogamous marriage for the purposes of procreation, chastity following marriage) were viewed primarily in terms of sinfulness and a flouting of God’s holy ordinances for humanity. 

HISTORY: What aspects of marital sex were frowned upon?

DR FEROS RUYS: Marital sexual activity had to be intended to be procreative, so certain heterosexual non-procreative positions were outlawed (sex standing up, penetration from behind, woman on top), as were oral sex and anal sex even between husband and wife in a marriage. Indeed, even lusting after one’s spouse was condemned and was considered akin to adultery (a man should not look on his wife as he would upon a mistress, it was said).

Procreative sex was not to be enjoyed and enjoyment vitiated its procreative intent. There were also strong regulations on when procreative sex could take place (for instance, not on fast days, not on feast days, not on Sundays, etcetera). More generally, all forms of sexual activity in which seed was spilled outside its proper container (the vagina) were condemned, for example oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, bestiality.

HISTORY: How significant was the concept of chastity?

DR FEROS RUYS: Chastity was a key concept in the Middle Ages, and was held up as the ideal state for both men and women, even more superior to monogamous marriage. Not only did men and women commit themselves to celibate lives within monastic contexts either becoming monks and nuns, or living a celibate life within a community that was not under a particular monastic rule, chastity even invaded the concept of marriage. 

Women, in particular, were encouraged to convince their husbands to live together in chastity, and a number of female saints were wives in chaste marriages. Indeed, older married couples were sometimes encouraged to separate and enter monastic houses, living out the remainder of their lives as monks and nuns. The concept of chastity was very powerful, and chaste women (in particular) were thought to have superior powers with regard to withstanding demonic temptation, facing martyrdom, etc.

HISTORY: Did the rules and norms that governed sexuality apply equally to men, and women? 

DR FEROS RUYS: The interesting thing is that although regulations governing sexuality appeared to be very strict in the medieval period, they were at least gender equal and there was not the sort of double standard in play that we are familiar with from later periods.

Women had as much right as men to expect monogamy in marriage, and to expect sex in marriage. In some ways, because medieval sexual regulation was so much focused on the spilling of seed, men came under stronger regulation than women. For instance, there was greater concern about men masturbating than women. There was also greater concern about male-male sex than female-female sex.

HISTORY: What were some of the debates around marriage during the Middle Ages?

DR FEROS RUYS: The actions required to actually constitute marriage were under continual revision through the medieval period.

The big question was did marriage simply require equal consent, or was consummation necessary as well? And were secret marriages legal? For instance, if a couple ran off into the woods and pledged their eternal love and consummated the relationship, did this constitute a legal marriage? Or were witnesses necessary, or was an officiating priest necessary? These questions were constantly under discussion in the high Middle Ages, and obviously had a huge impact on dynastic considerations. For example, when wealthy families betrothed a child but then later reconsidered and wanted to make a better marriage: was the betrothal binding?

Another issue here was raptus, which is where our idea of rape comes from, but raptus was slightly different, in that it also included the idea of abduction. This was where a man could abduct a woman (one who owned or whose family owned property, say), force sexual intercourse on her, then demand marriage with her, and consequently, gain title to her lands and wealth.

HISTORY: What was the attitude towards adultery?

DR FEROS RUYS: Marriages were required to be monogamous and were legally and religiously binding, generally to death--unless the couple chose mutually to enter monastic orders instead.

Adultery was both a crime and a sin that could be and was punished; if the marriage dissolved in the wake of adultery, the guilty party was prohibited from ever marrying the person they had committed the adultery with. Women could petition the court to return to them a husband who had left and gone to live with another woman.

Dissolving a marriage on account of sexual incompatibility however was difficult: if the marriage had ever been consummated, even once, then subsequent sexual impotence was not considered sufficient grounds to end the marriage (even if the husband argued that he was only impotent with his wife and could perform sexually with other women).

HISTORY: If you were to compare the Middle Ages to our modern times, what are some of the ideas around sex and sin that have remained fairly intact?

DR FEROS RUYS: In terms of likeness, I would say that our approach to prostitution (up to the very present) has remained very similar to that of the Middle Ages; namely, that although prostitution might be considered undesirable in an ideal world, it was recognized as necessary within social structures as they were, in order to protect and safeguard other women. For example, if men desired anal sex, it was better that they undertook that with a prostitute than with their wife; or if an unmarried man desired sex, it was better that he went to a prostitute than seduced or forced himself upon a virgin or a married woman.

Attitudes towards prostitutes were also not unkind: although prostitution was illegal, prostitutes were rarely prosecuted, and it was much more likely to be those who profited from prostitution (pimps and brothel owners) who came before the courts. In recognizing the inevitability of prostitution, by the later Middle Ages many municipal councils undertook to run their own official town brothel, in which way they could at least regulate the health and wellbeing of the workers, and regulate the men who visited them (eg. married men, men of non-Christian religion, and men of the church were not supposed to visit brothels). 

HISTORY: Similarly, what are some of the ideas that have changed dramatically?

DR FEROS RUYS: In terms of changes, I think the biggest change would be that our society places such a great value on understanding and valuing one’s sexual identity and feeling free and comfortable with one’s own sexuality. Chastity, which was such a powerful ideal in the Middle Ages, has almost no place in contemporary society (and indeed, can even look like a kind of illness, a sign that someone is not fully at ease with their own body).

While we still value monogamy in marriage, we are also very quick to exit a marriage if we feel it is no longer ‘fulfilling’ us, especially sexually. There simply was not this concept in the Middle Ages. And people can now define themselves in terms of their gender alignment or their sexual preferences in ways that were not possible in the Middle Ages where there were two binary sexes strongly aligned with two binary genders and the concept of an individual ‘sexual identity’ did not exist. There could be aberrant behaviours in the Middle Ages, but these were not necessarily recognized as stemming from a particular ‘identity’ so much as a sinful disposition.

HISTORY: How much of an impact did the Middle Ages have on our current view of sex?

DR FEROS RUYS: I think the ideas of no sex before marriage, deterrence of masturbation, uneasiness over homosexuality, and the concern with fidelity in marriage by both men and women can be seen as a medieval Christian legacy that continued to be strongly influential on society up until the later decades of the twentieth century.

In general, the discomfort and anxiety over the sexual body that was in evidence up until very recently I would see as due to our medieval Christian inheritance. The idea of concubinage (married men having ‘official’ women other than their wives for sexual relations, or an unmarried man having a woman living in for the purpose of sexual relations) was under strong attack from the late eleventh century on, and having been stamped out in the course of the twelfth century, has not really reappeared as acceptable in European society since.
 

Juanita Ruys

Dr Juanita Feros Ruys is the Director of the Sydney Node of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Medieval and Early Modern Centre, University of Sydney.

Main Image: © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy
 


Back to top