Intimacy in the Middle AgesEspecially for people who grew up in the United States, we tend to have a fairly puritan view about the world of sex. We live in a society where sex is often equated with pornography. We don't live on farms where we see animals having sex every day. We are shocked by nude beaches. We often have never seen a prostitute. Our commercials are sanitized of all sexual content.
We might be fairly surprised when we visit France, or Thailand, or other locations where the attitudes towards sex are much more open and lax. Here is an actual image from a magazine in Europe. This is "normal" for them to see. And it's almost funny that I have to apologize up front for showing the image OF BREAD, simply because it's suggestive to many readers. We have been so trained that "the human body is bad" that even looking at loaves of bread can upset us.
In medieval times it would NOT be shocking because sex was all around them. Yes, the Christian church was moving in, but the pagan influences had been around for thousands of years and were still quite strong. Sex was normal. Many if not most families lived in a one-room house. The whole family slept together in the main room. The parents had sex in that room while the kids slept or closed their eyes. It was not "unnatural" or "abnormal". It was simply a bodily function like any other.
Here's an analogy. If you and your brothers were out on a long hiking trip, and one brother had to pee, it would not be an abnormal thing. He would go to a tree and pee. Sure, you probably wouldn't watch, but you wouldn't be all upset about it either. He would do it, and finish, and you'd go on your way.
Think of the May Pole, a traditional village celebration to welcome spring and fertility. The pole itself was a large phallic symbol. The young available girls were chosen to dance around it. Often the most beautiful girl would be chosen as the "May Queen". The celebration brought fertility to the village girls, the livestock, and the crops. All were critical to the long term survival of the village. The whole festival was so sexual that the Puritains, when they came into power in England, forbade them.
Then, take a look at the codpiece, a simple piece of clothing which can make many modern people blush. The codpiece was normal in medieval wear and greatly emphasized a man's private parts. It was manly to show your virility. It's simply a clothing item! And yet we are so indoctrinated in "sex=pornography" in modern times that we find something like this to be unnatural. I won't show the photos here, but if you google "medieval armor codpiece" you can find many examples. To be sexual was "normal and natural" - it would be UNnatural to restrict your sexuality - as unnatural as not eating would be. Celibacy was thought to damage one's health. Medieval doctors felt that holding back sex caused an unnatural build-up of "seminal humor" - and it had to be released for one's health's sake.
Again, the church was certainly trying to fight against this strong interest in sex - but until the Puritains came into power it was mostly in vain. John of Salisbury lived from 1120 to 1180. He famously said:
Thys is now a common synne
For almost hyt is every-whore (it is everywhere)
A gentyle man hath a wife and a hore;
And wyves have now comunly (commonly)
Here husbandys and a ludby
So both men and women commonly had lovers, and it was normal. A "ludby" was a "sexual companion". We know what a "hore" is :).
In the middle ages, England was well known for its prostitutes and they were often sent to other parts of Europe as the "best trained". Pope Boniface (1235-1303) famously said that there was hardly a town from Italy to Lombardy to Gaul which did not have English prostitutes in it. Most villages in England had a "stew" or brothel. It was considered a normal part of the village, just like the butcher or baker (or candlestick-maker). The stews show up on town records and in many cases the town owned them to run them smoothly.
The church DID get involved in sexual relations if a married couple had sexual issues. This was a key reason a couple could divorce. If a man wasn't having enough sex with a woman, she could ditch him and find another one. Fertility was known to be key, as mentioned, to the survival of the community as a whole. A man not giving her enough sex was as bad as a man starving her to death.
So, to summarize, with the Puritains and the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood we sometimes think of the medieval days as a sanitized time where men and women were chaste and pure, where they only glanced shyly at each other and were extremely private about their sexuality once married. The truth is quite different. Despite the best efforts of the church, the villages lived in nature, were surrounded by pagan rites, and thought of sex as a critical part of being a post-puberty adult. They embraced that fertility whole-heartedly. Especially in the 1200s-1300s there was an abundance of food, warm weather, and long lives (about the same as modern times once you discount childhood deaths). Having a robust sex life was immensely important to the medieval person, just as important as having bountiful crops and owning animals which created fine, strong offspring.
Medieval Romance for Villagers
Medieval Romance for Nobles
Medieval Romance for Men
Medieval Romance for Women
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Seeking the Truth
A Sense of Duty
Life in Medieval Days
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