What Sex Was Like in Medieval Times?: Historians Look at How People Got It On in the Dark Ages

The adjec­tive medieval tends to con­jure up vivid and some­times off-putting images, not least when applied to sex. But how many of us have any sense at all of what the real peo­ple of the Mid­dle Ages got up to in bed? To get one, we could do worse than ask­ing his­to­ri­an Eleanor Jane­ga, teacher of the course Medieval Gen­der and Sex­u­al­i­ty and host of the His­to­ry Hit video above, “What Was Sex Real­ly Like For Medieval Peo­ple?” In it, Jane­ga has first to make clear that, yes, medieval Euro­peans had sex; if they had­n’t, of course, many of us would­n’t be here today. But we’d be for­giv­en for assum­ing that the seem­ing­ly absolute dom­i­nance of the Church quashed any and all of their erot­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Accord­ing to the medieval Church, Jane­ga says, “the only time sex is accept­able is between two mar­ried peo­ple for pro­cre­ative pur­pos­es.” Its many oth­er restric­tions includ­ed “no sex on Sat­ur­days and Sun­days in case you’re too turned on dur­ing mass; only have sex in the mis­sion­ary posi­tion, because any­thing else sub­verts the nat­ur­al rela­tion­ship between men and women; don’t get ful­ly naked dur­ing sex, because it’s just too excit­ing; in short, dur­ing sex, you should be try­ing to have the least amount of fun pos­si­ble.” Strict and unam­bigu­ous though these rules were, “nobody real­ly lis­tened to them” — and what’s more, giv­en the lack of pri­vate spaces, “sex was almost a pub­lic affair in the Mid­dle Ages.”

So says Kate Lis­ter, who research­es the his­to­ry of sex­u­al­i­ty, and who turns up to bring her own knowl­edge of the sub­ject to the par­ty. “We tend to think about medieval peo­ple as being real prudes,” says Jane­ga, but even scant his­tor­i­cal records — and rather more copi­ous erot­ic man­u­script mar­gin­a­lia — show that “they were inter­est­ed in all kinds of sex and romance that we would find com­plete­ly unac­cept­able.” Lis­ter adds that, “in many ways, we’re not open like the medieval peo­ple were. We don’t have pub­lic com­mu­nal bathing. We don’t have sex in the same room as oth­er peo­ple. We don’t go to a high-brow din­ner par­ty and tell pubic-hair jokes.” Or we don’t, at least, if we haven’t devot­ed our careers to the sex­u­al­i­ty of the Mid­dle Ages, a field of his­to­ry clear­ly unfit for prudes.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ear­li­est Known Appear­ance of the F‑Word, in a Bizarre Court Record Entry from 1310

Peo­ple in the Mid­dle Ages Slept Not Once But Twice Each Night: How This Lost Prac­tice Was Redis­cov­ered

What Did Peo­ple Eat in Medieval Times? A Video Series and New Cook­book Explain

Why Butt Trum­pets & Oth­er Bizarre Images Appeared in Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts

Medieval Monks Com­plained About Con­stant Dis­trac­tions: Learn How They Worked to Over­come Them

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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