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.
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.