Medieval Attitudes towards Sexuality


“The couple were not alone in their marriage bed: the shadow of the confessor loomed over their frolics.”

Jean-Louis Flandrin in Western Sexuality, p. 126

*Failures of Medieval Christianity toward Sex – In no other area of Medieval social life does the conflict between universalist church attitudes/laws etc. and lay attitudes (peasant and aristocratic) manifest more powerfully than in that of sexuality.

*The assault on the ‘flesh’ carried out over almost a thousand years by Christian apologists, monks, priests, cardinals etc. represents one of the most remarkable chapters in the history of human sentiments.

*Whereas the church won its battle (overall) to install its vision of ‘marriage’ on the European populace, it failed miserably in its attempts to regulate sexuality according to its dictates – though its attitudes did end up having an enormous influence (mostly negative) influence – in terms of increasing the collective store of guilt that accumulated around this apparently most simple of human activities.

*Whereas today we see the church’s attempts to free young people from the constraints of ‘arranged’ often loveless marriages as emancipatory, the same cannot be said for its attempts to regulate sexual life according to its own dictates (and obsessions) and down to the tiniest detail – ie. sexual positions.

Church Theory:

*The Insatiable Womb: The church fathers held on the one hand that women were incapable of sexual pleasure or at least could do with out it (IDEAL Mother/Mary/ wife), and on the other that women were insatiable sexually (WITCH/ SUCCUBUS/ PROSTITUTE) … The devouring womb, or vagina dentata was a powerful Christian symbol (eventually connected to the concept of hell) throughout the medieval period. Man’s chief goal was to control its insatiability through marriage. Female sexuality seems to have been a total mystery to the patriarchs of church and state during this period.

  • IDEAL VIRGINITY/CHASTITY: above all, virginity and chastity were best; they allowed one to reach a more holy place, become closer to God.
  • sexual activity was a form of fleshly delight … fleshly delights could entrap the soul and endanger salvation (or contemplation of the next world).
  • Sex was allowable only within marriage and only for the conception of children (thus sex for enjoyment only, or active measures to prevent conception, were mortal sins). Marriage was an acceptable outlet for lust … only if the outlet was used to create children
  • sex thus had to be between husband and wife, and with the husband on top. There was to be no kissing or fondling of ‘shameful’ parts
  • all other sexual activity was a sin: sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, masturbation etc. were all banned
  • sex was banned at various times:
  • at holy times of the year:
  • Lent
  • images-11Advent
  • Rogationtide (a movable feast about June)
  • Sundays
  • Saints days (sometimes)
  • a wedding night (so as not to corrupt the nuptial mass)
  • on Wednesdays and Fridays (this didn’t ever really take off!)
  • husbands could not have sex with wives who were menstruating (no conception possible, but the church also feared corruption of the man’s seed at this time, so that a resulting child might have a physical deformity … e.g. red hair)
  • no sex with pregnant women (not necessary&emdash;they were already pregnant, but the Church also believed sex during this time could also cause abortion)
  • no sex for some 40-60 days after giving birth (the woman was unclean)
  • no sex while breast-feeding (women breast-fed for up to 2 years): this was not a hard and fast rule, and it is fair to assume that of all these restrictions, this was the one most usually broken.


This table looks at one husband and wife, and is of a year in which the wife does not become pregnant, does not give birth and is not breast feeding (all of which would impose further restrictions), and do not live is a strict parish that dictates that Saturday nights (before Sunday), the night before Holy Days and Wednesdays were out of bounds. It also does not consider the restrictions on sex during the autumn months to avoid summer births, all of which would add further restrictions.


Sundays 52
Saints Days or Holy Days 40 (average)
Lent 40 week days
Advent 15 week days
Rogationtide 15 week days
Fridays (not counting above weeks of restrictions) 38
Days of Menstruation 60


EXAMPLES (of sexual ‘deviancy’) FROM PENITENTIALS

A Penitential is a guide book for priest-confessors that lays out the penance for different sins. These examples are from different penitentials over a 500 year time-span (late Dark Ages to about the 1300s):

  • “Have you fornicated against nature, that is, have you had intercourse with males or with animals, that is, with a mare or a cow or a donkey or with some other animal? If once or twice and if you had no wife to enable you to expend your lust, you must do penance for forty days on bread and water [for seven years]. If, however, you had a wife, you must do penance for ten years on the established days, and if you were in the habit of this crime, you must do penance for fifteen years on the established days. If, however, this happened to you as a youth, you must do penance on bread and water for a hundred days.”

Payer, Sex and the Penitentials, p. 139

Other penitentials put the penance at 25 years, and demand that the beast be killed and its flesh thrown to the dogs.

  • “If a bishop commits adultery with another’s wife [he shall do penance] for 12 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and is to be deposed; a priest, for 10 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and he is to be deposed; a deacon and a monk, for 7 years, 3 of these years on bread and water, and he is to be deposed; a cleric and a layman, for 5 years, 2 of these years on bread and water.”

Payer, p. 23

  • If a husband had sex with a wife during pregnancy, in her ‘unclean’ period after childbirth, or during menstruation, 20 days penance.
  • Sex on a Sunday resulted in 2 or 3 days penance.
  • Anal intercourse – 7 years penance.
  • Male sex with a sister or mother – 4 years penance.
  • Father with son – 10 years pilgrimage, with 2 years on nothing but bread and water.images-13
  • Man over 20 involved in a homosexual act with another man – fifteen years penance
  • Woman with woman – three years
  • “A small boy misused by an older one, if he is 10 years of age, shall fast for a week; if he consents for 20 days.” (Payer, p. 42)

Rattray Taylor, Sex in History, p. 19:

“The church never succeeded in obtaining universal acceptance of its sexual regulations, but in time it became able to enforce sexual abstinence on a scale sufficient to produce a rich crop of mental disease. It is hardly too much to say that medieval Europe came to resemble a vast insane asylum.”

(Perhaps she is being a little extreme!!)

How Much Did Church Regulations Affect People?

We know a great deal about what the Church wanted people to do (or not do, as the case may be), but what was the reality? Think about these points:

  • were Church regulations and penances prescriptive or descriptive?
  • were they the result of knowing what was happening, or what the (sexually repressed) priesthood thought was going on? Do they describe the reality of daily life, or only what the Church thought daily life should be?
  • Were medieval people driven to ‘insanity’ through fear of breaking Church law and going to hell, or did they just shrug their shoulders and get on with it? Keep in mind that:
  • we have the rules and regulations of the Church that derived from Rome … but how far did they control the lives of village communities thousands of miles away?
  • the local representative of the Church in every village was the local priest: who was generally uneducated (to the point of illiteracy) and often completely out of touch with what was going on in Rome
  • who did the local priest have allegiance to? Rome (far away, distant Rome) or the local community of which he generally was a part?
  • to what extent would he have enforced Rome’s decrees?

Would village/local community pressure have been greater than the Church’s influence?

*Reality? People worried about breaking Church law, but the realities and needs of their daily lives probably meant that many of the stricter Church regulations went unobserved.

*Also remember that there were three main factors that impacted on the medieval family’s life: 1) the Church, 2) the village community, and 3) the battle for personal survival in a hostile world. Sometimes (rarely) these three factors would have been in harmony, but more often they would have been in conflict. Which most affected the medieval family in their daily lives?

Social / Family pressures on the sexual act itself:

(possibly of more concern to the medieval couple than the Church restrictions???)

  • fear of pregnancy or fear of conceiving at the wrong time of the year:
  • images-12Can the family afford to feed another child?
  • Can the family afford to have the wife away from field work during the weeks just before and after birth?
  • Is the woman too ill or weak to bear a child?
  • Do the husband and/or wife simply not want another child?
  • how does the local community feel about a new child? A feudal lord? What are the pressures on land/food supply like?
  • also think about how much a couple might desperately want a child
  • Is there enough privacy for sex?
  • Are the couple well enough? (Exhausted? Malnourished?)


Medieval Birth Control: How?

It is evident that some kind of birth control must have been practised (see the chart on baptisms) … but how?

  • abstinence
  • coitus interruptus (withdrawal method)
  • breast feeding (uncertain at the best of times)
  • herbal lore to:
  • prevent conception. Herbal brews could be used to ‘bring on a late period’. Some of the herbs used were:
  • pomegranate rind
  • penny royal
  • Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot)
  • Stinking Gladwin (?modern name?)
  • abort the child
  • abortion by physical intervention (usually violence)
  • infanticide


*Women Got the Worst Deal: Women tended to receive the worst deal from the later medieval lay and ecclesiatical alliance which saw laws constructed concerning non-acceptable sexual relations. Here localised family-village-based attitudes (concerned with inheritance/property/lineage etc.) seem to have united with the concerns of the universal church. Young men were allowed, even encouraged to sow their wild oats, women, on the other hand were expected to reserve their bodies for their husband only. Many women coerced into taking husbands against their will – many subtle social pressures on women to take on the ‘yoke of marriage’. Common Law often handed out the Death penalty to women who committed adultery – few men copped this punishment.

*Sites of Female Resistance: Despite church and secular laws, women frequently sought affection outside theimgres-23 marital bed – though secrecy was the order of the day. Monks and priests were especially sought after partners – not married! Priests and parishioners alike found it increasingly difficult to ignore the libidinous urges that were so thoroughly denied by the church.

*Class-Based Differences: In practice the regulation of sexuality seems to have been more severe the further up the social ladder one went – the necessity of carrying out such activities in secret seems to have increased, likewise the public odium connected with being caught in the act.

*Tolerance of Prostitution: There was widespread tolerance of young men (bachelors) making use of prostitutes during the medieval period. Though married men, priests/monks and Jews? were banned from the brothels of the major towns many did in fact frequent them – those caught often received only minor fines.

*Rural tolerance for Pre-marital Sex: Country people in particular mostly turned a blind eye to sex among young unmarried people. Many peasants seem to have been more or less totally oblivious to church doctrines in this area – i.e. as in the Montaillou case.

*Courtly Love: This remarkable cultural movement – perhaps a response to the harshness and unnaturalness of Medieval Christian attitudes toward sex and marriage – idolised opposite values to those espoused by the Medieval church. It represented a site of lay rebellion against (subversion of) the prevalent mentality with its glorification of non-marital (adulterous) love and sex.

*Arab Influences. Arab culture never developed the ambivalences around sexuality that the Christian West developed – because of polygamy men had a very different attitude toward women than that predominant in the West – one was actually expected to please them – i.e. it was accepted that women felt ‘pleasure’ during the sexual act. Along with the eroticisation of adultery that took place with the troubadours, later Medieval lay society developed a more enlightened attitude toward sexuality than that being enforced by the church.

*By 1300s Eroticism Flourishes: Medical treatises appear with a healthy attitude toward sex – for one thing many sexual positions are described, so to, sodomy and other “unnatural” acts.

*Homosexuality (Notes)

Homosexuality widespread in many of the towns and cities of Christendom – where networks could be set up. Despite church attitudes many of these circles were often tolerated by townsfolk. Less tolerated in the rural areas. There are, never-the-less many records of homosexual males, and less often lesbians being executed for sexual ‘crimes’. As with the Jews periodic purgings tended to take place when a society was stressed – e.g. during the Black Death. At such times anybody different, especially anyone believed to be committing ‘sins’ against god by virtue of their lifestyle were the first to be punished – then God would treat the general population well! (Theoretically).

The ‘Demonization’ of Homosexuality

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind … shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

St. Paul, Corinthians

Since in the Christian view sex was only for ‘reproduction’ large areas of sexual experience were more or less forbidden – including homosexuality. Sex for pleasure and fun forget it!

*Early Links to Homosexuality as Cause of Collective Misfortunes: The Christian fathers and Roman Emperors such as Justinian took the literal view that violations of nature caused nature to retaliate, and that homosexual practices led to famines, earthquakes, and pestilence.

*This link between unnatural sex and plague remained popular in the Middle Ages, and was taken as evidence of righteousness by the Spanish in their conquest of the aboriginal Indians. For the Spanish, the Indian’s acceptance of homosexual behaviour provided a major justification for their conquest and subjugation of the New World. When the Indians began to die from the microbes brought over by the invaders, the Spanish saw this as confirmation from God of the inherent virtue of their acts.

*Church Penitentials on Homosexuality: The Church’s attitude to homosexuality in the early Middle Ages can been found in the Penitentials, the handbooks for confessors. One of the most influential of these works was the “Decretum” of Burchard of Worms. Here the penalties for homosexual sodomy were:

If the penitent were single seven years of fasting & abstinence

If the penitent were married 10 years penance

If the offence was habitual 15 years penance

If the offender was a youth 100 days on bread and water.

*Scale of punishment: Homosexual sodomy was rated as the most serious offence. Other homosexual acts however, were seen as far less serious. Mutual masturbation, for example, carried a penance of thirty days – the same as challenging someone to a drinking bout or having sex with the wife during Lent.

*Three groups were regularly said to be involved in homosexual activity the nobility, the clergy, and students.

*13thC Developments: The Thirteenth Century marked the heightening of church beliefs equating homosexual acts with demonic impulse. Homosexuality was not seen as something innate to individuals, but rather as a habit deliberately taken up as an act of wickedness.

*Pestilence Theme: It was declared that Homosexuality led to leprosy and insanity, and was linked to paganism and idolatry.

*Heresy Theme: Inevitably, homosexual acts became linked to accusations of heresy and witchcraft, of which the most spectacular case was probably the Knights Templars who were accused of devil worship, heresy and sodomy.

*Death By Burning (Scapegoating of the Other): By the 13th Century, both England and France had followed the Emperor Justinian’s punishment of homosexuality death by burning (hence the word ‘faggots’).


Status of Women

Medieval society was a very patriarchal society, dominated by a patriarchal Church. (Note the word ‘Lord’ for God: this was a medieval innovation instead of the more ancient Hebrew or Greek words meaning teacher, or respected person.)

  • The husband/father was the legal head of the household, and his wife’s lord (a wife who refused to obey her husband destroyed her household); thus he could ‘chastise’ his wife

Women have always had a ‘bad press’ via both the Jewish and later Christian Churches:

  • Women were all ‘daughters of Eve’: Eve caused the Fall of Mankind through succumbing to temptation. If it hadn’t been for her … Thus all women, as daughters of Eve, were liable to the temptation of evil and had to be rigidly controlled in order to prevent chaos spreading throughout the world. Women continued to ‘tempt’ men into sex (fleshly sin). Women must therefore be controlled. (This is a very bland and simplified statement.)
  • women as temptresses = witches and prostitutes

On the other hand, there were some highly positive views of women:

  • women were mothers in an age when children were treasured and valued in a way they are not now. The process of birth was a highly mysterious process that gave women ‘power’ – or at least a value that was far higher than today
  • women were workers: in a peasant society the wife not only gave birth, but also contributed half of the partnership marriage in work value (not to mention the value of what dowry she may have brought into the partnership). Work value was also far higher in the medieval era than it is now
  • Women tended to gain ‘power’ within a community as they grew older; men lost it (a man’s standing was tied to his ability to work)

Were medieval women valued more than modern women???

Women could:

  • inherit land/property (this was eroded from about the 1300s onwards)images-5
  • own land/property in their own right
  • own or run a business in their own right
  • refuse consent to a marriage
  • rule in their own right (depending on the realm)
  • could instigate court action

These were rights that, for example, were rarely seen in other contemporary societies (e.g. Muslim societies, eastern European societies)


*Suspicion and attempts to regulate the sexual act during the Medieval period turned into obsession and alienation. Alienation as a result of following conventional norms and obsession in stepping outside them – since the anxieties of transgression often produced ‘fixation’ and a perverse heightening of the sexual impulse accompanied by guilt and fear.

*Images of sexually frustrated monks busily developing laws about the very things of which they had little or no experience is, unfortunately, not far from the truth. Once a natural impulse/drive is distorted – even in the name of ‘spirituality’, perhaps most specially in the name of spirituality, all sorts of personal and social pathologies flourish.


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