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Sex in the Middle Ages: have attitudes really changed?

Medieval attitudes to sex are regularly characterised as accepting of excessive violence, or otherwise almost comically repressed. A fair portrayal? Not so, explains Dr Katherine Harvey…

A medieval miniature depicts a monk and a woman in a bed.

Today’s books and films show us a polarised picture of medieval attitudes towards sex. Some fantastical interpretations, such as Game of Thrones, would have us believe that medieval societies were intensely sexualised, excessively violent or accepting of incest. On the other hand, picture the caricatured chastity belts, puritanical preachers or naughty nuns we might expect from a Carry On film. But what did medieval people really think about sex, and were those thoughts all that different from ours today? Speaking on the HistoryExtra podcast about her new book The Fires of Lust, Dr Katherine Harvey explained that there are more similarities than we might expect.

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With a subject such as this, explains Harvey, much of the historical evidence remains firmly behind closed doors, often leaving us to rely on church or court records detailing what happened when things went wrong. These records often paint a bleaker picture than the everyday reality. If solely viewed from this perspective, medieval society appears to be very different from our own.

“In the biblical story of Adam and Eve,” says Harvey, “after the fall of man, sex becomes inherently sinful. That’s a really important thing for medieval people. Of course, the Church also seemed to have an obsession with virginity and sexual purity. There was a real focus in the later Middle Ages on virginal saints and the Virgin Mary.”

However, while we might get the impression that sex was all about sin, it seems that attitudes were far more complicated. Although we do have evidence of sexual assault, incest and even cases containing young children, it seems that medieval society generally shared our repugnance of these same issues. Instead, the idea of consensual sexual relationships appears to have been valued.

“The ideas of consent, and that you should like your partner, were both very important in medieval marriage,” states Harvey. “Medieval people were quite uncomfortable actually, for the most part, with big age gaps between spouses. And if adults did marry very young children, they would tend to hold off consummation until later.”

While sex only within marriage was seen as ideal by the medieval authorities, it was not always achievable or even desired. With court records of husbands and wives calling for annulments due to their partner’s sexual incapability, sex clearly played an important part in life and people were not afraid to have conversations about it in a public space.

In fact, sex (in moderation, of course) was viewed as a good thing to help balance the humours and keep you healthy. With medical documents listing contraceptive methods, such as coitus interruptus, alongside abortions appearing in court records, it is clear that sex was not solely about procreation.

“It seems to me that medieval people were grappling with a lot of the same issues that we struggle with today,” notes Harvey. “Maybe some of the framing around it in terms of the Church’s ideas, and some of the medical theories are now very different to ours. But ultimately, I think there were a lot more similarities than I expected to find, and I hope that some of the individual stories in my book really chime across the centuries.”

You can also hear the full conversation with Katherine Harvey, which covers contraception, prostitution, the medieval health benefits of sex and more on the HistoryExtra podcast, episode coming soon. Read more from Katherine: Call the medieval sex doctor: how 7 problems might have been treated in the Middle Ages

Katherine Harvey is the author of The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages (Reaktion Books, 2021)

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