Call the medieval sex doctor

Love, sex, contraception, prostitution – relationships could be a minefield in the Middle Ages. Katherine Harvey turns medieval sex doctor, dispensing advice on everything from faking virginity to death by celibacy

A couple get amorous in this 14th-century illustration
1

I’m a man who is in love with someone who doesn’t love me back. What can I do?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

Advertisement

Many men in your situation will turn to love magic, and there are plenty of potions and spells that may help you to secure a woman’s affections. Some say that putting ant eggs in a woman’s bath will arouse her passions, or that sprinkling periwinkle in food will encourage love. Wearing henbane about your person may also make you irresistibly attractive. Of course, the church does not approve of such activities, and if you are accused of using love magic you may find yourself hauled before the church courts. So proceed with caution!

I am also concerned that you may be suffering from lovesickness, due to your unrequited feelings. If you are experiencing symptoms such as sleeplessness, melancholy and a racing pulse, you need to seek a cure. Rest, warm baths and good food (such as lamb and ripe fruit) will help. You probably need to be bled or purged to rebalance your humours.

You may also find it helpful to contemplate other beautiful women, and to think of this particular woman’s faults. For the good of your health, you must quickly persuade your beloved that she also loves you, or else persuade yourself that you do not love her.


2

My husband and I have 8 children and we can’t afford any more. What can we do?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

This is a predicament in which many couples find themselves, since procreation is the main purpose of marriage and children are very expensive! If your husband is agreeable, the best solution is a pact of abstinence – but remember that to deny the marital debt to your spouse without their consent is a sin.

Alternatively, there are various things you can try to prevent conception. Children are only conceived when both partners emit seed – so if, for example, your husband withdraws before ejaculating, you will not get pregnant. Movement can make the seed run out of a woman’s body, so try sneezing or jumping about after intercourse. Some people favour amulets: it is said that holding jet, or wearing a weasel’s testicles around your neck during sex, will prevent conception. Anointing the genitals with certain oils and herbs, including wild mint, is also effective. If you do become pregnant, there are herbal concoctions that you can drink – but the church courts can prosecute you for using these potions. Indeed, remember that attempting to prevent pregnancy is a sin. Your priest may ask you about this in confession, and impose heavy penances.


3

I’m about to get married, but I’m not a virgin. Will my husband know (or how can I stop him finding out)?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

The bad news is that there are several ways to test whether you are a virgin. One is to examine your urine: a virgin’s urine is thin and clear, and she urinates more delicately and for longer than a corrupted woman. The good news is that, unless your new husband is a physician, he probably won’t do such a test! He will, however, expect you to experience some pain and bleeding when you first have intercourse. If this doesn’t happen, he may well become suspicious.

Some women who find themselves in your predicament arrange their wedding so that they will be menstruating on the wedding night. This blood is darker and less gushing than the blood of lost virginity, but your husband may be fooled. Alternatively, there are substances which you can rub into your private parts to make them constrict and help you feign virginity. Powdered blackberry is good for this.

I have heard stories of Italian brides who insert leeches into themselves so that blood comes out and the man is deceived. But this is risky, and you must take great care that they do not go in too far.


4

I’m a priest and I’ve heard stories about men who have died of celibacy. How can I avoid this fate?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

It certainly is possible to die of celibacy, but fortunately it rarely happens. The problem is that for your body to remain balanced and healthy, it needs to expel semen on a regular basis. If this doesn’t happen (for example, because you are a priest vowed to celibacy), semen can build up, damaging the heart and causing headaches, weight loss and eventually, in serious cases, death.

The good news is that the body usually rebalances itself through nocturnal emissions of semen, and most churchmen agree that this (unlike masturbation, which you should avoid) is not a sin. Lifestyle changes can help too. Be careful about your diet: semen is made from digested food, and some foods produce more semen than others. Avoid rich foods such as red meat (fish is much better for you), and beware wine, which warms both the stomach and the genitals and provokes lechery.

Monks undergo regular bloodletting, and so should you; the interchangeability of bodily fluids means that this will help to keep your celibate body in balance. If you follow this advice, you can keep your vow and remain healthy in both body and soul.

5

My new wife is threatening to have our marriage annulled because I’m impotent. Can anything cure me?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

The first thing you need to establish is whether the problem is permanent or temporary. Could you be a victim of magic? There have been unfortunate cases in which newly married men have been made impotent by a jealous former lover. If this might be your problem, you should consult a priest who will probably recommend penance and exorcism.

If magic is not involved, then medicine may help: a powder of vulture’s kidney and testicle, mixed with wine, is a good cure for impotence. When you intend to have sex, make sure that the conditions are right: rich foods (such as meat and eggs) and alcohol increase desire, as does warmth, so you should heat the room by lighting a fire.

If none of this works, you may be one of those unfortunate men who (perhaps due to a defective liver and heart) are permanently impotent. In this case, your wife has every right to an annulment, because sex is an integral part of marriage, as I’m sure you knew before you got married. You should expect to be subject to a thorough examination and, if you are unable to perform, your marriage will almost certainly be judged invalid.


6

I sometimes visit prostitutes, but my friend says I’ll catch a disease. Is this true?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

Your friend is right to be concerned, and not just because fornication is a sin. You can catch all sorts of unpleasant diseases from these women. For example, many have a nasty burning sickness, which makes urination extremely painful.

You should also be concerned about leprosy. Although a woman who has had sex with a leper may appear healthy, the leper’s semen remains inside her and turns to a putrid vapour. When your penis is exposed to this vapour, it will be absorbed through your pores and you will be infected with leprosy.

If you have relations with a woman you suspect of being leprous, you should immediately wash your penis with urine or vinegar, and take yourself to the phlebotomist for intensive bleeding. This should be followed by a course of purgatives and ointments, perhaps containing wood dry rot or mercury. If this doesn’t work, and you develop sores on your penis, you will have to visit a surgeon who may cut away the diseased flesh and apply quicklime to the affected area.

To avoid such unpleasant and expensive treatments, I strongly suggest you listen to your friend and stay away from brothels.


7

I recently had sex with another man, and enjoyed it. Is there something wrong with me?

The medieval sex doctor replies:

To begin with, according to the church you have certainly committed the sin of sodomy, and should confess and do penance as soon as possible. As to whether there is something wrong with you: some men are afflicted with physical defects that make them especially prone to this vice. Most men enjoy sex with women because it provokes the expulsion of superfluities via the pores in their penis. But in some men, these pores are obstructed, and their superfluities are expelled through pores in the anus. Consequently, it gives them pleasure to be rubbed there, and they like to play the part of the woman. There is no cure for these unfortunate individuals, but luckily very few men are afflicted in this way, so you are unlikely to be one of them.

Unfortunately, many others engage in sinful practices as young men and become sodomites by habit. You are in danger of becoming one of these men if you are not careful to resist further temptation. There is no reason why you should not enjoy sex with a woman, and for the sake of your soul you must not repeat this serious lapse. My advice would be that you find yourself a wife as soon as possible.

Katherine Harvey is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London

Advertisement

Books: Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England by Carole Rawcliffe (Sutton, 1995); A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages edited by Ruth Evans (Bloomsbury, 2012)