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Sex and Marriage in the Mid to Late Medieval Times

By Madeline | March 13, 2008

After the sexual repression encouraged by the church in the early Medieval days, the people must have finally started to rebel as the mid to late Medieval times were rampant with sex, especially in the country where the people were free of the tight laced social rules prevalent in larger cities.  In fact, most boys had lost their virginity by the age of 15 during this time.  The church finally agreed that that sexual repression was harmful to ones person, though their theory was that it offset the bodies humours by an overabundance of the seminal humor, which threw all of the bodies humors out of whack leading the person susceptible to illness and death.  They actually recommended their patrons have sex on a regular basis to release these seminal humors.  They also realized that there were many people did not have a spouse with which to copulate, primarily members of the church and so it was recommended that masturbation be enforced.  Interesting how only several centuries before, one who masturbated was burned in the fiery pits of hell and now you were having to masturbate to keep healthy.  I’m sure they encountered no complaints about it!  ;)  Additionally, because sex was so very important and was so strongly encouraged, brothels were opened and maintained, often times by the church itself as it was seen as a necessary evil.  Women who plied this trade were often times women who actually worked other trades that either did not support them or required additional support during the slower seasons.  Additionally, the women who acted as prostitutes were oftentimes required by law to wear specific colors and attire to avoid confusion and accidental insults.

Back to the topic of virginity, though, because it truly played such an important role during this period in history.  The sole purpose of marriage was to ultimately produce heirs and a man wanted to ensure that the child his wife bore was indeed his and this is why virginity was so highly prized.  As if that weren’t reason enough, fathers of virgins paid out higher dowry’s (as they expected more from the men in return for the offering of their daughter) so a man who married a ‘fallen woman’ would be shorted on a questionable paternity of a child conceived (if the woman became pregnant immediately) and also was shorted on the dowry.  There were many ways that were enforced to determine if a woman was indeed a virgin, one way was to take a urine specimens to smell/taste.  Ew.  Well, at least urine is sterile…  If a woman did lose her virginity and wanted to still pass for a maiden, there were many ways she could go about this, all of which are ridiculous and include such things as making herbal teas to bathe her privates with several times a day, then her virginity would magically be restored and others including pushing herbs up into the vagina and leaving them there - ugh, this last one makes me shudder (as well as, I’m sure, every gynecologist or doctor).  There were pamphlets written for potential grooms warning them of these women who were attempting to pass for virgins and cautioned them not to be fooled by excessive tightness or difficult entry as it could be due to the woman using trickery to pull the wool over his eyes.  While the church did not disagree with marriage so much now as they did before, women were still encouraged to take the cloth and become nuns.  The reason, however, was purely monetary.  Rich women who decided not to wed and decided to devote their lives to God relinquished their dowries to the church upon taking their vows.  Most parents did not push their daughters in this direction because the church would not pay them back in land, favors, wealth and the formulation of powerful unions the way a woman’s husband would.  Sex that occurred before marriage for the wealthy usually resulted in the men being pushed strongly to marry the woman they deflowered, if not they were usually fined.  The reason for this was not to make the government more rich, but usually to assuage social embarrassment and make an honest woman out of the girl. 

Obviously virginity in the daughter of a noble was worth more financially than the virginity of a common woman, therefore, the daughters of rich men were encouraged to maintain their virginity.  For commoners who didn’t have to dabble in the mess of dowries, it was not uncommon for couples who intended to wed to share beds to ensure they were sexually compatible.  As I’ve stated before in previous articles, fertility was a very important aspect of a woman, some men took the women to bed to ensure she would produce children before they agreed to marry them.  While I’m sure virginity was important still to common men to ensure the whole paternity thing, it was certainly not as strictly enforced the way it was for rich men.  This is why the country people were usually so much more free sexually than in the cities where the rich influence permeated people of every class.

While the church did encourage sex, they encouraged it under the right circumstances - you know, like with one’s spouse…  Adultery was still frowned upon by the church, although more so for women than for men.  If a man found his wife with another man and killed the other man, there was seldom, if any, punishment given to the husband for his actions.  The woman, however, was harshly punished for shaming her husband with her lust.  Typically, the woman’s head would be shorn, their dowries would be taken by their husbands and they would be paraded through the streets where everyone could witness their humiliation.  Men, however, were almost always let off easily.  If a man cheated on his spouse once, it was easily forgivable because men possessed more passion and lust than women did (this is just laughable - in a sad kind of way) however, a man who engaged in adultery, essentially took on a girlfriend or mistress, was committing a grievous sin as it was going against their initial marriage vows as the repeated union could lead to bastards and the sole purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate heirs.  Additionally, younger men were punished much less often than older men as younger men were often times consumed by lust and the act of taking another woman was usually not really his fault. 

The final point I wanted to make about this time in history was that women were finally relieved of their ‘evil’ reputation.  They were no longer seen as devices of evil spreading lust and ultimately pestilence wherever they tread, but were now  placed on pedestals in art, poetry, writing, etc.  Women were seldom depicted as average women in these forms of expression, however.  For example, a woman was either an unattainable Venus or an easily had woman; a virgin or a whore, and usually, she was all the more beautiful for it.  This was the basic fundamental of the famed courtly love that spawned centuries of sonnets and poetry that are still used today.  I think these expressions only encouraged virginity in women more and had a deep impact on society not just during this period, but for the centuries that followed.

Next I will discuss sex and marriage during the Tudor era, although I haven’t started on the research yet, so it might not happen until next week…

Topics: Medieval Era |

One Response to “Sex and Marriage in the Mid to Late Medieval Times”

  1. Lucie Says:
    March 27th, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    Has anyone researched Denmark 1350-1450?



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