Editor's note: We just found out that one of our writers, Leo, has a PhD in Medieval European Archaeology. Naturally, we asked him to do an article on medieval sex advice. Enjoy.

Every generation believes it invented sex; we can't (or don't like to) imagine our elders knowing what goes where, let alone being inventive about it. And if grandma and grandpa don't know anything, how much less must people have known in the middle ages? And it's true: the medieval period was full of weird beliefs and superstitions about sex – but not necessarily in the way you think.

 

God cares a lot about sex positions

 

The medieval church spent a lot of time thinking not only about sex, but about why people were having sex. It wasn't enough for sex to be only between married couples in their own homes, they had to be doing it for the right reasons. Of course, the church-approved reason was for procreation, and the religious authorities were often concerned about people doing it for any other reason. People having sex for pleasure, for instance, was very worrying, and therefore any activity that increased sexual pleasure was potentially sinful. Medieval penitentials (church documents listing recommended penances for various sins) therefore helpfully listed which sexual activities were the most pleasure-giving (and least procreative) and therefore deserved the most penance. The Canons of Theodore helpfully explain that “whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil.”

 

Church authorities didn't always agree – for instance, although 13th-century bishop Albertus Magnus thought that sex a tergo (from behind) was less “natural” than good old missionary, he didn't think it was necessarily mortally sinful. What a guy.

 

Bad sex is birth control

 

Medieval penitentials don't make socially-approved sex sound like much fun, but it's not clear how much this was actually reflected in the daily lives of most people. Sexual pleasure was seen as a good thing, presumably because, y'know, it is. For instance, a common belief in medieval France held that it was impossible for a woman to get pregnant without having an orgasm. Since there was a lot of pressure on couples to have children, husbands were encouraged to make sure their wives were appropriately happy.

 

A penis is like an onion

 

mediaval-sex-advice-2

 

When you think of Anglo-Saxon England, you think of Beowulf and thatched huts and mustached warriors gazing sternly at the misty horizon. You probably don't think of dick jokes immediately. And yet, the Anglo-Saxon cognoscenti loved a good knob joke, as surviving Old English riddles show. Most of them follow the old “you've got a dirty mind” gag – the stiff thing under a man's belt that he shoves in a small hole? It's a key, what else could it have been? – but some of them are a little strange.

 

Take this one, for example, from the Exeter Book:

 

My stem is erect and tall – I stand up in bed – and whiskery somewhere down below. Sometimes a countryman's quite comely daughter will venture … to get a grip on me. She assaults my red self and seizes my head and clenches me in a cramped place. She will soon feel the effect of her encounter with me … Her eye will be wet.

 

It's an onion, naturally, which is not, you have to admit, the first thing that comes to mind. I guess it's the plant part of the onion they mean, not just the bulb, but still. They must have had some funny-looking onions in early medieval England. Or some funny-looking dicks. Let's go with onions.

 

What you thought you knew

 

Some things you may have heard about sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages are probably not true. That “right of the first night” thing from Braveheart? Writers who mention it always describe as something that used to happen, or as something done in another country. Everybody has a friend of a friend who's seen it, but no one's ever seen it themselves. People did often have to pay a fee to their lords before marrying, but there's not much evidence past that.

 

A lot of the kinky religious sex-and-torture stuff so beloved of the BDSM community is the same: either anticlerical propaganda or the fevered imaginations of lonely writers. Speaking of the fevered imagination, Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea did once claim that Empress Theodora had sex with a goose through a complex method involving a trail of birdseed and, presumably, cast-iron labia.

 

He also said that the Emperor's father was Satan, so maybe we should treat the goose thing skeptically.


© Jack Zalium and Konstantinos Koukopoulos via Flickr with CC BY 2.0 license

 


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