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From prohibition of sex to brothels
Medieval people had to follow rigorous sexual rules. The Church prohibited sexual intercourse on several days, and it could be fulfilled in only one sexual pose.
Did you know?
Married women were so subject to the will of their husbands – as last names did not exist at that time – that even their forenames were changed.
In 12th-century London, the Bishop of Winchester received his share from the revenues of the brothels located in Southwark, London.
Some Christian authors were more lenient than St. Thomas and they agreed that rear-entry position was allowed – only if not anal.
THE OBSCURE OBJECTS OF DESIRE
In medieval Europe, the mindset of people towards sexuality compared to ancient times had radically changed. In this respect, the eminent French philosopher Michel Foucault saw attitudes toward sexual contact as the greatest difference between the pagan antiquity and the Middle Ages, which were defined and driven by the glory of the Christian morality. According to the theory of a specialist in the subject, Ruth Mazo Karras, which she verifies (with a healthy dose of self-irony) as a pop-Freudian explanation, the act of the Church that introduced celibacy for the clergy in the 11th century (mainly due to the ascetic, anti-marriage movements) was an important step in terms of the concept of Christian morality determining sexuality as a sin. Similarly to desert hermits of early Christianity, it is quite understandable that sexual desire was regarded as the work of evil by the priests and monks, who wrote down the regulations regarding sexual life. They especially warned believers against temptations triggered by women, since they themselves were probably frustrated by the complete lack of sexuality.
Stereotypes describing women as evil seductresses were well mirrored in attitudes towards the role of the fairer sex in marriage. Legally, married women were subject to their husbands. If they were unable to give birth to a boy, their spouses could drive them from their homes on the grounds of adultery. In the case of real marital infidelity, men often took the law into their own hands, and if their wives got away with that then authorities surely punished them. Women who had made complaints about ill-treatment could not expect to be heard in the ecclesiastical and secular forums either.
WEEKS WITHOUT SEX
The attitude of Christian morality regarding the principles of sexuality explains the severe evaluation of adultery committed by women: the Church regarded monogamous marriage as the only accepted way to have a sexual life. That form of wedlock, which was seen as an indissoluble covenant blessed by God, had been firmly established by the 11th and 12th centuries.
Although many servants of the Church regarded every form of sexual intercourse unacceptable, and labeled even those sexual connections which were made to father offspring a sin (naturally, a venial one), the Scholastics considered sex as a means of prohibiting people from committing adultery, and as an activity one should practice while taking account of the requirement for distancing oneself from sinful passions. According to Church regulations regarding sexual intercourse, people were only allowed to connect sexually by taking up the missionary position, the only posture that was believed to offer the least amount of sinful pleasure and to be the most suitable for fertilization, which was acknowledged by Saint Thomas Aquinas as well.
There were numerous rules introduced by the Church which regulated who, how, when, and with whom people could practice a sexual life. Sex was banned on Wednesday and Friday (days of fasting) in several countries, and sometimes a ban was imposed on coupling on Thursday and Saturday as well. Enjoying sexual pleasures on Sunday, on the Lord’s Day, was evidently prohibited. Besides all of these, there were some periods of the year when people should not commit the sin of the coitus: during the 46-62-day period of Lent or in the period before Christmas, which continued for at least three weeks (Advent lasted longer in early Middle Ages), and an also quite long 40-60 day prohibition was in force around Pentecost.
The length of certain periods depended on whether holidays after fasting or the subsequent few days were included or not. The same applied to the days of certain saints. Besides ‘mandatory’ feast days (St. John the Baptist, Michael, Martin and Andrew), the number of compulsorily sex-free days varied region by region and depended on which saints enjoyed a prominent role in the residents’ lives of a certain area. Later, the requirement of temperance remained in force during numerous one- or two-day feasts; but believers gradually disposed of the several-week-long deprivations ordained by the Christian calendar. By the end of the Middle Ages, sexless behavior even during Lent was put into the recommended category.
The freedom of sexual intercourse was also limited by menstruation, considered impure since the time of the Old Testament, and coupling was also prohibited during most of a pregnancy and in the first few weeks following the birth of the child; however, in these cases the length of the sexless period was shortened during the centuries of the Middle Ages.
MASTURBATION AND FORNICATION WITH ANIMALS
In the centuries of the early Middle Ages, the rules of sexual behavior were laid down in penitentials that quite severely regulated conjugal love. In case of breaching the rules, people had to practice repentance. The first penitential books were introduced in Ireland in the 6th century, then spread throughout Europe and remained relevant regarding the imposition of penalties until the 12th century.
In addition to masturbation, the 7th-century Irish penitential titled Penitential of Cummean prohibited oral and anal sex as well. The 7th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, stipulated the following penitentials in his work written around 700: coupling on the Lord’s Day required a mere 1–3 day penance but in the case of rear entry sex the punishment grew to 40 days. Women who had undergone abortion had to face serious deprivation. The penitential also regulated more extreme cases too: fornication with another man or having sex with an animal meant 10-year fasting. Defilement (masturbation) was also considered a sin and wrongdoers, according to the penitential, had to refrain from meat consuming for four days. Other documents say that people who were driven by an invincible desire for fornicating themselves but ultimately did not do so had to go on a fast for 40 (or 20) days. The act of ejaculation in another person’s mouth was regarded as the greatest sin of all; in that case, men had to practice repentance all of their lives.
LEPROUS CHILDREN AND NAUGHTY NUNS
Libido was often a stronger driving force than fear of damnation. In spite of all moral disapproval of the Church, women and men bathed together naked in the medieval bath houses. Ancient fertility rites were incorporated into Christian religious ceremonies as well, and genitals were often carved on the capitals of the medieval churches in order to fend off hexes. The relaxed and sometimes licentious atmosphere of folk festivals and festivities also contributed to the alleviation of tensions caused by the stiff regulations.
In the small rural settlements, however, people were not always content with the illusion of freedom which was created by the caricature of strict morality. The 6th-century bishop Caesarius of Arles reported that uneducated villagers had leprous children more frequently than educated city dwellers had. The church dignitary explained that the phenomenon must have a strong connection with the lack of self-control on the regulated days. Although the abovementioned case is not the only example that indirectly refers to non-compliance, on the whole it is difficult to determine what sort of attitude people had towards the draconian regulations.
Besides marriage, prostitution was another means to control lust. Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas perceived the regulated institution of fulfilling pleasure outside the sacred bond of marriage as one of the indispensable cornerstones of social peace. The demand for the representatives of the oldest profession rose sharply in the 11th and 12th centuries due to the crusaders. Although it was considered a sinful activity, the immoral institution was usually tolerated in the towns of medieval Europe, the residents of which viewed it as a necessary evil. The Church often supported the establishment of the brothels, which were occasionally visited by clergymen and monks too. Furthermore, the medieval saying “Si non caste, tamen caute ”that is “If not chastely, at least cautiously” suggests –and that is confirmed by numerous sources –that members of the clergy used the services of the prostitutes.
In addition, monasteries were not the temples of abstention from the sins of the flesh either. In 1261 a magister of a Strasbourgian order explained that if a nun had already fallen into the sin of sexuality then she had better be doing it with a priest, because in that case her sin would be less serious. By the end of the Middle Ages, some convents and monasteries had functioned as unofficial brothels.
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS
During the Middle Ages many debated whether men or women could find greater pleasure in sex. While Aristotle suggested that men more enjoyed sex in the winter and women in the summer, Hippocrates explained that women had a longer but more shallow orgasm. This approach, which profoundly reflected the existence of subordination in the male-female relationship, determined the notion of the pleasure’s gender-specific intensity. There were some who even considered the question further. One of the greatest scientists of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus, stated that the more superior a being was the greater the orgasm it had; in other words, the pleasure of the man was regarded as more profound than that of the woman. In relation to sexual delights, a slight change occurred in the 13th century due to Petrus Aponensis, who stated that though women had two orgasms, men found greater pleasure in sex. His conclusion still mirrored the world view of a male-oriented society, but the raising of the question had already marked a paradigm shift. That view remained significant in the Christian world up to the 17th century when Francesco Plazzoni, a physician from Padua, disclosed his unconventional thoughts, saying the pleasure of the woman is greater than that of the man.
Generations that socialized in the era of the sexual revolution and beyond find it hard to imagine how rigorous the sexual rules were that medieval people had to follow. The Church prohibited sexual intercourse on several days, and fleshly pleasures– even in terms of spouses – could be fulfilled in only one sexual pose. However, theory and practice were often a very long distance from one another.