Medieval female sexuality
Medieval female sexuality is the collection of sexual and sensual characteristics identified in a woman from the Middle Ages. Like a modern woman, a medieval woman’s sexuality included many different aspects. Sexuality not only included sex, but spread into many parts of the medieval woman’s life.
Everything in her life ultimately led to marriage, and it was within wedlock that her sexuality developed and took shape into what today could be recognized as a sexual identity. The scope of sexuality for a married woman during the Middle Ages was broader than that of an unmarried woman. While there are many reasons for this, an important one is that the Church only acknowledged the potential for a sexual identity in a woman partaking in sexual intercourse with her husband alone.
Outside of marriage, virginity and purity were prized, and sexuality was limited to small displays of beauty, such as embroidered hair coverings or fine clothes. Chastity removed the possibility for any kind of sexual identity as would be seen in the 21st century.
Even medical problems related to female organs were disregarded with the understanding that only sexually active women could have them, and even so, help was difficult to find. However, within the bonds of marriage came sexual intercourse for these medieval women and with it, sexual problems. Those problems included conception, birthing, abortion, and health problems related to sexual organs.
The most important piece of a woman’s sexuality did not directly relate to what women believed about their own sexuality, but more so the roles assigned to them through the beliefs, superstitions, and decrees of the Church, the law, and men. These three entities came to define female sexuality and sexual identity in the Middle Ages.
Sexuality for the medieval woman began before marriage as a young virgin. It was not necessary for her to be beautiful to be married off because marriage was traditionally based on politics, material wealth, and social status. It would have been intensely disapproved of for a man and woman to marry based on physical attraction or love. When a family made a match for the daughter, choosing a mate based on sexual attraction was never considered. It was very rare to find references to love and beauty in the negotiations for marriage between two families.
However, it was not unheard of for young men and women to create relationships for themselves with sexual attraction in mind. Women displayed their availability for marriage through their hair, which would have been a great symbol of sexuality in the Middle Ages as it was kept hidden. Medieval women allowed their hair to grow throughout their lives. Married women would have kept their long hair tied up in braids beneath a head covering of some sort. Single women would allow their hair to fall freely over their bodies signaling that they were available for marriage.
A woman’s clothing was particularly important in attracting male attention for the intention of marriage. In fact, a beautiful woman in poor clothing would go generally unnoticed while a much less attractive woman in fine clothing would receive far more male attention, although modesty was throughout considered to be her greatest triumph. Legally, if a woman were to dress like a whore, she could be codified as one. It was understood that a certain amount of physical attraction between potential partners was necessary to encourage reproduction by allowing the male to be stimulated sexually.
Once married, the importance of fidelity directly related to a woman’s honor and her acknowledgment of male control of her sexuality. A man was supposed to transform his wife from a virgin to a woman by consummating the marriage, ideally with a pregnancy. While an unconsummated marriage was subject to annulment, once a woman lost her virginity to her husband, the consummated marriage was permanent.
Sexual problems within a marriage, especially in explanation to an unconsummated marriage, existed in a woman’s claim of her husband’s impotence and inability to penetrate her or in a man’s claim that his wife’s vagina was too narrow or that it was somehow blocked.
The act of adultery was considered by far the worst of sexual sins, but it is noteworthy that usually only women would be punished for it. A husband would be forbidden to murder his adulterous wife, but if he did, the courts were reluctant to punish him. Although adultery was a severe sin, a woman had another option and that was of separation from her husband. While divorce did not exist with regards to its forbidden status within the Church, a woman could file for a separation from her husband on the grounds of ill treatment and in many cases was granted the separation.
Sex outside of marriage did of course exist, but promiscuity was considered to be more heinous in females than males. However, the German Schwabenspiegel allowed a woman over twenty-five to engage in sexual activity without her father’s consent or threat of the loss of inheritance. This may be taken as a clear indication that a woman understood sexual satisfaction to be an entitlement and that she would take steps to fix her situation, if necessary.
Beliefs and superstitions
Medieval women were assumed to be far more insatiable than men and a woman’s lust would have been considered her ultimate sin. She was believed to receive far more pleasure from a sexual encounter than men and reach her sexual readiness far earlier than men. Perceived as more sexually mature than males, women were expected to conduct themselves to higher standards than men, leading to a double standard of sexual morality. Aside from these beliefs, medieval men did not take female sexuality seriously except insofar as it threatened male privilege or the natural hierarchy of genders.
The Church and the law
The laws of the Catholic Church and the secular laws of the medieval period mixed into, generally, one united front. Whatever would have been a concern for the Church, was automatically reflected in the concern of the secular court. The ultimate purity for the Church was for one to maintain virginity throughout one's life, but if one must have a sexual life, it would then only be legitimate for procreation through marriage. However, sex and sexuality were in themselves seen as sins, regardless of the circumstances under which they were performed or demonstrated. The sin of women’s sexual immorality, love of extravagant dress, and petulant nature were common themes of medieval sermons.
However, for a woman, sex was a very limited activity because of the restrictions placed on the instances in which she could engage in sexual activity. For example, sex was a forbidden activity during the following times: Sundays, sometimes Fridays and Wednesdays, the feast days of the saints, periods of fasting such as Lent or Advent, and during a woman’s life when she was considered to be impure. Impurity was believed to be during menstruation, pregnancy, the first forty days after giving birth, and while nursing. Since the goal for a woman was to give birth to as many children as possible and nurse them all into good health, a woman, given the set restrictions, would not have had much time to engage in sexual activity.
When a woman did have sex with her husband, there also existed laws in the bedroom. Sex in the missionary position was the only form of sex deemed acceptable and natural. All other positions and sexual acts were considered sodomy; the charge of sodomy was so serious that it would have been tried in the secular court and possibly been subject to a death sentence.
Another large piece of female sexuality of concern for the courts was that of prostitution. A woman selling sexual services during the Middle Ages was, in theory, frowned upon by the Church as committing a sin, but in principle and in practice, the authorities believed that prostitution was a necessary evil and a public utility for preventing men from worse sins. By giving men the option of engaging in sex with a prostitute, it was believed to be saving esteemed women from corruption or the possibility of sodomy. While the Court and the Church sought to limit women’s sexuality through the law, clearly in many ways it was a failure.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a woman’s sexuality was not how she used her body for sexual purposes, but the state of her physical sexual health. Female medical experts of the period such as Trotula and Hildegard of Bingen had great interest in sexual topics concerning women and desired to aid women in the upkeep of their sexual health. These healers were interested in: fertility, obstetrics, women’s diseases, reproduction, sexual appetite, and so forth.
Doctors and healers well understood the medicinal use of plants and herbs and were regularly consulted about menstruation, contraceptives, and abortion aids. Menstruation was universally seen as a means of purification and as the blood supplied to the fetus and the blood converted to breast milk for nursing.
Often women would come to healers or herbalists to receive a concoction which would instigate menstruation. Although it may be hard to understand why this would be desired, it becomes evident that this was an abortion aid. Stimulating menstruation in a woman who had recently become pregnant would deliver a miscarriage and hence abort the embryo. It was believed that there was a window of time between when receiving a man’s semen and when impregnation would occur. There was a great reluctance to give wives any form of birth control and what recipes did exist had terrible directions and caused more harm than good.
- Joyce E. Salisbury, ed., Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991), 7.
- Judith M. Bennett et al., Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 176, 179, 87, 101.
- Joanne M. Ferraro, Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 91, 85.
- Vern L. Bollough and James A. Brundage, eds., Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996), 199, 44.
- Ruth Evans, ed., A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages (New York: Berg, 2011), 102.
- Beteta Martin, Yolanda. "The Servants of the Devil: The Demonization of Female Sexuality in the Medieval Patristic Discourse" Journal of Research in Gender Studies 3, no. 2 (December 2013).
- Jacquart, Danielle and Claude Thomasset. Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages. Translated by Matthew Adamson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
- Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. London, England: Routledge, 2012.