Views on Women & Women’s Sexuality
by Jean Mason
The Middle Ages remains one of the most popular settings for romance novels. We readers can’t seem to get enough of knights and ladies, jousts and tournaments, and all of the other paraphenalia of a good medieval romance. But we also want those delicious love scenes in which the dangerous warrior becomes the gentle lover, and his lady swoons in ecstacy as he introduces her to the pleasures of love.]]>Support our sponsors But, perhaps many of us share the curiosity of one reader who wrote Laurie to ask the out loud what many have wondered in secret: Did medieval women really enjoy sex? The answer is – in the time honored fashion of all scholarship – yes and no. Of maybe, it depends.
The history of human sexuality remains, for the most part, terra incognito, especially when it comes to women. Only in the last century or so have women themselves openly discussed their sexuality in ways that are accessible to the historian. For most of human history, the written word has been largely a male preserve, so we almost always perceive women through the distorting lens of men. Women undoubtedly talked about sex and passed on information (and misinformation) to their daughters and friends. But this oral tradition is largely hidden from us. So in order to uncover what real medieval women thought about sex, we have to be clever interpreters of the historical record.
Let us begin by recognizing that the physiological structures for attaining sexual pleasure were obviously in place for medieval women as for all women everywhere. (Unless, of course, they are subject to the mutilation of the female organs. However, this was never a practice in western Europe.) Thus, medieval women were physically capable of enjoying sex.
However, we should also recognize that there were physical impediments to this enjoyment. Most people in the middle ages lived in conditions of dirt that we would find appalling and certainly not conducive to a joyful sex life. Second, many suffered from chronic ill health, also a barrier to an enjoyable sexual relationship. Likewise, poor diet and heavy labor were common and could interfere with sexual pleasure.
But most of our heroines come from the upper classes, where such problems, if not wholly absent were at least mitigated. So we can assume that they would be physically capable of sexual enjoyment.
However, we all know that there can be social and psychological barriers to sexual pleasure for women. If the society and the culture denies the value and validity of sexual enjoyment, then many women may well be inhibited from accepting their own sexuality. And certainly, there were many such impediments during the middle ages.
First, the church, the most powerful cultural arbiter of the day, was deeply suspicious of sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular. The clergy preached that sex should only occur for the purposes of procreation, not for pleasure. Chastity was one of the seven cardinal virtues and lust one of the seven deadly sins. In their role as confessors, priests questioned parishoners about their marital sexual practices and placed limits on when relations were appropriate. Husband and wife were not supposed to have sex on (I think) Tuesday, Friday or Sunday and not at all during Lent. Enjoying sex too much was viewed as a sin, although a venial (as opposed to a mortal) one.
For women, virginity was the highest possible state, widowhood next best, with marriage coming in a distant third. Widows who chose to remarry were viewed with suspicion. Why would any woman seek to place herself once again in a position where she would have to endure sexual relations? Certainly the attitudes toward sexuality espoused by the clergy (supposedly celibate themselves, in theory if not in practice), if internalized, could well inhibit women’s enjoyment of sex.
While the church’s attitudes were very powerful, there were countervailing intellectual forces at work that suggested a more positive view of female sexuality. One was the existing medical understanding of reproduction. (Of should I say misunderstanding!) Many physicians in the middle ages had adopted the Galenic concept of the existence of female sperm. Unlike Aristotle, who had insisted that women play no role in conception, but merely provided a temporary home for the fetus (this is a bit of an exaggeration), Galen insisted that it was imperative that the woman ejaculate her sperm for conception to succeed. Thus, it was important that the woman as well as the man have an orgasm, preferably simultaneously. There were actually medieval manuals which provided detailed instructions on how to arouse a woman, with all sorts of suggestions about foreplay.
While these manuals may not have been widely read, it does seem that the idea that a woman must have an orgasm in order to conceive was widespread. This belief may well have encouraged husbands to be more considerate lovers, given the importance of children during this era. (A downside of this belief was the insistence that a woman could not get pregnant from a rape and if she did, she must have been a willing participant.)
The evidence thus far is inconclusive. The church’s attitude may have inhibited sexual enjoyment; the understanding of conception may have encouraged sexual pleasure for women. But in both instances, we are dealing with prescriptive behavior which does not necessarily tell us much about ordinary behavior. Literary sources provide additional evidence about how medieval women felt about sex, even if the literature is often written by males.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales offers a number of insights that we can use. The Wife of Bath, one of the greatest characters in all of literature, is clearly an earthy, sensual woman who insisted on sexual pleasure in her marriages. (Her last husband might well be viewed as her “boy toy.”) Likewise, many of the tales included quite explicit sexual adventures, with both parties having a wonderful time.
Another literary source are the songs and poems associated with the whole courtly love tradition. In these, the man sets out to win the favor of his lady with the aim of gaining her “love.” Well, that love was often to be expressed sexually, and there was the clear idea that the lover was to “please” his lady in every possible way. Those troubador poems that were written by women are as sensual as those of the men, and clearly suggest that women expected to enjoy their love affairs as much as the men.
Finally, surviving popular literature is full of female sexual predators, unfaithful wives, and deceiving women who enthusiastically engage in sexual relations. The men who wrote these stories and poems were obviously disturbed by the sexual aggressiveness of women. Indeed, until the nineteenth century, popular opinion held that women were more governed by their sexual desires than men, thus the need to keep them under control.
So, can we conclusively answer the question, “Did medieval women enjoy sex?” Well, the answer remains, “It depends.” Certainly, there were factors that could inhibit such enjoyment. But there are likewise reasons to believe that many women could and did find pleasure in sexual relations, mostly within but sometimes outside of marriage. La plus ca change and all that.
I will have to argue that sex was an enjoyable experience for men as well as women in medieval times. One only need to study the other cultures existing during the same time period – the Chinese, the Indian, the Persians, etc – to acknowledge that sex was a universal subject even then. Although the Church may have suppressed a lot of the sexual expressions, I doubt that this meant that women did not enjoy sex or hesitate to have sexual relationships. Human nature (all we have to do is look at the teens today!) is difficult to control or subvert! When repressed, everything just goes underground, even literature. We know that the spring festivities during the merry month of May weren’t just about spring cleaning or the welcoming of life, but also a time when the peasant boys and girls learnt about the birds and the bees. That was also why spring became the chosen month for nuptuals, no doubt resulting from medieval style hanky-panky! The only thing missing from medieval literature is the equivalent text to the other cultures’ Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Gardens, etc., but this doesn’t mean that one didn’t exist, maybe now hidden in a monastery cell somewhere! Only time will release the truth. I could only use common sense, that even if those times were repressed eras for women, that men wtill were dazzled by a flirting smile, that women still practiced feminine wiles, that beautiful clothes were meant to bring attention to the body, that a few bawdy jokes were told between a husband and his wife. It’s only human nature: if we inherited our love for warfare from medieval times, our sense of male and female roles, our ability to create and build art and monuments, surely how we enjoy our sexuality today also must have some of its roots from those times too!
Read about JeanRead Jean’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on the Tudor PeriodRead Jean’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on the Stuart EraRead Jean’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on the Regency Read Jean’s Historical Cheat Sheet article on The Age of Reform Return to Medieval Times
Jean Mason received her Ph.D. in British history from an Ivy League unversity almost thirty years ago and has been teaching history at the college level ever since. She chose to specialize in late 18th and early 19th century British history in part because she loved the novels of Georgette Heyer. She has since become interested in the history of women and the family in the United States and has written a fair number of scholarly articles.
Jean will celebrate her 23rd wedding anniversary in June, 1998. She has a teenage son, two stepdaughters in their 30s and four grandchildren. She also has a dog and two cats. Her favorite authors (in addition to the incomparable Gerogette) are Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney, Carla Kelly, Linda Howard, Nora Roberts, Roberta Gellis, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and Judith McNaught.
Jean is a contributor to The Romance Reader and has reviewed scores of romances in every category. She does have a bit of a reputation for being a scold about historical accuracy, but what can you expect from a historian?
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