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The forbidden fruit!

What does one know about the Middle Ages today? What comes to mind first is the dark era, the cruel crusades and a reactionary culture instilled by the Church. But what does one connect with sexuality in medieval times?

Some might imagine a lecherous farmer having sex with a maidservant in the barn, others think of the strict rules imposed on sexuality by the Church. Both are justified! Sex in medieval times was an ambivalent concept - ambivalent because of the contradictions between human desires and the piety demanded by the Bible but also ambivalent because of the positions of man and woman. Aside from private sexual practices behind closed doors, there existed a required image of the female role in society.

A woman was secondary and of minor value. She was secondary because God formed Eve in Adam's image, and she was of minor value because she was created from Adam's rib. Women had to submit to men because they were supposedly not only physically but also intellectually inferior to men. Another confirmation of the typical role was found in the Fall of mankind, since it was Eve who was seduced by the snake into eating the forbidden fruit. This had an important impact on the sexual role of women, at least in the Church's view - and this view was reflected by society.  As sinful creatures, women were supposed to prove their purity by keeping their virginity until marriage, and during marriage itself they were supposed to be as modest as possible. Furthermore, women were supposed to play a passive role in bed and to suppress their sinful Eve-like nature. 

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Love was less important than the Church!

A woman was to marry according to her father's wishes. From then on, she was to be subject to the education of her husband. During the 12th century, some progress can be seen, since women are more often mentioned in deeds of donation and in wills. This shows that women were allowed to own property. In the end, this was often not a sign of equality but more an attempt to secure the inheritance for the proper heirs. Furthermore, marriages were often more a connection between two families than a partnership of lovers. As Georges Duby showed in his book Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, love often played a minor role in marriage compared with the role of the Church.

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Faithful forever!

In general, the Church was averse to marriage because it involved sex. But even bishops accepted that children were not delivered by storks. The Church utilised marriage as an instrument to influence the matrimonial life. Sex was only meant to serve the purpose of reproduction. If one enjoyed sex, one might forget salvation and the afterlife. By attempting to emphasize the spiritual meaning of marriage, the Church even tried to increase sexual inhibitions. The Church tried to spiritualise marriage, for instance by putting a strong focus on the adoration of the Virgin Mary and thus on virginity. But it was different in reality. Priests who were approached by frightened wives because their husbands asked for passionate sex advised them to be good wives and bend to the will of their husbands.  At the same time, they ought to be faithful to God in their minds. A pretty difficult exercise for women, but also for men. Sex without passion - as is well known - is a hard undertaking.

All this might suggest that the clergy did not know anything about sexuality. However, a counter example appears in the writings of Hildegard von Bingen, a respected Benedictine nun, who was the first woman to describe the female orgasm. It is interesting that a nun was able to work in such a field! Her male counterparts were however no less experienced. Recordings of legal proceedings in which male clergy were condemned for visiting prostitutes suggest that even priests and monks indulged in sex like the normal rabble.

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Pre-marital pregnancy...

Brothels officially established themselves in France and Italy in the 12th Century and in Germany and England in the 13th and 14th Century. According to Georges Duby, they met with approval from many quarters because one feature of marital legislations was that only the first son was allowed to be married, which officially forbade younger brothers from having sex. For the prevention of rape and unregulated prostitution brothels were developed. Even Augustinus of Hippo, a theologian and philosopher between ancient times and the Middle Ages supported prostitution in order to prevent rape. Prostitutes were usually driven by poverty or pre-marital pregnancy. They had to be freely available to everyone and serve a certain number of customers each day.

Prostitution, orgies in backyards and sinful priests seducing respectable women in the confession booth all show that sexuality didn't always follow the rules put in place by the clergy. The Church's ideal of the pious woman for whom sexuality only meant that she should be at her husband's disposal for sexual reproduction was not even close to reality. The contrast between public life as influenced by the Church and the "sinful" acts taking place in the bed-chambers of the Dark Ages characterise sexuality at that time and help to understand its peculiarities. The balancing-act between appearances and reality was a significant element of many people's sex-lives. Were you really pious, or were you just pretending? Did the priest and the prostitute meet in the confession booth or in the "house of pleasure"?

So next time you hear your grandparents raving about the good old days, you'll know what they're thinking of. A gentleman never tells...

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