Sex was Regulated but Women held the Power: Sex in the Middle Ages

Sex was Regulated but Women held the Power: Sex in the Middle Ages

Before the church condemned prostitution, priests were allowed to marry and many medieval cities had at least one brothel, which was adored by the regulars – many from the church. Records indicate those city brothels were often privately owned and were extremely profitable. Medieval women were acknowledged for the sexual encounters (if you were a virgin, you were prime property) and those who remained celibate were also acknowledged, but in a holier way. Many women used prostitution as a means of financial support. If a woman did not take a husband, she was likely to make a modest living as a prostitute and was accepted for having a second occupation.

Interestingly enough, women often held two jobs: a ‘day job’ and a position as a “woman of the night”.

Despite the openness of courtly love that was often reflected in romantic literature, there were measures in place to ensure sex was, let’s say, 

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more orderly. With sex being quite the attraction priests often found it difficult to dissuade their followers as sex was, of course, pleasurable.

The Church did not allow expression of sexual desire, but it certainly allowed for courtly love. Women were placed into two different categories: those who were attainable and those who were not.

That being said, the Church was very particular about how a woman was to have sex, the time of day she was allowed to have sex, and the manner in which she had sex. If you were horny, sex was definitely a no-go. If you were horny, you’d have to sneak around and find a place to have sex; the dirty streets were not recommended.

If you did want to have sex, you had to abide by a set of rules, which were written in “books which gave the rules of sex and the penance for breaking them.” The most notable book was the Anglo-Saxon Canons of Theodore written around 700 AD. Some of the rules were a little out there and the theories behind fornication and semen were also different

  • Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years. Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years…
  • Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone, it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.
  • Sex was not permitted on a Wednesday, or a Friday, on a Sunday, or Saturday, on any of the 60 church feast days, during lent, during Advent, during Whitsun week, Easter week, while a woman is menstruating, while a woman is pregnant, while a woman is breastfeeding, within the walls of a church, during daylight, if she is completely naked, for the eight days leading up her husband taking the Eucharist or if the couple was related, even by marriage. The only permissible position was the missionary position. [1]


Sex was certainly regulated but women had the power.

Sex was at the forefront of women’s physical and mental well-being. Physicians believed women should have sex regularly and should to produce a male heir. Women could even divorce their husband if he could not perform. Thomas of Chobham, a theologist of medieval times, devised a method to determine if a husband was inadequate. First, he conducted a physical exam of the man. His genitals were observed and notes were scratched into a notepad. A bedroom trial followed.

After food and drink, the man and the woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man’s member is found to be useless and as if dead, the couple are well to be separated.

Sex was not forbidden in the Middle Ages, but it was regulated and watched under the watchful eye of the Church.






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