When one thinks of medieval sex, strictly speaking, images from movies (certainly not from The Seventh Seal) come to mind: Morgana Le Fay (Helen Mirren) in John Boorman’s Excalibur, seducing Arthur, Sir Gawain ( Liam Neeson!) and Merlin (in this case the sorceress clad in a lascivious corset-type culotte that I have seen auctioned in 2019 for more than 20,000 euros: how expensive Arthurian fetishism is).

The premiere of the novice Adso (Christian Slater) with the peasant woman played by Valentina Vargas in The Name of the Rose. The torrid relationship of the Norman Chrysagon de la Cruz (Charlton Heston) with the maiden Bronwyn —who captivated Cirlot— in The Lord of War. Eric (Tony Curtis) ripping Janet Leigh’s dress, size 90 to the eye of a good cuber, so that she can row better in The Vikings. The student Heron, de Foix (Assi Dayan) and the noble Claudia (Anjelica Huston) consummating their (free) love in a deserted abbey in full jacquerie in the captivating Walk Through Love and Death; that curious mixture of Marxism, hippieism (premiered in 1969) and Froissart, in which the two protagonists (she was only 16 years old) were the children of aupa parents: John Huston (the film’s director) and the one-eyed general Moshe Dayan .

The most recent The Kingdom of Heaven, for good, and The Last Duel, for bad, are probably the films that have made us reflect the most on what sexuality was like in the Middle Ages. In the first, the loving encounters of the sonorous Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) with the orientalized, and living Edward Said, Sibyl of Jerusalem (Eva Green) were a hymn to the fusion of cultures; while the violence that radiated the second, where the tournament seemed to start already in bed, made you think that in the Middle Ages, with armor even at home.

Actually, we have vague and contradictory ideas about sex at that time. And that is why the book that we bring up today is so interesting, The Fires of Lust, Sex in the Middle Ages (The fires of lust, sex in the Middle Ages), by the British historian Katherine Harvey (Reaktion Books, 2021) . A much more inciting title, it must be agreed, than The Age of Cathedrals or William the Marshal, and may Duby forgive me. It will be published in Spanish by Atico de los Libros next April.

Harvey begins by dealing with some persistent topics such as believing that the Middle Ages were a long live the sexual virgin like Game of Thrones, or the droit du seigneur, the right of seigneur (which appears by the way in The Lord of War), or the chastity belt —another movie image: Monica Vitti (Boccadoro) producing a metallic sound as she sat down in a huff after betraying her annoyed husband with the contraption before leaving for the crusades. But at the same time, the historian warns that it is also a mistake to believe that medieval people (the book focuses on the European Middle Ages from approximately 1100 to 1500) were like us because ultimately sex is a universal human impulse. She asserts that although the human body and its physical capabilities have changed little in the last few millennia.

Among the fundamental differences, the medieval tendency to emphasize the active role (implicitly masculine) and passive (feminine). Sex was something that the man did to the woman. The historian qualifies that this does not mean that it was completely expected that the medieval woman would simply lie on her back and think about England, although, yes, it was considered significant that the man penetrated and the woman was penetrated. To such an extent, that sex between women was considered such only if one of them used an object to penetrate the other. Another type of sex between women was legally unknown and it seems that many people did not really understand what they could do with each other.

Less was known about sex than now that there is Internet and, for example, it is usually affirmed that the clitoris (which is apparently hidden in some texts such as kykyre or la bel chos) was not discovered (at least not discovered by men, he points out). Harvey) until the Renaissance, like America, which is further away. Also, apparently, people in the Middle Ages masturbated little, since there is almost no evidence; although one does not imagine Ivanhoe or Ricardo Corazon de Leon telling those things.

We have more reasons, says the scholar, to believe that other relatively common practices today were very rare in the Middle Ages, “notably oral sex,” she points out, which does not appear anywhere in the sources. “It may have seemed especially repugnant to a society that associated the upper part of the body with God and morality, while the lower part was linked to filth and sin. Putting the mouth in direct contact with the genitals was sullying an organ made for better things” (the mouth, that is). It is possible that (lack of) hygiene played a role here. Instead, it seems that femoral, or intercrural, intercourse with the penis between the woman’s legs without penetration was very popular. Used by male couples it was, however, so frowned upon that in 1357 Nicletus Marmanga and Johannes Braganza were sentenced to death by burning for practicing it. Doing it with a Saracen was much worse.

Conditioned by Roman Catholic Christianity and Galenic medicine, medieval sexual knowledge was concerned with matters such as whether Adam and Eve had sex in paradise (and worth the phrase), whether she menstruated before the Fall, or whether he had wet dreams. It was not believed that they were minor issues, they even worried Hildegarda de Bingen and not to mention Saint Augustine for whom all sex was a sin and orgasm made you stupid (and long live nonsense). There was such an obsession with (female) virginity that the mystic Margery Kempe thought only of being a virgin despite having 14 children. However, it was believed that from the point of view of health some sex was good for the woman, since she was cold in nature (according to the medieval theory of humours) and immediately received heat.

Marital sex, if performed correctly, was not considered an obstacle to salvation, since it was very judiciously understood that the total abstinence of all would end the human species. But it was necessary to avoid putting excessive effort (the man), because that was considered adultery with his own wife. You (the woman) had to fulfill your marital duty and you could only refuse in some cases, like when your husband was crazy, in a sacred place (if you had sex in a church, you had to re-consecrate it) or when the husband wanted to commit sodomy. If your husband was crazy and he wanted to do it in a church from behind (from you, not from the church) the law was on your side to say that nanay. On the other hand, it was no excuse—and Baldwin IV of Jerusalem would be very happy about this—that your husband was a leper.

The concept of marital rape did not exist, and Katherin Harvey, the author of the book, reflects that all these mixed things must have caused many women suffering. She cites the case of a dispensation Pope Alexander III gave to a man to remarry after he had so damaged his wife on their wedding night that he was permanently unable to have sex.

The medical theory came to consider the woman a defective man. Menstruation was seen as something disgusting and dangerous, but menopause was even worse, since it was believed that the bad things in the body from then on stayed inside. The semen was related to the substance of the brain, in which so many priests would agree that they told us that we were not thinking of anything else.

There was a belief that magic could make you impotent and the authorities took the matter very seriously: in 1390 two Parisians, Margot de la Barre and Marion la Droituriere, were sentenced to burn at the stake for rendering the ex-lover of the second generation useless. with his new wife. It was believed that in orgasm the woman also produced a seed and that an almost simultaneous climax (them first) was necessary for conception to take place. And we thought that the strangest thing about the Middle Ages were the cones of the princesses.

It was a general belief that only the missionary position led to a woman getting pregnant with guarantees and it was even suggested that he should stay on top for at least an hour, even if he got bored (and she, let alone). Other more flowery positions could lead to physical defects in the children, and even the woman could give birth to a toad, which is scary. Particularly frowned upon were the fact that the woman was placed on top and the aforementioned sex from behind, which seemed typical of animals. There was the belief that if you had twins, it means that you had been with two men, which, when you look at it, makes sense. Adultery was sometimes punished with severe penalties, even death. In the early Middle Ages, bestiality was considered a minor crime, equivalent to masturbation, But as the Middle Ages progressed, it worsened as the belief in witches and their dealings with the devil in animal form became official, until it was considered something very serious, a sin and a crime of heresy. It used to be then to execute the sinner and the animal.

An interesting case in this regard is the one Harvey cites of a Venetian craftsman accused of having carnal relations with his goat. The man, a certain Simon, claimed in mitigation that an accident had left him unable to have relations with a woman or to masturbate. He was examined by a team of doctors and even the judge authorized the intervention of two prostitutes who performed many experiments on Simon. Among all, they concluded that he could have erections but without any sensation. He considered him a sodomite with extenuations. He was branded, beaten and had his hand cut off, but he escaped the death penalty. And Harvey notes: “The fate of the goat is unknown.”

Medieval Europe had clear ideas about female beauty: desirable traits included blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, a small red mouth, long limbs, and a narrow waist. Although it has been suggested that they were only maternal, there is ample evidence that breasts were viewed in sexual terms: small, round, firm breasts were the aesthetic ideal. This is how one of the physically ideal women of the Middle Ages is represented, Bathsheba (whom King David saw bathing naked and with whom he committed adultery). An abundant breast brought a bad reputation to women and there are medical texts that explain methods to reduce it, never to increase it, such as rubbing it with blood from piglet testicles. There is evidence that medieval women wore undergarments that made the breasts appear smaller.

As for the man, the ideal was tall, strong, well-proportioned, and pale-skinned. Hair was considered a sign of virility, to the point that some men wore false beards and few shaved. It was generally assumed that women liked well-endowed men, and the literature is rife with those obsessed with male genitalia. There was lovesickness —for example, if you fell in love with the belle dame sans merci or the lady with the unicorn (let’s see how you are going to make love with a tapestry)— and it was recommended to alleviate it to follow a diet and distract the mind listening to music, hanging out with friends, looking at beautiful gardens or beautiful people, and drinking.

It is surprising that in the Middle Ages there were punishments for sexual violence, although they were not widely applied, Harvey emphasizes. Despite the fact that in many jurisdictions rape was punishable by death, it is not known, for example, of any Englishman who was executed for this cause in the Middle Ages. In fact, he used to marry the perpetrator to the victim as a good solution… The bottom line is that the Middle Ages can be very interesting in bed, but luckily we’ve passed the savannah; oops, page.

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