There have been one or two discussions online about Medieval sexuality, so I thought I'd post a few thoughts of my own on the subject. Being a historical novelist who features detailed relationships between my characters, it's inevitable that their sex lives become part of the equation. So, the question is: If I'm going to try and be as historically accurate as possible, what are the do's and don'ts for my characters? Over the next few days, I'm going to post on matters of the heart and areas further south in the medieval world view.
The first thing to realise even before I begin, is that just like now, one size doesn't fit all. I have to be prepared to accept that there's more than one model going on here, but that within the spread of opinion, there are still general rules.
Incidentally the tasteful above illustration is courtesy of the border of the Bayeux Tapestry.
They married really young didn't they?
Well, that depends. The aristocracy tended to marry at a younger age than the peasantry. Aristocratic women were married off pretty young, while aristocratic men were often batchelors into their forties - William Marshal being a case in point. Roger Bigod was well into his thirties. His son Hugh was 25 when he married the probably 14 year old Mahelt Marshal. Twelve was the age of consent for a girl and fourteen for a boy. Some marriages were consummated at this young age. On other occasions the girl - or boy was left to mature a while longer. There are marriage clauses in existence where pacts are made between families concerning consummation dates. Mahelt Marshal bore her first child when she was about 16 years old. Margaret Beaufort was just thirteen when she bore the future Henry VII. While our society is somewhat censorious about the age thing, the medieval mindset on the matter was somewhat different. The medievals would have been shocked to think that we might regard such juvenile marriages as child abuse. A teenage girl getting married in the middle ages was seen as taking a responsible place in adult society. i.e. maturity was placed earlier than it is now. Most medieval children would have been accustomed to the mundane aspects of sexual activity among adults. There was little privacy in society and the medievals were not prudes. They had no problem placing a married couple in bed together, naked, with witnesses - but would probably be horrified by the titilation offered by a standard modern pop video, available for children of any age to watch. e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoVeAGaO27I
Sex wasn't for fun - it was to beget children.
Yup. That was the general idea. Medieval writers regarded sex as sinful, but that sin was mitigated if you did the deed to procreate. 'Carnal connection with wives must take place for the sake of offspring, not pleasure, and a man should abstain from sex with his pregnant wife.' So said a 9th century Frankish church council. Henry I of England had more than 20 illegitimate children - apparently because he liked children. (oh yeah?) No one asked what the mothers thought! This of course would have nothing to do with his wife's predeliction for kissing the feet of lepers. Her brother, the future King David of Scotland caught her at this habit on one occasion and asked her if her husband knew about it. The fact that they had one son and one daughter, as opposed to the other scattered twenty, does make one pause for thought!
Basically the Christian idea was that if sex took place in marriage, it should be open to the possibility of conception and contraception was forbidden.
But people used contraception anyway?
That would depend on their own belief and how strongly they followed church teaching. Sometimes people know the rules but break them anyway. (riding a bicycle on a pavement for e.g. or dropping a cigarette stub on the pavement). Contraceptive practices were undertaken. The Trotula, an 11thC treatise on women's health has various suggestions on preventing conception. The woman should wear against her naked flesh the womb of a goat that has never borne offspring, or hang the testicles of a weasel around her neck. After a difficult birth, if a woman did not wish to conceive ever again, she should throw a handful of barley into the placenta. Perhaps with slightly more success, other methods such as inserting a stone or piece of moss up against the cervix, or douching with vinegar are recommended elsewhere. Coitus interruptus was practised. How widespread all this was, we don't know, but since it's all mentioned here and there, it was obviously part of life's pattern. Breast feeding might have given some natural protection for a while, but breastfeeding women were supposed to abstain from sex anyway. The nobility often employed wet nurses (although not always. It bears emphasising that not everyone was running down the same path) and once a wife emerged from her forty days of childbirth confinement, she was straight back on the breeding programme.
I found it rather interesting when researching TO DEFY A KING, that Hugh Bigod and Mahelt |Marshal appeare to have had several of their children at three year intervals i.e. 1209, 1212, 1215, 1218. I don't know when the fifth was born. In the novel, I've gone with them using contraceptive practises.
Next time around:
Getting into position
Who wears the trousers
Grounds for divorce