Wednesday, July 01, 2009

No Sex Here, we're Medieval!

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.

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


Taminator said...

Fascinating stuff. I cannot imagine having lived during those times...having had two c-sections, I would've died in childbirth. Scary to consider having sex then, isn't it?

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

I have always loved history and I knew that unions often took place between the very young but,when I really started getting into reading historical fiction, these "underage marriages" almost put me off -- until I realized I could absolutely not think about it with a 21st century mindset. Thanks for a very interesting post -- look forward to more!

Anne Gilbert said...

For Taminator:

Up until about the 1930's or so, it wasn't uncommon for women to die in childbirth. And this was in "developed" countries! Complications sometimes arouse that are now dealt with more easily. And yes, women died in childbirth in medieval might marry two or three times because their wives died. Infant mortality, even for the nobility, was fairly high, too.
Anne G

Jan Jones said...

Well, yes, I can imagine even the most lustful chap viewing the object of his ardour wearing a goat's womb or weasel's balls would tend to become a trifle unmanned.

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

With my second child, I had a placental abruption -- most likely, both he and I would have been a goner back in the not-so-long-ago day.

Steven Till said...

Henry I sure got around. Do we know by how many different women he had his 20+ illegitimate children? And to think, if he had just had one more legitimate son that survived, Stephen and Matilda might never have fought over the throne.

Carla said...

Interesting post! I agree that one size didn't fit all and there would have been a lot of variation according to individuals and their circumstances. E.g., age at marriage, William Marshal was 40+, Roger Bigod 30+, and William Longespee only a teenager, yet they were all approximate contemporaries.

By the way, is it known whether Mahelt had any miscarriages or stillbirths in between those suspiciously regular three-year intervals?

Book Soulmates said...

Thank you for this post. I am a aspiring Historian myself - my particular area of interest being Medieval studies - and I always enjoying reading over people's views on Medieval society.

In terms of the age on sexual maturity, we also have to consider the much shorter life spans of people back then. We have made unbelievable strides in the areas of health & medicine over the last 200 yds. These advancements were not available to them so many people, peasants & nobles alike succumbed to an early death brought on by disease (and I would think even poor hygiene).

Nobility arranged marriages at an earlier age (ages that we 21st centurions consider taboo) to allow themselves more time to procreate and pass along the family name. We modern-day women can bear children well into our 30's whereas 13-16th century women would have considerable trouble if they dared wait that long!

I look forward to reading more of your follow-up posts :)


marilyn said...

Elizabeth: Really enjoy your blog! I read in a book about life in the Middle Ages that women usually entered menopause in their middle 30's, so they must have had fewer years of fertility. I love the illustration from the Bayeux tapestry. I saw it a few years ago and remember how graphic it is. Wasn't it stitched by nuns???? I guess they needed to portray the Conqueror and the Normans as studly guys, huh?

marilyn said...

Elizabeth: Maybe this would be the right place to post this comment. I was a little disappointed in your depiction of the sex between Henry and Ida in Time of Singing. I think you wanted to show Ida as a reluctant participant so the sex wasn't so good for her. However, Henry was a very experienced lover, and I wonder how he could have been that satisfied with a wooden, unresponsive partner for that long. There were plenty of other women who would have been only too glad to be in his bed. And surely he would have known only too well how to give Ida pleasure. I guess we will never know for sure tho'.

Kelley Heckart said...

Interesting post. The negative view on sex during that time has always bothered me, which is why I prefer to write stories set in Dark Age Britain or Scotland.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Golly, nothing like a bit of how's yer father to get a discussion going - LOL!
I've had to split this into two posts because Blogger can't handle the word count!

Tammy - yes, scary looking back. I'd have been motherless at 7 and without my brother in the days before the miracles of modern medicine (sideways baby, dropped cord).
Lynn, you are so right about going into mindset mode. Ruth Mazo Karras' book Sexuality in Medieval Europe is superb in putting over the differences between our attitudes and theirs.
Anne - Yes, men often took second or third wives due to the perils of childbirth, Richard of Cornwall, Henry III's brother being a case in point when he lost his wife Isabelle Marshal in childbirth. Then again, the women often outlives their first husbands because they were frequently older(but not always)and popped their clogs first. Again referencing Isabelle Marshal. She survived her first husband, Gilbert de Clare, having borne him 6 children, then married Richard of Cornwall and bore him another 4, dying in childbirth with the 4th, aged 39.
Carla yes, there was a lot of variation - although in general terms a man was supposed to be able to support a wife before he married one. A lot of the high aristocratic marriages went for tying the knot early though. Longespee and Ela didn't produce children until post 1209, so they were certainly mature adults when the first one came along that we know about.
There's no way of telling if Mahelt miscarried any between those suspiciously regular age gaps. She certainly got more of a break than her mother in the early years!
Welcome Books (heart) soulmates. Interesting points. Some of the men took very young wives, but a lot of the men themselves seem to have been older. William Marshal was 43 when he married, King John was in his mid 30's when he married a 12yr old. Roger Bigod was in his late 30's, William Marshal Jnr was in his early 30's when he married King John's child-daughter. Llewelyn of Wales was in his 30's when he married John's daughter Joanna. Henry II was only 19 -ish when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, but she was no spring chicken. So it does seem to me that while aristocratic girls often married young and started families, their husbands were frequently a little longer in the tooth.
Part 2 in a minute!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Marilyn - it's not true that women started their menopause in their 30's. We're the same biological animals now as we were then. Eleanor of Aquitaine was in her forties when she bore John, Isabelle de Clare, William Marshal's wife was forty odd when she bore her last child (William was around 64). A well fed medieval woman would have similar menopausal pattern as us. They lived shorter lives due to medical defincies, not a genetic predisposition. If you survived childbirth and war and had a tough immune system, then you'd live a reasonably long life. It's a fact that the early medievals lived longer than the Tudors, Stuarts or Georgians. Of course, come famine and adverse conditions, I guess that periods would stop and the body degenerate.
There rare various debates as to who stitched the BT. Nuns are on the shipping manifesto though. I think the pic is supposed to allude to some long forgotten scandal. The Victorians did a version of the BT without the dangly bits...
Re Henry being an experienced lover?
Hmm....there are many interpretations of that one! Having lots of partners doesn't necessarily make you good in the sack. When you're a king, you snap your fingers and you get what you want. It would all depend how much of a sensualist and what sort of appetite for that kind of thing Henry had. He might just have been a 'wham bam thank you mam' sort of lover. We know he didn't sit still for a minute, that he didn't care what his clothes looked like and that the wine he served at table was disgusting. Was he a sexy lover in bed? History absolutely doesn't tell us. I used the Akashic Records to get at what it was like for Ida - a young girl forced to the bed of a man almost three times her age. Henry may have been keen on Ida's innocence. That may have been the aphrodisiac for him. Sharon Kay Penman was telling me that Historian Ralph Turner thinks now that Henry did seduce Alais of France, Richard's intended bride. Self and Sharon have always erred on the side of not believing it, but now we begin to wonder. And if Henry like innocence?......
I would say from my research that Henry's sort of loving was more about power and had nothing to do with the satisfaction or pleasure of the partner, so in that sense he had no need to be skilled. Only when his emotions were engaged would he refine his approach.
From Ida's pov - she was obeying her king and she came to have affection for him in certain ways. He was the father of her child after all, but she didn't fancy him in terms of sexual chemistry, even if he fancied her in a physical way. I also think that Henry probably sported with other women along the way. Basically they were on tap. He might want innocence one night and a wild woman the next. As a king he could have both.
Kelley - It wasn't all negative, just some of it. You can find negatives today and I guess that if you hunted for them, there'd be some negative aspects to the dark age model of of sexuality too. I think in every age it has been both a delicous cup and a poisoned chalice!
Phew! I think I've written a novel here - LOL. Thanks for all the great comments, people.

Book Soulmates said...

Elizabeth, I agree wholeheartedly with your point about men marrying at a later age (on average, of course there are always exceptions). In fact, that still applies very much today. Men are able to father children well into their senior years whereas women come with expiration dates (lol).

Although our genetic codes are primarily the same and a women may have been able to conceive into her 30 and 40's, it certainly didn't make the trials of childbirth any easier for them.

This has been truly fascinating and I thank you for arranging this discussion. I don't often find people that can I can discuss the sociology of the Dark or Medieval ages with :)


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Isalys, you're welcome. I love talking medieval sociology too and such discussions are not always readily available, so thanks for coming to join in!

Holly Greenfield said...

This is great. I enjoyed the history lesson! I'm looking forward to your next post.

Bryn Colvin said...

I can't help but feel that the wearing of a goat uterus and weasel testicles would indeed work as a contraceptive... that's got to put most blokes off!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Bryn, I have written just such a discussion among a group of ladies in the current WIP while they are gossiping round the fire and swapping hints, tips, and tales of lore!

Anonymous said...

Nifty post! I read some interesting stuff about medieval child marriage not too long ago. Apparently nowadays historians think it was fairly rare except among heiresses whose parents were dead or in deep political trouble. Have you seen Kim Phillips' book Medieval Maidens? It has a lot of neat information about young women and marriage in the later Middle Ages.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Writemedieval,

Thanks for dropping by the blog. I'm hoping to get the next part of this post written up over the weekend.
From what I've seen from my study period - 1066-1250 approx, aristocratic marriage does seem to follow a 'marry earlier rather than later' for girls - although not so much for boys, and this may have changed outside my period of interest. (as in every one I've looked at has the daughter marrying by her late teens at the latest even if her dad wasn't in the political dog-doo). I've not studied the model for non aristocratic women beyond the basics. I haven't read the Kim Phillips book, but from clicking on your url, it looks interesting. I'd like to find out more about what the younger married girls did between marriage and consummation, or when under the guidance of their marriage families. I've covered this in To Defy a King, but I'd still be interested in a reference work on their duties and expectations from all perspectives.

Anonymous said...

enjoyed reading comments as have the novels - just wondered if its known why and how Isabelle de Clare died?

Regan Walker said...

Jumping in late here, Elizabeth, but thanks so much for telling me about these posts. Fascinating and confirming, too. I suspected it was that way. As you say, we really haven't changed much no matter the restrictions.