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How Did Sex Work in Medieval Times?

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Delve into the complexities of sex during medieval times, uncovering notions of love, desire, and taboo in a period often misunderstood.

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Sexuality in the medieval period is a topic often shrouded in mystery and misconception. Common perceptions tend to paint a picture of prudishness and repression, governed by strict religious doctrines and societal norms. However, the reality is far more complex, with a rich tapestry of attitudes towards love, desire, and intimacy prevailing throughout the Middle Ages. In this article, we embark on a journey through the labyrinth of medieval sexuality, uncovering its various facets and shedding light on its often overlooked complexities.

Love and Marriage in Medieval Times

medieval times marriage

Marriage in medieval society was primarily viewed as a social and economic contract rather than a union based on romantic love. Arranged marriages were the norm, often serving political alliances or economic interests rather than personal affection. Despite this, medieval literature and poetry often idealized the notion of courtly love—a concept rooted in the chivalric code that celebrated romantic devotion and admiration between knights and noblewomen. Courtly love, with its emphasis on secrecy, longing, and unrequited passion, provided an outlet for expressing emotions that were otherwise constrained by social conventions.

Sexual Practices and Taboos in Medieval Times

Contrary to popular belief, medieval attitudes towards sex were not uniformly repressive. While the Church did advocate for celibacy and condemned extramarital relations, sexual activity within the confines of marriage was generally accepted. However, discussions of sex were often imbued with moralistic undertones, with emphasis placed on procreation rather than pleasure. The infamous medieval manual, “The Art of Courtly Love” by Andreas Capellanus, outlines the rules of courtly love while cautioning against the dangers of lust and adultery.

celibacy in medieval times

Yet, evidence suggests that various forms of sexual expression existed beyond the confines of sanctioned matrimony. In urban centers, brothels flourished, providing outlets for both heterosexual and homosexual encounters. Additionally, erotic literature and art, such as the explicit carvings adorning some medieval cathedrals, offer glimpses into the more carnal aspects of medieval life.

brothels in medieval times

Gender and Sexuality

Gender roles played a significant role in shaping medieval attitudes towards sexuality. Women were often expected to be chaste and submissive, their sexuality tightly controlled by societal expectations. The concept of virginity held immense cultural value, with a woman’s purity linked to her worth as a bride. Men, on the other hand, were afforded greater sexual freedom, with extramarital affairs often overlooked or even glorified as displays of masculine prowess.

While homosexuality was not openly acknowledged, it did exist within medieval society, albeit often condemned by religious authorities. Same-sex relationships were sometimes portrayed in literature and art, though typically in a derogatory or comedic light. Despite this, historical records indicate that intimate relationships between individuals of the same sex were not uncommon, particularly within certain social circles such as the clergy or aristocracy.


Medieval sexuality was a complex tapestry woven from a myriad of influences, including religion, culture, and social norms. While the period was marked by strict codes of conduct and moralistic rhetoric, individuals found ways to navigate and express their desires within these constraints. By delving into the nuances of medieval attitudes towards love, desire, and intimacy, we gain a deeper understanding of the rich tapestry of human sexuality throughout history.

Further reading

Has this article peaked your interest in historical sexual practices?
Read all about 19th century hysteria and the invention of the vibrator!

hysteria meaning

And if you want to delve further into the past. Read all about the sexual and political intricacies of ancient harems!

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