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15 January 2008
Getting Laid In The Middle Ages
by Paul Aitken

Over the last few columns I've written about the pros and cons of getting laid at different points and places in history. And if I were to sum them up it would be this: If you want to get laid – don't go back in time. Last week we learned that in Christian Europe there was a theological deep-freeze on the very idea of sex. Even marital sex was suspect.

Now I know what you're thinking. What about all those wanton wenches spilling out of the pages of Shakespeare and Chaucer? What about all those serving maids with their breasts spilling out of their lacy tops? Would our perception of the Middle Ages be so bawdy if people weren't making the beast-with-two-backs at every opportunity?

As usual, the answer to this is a bit of yes and a bit of no. In the pre-Victorian age, as now, sex on stage and in literature was there for entertainment's sake. Nothing like a bit of bawdy humor to fire up the dimwits in the audience. But there is also the prevailing sense that sexual mores were looser during the reign of Elizabeth than they were during the reign of Victoria. After all, the Christian Church prevailed more during the former than the latter. During the reign of the Tudors, religion was mandated. A lowly peasant could be fined a year's wages for sleeping through Sunday service. People were burned at the stake for professing a preference for Catholicism over Protestantism (and vice-versa depending on which Tudor held the throne).

But in medieval England as in most of Europe, there was a large discrepancy between what the church preached and what the laity practiced. Why? Well, for one there was also a big difference between what the church preached and what the priests practiced. Many of the clergy from parish priests to the Popes were only nominally celibate. Cardinal Wolsey, the head of the English church just prior to the reformation, had several bastard children. The common people may have been ignorant and illiterate but they weren't stupid.

In many ways the church in medieval Europe was like the old communist party in Eastern Europe. Everybody belonged, everyone agreed that it was great, but for every rabid adherent there were a dozen more that merely paid lip service to the doctrine. For most people the church was merely the backdrop against which they lived out their lives. Parish priests understood this. Even if they knew the Church's policy on sexual behavior, (few had read the bible let alone the writings of Augustine or Aquinas on the subject of marital sex) they would have known better than to antagonize their congregations by making them desist from one of the few joys in their utterly miserable lives. So given all this, what was the sexual climate like in pre-Victorian England and Europe?

Then, as now, getting lucky was largely a matter of how lucky you already were. English and European cultures were highly differentiated, between the village and the city and between the rich and the poor. And your sexual fortunes were largely a function of which socio-economic quadrant you resided in.

Let's start with the rich (approximately 2 percent of the population). For the most part these guys had as much sex as they wanted. Henry the VIII was a notorious womanizer who, as viewers of The Tudors can attest, wet the royal dick at every opportunity. Henry could have had any scullery maid he wanted but he seemed to have had a preference for prostitutes, an inclination that later cost him dearly as Henry is believed to have become syphilitic in his later years. In fact, there's an interesting albeit unprovable theory that the reason his wives had such difficulty bearing children was because he had given them all syphilis.

As it went for Henry, so it went for most of the nobility and certain members of the priesthood. Illicit sex was freely available, if not always free. The object of fornication was a function of personal preference and culture, the French preferring concubines and mistresses, the English (as usual) tending towards more bland, commercial transactions.

How did the church view all this? Officially they were against it but they largely turned a blind eye in practice. There was even tacit support for the idea of prostitution. The theory went that it acted as a safety valve, without which it was assumed men would resort to buggery and rape. As with sex inside marriage, prostitution was regarded as a necessary evil.

What if these illicit liaisons resulted in illicit children? This happened quite frequently (in spite of the availability of condoms made from animal skin), and while fathering bastards was never anything to be proud of, it was generally accepted. Bastard children were acknowledged, supported and usually provided for in wills.

But if illicit sex was enjoyed according the whims of the nobles, legitimate sex was another matter. Marriage amongst the nobility was less a function of personal happiness than a means of securing property. Lineage and heirs were of utmost importance. As such, marriages were arranged, often in childhood.

Such was not the case for the poor. The poor were permitted to marry for love. Within the marriage the frequency of sex depended on whim. Given the complete lack of television at the time it's not hard to imagine how they may have spent those long dark nights. But remember that there was no birth control in those days and as the kids started adding up and eating more food, the need to limit the size of the family would have placed a strict limit on their nocturnal shenanigans.

What about sex outside marriage? In the city, sex was available for a price that all but the most wretched beggar could afford. If you were a young lad who had the fortune to be sent to the town to apprentice in one of the many trades, you likely got your share.

And in the country? Well, that was another story. Rural villages were exceedingly small. Everybody knew everybody's business. Illicit sex was frowned upon, not so much for moral reasons as practical. Adultery could tear apart the fabric of the community. If a young maiden become pregnant out of wedlock, the burden of her resulting poverty would fall on the rest of the residents. Partly for this reason, a commitment to marry was considered as binding as the marriage itself. In fact, the wedding was often a rubber stamp on what was already a fait accompli. A recent study comparing the dates of weddings to the dates of first births found that 10 percent occurred less than eight months apart. Premarital sex was available at a cost. Namely the rest of your life. One can imagine that the dilemma of the horny teen was not dissimilar to that of the protagonist of Meatloaf's Paradise by the Dashboard Light.

Let me sleep on it. Baby, baby, let me sleep on it.
Will you love me forever? I need to know right now!

But if getting laid in medieval England and Europe was difficult, it was about to become much harder...

Christianity And Sex
Why God Hates Sex
The Castrati: Giving Up Your Balls For St Paul
The Raunchy Origins Of Valentine’s Day

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