Modern Western culture is descended from Medieval European culture, and so we have inherited a lot of their ideas but we use them very differently. So it makes for very interesting and different comparisons. If you compare, say, modern America with Ancient China then any influence that there is has been very indirect if at all.
Whereas, influence from Medieval Europe is very direct and we see ideas still being turned around. One of the most interesting type of sources is the records of church courts. In Western Europe the Church was responsible for any laws affecting personal morality. Those cases would end up in the church courts rather than secular courts, and in many jurisdictions in the Later Middle Ages we have records from the church courts.
This is the era before it was required that marriages be performed by a priest. So people give their testimony and they talk about what words the couple said to each other, and who was there, and when they went to bed afterwards, where were they.
The court records from late medieval Paris were really surprising as they revealed how much sex seemed to be going on in the stables. Why were so many people having sex in the stables? It took me a while to realize that was where the male servants slept.
So, if they are taking a woman to their bedroom they are taking her to the stables. People often go to court and try to give the best impression of themselves. There are lots and lots of other kinds of sources. There is literature that talks about sex, poetry and prose, especially poetry.
There are lots of texts written by churchmen about what people ought to be doing: We have handbooks for priests, guides to writing sermons,with collections of little stories to include. We have writings from only very few individuals about their own activity. We have, for example, the so-called autobiography of Peter Abelard and then we have an exchange of letters between him and Heloise, where they talk about their illicit relationship and their marriage and subsequent turn to religion.
There are not many material sources, though. We have things like manuscript illuminations which indicate, for example, couples in bed together. There are depictions of sexual themes on capitals in churches. Capitals are very often decorated. In some places, particularly in France in the central Middle Ages, we have a lot of capitals that in some way can tell a story.
You get classical themes, like the Rape of Ganymede, you get the stories of adulterous women being tortured in hell by having snakes and frogs sucking on their breasts. A lot of the things that would have had to do with sexual activity were not so durable. For example, when we read about medieval women using dildos, they are made out of leather. One of the metal things that survives are tin badges that people wore on their clothing. There are a lot of similar tin badges, which may or may not have been given on pilgrimages, that have things like flying phalluses.
Sex and Church There was a lot of teaching and a lot of preaching about how dangerous lust was and that people, especially women were very likely to fall into temptation.
Now, the clergy themselves, in Western Europe and particularly after the 11th century, were unmarried and were supposed to be chaste. We get all this literature written by men who were not married and who were supposed to be avoiding women, so of course they are going to write about how women pose a temptation.
And some of the texts that we see are a reflection of their concerns. Moral Philosophy Philosopher David Edmonds on deontological ethics, Kantian ground of human rights, and usefulness of philosophers Of course, when we say The Church, we mean a huge organization that is not monolithic by any means.
There were some churchmen who preached a stricter line than others, there were some people who were more concerned with sex than the others were. The church leadership was concerned with policing the morality of its members who included the vast majority of people in Medieval Europe. And the Church considered sex the major area in which it needed to police people.
We can know about sex from the guides for preachers, for example. Judith Bennett has done some interesting work on English peasants and on leyrwite which is a fine levied not by the Church but by manorial lords on peasant women who had sex without being married. It was sort of a method of social control but also as a way of tracing the numbers of single women and their activity. Now, once we get to a later period, there are baptismal records.
In England, for example, after the Reformation churches started keeping records of marriages and baptism in each parish. Scholars have connected them to determine when, in relation to marriage, the first child was born and, depending on where in England you are in the 16th century, between 10 and 30 percent of women were likely pregnant at the time of their marriage.
Many more must have had sex before marriage and not gotten pregnant. It may be that it was fairly common for people to have sex before marriage, and they got married when the woman got pregnant.
In church court records we can often find stories about women who were pregnant and claimed that the man had married them or had promised to marry them, and they asked for that promise to be enforced. There has hardly been an era when they did. Reproduction is not the only thing that made sex permissible, but it was a big thing. I would argue that the close connection between sex and reproduction really is not broken until the availability of effective contraception, which means we are talking about the second half of the 20th century.
Although there were some forms of contraception earlier, there was not much effective contraception in the Middle Ages. The Fall of Humankind Source: We get a family size from things like tax records, which only sometimes give numbers of household members.
In a relatively malnourished population that number is going to be higher. And in a relatively undernourished population you are less likely to get pregnant when you are breastfeeding. So, there are a lot of other things besides contraception that might have kept the population rate down.
The other thing that scholars argue about in relation to contraception are warnings about how women should beware of doing something because it will cause miscarriage. In Christian society the Church forbade official contraception. They allow, for example, the use of a sponge under specific circumstances, such as a pregnant or nursing women.
In the Muslim world the later evidence suggests that contraception is permitted. Sex and Jewish Culture The Jews, like the Christians were quick to blame women for temptation, though, Jewish cultures were not really separate from the majority cultures in which they lived. So, you will see big differences between Jews in the area called Ashkenaz, which is mainly France and Germany, and Sepharad, which is Iberia. For example plural marriages were forbidden in Ashkenaz after the 11th century, but not for Jews in Spain, who lived in a Muslim culture that permitted plural marriage.
Theories of Well-Being Philosopher Daniel Hausman on the concepts of good, happiness, and the non-philosophical approach to the problem Whether Jews were living among Christians or Muslims, they were very concerned with sex across religious boundaries. Christians were concerned with that too. All of the religions were very concerned with their women being appropriated by men of the other group.
So Christian culture is not so concerned about Christian men having sex with Jewish women,Jewish culture is not so concerned about Jewish men having sex with Christian women.
There is very interesting work on this by David Nirenberg who argued that it was especially prostitutes who were put in the position of policing the boundaries. There was real concern about Muslim men having sex with Christian prostitutes in Spain, and the prostitutes were held responsible.
You can be a woman who has sex with women, you can be a man who has sex with men. You can be a very feminine woman, or a very masculine woman and still want to have sex with men. In the Middle Ages they tied sex very much to gender. Sex was all about the role. If you were the active partner, you were playing the masculine role, if you were the passive partner, you were playing the feminine role. They envisioned sex very much as something one person does to another, that a man does to a woman.
If two men are having sex, one of them has to be acting as a women, if two women are having sex, one of them has to be acting as a man.
So they mapped sex onto gender where we can dissociate it. This to me is one of the most interesting comparisons, the way they understood sexual object choice differently. People identify as gay, as lesbian, as bisexual, and so on today. They certainly recognized that some people had preferences that went in one direction or another, and in some places like 15th century Florence you find what looks a lot like a gay subculture — certain taverns where men who liked to have sex with other men congregated.
Other work is being done by historians, and great deal of it is still coming out of court records. These are only a few names, who write in English, out of what is a lively field. Open Questions and Perspectives of Research One of the things that is really worth pursuing, is the complications in how sexual activity is understood for lay men. A lot of work has been done on women, because it has been done by feminist scholars, a lot of work has been done on churchmen.
Lay men, particularly aristocratic men, do not seem to have restricted themselves to their wives, but how did the society regard that and how did that affect their understanding of their own masculinity? People have studied rape as a crime, but there is probably more to be done on it. Rape is a crime of violence, not a crime of sex. We put a lot of stress on consent.
In the Middle Ages, as it was said said, sex was considered what one person does to another. So more work needs to be done on the ways in which there was or was not an element of violence implicit in the way that people in the Middle Ages understood all sexual activity. The field of medieval history has just really opened up tremendously in the last couple of decades, it is much more than the history of male elites. Understanding of how people lived their lives is crucial to understanding the society.
You cannot understand the society by looking only at chronicles and property transactions. Edited by Arina Zajtseva.