The Rules of Medieval Sex
The title Medieval Sex means sex in the Middle Ages, nothing kinkier than that, though there was plenty going on back then! I’m an author of historical romance set in Charlemagne’s Empire, specifically during the reign of Charlemagne’s son, Louis. (We should remember Louis today because his date of death happens to be June 20, 840.)
Yes, you read that right. The year 840. People have asked me why in the world I picked 9th century Europe for my romance series. The answer is that, like most romance readers, I love stories that combine aristocracy, wealth, and rules that are made to be broken, but I really wanted my characters to live somewhere other than England or Scotland, and not be quite as rustic as the Vikings.
Charlemagne’s Empire has everything a historical romance needs, including rules, especially regarding sex. There was one Christian church back then and it was steadfast in its stance that the only purpose of sexual activity was procreation. Anything done to prevent conception was considered equal to abortion. Confessors were even expected to ask whether any sort of potion to avoid children had been drunk or given to anyone else.
The only sanctioned way to avoid pregnancy was abstinence, and the church was pretty helpful with that by providing a handy calendar of the days married couples were allowed to have sex. The following is quoted directly from Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché.
…the church forbade relations between spouses during certain periods: forty days before Christmas, forty days before and eight days after Easter and eight days after Pentecost; the eve of great feasts, Sundays, Wednesday, and Fridays; during the wife’s pregnancy and until thirty days after she has given birth if it was a boy and forty days if it was a girl; during the menstrual period; five days before taking communion.
I figure that adds up to at least 200 abstinence days IF you weren’t pregnant. Husbands who broke the rule were supposed to do penance.
Evidence suggests that the reality of sexual relationships was not quite so strict, especially for the wealthy. Emperor Louis had eight children with two different wives but also had two children with a woman off to the side. He actually showed great restraint compared to his father, Charlemagne, who had seven children from five known concubines. His first marriage really began as a concubinage too, and he had a total of thirteen legitimate children from a total of five wives, including nine babies in twelve years from the exceptionally fertile empress named Hildegard who must have died from sheer exhaustion. Two of his illegitimate children were born during this marriage also. If you aren’t supposed to have sex with your pregnant wife, what does the church think about having sex with someone who isn’t your wife and ending up with both of them pregnant at the same time? What is an emperor to do?
Here in the 21st century, all this really proves is that nothing has changed much. 1,200 years later there are still rules that are followed by some, bent by some, and absolutely ignored by those who can get away with it, and I mean this on both a societal level and a religious one.
I have to admit that I’ve skirted around the sex calendar in my books. I decided that the likelihood was pretty much zero of most men — especially men of wealth and power — consulting their datebook when succumbing to the passion of first love. Can you imagine that scene, with the hero and heroine getting busy, when the heroine says “We shouldn’t. We mustn’t. It is only twenty-eight days until Easter.”
Jill Hughey writes the Evolution Series, so far consisting of three novels and one short story, listed here in chronological order.