We might think of people in the 21st Century being more relaxed about sex and nudity than they were in the past, but there was an awful lot of romping going on in the Middle Ages, and people of the time were not at all shy about it.
In fact, says Dr Eleanor Janega, having sex in public was more or less standard in the medieval period.
Dr Janega, an American medieval historian who focuses on gender and sexuality in the late medieval period, told the Daily Star that for lower members of a household” you are often just in a bedroom with a bunch of other people”.
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Even for the nobility, she says, with the relative privacy of a four-poster bed, “It was still like being in a tent next to other people”.
Eleanor explains: “We see a lot of serving people, for example, having sex in fields or quiet places where they knew other people weren't around.
“In places like Prague we know that priests even built sort of wooden shacks that they would rent out to people to have sex in. They got in trouble for this, but they still did it!”
It seems, she says, that people did want privacy in their more intimate moments: "In an ideal world people did want privacy, it is just that they couldn't always get it, and what they considered private seems very public to us".
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Then, as now, men tended to have more freedom than women.
“Women were policed a lot more because there was an emphasis on their children as being rightful heirs,” Eleanor explains. “Men on the other hand could run about a bit more. Having said that, we see literary movements like courtly love where the emphasis is on married women having romantic relationships with the unmarried men in their households”.
But even these chaste “courtly” relationships could be a lot racier than the average King Arthur film might lead you to believe.
They could often involve, says Eleanor, “stuff like hand jobs, oral sex, anal sex, and inter-femoral sex – which they were apparently quite interested in”
She also points out that people took baths in the medieval era a lot more than we might expect.
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There were huge public bathhouses in which men and women bathed and socialised together. The Church expressed some concern about these communal baths, Eleanor says. They “didn’t want men and women to be bathing together because they think it is too sexy, but people seem to do so all the same”.
And of course bathhouses were a major haunt for the sex workers of the period.
Sex workers were frowned upon in medieval society, but treated as a necessary evil: “The idea was that if unmarried men had no sexual outlet then their lust would be expressed as violence,” Eleanor says, “and you would have trouble with riots.
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So there were “stews,” in red-light districts such as Southwark in London, where prostitution went on more or less openly.
But reflecting the more relaxed morals of those times medieval people were more willing to forget about a sex worker's past than we might be today. “If a woman wanted to leave the profession she could go confess and the general penance was to get married,” says Eleanor. “If she did that, all was forgiven”.
The main reason we think of the Medieval era as being more sexually repressed than we are today is that the Victorians drew a discreet veil over history’s bawdier moments.
They “liked to view the medieval period as a time of purity and spirituality in comparison to what they saw as the decline of society during the industrial period,” Eleanor says.
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But looking at the dramatic changes in attitudes to sex over the past few hundred years, we asked Eleanor where she thinks society’s attitudes might be headed in the next century.
“People have always been interested in sex in a lot of different ways,” she says, “but we try to pretend that sex is always new and on the verge of bringing down society.
“If we were a bit more honest with ourselves about history and human nature than things might be able to stay relatively fun and open for a while. But there's always someone who wants to make a quick buck by saying sex is bad, so it is difficult to know what will happen…”
Eleanor's next book, The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society, will be published by WW Norton & Co on March 3 2023
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