How attitudes towards sexuality have changed from the Middle Ages to the present day

public potency

Many aspects of sexual life that have become private in the process of civilization were originally public. For example, before a woman could get a divorce only by proving that her husband was impotent. Because the purpose of marriage was to have children, accusations of infertility were taken seriously by the church.

During the trials of the XIII-XIV centuries. when examining a potential impotent, his penis was measured: it was believed that the shorter it was, the higher the likelihood that the man was infertile.

The women present at the meeting sometimes even deliberately aroused the poor fellow to see if his penis reacted to touch. In the XV century. the husband accused of impotence was forced to prove his sexual solvency in a brothel, in the presence of priests and officials.

According to historians, a similar incident took place as early as 1677, when a lot of onlookers gathered to stare as a certain aging marquis tried to prove his manhood. The marquis declared himself capable of sexual intercourse, however, according to the subject, the crowd waiting behind the curtains became an obstacle to the implementation of his intention.

Italian brothel of the 15th century. The then fashion for codpieces is clearly visible. The codpiece was stuffed so tightly that, according to Montaigne, it resembled a part of the body, which, out of decency, is not worth mentioning.

Today, manhood is no longer measured in public, but manpower is still a subject of discussion and idle curiosity. Viagra has written a new chapter in the history of potency: the market for erectile dysfunction drugs has grown rapidly in the 2000s, and now they are used not so much to treat impotence, but to improve the quality of sexual intercourse. Even if a man is much more interested in golf or gardening, he still has to fulfill his masculine duty – and preferably for as long as possible.

In the Middle Ages, due to lack of space, several people often slept in one bed, not only relatives, but also servants and guests. In the 16th century, rules began to appear that determined the boundaries of modesty between boys and girls.

So, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote that, undressing and getting out of bed, you need to remember about decency and not reveal to prying eyes anything that nature and morality tell us to hide. A couple of centuries later, de la Salle emphasized that a man and a woman should not go to the same bed if they are not married, and if representatives of different sexes are forced to sleep in the same room, then the beds should be moved apart.

Even marriage did not guarantee privacy, although the spouses shared the same bed. At the end of the XVI century. the spread of puritanism in England led to a tightening of control over morality: officially the priests were engaged in this, and unofficially, the neighbors. Gossips not only shared information with the curious, giving them all the intimate details, but also signaled to the churchmen if moral norms were violated.

The usual topics for gossip were the seduction of maids or the attention-grabbing sex life of spouses. Neighbors also informed the priests if the husband did not interfere in the love affairs of his wife.

From time to time the priests needed to be reminded of how sinful the passions are.

Even aristocrats and simply rich people at that time could not hide anywhere from the eyes of their own servants, who spied on what was happening in the master bedroom. If the nobles were brought before the court on charges of adultery, it was usually the servants who acted as witnesses. That is, we can say that sexual integrity as such did not exist.

In the 17th century this problem was reflected in architecture: from now on, in the dwellings of wealthy people, a separate corridor led to the bedroom, and not a suite of rooms, as before. Also, bedrooms began to be placed on the upper floors, away from curious servants.

However, it should be noted that in the old class society, the awkwardness of someone watching the most intimate aspects of your life was felt only in the presence of members of your own or upper class.

If there were people nearby who were lower than you on the social ladder, the absence of modesty was considered in relation to them almost a manifestation of sympathy.

So, according to della Casa, “certain parts of the body should be kept covered and not exposed … unless in the presence of a person whom you are not ashamed of.” A noble lord could regard as such a servant or friend belonging to the lower class, and in those days this was not at all considered arrogant rudeness, but, on the contrary, was considered as an expression of special affection.

It has long been the habit of royals and nobles to receive subordinates in the bedroom before going to bed or immediately after waking up, as well as sending natural needs. The question involuntarily arises: was it not really a way to demonstrate the difference in position in this way?

After the division of society into estates became less strict, and its members, due to the division of labor, were forced to interact more and more with each other, people occupying a higher position on the social ladder began to feel shame in the presence of lower ones as well.

Privacy in its current meaning arose only in the 19th century, when home and private life for all social classes began to mean approximately the same thing.

In modern culture, the position of “superior” is occupied by people who earn on their publicity, for example, actors and other celebrities. Obviously, the townsfolk believe that the stars do not feel shame when their dirty laundry is shaken up in front of all honest people: in the media, one of the key topics is often the sex life of a celebrity, since the “strawberry” sells well.

Despite the fact that spying on neighbors is considered a perversion in our time, interest in observing the intimate lives of other people has not disappeared anywhere. And television has become an assistant in this matter, as in many others. […]

In the new millennium, it has become clear that the public display of sexuality on television is rapidly gaining momentum – and throwing off clothes. An infinite number of programs are based on the fact that there you have to compete almost naked.

For example, the viewer is invited to watch how the participants of the Dutch reality show Queens of the Jungle compete against each other against the backdrop of exotic landscapes, dressed only in tiny bikinis that barely cover strategic points.

Sex outside the marital bed

Jean-Baptiste de la Salle

“Rules of good behavior and Christian propriety” (1702)

You should not undress or get into bed in the presence of other people, especially members of the opposite sex with whom you are not married. It is unacceptable for people of different sexes to sleep in the same bed, with the exception of small children.

If, however, you are forced by circumstances to share a bed with a person of the same sex, for example, while traveling, then it is worth remembering that it is indecent to lie so close to a person that you can touch or disturb him, and even less decently throw your leg over him.

In the Middle Ages, premarital sex was common, as were intrigues on the side. Thus, medieval morality demanded from a person not true purity, but only compliance with formal rules. It was also necessary to avoid acts that could lead to public disgrace. That is, it was possible to enjoy life, the main thing is that it should be done in secret.

Thus, chivalric romance suggested that extramarital affairs were the only way to truly love. True, Andrei Kaplain, in his treatise “On the Science of Courtly Love,” emphasizes that it is indecent to destroy other people’s relationships or take a woman whom you are not going to marry as a mistress.

Marriage, however, was not included in the concept of love for a knight. According to the Chaplain, a legitimate husband and wife were unable to truly love each other, and therefore marriage could not be considered a reason to deny yourself the joy of loving someone else. The chaplain did not directly call for adultery, but a real knight needed to at least be able to flirt.

In practice, however, the knights rarely had the opportunity to follow their instincts. Unmarried girls belonging to the upper class were carefully guarded, fearing disgrace: if a young woman participated in public celebrations, she always had an older companion with her, who strictly guarded the honor of her ward; ladies traveled only accompanied by a group of companions, and all movements took place in a tightly closed carriage. The fear that someone would seduce an honest girl was too great.

So, Robert de Blois in the XIII century. compiled the manual “Rules of good manners for ladies” (Chastoiement des dames) – a collection of tips on etiquette, in which he advised the fairer sex not to show excessive friendliness towards men, with the exception of their own husband. Only he could embrace his wife.

In turn, the spouse’s interest in other women was interpreted from a purely male point of view. According to the knight Geoffrey de la Tour Landry, a wife should not be jealous, even if her husband gave her a reason to be. A well-bred woman should also not show anger and wounded pride. Medieval etiquette manuals emphasize that a wife should not show her jealousy or ask her husband about relationships on the side. The authors of some handbooks also gave similar advice to husbands.

An excerpt from a medieval manuscript


If you are jealous, do not be so stupid as to let your wife feel it, because if the spouse notices signs of jealousy, she will do everything to worsen your situation a thousand times. Therefore, my son, you should take a wise position in this matter.

In the Middle Ages, manifestations of sexuality among the common people were demonstrated openly and uncontrollably. The villagers did not hide extramarital affairs, and a man could openly keep his mistress. Discipline in matters of sex was considered simply ridiculous, and satirical books of the time often portray the clergy as the biggest debauchees. The reason for such ridicule is that it was the priests who were mired in fornication that made up the rules of sexual behavior for the common people.

Medieval rules for women drawn up by the clergy

Men should not be allowed to caress their breasts, since this is only allowed for the legal spouse, the same applies to kissing. You should not brag about your success with the opposite sex, because this is dangerous. It is indecent to walk in too open dresses or twist the place where you sit.

The behavior of the mob is well described by such a detail: when a man wanted to express sympathy to a woman he had just met, he without ceremony grabbed her breasts. A guide to Renaissance etiquette warns ladies against allowing men to touch their breasts too often, as this can lead to overly familiarity.

In a particularly shameless way, sexuality manifested itself in the Middle Ages in public baths, where both men and women spent their time. A medieval proverb says a lot, according to which “there is no better place for a barren woman than a bath: if a bath does not help, then visitors will definitely help.”

Man and woman in the bath. Medieval drawing

Despite the fact that prostitutes also offered their services in such establishments, water procedures were not regarded as something shameful, and representatives of all classes practiced going to the baths, and quite openly.

Nothing was hidden, including from children: in medieval chronicles and manuals on etiquette, you can even find instructions that forbade six-year-old children from spending money on whores. Yes, and Erasmus of Rotterdam himself also gives recommendations in his book on how children should relate to prostitution.

Medieval advice, some of which was written in a cautionary tone, was sometimes extremely straightforward, as we can see from a passage from the Book of the Civilized Man written in 13th century England:

If carnal desires overwhelm you while you are young, and if your penis leads you to a prostitute, still choose not an ordinary street whore; empty your balls as quickly as possible and leave as soon as possible.

Back in the 16th century going to a brothel was common, but old men and the rich who visited brothels were looked down upon: these kinds of establishments were intended for young men who had not yet saved up enough money to get married, while those who were older already had the wealth to allow them get a legal wife.

Brothel keepers denounced to the city authorities if older men used their services too often. Thus, in society they tried to relieve the tension that arose between the two age groups (young and poor people were spared in their own way), as well as to reduce the number of rapes committed by young people: at that time this crime was quite common.

In medieval baths, time was spent with full dedication: they ate, drank, played music and had sex.

In the sixteenth century, the Reformation created new standards of decorum that led to changes in social behavior, especially in England and Switzerland. Various shameful punishments were invented for unfaithful spouses, and in Basel, for example, traitors were sent into exile. in Great Britain until the 1660s. authorities had the right to break into a house without warning if they suspected adultery going on behind closed doors.

Infidelity in relationships in Western countries is still universally condemned: despite the fact that in the 1960s. The hippie movement has become widely known in pop culture for its ideals of free love, but now there are not so many adherents of free relationships.

Cheating is still the main reason for divorces, although sometimes on the pages of yellow newspapers cheaters are sometimes tried to understand and justify at the suggestion of lifestyle gurus. At the same time, a perverted double morality flourishes on TV screens – where else.

For example, in the popular reality show Temptation Island, couples in the program are taken to an exotic island, where a group of seductive beauties and sultry machos await them. After that, the viewer can only guess who will be the first victim of temptation. Or, if you call a spade a spade, who will be the first to dare to change.

Informative, useful and funny book by Finnish writers and researchers Ari Turunen and Markus Partanen “Only after you. A World History of Good Manners provides answers to questions about historically established norms of behavior in society.

Find out why the older generation always dislikes young people, why it is indecent to greet a person who relieves himself, why it used to be considered shameful to be faithful to a partner and other curious things.


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