Sex and the Medieval Woman

My last post meandered around medieval motherhood, particularly in relation to Robert the Bruce’s sisters. During the course of writing about these amazing women, I wondered about the role sex and procreation played in their lives?  Was it so very different to today?

According to the beliefs of church and state, these issues were integral to a woman’s overall value. From a functional point of view, women were chattels of their father or husband. And even if the man who ‘possessed’ them died, they were still not free to make their own choice, for heiresses became the property of the king to be disposed of at his will.

We have the example of Robert’s mother, a widow and wealthy heiress to the ancient Pictish earldom of Carrick in SW Scotland. History suggests she seduced her second husband and married him without the approval of the king, thus incurring the royal wrath and a hefty fine. Lady Marjory grasped her own destiny with both hands. And the course of Scottish history would have followed a very different path, had she not challenged the king and his accepted feudal rights!

What alternatives were there for such women? Given in marriage to one of the king’s men, she was a physical and economic gift, a payment for his past and continued loyalty. Some women were made vulnerable by this ruling and eligible men raced to be there first. If she were not a willing participant, she could be kidnapped and the arrangement sealed by rape. Alternatively, women could petition the king for a betrothal of their choice, perhaps claiming some past, half-forgotten royal favour. Some might even opt out of public life altogether and enter a convent. The king might consider this outcome if the woman was aged and therefore held limited value in his eyes or if she required punishment.

A king could do whatever he wanted if his wife displeased him. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s imprisonment of 16 years  for treason springs to mind. During her subsequent widowhood, she relinquished public life and lived the remainder of her years at beautiful Fontevraud Abbey in France. In death, Henry lies beside Eleanor in the huge, white stone chamber. One wonders at such forgiveness!

High status women were often married off three or four times as husband after husband fell in battle. What impact might these social liaisons have upon subsequent children and the potential for complications through multi-layered relationships, property division and dwindling wealth.

The medieval church viewed women as evil seducers of innocent men. Rules were made to control the physical appetites of believers with sexual intercourse limited to approved days only. Thus the church ensured a steady income from penitents ─ those honest enough to fess up! Of course, sex was only one aspect of this lucrative trade in penance.

Much is made in history of the chastity belt whereby a husband might shackle his wife’s private parts until he returned from war. Procreation was about the extension of the family line and this action ensured her singular role as his sexual partner and prevented any surprises on his return. Given that a Crusading lord could be away for years, squandering his wife’s wealth most like, then one would hope the wife was canny enough to know a reliable locksmith! However, the potential for physical and emotional violence cannot be understated and women might have been set aside or punished if an unwanted birth resulted.

What must life have been like for wealthy women, living in castles with shared living quarters, an overabundance of men from all walks of life, and a strong emphasis on breeding animals – horses and hounds for hunting and war? I cannot imagine these lasses wilting about basic human impulses, but the pressure to remain virgins was critical to the value of the female in a marriage arrangement. Historically, across many cultures, wedding rituals involving the bedding of brides and grooms and the formal checking of the sheets for virginal blood give substance to this. Such husbands paid a dowry and expected an authentic family line. It was a contract after all!

One last comment relates to the frequent medieval practice of using a wet nurse. I am reminded by nursing friends that breast feeding, apart from the health benefits and joy such attachment brings, is a natural form of contraception. By not breast feeding their infants, high status women probably became pregnant sooner that they would have wished, which, over time, would have affected their health and lifespan.

Women have come a long way and I, for one, prefer the 21st century, when it comes to the freedom that many individuals are able to experience in their lives today.

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