Sexuality and Morality in the Middle Ages

Last week we began a series on morality in the Middle Ages. While it is easy to see the frequent moral failings of our own society, we may be tempted to think that we are living in a period of great moral decay. Not necessarily. As compared to many periods of history the current age is one of much greater concern with right and wrong, not to mention propriety. As we saw last week, pornography flourished in Medieval Europe. Last week we also looked at the institution of marriage, and unwed mothers in the Middle Ages. This week we examine sexual mores from the romanticized past. The source material for this series is William Manchester’s “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Prostitution in Medieval Europe was both well-paying and often prestigious. In an age of extremely poor personal hygiene, members of the oldest profession were relatively clean, as their full bodies were on frequent display. Successful prostitutes were called courtesans, the name for female courtiers. Prostitution was popular enough that when Martin Luther sought to have it outlawed in German cities he lost many followers.

Orgies and group sex were common. Promiscuity was popular with both the peasantry and the nobility. Since divorce was forbidden by the church, adultery was very common and socially accepted. At the court of Marguerite of Angouleme, sister of France’s King Francis I, adultery was part of court etiquette. Marguerite’s advice was as follows: “Unhappy the lady who does not preserve the treasure which does her so much honor when well kept, and so much dishonor when she continues to keep it.”

While the idea of non-sexual romance was encouraged by some arbiters of morals, such as the writer Baldassare Castiglione, platonic romance was not the norm of the times. Although France may have led Medieval Europe in its contempt for fidelity, other countries such as England were not far behind. As Raphael Holinshed noted at the time, “There reigned abundantly the filthie sin of lechery and fornication, with abominable adulteries, speciallie in the king.” Sexually transmitted diseases were certainly not unknown. Henry the II’s queen, Catherine de’ Medici, was orphaned when both her parents died of syphilis three weeks after her birth.

What was the cause of this moral laxity? While there were, no doubt, a number of related causes, a major reason must have been that those who provided moral leadership and guidance — aristocracy, royalty, the clergy, and especially the Roman Catholics in the Vatican — were setting the worst possible examples, as we will see next week when this series continues.

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