The Joy Burden of Sex for Women in the Middle Ages (Medieval Mondays #10b)

Medieval perception of women’s sexuality

The first two Medieval Mondays posts on sex focused on proper sexual conduct as dictated by the Church.

But no discussion about sex, be it in a historical or a modern context, can be deemed complete without a parallel discussion about the societal perception of women as sexual beings, as well as their sexual agency, or lack thereof.

The two topics are intrinsically linked.

Historical perceptions of women’s sexuality, in turn, are often connected to historical theories of the nature of women themselves, particularly as interpreted by historical biology.

According to Frances and Joseph Gies, authors of Women in the Middle Ages,

Thomas Aquinas pronounced that “woman is defective and misbegotten.”  The active force in the male seed produced a “perfect likeness” in the form of a male child; when a female child was produced, it was because of “a defect in the active force.” (p. 50)

Aquinas’s teacher, the German scholar Albertus Magnus, likewise maintained a view of women’s sexuality that drew upon this notion of womanhood as a defective state.  The Gieses write,

Albertus demonstrated to his own logical satisfaction that women experienced greater desire and greater pleasure than men.  Contrary to Aristotle’s assertion, he believed that women as well as men emitted seed in orgasm, and since women both emitted and received, their pleasure was double.  Albertus thought the menstruum was female seed that collected in the womb between menstrual periods and increased desire until menstruation provided relief. (p. 50)

According to the Gieses, Albertus’s claims were rooted in the notion of male superiority:

[W]oman, an imperfect being, desired conjunction with man, a perfect being, since the imperfect desire to be perfected; therefore the greater desire and pleasure belonged to woman. (p. 51)

Albertus further purported that sex was necessary for women because they often became ill if they were “full of spoiled and poisoned menstrual blood”.

He claimed that it was good for “…such women … to have frequent sexual intercourse so as to expel this matter”, especially “young women, as they are full of moisture”, adding that “[y]oung women, when they are full of such matter, feel a strong desire for sex.” (p. 51)

The notion of women’s insatiability for sex is a common view within misogynistic societies.  It allows for the position that having sex with women is a benevolent, necessary, and ultimately justifiable act, even if a woman’s agency and desires on the matter are removed.

In short, it becomes a formal defence for the sexual mistreatment of women.

Commandment and control

In the medieval times, sexual mistreatment of women presented as considerations into adultery and the conjugal debt.  As discussed in a previous post, the conjugal debt was an ecclesiastical doctrine that required spouses to provide each other with sex whenever either one requested it.

Ostensibly, the conjugal debt served the purpose of equally ensuring both partners’ sexual satisfaction within the confines of marriage to ensure neither one strayed into sexual sin.

However, according to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, one rationale for the conjugal debt was the belief that women were by nature sexually promiscuous.

Williams and Echols quote 13th century canonist Cardinal Hostiensis, who claimed that “husbands [have] a moral obligation to keep their wives sexually satisfied, lest they be tempted to stray to other beds.” (p. 168).

The Gieses state that Cardinal Hostiensis further deemed women “weak, readily stimulated creatures” (p. 52), some of whom allegedly did not even recognize that adultery was a sin.

Even prostitution, although condemned by the Church, was viewed as women behaving in accordance with the weak, promiscuous female character.

One pattern of the conjugal debt in practice—likely the most common pattern—would thus allow a husband to demand sex of his wife who was unable to refuse, and to say he did so for her own good.

Meanwhile, for a society that supposedly believed women to be helpless at the hands of their promiscuous nature, according to Williams and Echols,

Society viewed non-virginal, unmarried women as ‘spoiled’, and even a breath of scandal could ruin a girl’s chances[.] (p.92).

Similarly, women who were caught committing adultery almost always received worse punishment than their male lovers.

Williams and Echols indicate that “even women of the most exalted social status were expected to remain chaste” (p. 92), that “adultery was usually considered just cause for the unfaithful wife to forfeit her property—dower, dowry, and all other financial holdings” (p. 93), and that,

Society as a whole viewed an adulterous wife’s actions as more an insult to her husband’s honour than as an offence against a moral code, thus permitting the wronged husband to avenge his honour. (p. 93)

Especially when considered together, the above quotations from Williams and Echols demonstrate the controlling motive behind the claim of women’s alleged insatiability.

Whether men truly believed the allegation or not, it—and the women to which it was attributed—served as an means by which men could demonstrate their power to other men, which was pursued to the point of needing to publicly save face if that power and control ever faltered.

Oppression and suppression

Another way that medieval women were controlled and kept subservient in society had to do with Galen, the Greek physician and philosopher, who held a much different theory of female physiology than that of Albertus Magnus.

Although Galen’s theory was postulated during the 2nd century A.D., it wasn’t conveyed to medieval Europe until the 14th century.

Prior to this time, the role of a woman’s part in conception was a mystery to scientists.  Taking a cue from Aristotle, they believed it to be largely passive (hence Aquinas’s “active force” found in the male seed).  However, according to the the Gieses,

A physiological concept much closer to reality than those of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Albertus Magnus[,] … Galen foreshadowed William Harvey’s seventeenth-century discovery of the ovum by expressing the conviction that women had internal “testicles” located on either side of the uterus “and reaching down as far as its horns,” smaller than male testicles but containing seed “just as men’s do.” (p. 51)

Galen’s theory was immediately suppressed for fear that it would cause women to become prideful.

The Gies quote a 16th century Italian physician who stated that “Woman is a most arrogant and extremely intractable animal, and she would be worse if she came to realize that she is no less perfect and no less fit to wear breeches than man.” (p. 51)

They go on to state that,

A Spanish contemporary added that Galen’s notion should be kept secret from women lest they become “all the more arrogant by knowing that they … not only suffer the pain of having to nourish the child within their bodies … but also that they too put something of their own into it.” (p. 52)

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1 and #2)

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