Medieval Passions: Sex, Love & Superstition “are imperfect at best”

A monk seducing nun. Netherlandish School, 17th Century. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

by L J Frank

What are you afraid of? Is it that of which you have no control? The man asked his fellow traveler (he wrote in his diary. 17th Century). The answer is unrecorded.



Medieval Ages were viewed as contemporary for the people who lived in those centuries. The traveler crossing the European landscape ventured through forests lurking with thieves, wolves, and witches or those who applied their mysterious sensual trade…while the traveler confronted nature’s storms and enduring periods of hunger. He and she were also witness to and or experienced the transitive act of human sexuality.

Life was simple from a distance and more complicated up close. Perspectives differ. Opinions and sources vary. Reality was harsh. People aged quickly. The blemishes, scars, and wounds on the body were testament to the struggles of everyday existence. Forgiveness involved luck. Superstition was enhanced by ecclesiastical rituals, beliefs, and the use of magic. Pleasure was fleeting and sex a fickle act, albeit a regular occurrence in a given context, location, and opportunity.

One journal keeper, a distant ancestor, who was literate and jotted his thoughts down, was not above superstitious gossip as he inquired whether a man who died in the midst of foreplay (and given the nature of blood flow and stiffness not caused by hanging – from which the later term well hung is derived), could that man be buried with an erection? And if so, would that man’s phallus serve as a toy for the Devil or the humor of God, or simply a dessert for the worms.

The penis and vagina were uttered in eloquent terms and flowery or earthy language at times. Tales abounded about daily life that exuded remarkable superstition, magic associated with love and the passion between the loins.

 Aphrodisiac related herbal concoctions were created to stimulate pleasure regardless of any label of deviancy, which was not necessarily a negative. On the other hand, ecclesiastical authorities, and rulers viewed personal anxiety as source of control and financial income. Playing upon people’s superstitions meant more coins in one’s personal coffers or purses. For a few clerics, sex and money were ecclesiastical stepchildren.

Time of day and the situation or circumstance were factors in determining the direction of one’s lust. Location in many an instance was secondary to the need to satiate the hunger.

Love thy neighbor had many meanings both spiritual and physical. Humping one’s neighbor on a pile of straw in a barn was preferred over the neighbor’s bed or dining table if her partner was still there…for copulation was considered a transitional activity and had little to do with the metaphors of love. Love thy neighbor essentially meant do unto others what you would have them do unto you.

Sex and love are different from each other though there are overlapping threads of perception and emotion during the Medieval Ages, but neither sex nor love are a prerequisite of the other. They are human expressions in a colorful tapestry of textured intimacy.

To lust or not to lust was not a question as architects and tradesmen fashioned their prurient interests or subtle deviances both in the open and hidden places if a person cared to look – whether at the end of a pew or cathedral ceiling, private home, or public building. Ecclesiastical settings were treasured among the more illustrious artisans, expressing the woven nature of the earthy and heavenly.

Wood carving in celling rafter: All Saints Church, Hereford, England. circa 1200 CE

From penises to vaginas to acts of copulation there existed a suggestive openness to everyday sexuality even when a cleric or rulers were angling for greater control and increased revenues. Prudery is a mixed emotional term and fomented in dogmatic texts of religions. The religious ideal of a woman being placed on a pedestal and virginity being sacred is perhaps “much to do about the manipulative” in contrast to the reality of a good fuck in the field …well, forgiveness and hope may arrive in the nick of time.

Whether a peasant copulating in the woods or bushes, or the nobleman entertaining an affair with their mistresses in a boudoir or in the hedges while standing or bending over, priests and nuns relished an earthy encounter in a cathedral alcove or garden where the cultivation occurred depicted in private drawings of a nun kneeling in prayer at the loins of a priest.

A woman displaying her vagina on a capital at the Collegiate Church of San Pedro de Cervatos (Cantabria).

The thrust of changes in human relationships tends to be with what is available at the carnal moment. Humans have desires and wishes. Aphrodisiacs range from power to wood dildoes, cucumbers and carrots, to animals and whatever might be available – the assortment of inducements added a sense of stimulating magic to the brevity of the affair, encounter, or liaison. Same sex love is primitive and existed in the Medieval ages as did every other kind of act of sex and love. “Keep it within the familiar” so to speak.

Pleasure was and is a diversion to maintain a harmony in human emotions and life in general amid the turmoil to survive and enjoy a few moments here and there.

As an aside, known as the Great Dissenter, US Supreme Court Justice John Marshal Harlan while on the court (1877-1911) observed, “One man’s vulgarity, is another man’s lyric.” He could have been speaking of the history of humanity in sum.