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How the attitude towards sexuality changed from the Middle Ages to the present day
How the attitude towards sexuality changed from the Middle Ages to the present day

From a fragment of the book “Only after you. World History of Good Manners”you will find out why men used to be allowed to touch women by the breasts, and going to a brothel was common.

How the attitude towards sexuality changed from the Middle Ages to the present day
How the attitude towards sexuality changed from the Middle Ages to the present day

Public potency

Many aspects of sexual life that became private in the course of civilization were initially public. For example, before a woman could get a divorce only by proving that her husband was impotent. Since the purpose of marriage was to have children, the church took the infertility accusations seriously.

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

The women attending the meeting sometimes even deliberately aroused the poor man to see if his penis responded 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 case took place back in 1677, when many onlookers gathered to gawk as a certain aging marquis was trying to prove his masculine strength. The Marquis stated that he was 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
Italian brothel of the 15th century

Today, masculinity is no longer publicly measured, but masculinity is still a matter of discussion and idle curiosity. Viagra entered a new chapter in the history of potency: the market for drugs for erectile dysfunction grew rapidly in the 2000s, and now they are used not so much to treat impotence as to improve the quality of intercourse. Even if a man is interested in golf or gardening much more, he must still fulfill his manly duty - and preferably as long as possible.

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

Sexuality in the Middle Ages
Sexuality in the Middle Ages

So, Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote that, while undressing and getting out of bed, you need to remember about decency and not open 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 genders 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: the priests were officially involved in this, and the neighbors unofficially. The gossips not only shared information with the curious, telling them all intimate details, but also signaled to the churchmen if moral norms were violated.

Common topics of gossip were the seduction of maidservants or the attention-grabbing sex life of spouses. Neighbors also reported to the priests if the husband did not interfere in the love affairs of his wife.

Priest and couple
Priest and couple

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

In the XVII century.this problem was reflected in architecture: from now on, in the homes 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 representatives of their own or the upper class.

If there were people nearby who were below you on the social ladder, the absence of shyness 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 master could see 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 viewed as an expression of special affection.

For a long time, royalty and nobles had a habit of accepting subordinates in the bedroom before going to bed or immediately after waking up, as well as sending out their natural needs. The question involuntarily arises: was it not really a way to demonstrate in this way the difference in position?

After the division of society into estates became not so 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 also in the presence of lower ones.

Privacy in its current meaning did not emerge until 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 taken by people who make money from their publicity - for example, actors and other celebrities. Obviously, ordinary people believe that the stars do not feel ashamed 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 life 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 public display of sexuality on television is rapidly gaining momentum - and is dropping clothes. An infinite number of programs are based on the fact that there you should compete practically naked.

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

Sex outside the marital bed

You should not undress or go to bed in the presence of other people, especially for 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, the only exceptions are small children. If, due to circumstances, you are forced to share a bed with a person of your gender, 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.

Jean-Baptiste de la Salle. Rules of Good Conduct and Christian Decency (1702)

In the Middle Ages, premarital sex was common, as were side affairs. Thus, medieval morality demanded from a person not genuine purity, but only compliance with formal rules. It was also necessary to avoid actions that could entail public shame. That is, one could enjoy life, the main thing - it should have been done in secret.

So, chivalrous romance assumed that extramarital affairs are the only way to truly love. True, Andrei Kapellan, in his treatise "On the Science of Courtly Love", emphasizes that it is indecent to destroy other people's relationships or take a woman as his mistress whom you are not going to marry.

Marriage, however, was not part of the knight's concept of love. According to Chaplain, the lawful husband and wife were not able to truly love each other, and therefore marriage could not be considered a reason to deny oneself the joy of loving someone else. The chaplain did not directly call for adultery, but a true knight needed to at least be able to flirt.

In practice, however, knights rarely had the opportunity to follow their instincts. Unmarried girls belonging to the upper class were carefully guarded, fearing shame: if a young woman participated in public celebrations, she was always accompanied by an older companion, who strictly looked after her ward; the 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 a 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 masculine point of view. According to the knight Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, the wife should not be jealous, even if the husband gave her a reason for this. It is also not appropriate for a well-mannered woman to show anger and wounded pride. Medieval etiquette manuals emphasize that a wife should not show her jealousy or ask her husband about outside relationships. The authors of some reference books also gave similar advice to husbands.

If you are jealous, do not be stupid enough to make your wife feel this, because if your 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 on this issue.

Excerpt from a medieval manuscript 1350

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 not hide his mistress. Discipline in matters of gender was considered ridiculous, and satirical books of the time often portray the clergy as the greatest libertines. The reason for such ridicule is that it was the priests who were mired in fornication who made up the rules of sexual behavior for the common people.

Men should not be allowed to caress their breasts, since this is allowed only to 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 dresses that are too open or twist in the place where you sit.

Medieval rules for women compiled by the clergy

The behavior of the rabble is well described by the following detail: when a man wanted to express sympathy for a woman he had just met, he grabbed her breasts without ceremony. The Renaissance etiquette warns women not to allow men to touch their breasts too often, as this can lead to an overly familiar relationship.

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 bathing house: if the bath does not help, then the visitors will definitely help."

Medieval drawing
Medieval drawing

Despite the fact that prostitutes also offered their services in such institutions, water procedures were not regarded as something shameful, and representatives of all classes practiced trips 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. And Erasmus of Rotterdam himself also gives recommendations in his book on how children should relate to prostitution.

Medieval advice, including in a cautionary tone, was sometimes extremely straightforward, as we can see from an excerpt 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 eggs as quickly as possible and leave as soon as possible.

Back in the 16th century. going to a brothel was common, but the elderly and the rich who visited brothel houses were looked askance at: such establishments were intended for young men who had not yet saved up money to get married, while those who were older already had the wealth that allowed them get a legal spouse.

Brothel keepers reported to city officials if older men used their services too often. Thus, the society tried to relieve the tension that arose between the two age groups (young and poor people were sorry 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.

Medieval bath
Medieval bath

In the 16th century, the Reformation created new standards of decency that led to changes in social behavior, especially in England and Switzerland. Various shameful punishments were invented for the unfaithful spouses, and in Basel, for example, the traitors were completely sent into exile. In Great Britain up to the 1660s. the authorities had the right to break into the house without warning if they suspected that adultery was taking place behind closed doors.

Infidelity in relations in Western countries is still widely condemned: despite the fact that in the 1960s. The hippie movement has gained wide popularity 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 divorce, although sometimes on the pages of the yellow newspapers, cheaters, at the suggestion of a lifestyle guru, sometimes try to understand and justify. At the same time, perverted double standards bloom in lush color on TV screens - where else.

For example, on the popular reality show Temptation Island, participating couples are taken to an exotic island where a group of seductive beauties and sultry macho awaits them. After that, the viewer can only guess who will be the first to fall victim to the temptation. Or, to call a spade a spade, who is the first to dare to change.


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

Find out why young people are always disliked by the older generation, why it is indecent to greet a person who is relieving themselves, why it was previously considered shameful to be faithful to a partner, and other curious things.

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