From monks thought to have died from a lack of sex, to priests conjuring demons to lure women into bed, a new book offers fascinating glimpses into the history of sex in the Middle Ages. 

Katherine Harvey’s insightful novel The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages offers a peak into the bedrooms of ordinary mediaeval men and women living in western Europe.   

Harvey is a London-based historian and author specialising in the medieval period  and Honorary Research Fellow specialising in history, classics and archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London. 

It explains why the vast majority of attitudes and ideas towards sex were formed from two major belief systems, Roman Catholic Christianity (Catholic Christianity) and Galenic Medicine (Galeic Medicine). 

This book shows many surprising practices. 

Some surprises include the focus on female pleasure in reproduction. There are surprising anecdotes about harsh punishments for immoral behaviour during periods. 

FEMAIL presents some of its most intriguing revelations.  

What you DID NOT have to do to get your virginity back  

Religious beliefs played a huge part in shaping medieval attitudes and understanding towards sex, with Roman catholic dogma stating that humans were never meant to feel lust. Pictured, an artwork showing a medieval bishop consecrating a virgin

Religion played an important role in the development of medieval views and attitudes toward sex. The Roman catholic dogma states that humans are not made to feel lust. A picture of a medieval bishop consecrating a virgin.

Religion played an important role in the development of medieval views and attitudes toward sex. Roman catholic dogma states that men were not made to feel lust. 

God-fearing medieval people believed that humans were not supposed to derive pleasure from sex, women were not meant to menstruate and men not supposed to ejaculate – however did so thanks to the sins of Adam and Eve.  

The biblical story was used as a guide principle in sex. This is why it is no surprise that the only sure way to salvation was to keep pure and chaste till your last breath.  

Even though being married was more desirable than having sex outside of the home, it was not an automatic ticket into heaven for medieval men. In fact, many married women kept their sex until the end. 

True virginity didn’t mean abstaining sex or masturbation. It also meant having no sexual thoughts.  

For example one young monk claimed to be taunted by a demon who would rub against his genitals while he prayed until he ejaculated. 

Despite never having had sex with another person, he was deemed by Bishop Hildegard of Le Mans (1096–1125) to no longer be a virgin after participating in the ‘shameful act of fornication’.  

Meanwhile, Norfolk mystic Margery Kempe (c. 1373– c. 1438) who despite being a married mother of fourteen claimed that after her lifelong dedication to religion Christ had reassured her she was ‘a maiden in [her] soul’. 

The Trotula is the most important book in women’s medical history of medieval Europe. It contains many ways to regain virginity, including potions that are made from egg white, flowers, and other herbs.    

Another way to trick a man is for a woman to pretend her virginity is to place leeches into her genitals so that ‘blood flows out of her vagina and it covers with a small clot. The effusion of blood will deceive the man. 

William of Saliceto, an Italian surgeon suggested that women wash their genitals and apply special lotions before placing the dove’s bloody intestine in her vulva. 

Virginity was held in high regard in the Middle Ages, and some believed it was possible assess how pure a woman was simply by the way she looked – with large, loose breasts thought to indicate sexual experience.  

There were many medieval methods to prevent breasts from growing too large or to reduce their size, with numerous recipes based on ingredients with ‘cooling and tightening properties’. 

While some recommended binding, others opted for dosing them with blood from the testicles of a castrated piglet, hemlock, or vinegar.  

Drs warned that too much sex could cause death 

Medieval medicine was based on the humoral system, a set of beliefs that says a person's health depends on the equilibrium of four humours - blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Pictured, a woodcut of a doctor taking a sample of a pregnant woman's urine (c.1480-1526)

Medieval medicine relied on humoral systems, which are beliefs that a person’s ability to balance four humours (blood, blood, yellow bile, and black bile) in order to be healthy. Woodcut depicting a doctor sampling a woman’s urine from her pregnancy (c.1480-1526).

Medieval medicine was based on the humoral system, a set of beliefs that says a person’s health depends on the equilibrium of four humours – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. 

The Middle Ages were a good time to have sex. 

The’marital debt’ was a legal obligation that married couples had to repay in the Middle Ages. 

There were twelve reasons why a spouse might not agree to the marital obligation: 

  1. If the fornication causes the asker’s rights to be suspended 
  2. In the first two months after your marriage 
  3. It is very harmful for the health to render. 
  4. If the asker is crazy,  
  5. If the husband is unable to render, he will weaken his body. 
  6. You can use this during menstruation 
  7. A foetus could be considered endangered 
  8. Holy place 
  9. Consanguinity is the reason for the incestuous marriage. 
  10. The husband may want to sodomy. 
  11. Spiritually related spouses should not be married 
  12. When a wife who is pregnant and close to her due date believes that rendering could endanger the child,

A key belief was also that heat balance was a key factor in how well a person is, with women generally being colder and more dry than men. 

It was believed that women were essentially defective men, who had the same genitalia which grew inside of the body and menstruated because they lacked body heat to ‘dry up the bad and superfluous humours in them’.  

Erections were believed to be the result of a ‘windy spirit’ meaning those suffering with impotence were advised to eat foods which caused wind and bloating like chickpeas, while semen was said to be derived from excess food.  

Too much sex was said to be very dangerous because it could cause the body to dry out, leading to hair loss, heart and lung problems, and kidney failure.  

German Dominican friar Albertus Magnus recounted the story of one unfortunate monk who died because he lusted over a woman so much his ‘brain had shrunk to the size of a pomegranate, and his eyes had been destroyed’. 

Meanwhile, physician and a religious reformer Arnau de Vilanova was tasked with curing a man who was ill as the result of too much sex – suggesting he ‘You will need to sit naked in a tub with 30-40 eggs broken. Then, you’ll have to draw the eggs through your anus.

However too little sex was also dangerous, particularly for women, who needed to absorb heat and ‘temper their frigid natures’ through sex – according to The Secrets of Women, a medieval guide to female sexuality.  

A more severe consequence to not having sex with a woman is’suffocation in the womb’, which was reported to be a problem for teenagers and widows. 

Included are symptoms fainting, stomach upsets and loss of appetite and while remedies including ‘cupping of the inguinal and pubic area’ and pessaries made from powdered fox penis however the best treatment was, of course, marriage.  

Sometimes doctors will attempt to get a woman to have sex in the worst cases where she has abstained from having sex.  

But women should also be wary of too much sex, with prostitutes said to struggle to conceive because regular intercourse made their wombs too smooth to preserve semen.   

For immoral behavior, brutal punishments  

Grave sins like incest, adultery or sex with a nun were passed on to the local bishop and required serious penance including fasting, genuflexions, beatings, sexual abstinence or even execution. Pictured, a woodcut of two men being executed from 1552

Incest, adultery, and sex with nuns were grave sins that required severe penance, including fasting, genuflexions or beatings as well as sexual abstinence. Pictured, a woodcut of two men being executed from 1552

Everybody in Middle Ages had to adhere to strict rules regarding sex. When those rules were violated, the church was ready to punish. 

In minor case, once the priest had obtained a confession from the guilty party, he would offer a court-imposed penance often requiring the offender to walk before the congregation in shame. 

The offender would have to carry a candle and stand or kneel in church for part of the service in a state of semi-undress and occasionally were whipped before financial punishments became the norm. 

Grave sins like incest, adultery or sex with a nun were passed on to the local bishop and It required severe penance such as fasting, genuflexions and beatings. 

The most common punishment was public beatings. Adulterers had to often run down the streets while they were tied with their genitals, and then be flogged. 

Adultery, according to some legal systems was considered a capital crime. In other places common punishments were castration and nose slitting. 

A 13th century lay brother, Orte in Italy was found guilty by bestiality. He was buried with the animal abuse victims. 

Women who are caught with their masters as female servants or enslaved could face being branded and whipped and even banished.   

You can use love magic to get your lover into sex  

In the Middle Ages it was believed that you could charm your beloved into having sex with you by secretly feeding them a love potion made of common herbs or body parts and secretions. Pictured, A 15th century depiction of a love spell from Flemish artist from Bas-Rhin

It was thought that secretly giving your lover a love potion of common herbs, body parts or secretions could make them have sex. This belief is still prevalent in the Middle Ages. Image: Bas-Rhin Flemish artist in 15th-century depiction of love spell.

In the Middle Ages it was believed that you could charm your beloved into having sex with you by secretly feeding them a love potion made of common herbs or body parts and secretions.  

William of Montibus (1793 – d. 1213) claimed women could offer penance to the gods if they’d ‘given either fish that has died in her stomach, bread made with blood on her buttocks, or menstrual blood for her husband to drink or eat so his love is more intense’. 

Another example is a Venetian nobleman called Domenico Contarini who in the early 1480s became infatuated with a poor Greek woman called Gratiosa.  

However it was claimed that she won his love through a potion made from rooster’s heart, wine, water and menstrual blood which was mixed with blood and cooked into a powder which she fed to the nobleman.  

From small breasts and clear urine, how medieval women proved their virginity  

An unclean hymen with many brides that could easily be penetrated and viewed with suspicion. 

The sign of sexual experiences was large, loose breasts. According to the author, a minimum of a medieval bishop ordered that nuns’ breasts be checked routinely in order to determine if they were still chaste. 

The tip of your nose. It was believed that a virgin would have thick and complete cartilage. However, after sexual contact it might feel broken up. 

A woman’s left arm was swollen with blood. 

According to some, virgin women had clear, thin urine. A non-virgin woman would have cloudy, semen-filled urine. 

A woman who does not smell coal fumigated is considered a virgin. 

A virgin woman will become paler if she is fumigated using dock flowers. An impure woman will maintain her same skin tone. 

Guido Bonatti (13th century astrologer) said that it was possible for a woman to determine if she was virgin by looking at the planets and moons.

The pair engaged in ‘frequent and diligent copulation’ while Gratiosa would continue to cast spells on her lover using ‘dust or materials’ collected from their respective navels mixed with wine. 

A court found that the nobleman was a victim of black magic and his punishment for premarital sex was forgotten, while Gratiosa was branded on the face and banished from the city under the threat of her nose being chopped off.  

You can also charm your target by kissing them in their mouth with a religious object such as a communion Wafer.  

Although magic has been associated with only women throughout history, there was widespread acceptance in the Middle Ages to believe that men and women could use magic for love.  

Men were seen as more likely to use love spells to charm someone into sex, while women were more likely to try and reinvigorate existing relationships. 

Men, particularly priests, were said to be guilty of the most sophisticated form of magic – conjuring demons to try and lure a woman of their choice into bed.  

In the 1400s, a Belgian priest was charged with trying to seduce a young girl. He had drawn her face on a charcoal tile and then baptized it with holy water. Then he created a wax picture of the girl and baptized it with holy water. He then recited conjurations that were meant to summon demons from a book.  

Only women can divorce from their husbands if they are incapable of caring for them.  

It was widely frowned upon during the Middle Ages. Women should only be permitted to divorce if the husband is incapable. 

This accusation wasn’t taken lightly. A woman who requested divorce for impotence would have to pass rigorous tests. Many times, they might even need to enlist prostitutes in order to prove their theory. 

In Kraków in 1453, married couple Marsko and Margaret Stanislaw who requested a divorce on the grounds that they had been living together for three years without having consummated the marriage.    

An examination by the court found Marsko was ‘a functioning and lively member’. No divorce was therefore granted. 

Medieval medical texts also offered food-based remedies for impotence including cow’s milk mixed with cinnamon said to promote semen production.  

You could also make your own ointments using burnt deer tail and ashes from old wine or with mustard seeds ground with oil.

Alternativly, you can cure impotence by making a wax image with the couple and giving it to the man who is suffering.  

As well as impotence, several medicines claimed to make the penis bigger including chopped earthworms or leeches mixed with jujube oil.  

There are many theories regarding reproduction, from the possibility of sex in a tornado to never having sex during a storm. 

Medieval doctors believed that there was a connection between sexual pleasure and reproduction. Pictured, a work depicting medieval childbirth from the 13th century

Medieval physicians believed there was an association between sexual pleasures and reproduction. A work from the 13th Century depicting medieval childbirth.

Medieval doctors believed that there was a connection between sexual pleasure and reproduction, believing that both men and women had to have an orgasm simultaneously for conception to occur.   

Foreplay is encouraged in medieval medicine. 

Men were encouraged to ejaculate as closely as they could do their partner’s orgasm – however medieval understanding of female sexual pleasure was minimal to say the least, with claims men didn’t discover the clitoris until the Renaissance.  

The Trotula recommends that women seeking to conceive should have wine mixed with powdered liver testicles. However, men can drink the same mix made from the uterus and vaginal parts of the animal. 

It wasn’t the time of the sex but also the place in which the couple had it that was significant. 

One medical text claimed that men should remain on top of their partner for at least an hour to make sure ‘the seminal matter does not scatter and form a monster’ while sex in an unconventional position could cause physical disabilities.  

A storm was believed to cause the couple to have sex and weaken their seed. There are stories of women who had to give birth to toads after having romped in bad weather.    

Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages by Katherine Harvey, Reaktion, is available for £20