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Sex, Virginity and Marriage of Medieval Women

 The Hunterian Psalter.  Eve Spinning . (c. 1170) A woman spinning by hand while sitting next to a baby in a cradle.

The Hunterian Psalter. Eve Spinning. (c. 1170) A woman spinning by hand while sitting next to a baby in a cradle.

As I delved further into my research on the medieval Europe for my upcoming thesis, I chanced upon several diary entries written by women of that time. They each covered different topics, namely virginity, sex and marriage. I have read the diaries and it was interesting to see how aspects in a woman’s life has changed from the past to the present. What I have learnt from these diaries is that the patriarchy in medieval Europe affected aspects of women’s lives that we now take for granted. In the past, women had lesser say for their own bodies. Virginities of women were seen as a “gift” that was meant to be reserved for their future husbands; women were expected to be ready for their husbands whenever the latter wants sex; and marriage was merely the transference of ownership of a woman from her father to her husband.

I have to acknowledge at this point that there are certain parts of the world that still function as patriarchal societies and women there continue to be oppressed; be that as it may, the society that I live in now has come a long way in terms of establishing gender equality. I am hence writing this blog post to compared the views that women then has on the subjects of sex, virginity and marriage by including diary entries that details the lives of women back then.


Diary Entry 1

Looking out the window, memories of my entire life came flooding into my mind. Tears started flowing uncontrollably from my eyes. Life as a woman has never been easy. To me, life was full of ups and downs with social class being given such importance. I feel that my life has been destined ever since I was born into this family. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m suffocated from enduring all of these hardships! Why is life so unfair? Why are we, as women, constantly being judged by our social class? Why do we have to endure everything?

As a child, I was constantly told by my parents that virginity is the key and I have many restrictions and responsibilities to undertake. I was constantly reminded by the adults, “ As a female, you should …..” or “ Oh no! You can’t do this.. .You’re a girl”. But WHY? Who set these rules?

As I grew older, I thought life would be much better. I would have more choices and more power on decision making. But I was so wrong and naive. Things did not get better. Once I stepped into the working world, every day was a torture. Me, as a woman slave, had to work day and night. Not only that, besides working, I was like a sex worker. I was constantly fearful of my employer, afraid that he would come and rape me. I still remembered the first time I lost my virginity; I was working in the kitchen when suddenly, out of nowhere, my employer came behind my back pulling my bottoms down. And this was how my virginity was gone. I was then told that I was neither to speak a word about it nor pour my woes to anyone. And if I were to do that, my entire family would be in trouble. Even still, I was expected to be sexually available, just because I was born in a low class family. We would be criticised by the society, and so I had to tolerate every single abuse by him.

There were many times where I envied the upper class. Being an upper class had given them many privileges and rights. Not only does the law protects them, but also the religion. Once they were married, women of that class were given a lot of gifts in the form of land or money which they were allowed to own it by their own name. This was especially so for virgins who would be able to receive bigger and better gifts. After which, their main objective would be reproduction, and hence they had to be submissive to their husbands. Whenever their husbands want to have sex, they are supposed to be ready. There was less priority for them to do domestic work as these chores could be given to slaves to do.

But this was not the end, when married couples have sex, women were not allowed to enjoy it as it was meant for giving men a sense of security and as such during their intercourse, it was not gentle at all. Even with the security that we have given, we were always being suspicious. Women of our days would have to take virginity test to give assurance to their husbands that they are pure. Even if the women were pregnant and have given birth, the babies would have to take paternity test to ensure that they share the same blood as their father.

Because of the discrimination, I have lived a life of sadness and hopeless.  I was single all my life, with no man willing to take me as their lawful wife. I was only to be judged as a sex worker, stained in my honour.

 

Written by a woman of a lower class, the author described the difficulties that she faced throughout her life. As a sex worker, she was reduced to only her job; she was treated like a sex object with men expecting her to be sexually available to cater to their wants and needs. In the present, society are moving towards being more inclusive of various career options. Sex workers now, albeit not all the time, often gets the respect that any decent human being can expect to get.

However, taking into the account of the class distinction then, I can see why it was difficult for the author to gain decent respect from the people around her. I am relieved and extremely grateful to be alive presently because most women are protected by the law and specific organizations, such as the United Nation’s movement on establishing women’s rights. (pp 50-62).


Diary Entry 2

I don’t think anyone can possibly imagine the tremendous agony that I bear in my heart this very second. I never once imagined that this would happen but I have given in to fleshly temptations. I have yet to be betrothed and yet I have lost my purity. I know that fornication before marriage is punishable by death and hence I am dreadful of what lies ahead of me.

People around me see virginity with prominence; a maiden who is able to keep her virginity will be given the highest regards from Church and even considered to be raised to the same status as men. I heard that some nuns have engaged in disfiguring themselves by cutting their noses or their upper lips to protect themselves from rape. Brides who are virgins also fetch higher prices during marriage for the prospective grooms pay higher dowries. Oh how selfish was I to have given in to temptation, my family could really use the dowry during harsh winters. Aside from the social status and financial gain, virginities can relieve husbands’ doubts on the legitimacy of the children’s bloodline as well. So do you see where my agony stems from? The importance of virginity is stressed way too often from people all around me.

I’m nervous that before I am betrothed, I will be sent a midwife to inspect my purity before my marriage. Perhaps I should try to befriend some of the midwives before they are sent for me, for I have heard that sometimes they do lie for a friend in need. Midwives check for the sign of purity by examining the hymen - if its torn, it shows that the maiden has engaged in fornication. Another sign of virginity would be the blood on the honeymoon sheet on the first night of a newly-wed, but I wouldn’t have to worry about that until the night itself for I can always pour a vial of animal blood on the sheets in the dark of the night.

Aside from the untorn hymen and blood on the sheets, there are other methods for virginity testing. One of them would be feeding the maiden water with dissolved sal ammoniac; if the maiden urinates instantly, that is the sign that she is corrupted. Inspecting the colour of the urine is also another method to check for signs of impurity; a virtuous maiden’s urine should be clear in colour. Following the line of thought for urination, a pure maiden should also be able to hold water in a sieve, for a leaky sieve is akin to a leaky bladder. However, for this I have heard that by coating the inside of the sieve with wool wax, one can hoodwink the midwives into thinking that the maiden is pure.

Perhaps I should try the various methods that I have heard about to restore my virginity. One of them is to boil myrtle leaves and nettles sans prickles with water and wash my privates with it, day and night, for 9 days straight. Howbeit, I fear that this may be too long of a process. The faster method would be to ground up nutmegs in my privates and my purity would be restored instantaneously. Alume water can also be used to tighten the hymen, which gives the illusion of an unbroken hymen. If these methods were to fail, I do hope that the overwhelming guilt that is consuming me would be enough for Mary to restore my virginity.

Alas, my worries are not enough to save me from death if I were to be exposed as the fraud that I am. I pray that I would not have to undergo inspection from a midwife before my marriage and I pray for a husband will overlook the lack of blood on our honeymoon sheets.

 

Debunked as a method used by men to control women, virginities in this day and age have been identified as merely a social construct, as compared to the medieval ages where a woman’s worth is dictated as the existence of her virginity in the patriarchal society. The idea of losing their virginities to anyone before marriage contributes to the sexual shaming of women. It were as if to say that a woman is akin to being worthless if she were to put herself out there for a man who was not approved by her father, which shows the extent of the patriarchy in the medieval ages. Again, I am thankful to be born in the present, where virginity is generally not too stressed upon as the humankind progressively learns to be inclusive and accepting of the female sexuality.  


Diary entry 3

I despise living in an era where binding marriage simply requires the consent of two people with saying ‘I accept you as mine’. It is not necessary for couples to have permission of their families or priest to officiate or have a wedding ceremony after the puberty usually age of 12 for women and 14 for men, although, before that they can force you to marry anyone they want for their own advantage. However, it’s good that we don’t need to marry just because we have illegitimate child or by sharing a bed with that person.

Although it is simple to get married, the reason behind the marriage and the marital life itself are a lot more complicated. Our parents mostly see marriage as ‘property transfers’; they tend to arrange our marriages so that it is profitable for them. Women are mostly seen as property, and will remain under the guardianship of their fathers until his death or after they gave birth to three children. After that, they become their husband’s property, with money exchanged to legalize the transfer; this is called ‘bride purchase’.

Marriage is also seen as an alliance between the two families, as a bind to advance each families in terms of interests of kin and property. However, not all marriages are like this. Some people actually marry just because they love each other, although it might pose difficult consequences for their life, especially if they are from a different class, just like a story I heard about the secret marriage of Margery Paston and her servant, Richard Calle. It ended pretty badly, with Margery being cast out from her own family. Women also have to do pretty much all the housework. They have to do everything from taking care of the child, feeding their husband, and even making their own butter and cheese. The only jobs they are allowed outside household chores are ‘womanly jobs’ like spinster, servants, and even prostitutes.

Women with higher social class usually tend to their husband’s estate management outside of their household chores, however, women from lower social class usually become wet nurses, midwives, or healers. The hardest job of all is childbirth. I heard that it is very painful and more often, it causes death for the baby or the mother. What happen if the marriage doesn’t work out? Usually the church scorns divorce as Christian marriage is seen as lifelong marriage. However, in some cases, remarriages are allowed. For instance, if the wife commits adultery, the husband may marry another woman, although it doesn’t work in reverse. A deserted husband and people whose spouses are taken by enemies may also remarry. Do you see how terrible it is to live in my era? I just wish that someday, I can find someone I truly love and not settle down with someone of my father’s choice.

 

This diary entry serves as a wonderful contrast to the present. In modern England, you can essentially choose whoever you want to marry as long as you are over 18 years of age. If you are above 16 but under 18, you can marry with your parents’ or guardian’s permission. If you ever feel like you’re in a forced marriage either by threats or even the psychological pressure from your family, you can report to the authorities or to the Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) and you would get forced marriage protection order from the court. Divorce is pretty common and has legal laws for most of the circumstances in the marriage, therefore both parties can earn their rights legitimately. Gender roles have become very flexible and both husband and wives can communicate and decide what works for them.


To conclude my blogpost for today as I return to work on my thesis, I just want to say that it was riveting for me to be transported back to the medieval Europe through the diary entries. I cannot claim that I completely understand what they are feeling due to the privileges that I enjoy now as a modern woman living in Europe, which I regretfully say that I have taken for granted before reading the entries, but my heart goes out to those who still experience this on a daily basis till today. The views of a woman’s sex life, virginity and marriage have come a long way but progress still needs to be made elsewhere in the world. I hope that my research can continue to help those in need by spreading the importance of giving a woman the respect that she deserves, and that includes respecting a woman’s choice to take charge of her own sexual and marriage life.

 

Reference list: 

Adams, J., The Pastons - A Fifteenth - Century - English Family (n.d.).

The Atheist Scholar. Sex in Medieval Convents (n.d.)

Bejanyan, K. The Rules Have Changed: Gender Roles in Modern Society. (2017)

Dixon-Smith, S., Love and Marriage in Medieval England (n.d.). Historyextra

GOV.UK. Marriages and Civil Partnerships in the UK. (n.d.)

GOV.UK. Forced Marriage. (n.d.)

Harris, K., Caskey-Sigety, L. Medieval Virginity Testing and Virginity Restoration. (2015). History Undressed.

Heckel, N. M.. Sex, Society and Medieval Women. (n.d.)  

Karras, R. M.. Women's Labors: Reproduction and Sex Work in Medieval Europe. (2004, November). Journal of Women’s History, 5.4: 153-158

Kimberly, Mindy, Bethany. Anglo-Saxon Marriages (n.d.) Anglo-Saxon Woman

Lindsted, K. The Value Placed on Virginity is One Of History’s Biggest Travesties. (2013). Mic.

McCarthy, C. Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice. (2014, January)

MEDIEVALIST.NET. How to restore virginity (2015)

United Nations Humans Rights. Women’s Rights Are Human Rights. (2014).
Varma, A. Here’s What Sex Was Like In Medieval Times. (2016, June) ScoopWoop