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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.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

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. The virginity 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.

The three diary entries are from various time period during the medieval Europe, which serves to show the distinction of how women were treated during different times in history. Similarly it also shows how the views on virginity, sex and marriage have evolved during the medieval times itself and till the present.

You may be wondering why I am interested in the lives of others in the past. Let me clarify your doubts by saying that as a 21 year old woman living in Europe in the 21st century, my life is strikingly different from those in the Medieval Europe, which ranged from 500 - 1500 CE. I have to acknowledge at this point that unlike what I have now, born in a society that has come a long way in terms of establishing gender equality,  there are still certain parts of the world that still function as patriarchal societies and women there continue to be oppressed like those in the medieval times. I am hence writing this blog post to compare the views that women then has on the subjects of sex, virginity and marriage by including diary entries that details the lives of women during the Medieval Europe. It would be a good learning point for me to see how people lived in the medieval times and an opportunity for me to reflect on what I privileges that I hold in the present.


Diary Entry 1

Place: Medieval England

Time period: c. 590 - 660 CE

Social Status:  low class

Age: 35

Occupation: Unemployed

Looking out at the window, flashbacks of my entire life came. Tears started flowing uncontrollably from my eyes. Life as a woman has never been easy. 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! As a child, I was constantly told by my parents that virginity is the key and I have many restrictions and responsibilities to undertake. But WHY? Who set these rules?

As I grew older and into the working world, every day was a torture.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 long clothing down. And this was how my virginity was gone. I was then told that I was neither to speak a word about it. 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 poor.

There were many times where I envied the upper class who was given many privileges and rights. 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 they would be submissive and sexually-ready for their spouses. 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, before married couples have sex, they were first asked to take the virginity test. The virginity test is to give assurance to their husbands that they are pure. But even with the security that we have given, we were always being taken as suspicious.

Because of the injustice, 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.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

Written by a woman of a lower class, the author described the difficulties that she faced throughout her life. During her working life, she was treated like a sex object with men expecting her to be sexually available to cater to their wantt. Presently,the  society is moving towards being more inclusive of various career options. Sex workers now, albeit not all the time, only get limited protection from the law.

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 in the era because most women are protected by the law and specific organizations.


Diary Entry 2

Place: Great Britain

Time period: c. 590 - 660 CE

Social Status: Middle-class

Age: 13

Occupation: None. Helps her mother out at home.

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 are also more attractive for the prospective grooms who will in turn be more inclined to gift the bride’s family extravagant gifts.  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? I am terrified of the shame that I will bring to my family and myself if the truth were to be found out.

Aside from the untorn hymen and blood on the sheets as methods of proving my purity, 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 a possible death or publics scrutiny 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.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

As mentioned in this opinion piece and debunked as a method used by men to control women, virginity in the present have been identified as merely a social construct in certain societies, 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. As mentioned, though virginity is shown to be a social construct, there are still many societies and religion that stresses its importance.  I am thankful to be born into a society where virginity is generally not too stressed upon. The progress that we have made for virginity is an uphill battle, and I hope to live to see a future where virginity will no longer be used as a mean to control women, but rather to celebrate women’s sexual liberation by seeing it as a marker that women are able to make their own sexual choices.


Diary entry 3

Place: England

Time period:

Social class: Middle-class

Age: 11

Occupation: None, helps her parents

I am 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.

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’ and 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 and feeding their husband.

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. I just wish that someday, I can find someone I truly love and not settle down with someone of my father’s choice.

 

AUTHOR'S NOTE:

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.


AUTHOR'S NOTE:

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.)  

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

MEDIEVALIST.NET. How to restore virginity (2015)

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