Medieval Studies Sex and Sexuality
Kim M. Phillips
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0109


Sex and sexuality were matters of intense importance in medieval religion, culture, and society, though only in recent decades have they received much serious study. In their daily lives, medieval people, especially from the beginning of the 13th century, were subject to sexual regulation from Catholic clergy, civic authorities, members of their families, and indeed, the dictates of their own consciences. Before that time it is harder to establish how much of an effect official strictures on sex and worries about concupiscence and the immortal soul had on medieval laypeople, though anti-erotic discourse had always been part of the lives of monks, nuns, priests, and other clergy. Furthermore, official and ideologically imposed anxieties were not always adhered to either by laypeople or clergy and did not prevent sexual themes from gaining widespread frank discussion and representation in all manner of written genres and visual arts. Before the development of modern pornography in the 18th century and after, sexual imagery was deployed variously for entertainment, moral instruction, recrimination, political defamation, or propaganda. The medieval sexual world was in many respects profoundly different from the modern, despite superficial resemblances. Sexual activity beyond strictly defined bounds of marriage (only on certain days, in certain positions, and with the required desire for reproduction) was mortally sinful—to varying degrees—and even marital sex with the aim of conception was deemed venially sinful by some Christian writers because of the problem of desire. Fornication, adultery, rape, incest, and the vice against nature were deemed the main varieties of mortally sinful lechery, though it is important to recognize the medieval meanings behind these terms. Modern identities of heterosexual, homosexual, and lesbian were not recognized in their current form, though there is plentiful evidence for varieties of same-sex and opposite-sex desires and practices. It is the job of the sexual historian to attempt some understanding of the meanings past peoples attached to erotic desires, practices, and predilections: this is in essence what is entailed in a “social constructionist” approach to sexual histories. Developments in medieval sexual historiography since the 1990s, especially as influenced by feminist insights and Michel Foucault’s work on sexualities as historical constructions, have seen advances in interpretation. This article covers the period from Late Antiquity to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and should be regarded as a starting point for research rather than a comprehensive guide.

General Overviews

Histories of sex and sexuality have undergone substantial revision since the 1990s. Some earlier works had sought to demonstrate the intellectual value of a history of sexuality and also had to contend with perceptions of the medieval period as highly repressed and censorious. French historians such as Jean-Louis Flandrin and Americans including Vern L. Bullough pioneered the proper academic study of medieval sex. Flandrin 1991 ranges widely in time but in location focuses mostly on France. Its medieval sections emphasize the dominance of the Catholic Church’s doctrines on sexual sin. Bullough began publishing on medieval sex in the 1960s, though his work is here represented by his 1996 collection produced with James A. Brundage, also a founder of medieval sexuality studies and a previous collaborator of Bullough’s (Bullough and Brundage 1996). Baldwin 1994 might also stand as a representative of the first phase of historiography, with the author’s close study of the diversity of medieval views on sex around 1200, from the censorious to the scurrilous. By the mid-1990s, however, the influence of feminist interpretations and Foucault’s work on sexuality’s historical construction was making a greater mark on medieval studies, as evident in many of the essays collected in Lochrie, et al. 1997. Increasingly, scholars sought not only to trace changing or diverse attitudes to erotic desire and sex acts, but also to query the basic concepts of medieval sex. Among the most important developments was the increasing insistence that modern sexual categories such as homosexual, lesbian, heterosexual, and pornography are products of recent centuries (the 18th century for pornography, and later 19th century for the others), and that the first responsibility for historians of sex is to try better to appreciate the changing meanings of sex in particular periods and places. Thus, these terms along with others of modern coinage such as sadism, masochism, sex addiction, and transgenderism are now increasingly subject to pressure from scholars who have adopted the “constructionist” viewpoint. Karras 2012, Phillips and Reay 2011, and the essays in Evans 2011 largely reflect this shift in basic scholarly priorities, although it is not shared by all current historians of medieval sexuality.

  • Baldwin, John W. The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200. Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226036236.001.0001

    Emphasizes the diversity of medieval voices on sex around the turn of the 13th century, with sections devoted to theological, medical, rhetorical, and romance works, and the fabliaux.

  • Bullough, Vern L., and James A. Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities 1696. New York and London: Garland, 1996.

    Eighteen chapters summarizing major themes in medieval sexual histories, including ecclesiastical regulation, male and female same sexualities, prostitution, contraception, non-Latin Christian contexts, Jewish and Islamic perspectives, and literary representation. Also in paperback edition (2000), and as an e-book (Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013).

  • Evans, Ruth, ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Berg, 2011.

    Eight thematic essays, with an introduction surveying the subject. Covers “hetero” and “homo” sex, sexual variance, religion and the law, medicine, popular culture, prostitution, and erotica. Engages well with the most-recent thinking in sexual histories.

  • Flandrin, Jean-Louis. Sex in the Western World: The Development of Attitudes and Behaviour. Translated by Sue Collins. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic, 1991.

    An early series of essays of Western perspectives on sexual behavior, first published in French (Le sexe et l’occident, Paris: Seuil, 1981). Useful now chiefly as an example of an earlier historiography, with some attention to the medieval but attempting a much-broader sweep.

  • Karras, Ruth Mazo. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Concise and highly accessible survey of major themes in medieval sexuality, first published in 2007, organized around “chastity,” “marriage,” and women and men “outside of marriage.” Argues for an overriding concept of sex as an act done by one person to another. Contains guides to further reading.

  • Lochrie, Karma, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz, eds. Constructing Medieval Sexuality. Medieval Cultures 11. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

    Nine essays dealing with medieval literary, artistic, theological, and medical sources. Presents a constructionist viewpoint in most essays and editorial direction and includes Schultz’s reinterpretation of medieval “heterosexuality” and Lochrie’s queer reading of Christ-wound imagery.

  • Phillips, Kim M., and Barry Reay. Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Themes in History. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.

    Covers the period c. 1100 to c. 1800, showing areas of similarity and difference between medieval and early modern sexual cultures, but also examines earlier development of the Christian concept of desire as sinful. Argues against using modern categories such as heterosexual, homosexual, lesbian, or pornography in interpreting premodern sex.

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