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The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages

by Katherine Harvey

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Once upon a time, in 15th-century Venice, a man called Simon had sex with a goat. Somehow he was caught and brought before the Signori di Notte. These were, literally, the lords of the night, and their court dealt with bad things that happened in Venice after dark. Those bad things included sodomy; sodomy included bestiality; and bestiality included riding one's goat. So it was that Simon was up before a judge, pleading for his life.

Simon's defence was unusual. He did not deny goat-f***ing. But he had a good excuse. He claimed an accident three years earlier had left him unable to have sexual relations with a woman or masturbate. The court called a panel of experts to investigate, who found that 'he has a defect in his testicles which leaves him little sensation . . . he can neither emit sperm nor be healed'.

Next, two prostitutes were summoned and ordered to 'carry out many experiments to see if Simon could in any way be corrupted'. He could not. And so the court was satisfied. Although the judge found Simon guilty of sodomy, the mitigating circumstances - his inability to be aroused by human touch - meant he was spared the ultimate penalty: burning alive. Instead he was beaten, branded and had his right hand chopped off. We do not know if he ever saw the goat again.

The story of Simon the goat-lover is just one of hundreds of weird and wonderful anecdotes that rub together in Katherine Harvey's jaunty study of late-medieval sex. Harvey is a research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and she has gathered her tales of love, lust, sin and deviance from a wide range of sources. She aims, she says, to dispel the popular belief that 'all medieval sex was deeply deviant and/or violently misogynistic [or that] everyone in the Middle Ages was sexually repressed . . . but also sex mad.' In doing so, she takes the reader on a memorable, occasionally eye-watering journey beneath the medieval bedsheets.

Sex in the Middle Ages was both simple and complicated; a necessary pleasure and a deadly sin. It was vital for making babies and could be great fun. Yet sex also invited shame and damnation. Doctors recognised that people needed to have sex - women who didn't stay active risked 'suffocation of the womb', which caused fainting fits and required vaginal fumigation. However, too much sex was also risky. Oversexed men might find that their pores opened and let plague into their bodies, or their eyes shrank. (The remedy was to sit in a bath full of raw eggs, 'and draw all these eggs in through the anus'.)

Within marriage, sex was expected and even required - the church recognised the concept of the 'marital debt', by which both partners (but mostly the man) had the right to expect sex on demand. Yet great theologians such as St Augustine also saw sex as basically evil, the root of 'fornication, whoring, adultery, debauchery, incest, sacrilege [and] unnatural vices'.

So medical thinking on sex, based on a combination of herbology, superstition and the Galenic theory of the four humours, could be reconciled only uneasily with buttoned-up theological opinion, which had such a problem with sex and the body that churchmen believed the Virgin Mary had been impregnated with a ray of light through her earhole, and never menstruated. One of Harvey's most memorable stories concerns a 12th-century monk persecuted by a demon. Whenever the monk tried to pray, the demon would stroke his penis until he ejaculated. The church ruled the monk was no longer a virgin, since he had participated, however unwillingly, in 'the shameful act of fornication'.

Not everything in this world was unlike our own. Writers presumed all men to like pert breasts, and women to prefer gigantic penises. Simultaneous orgasm mattered - yet the clitoris was only dimly understood. Heterosexual sex in the missionary position was normal. Everything else was sodomy, although whether it was persecuted or tolerated depended somewhat on place and time. Sex might give you a baby or the clap. Abortion was possible, but dangerous and illegal.

There was, however, much that was alien. Contraceptives and cures for sexually transmitted diseases were harder to come by than they are today: writers suggested swallowing a bee for the former and applying quicklime to the penis for the latter. Virginity could be tested by feeling the cartilage in a woman's nose. Penis enlargement paste could be made from chopped-up earthworms and jujube oil. If a girl made a potion from 'a fish which has died in her vagina' she could use it to snare a man. Spreading chewed peppers on a man's penis could give his lady 'incredible delectation'.

Obviously, much of this seems strange — indeed, by definition it is. Sex theory is always slightly potty. Meanwhile, sexual practice usually leaves a mark on history only when something goes wrong and a case ends up in a record-keeping institution such as a court. The drunken fumble on the haystack doesn’t make history. But, as the old joke goes, you f*** one goat. . .

Harvey doesn’t stop very often to drill down into either of these points, nor does she often try to read against the grain of court records, or question just how representative the opinions of celibate monastic writers might be of everyday medieval attitudes towards sex. But these are petty quibbles. Her book is an enjoyable romp, smart as well as funny. It left me fully satisfied, with a big smile on my face.

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