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Casual Sex in a medieval setting?

Discussion in 'World Building' started by James Wilson, Jan 12, 2020.

  1. James Wilson

    James Wilson Dreamer

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    One of the things that we read backward into earlier times, including data at settings, is a casual attitude toward sex.

    TV and movie versions of fantasy novels often add these elements where they didn’t exist (thought not GoT). Why were sexual mores so much more strict in almost all earlier cultures?

    For a young woman, sex was a danger, both literal and cultural. Until little more than a century ago a woman had a cumulative 10% chance per child of dying in childbirth..though some managed 12 or 13 kids without dying. It was a literal physical danger, because medicine was...let’s just say not good...for ages. So what would we think of a man who casually tossed women into the danger zone? What would we think of a woman who took that chance casually, without any thought of the danger?

    Perhaps in your fantasy world you’ve already arranged for that. You have healing orders that know everything about prenatal care and childbirth, so the danger is vastly diminished (this is so in my world, the Sundered Spheres). Do those attitudes instantly vanish because the danger suddenly is less? Do all churches suddenly decide that their teachings are wrong and abandon them? Obviously, from our experience in our own world, that’s not the case.

    So was casual sex common in medieval times? It was for the wealthy and powerful. They could afford to pay off the mother of a bastard or indemnify her father if she died in childbirth. The middle classes? Rare. What we call morality today largely grew from the middle class of artisans, soldiers and merchants. Lower class? Also rare, except when the lord was enjoying his droit de seigneur. However prostitution was common and accepted, if officially frowned upon by the Church, but I once had the excellence and utility of prostitution explained to me by a very Catholic lady who went to mass twice a day. Her husband looked quite shame-faced but she was burning with fervor.

    So casual sex between strangers was so rare as to be almost non-existent except among the most powerful. Since a noblewoman would literally be tested for virginity on her wedding night in many cultures it wasn’t exactly something that she would casually toss away, unless it was the king or the price doing the seducing.

    This is not to say that there can’t be a rationale in your fantasy world for sexual casualness that mirrors our current culture (at least on campus). But if you want to make your world plausible, you need to think of a rationale. I was pretty excited to watch the Shanara series recently, and when they threw in a casual roll in the hay for two of the main characters, I was done. It ruins the illusion to see modern mores in a non-modern setting.

    Don’t ruin the illusion. Think it through first.
     
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  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Inkling

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    Modern historians largely consider droit de seigneur to be a myth, though I've no doubt the lord of the manor would have found plenty enough willing partners.

    However, I consider the attitude to sex in the past to be more a matter of economics than aught else, directly related to a woman's value as a commodity. In a society of interlinking alliances and mutual obligations, marriage helped hold things together. That's not a resource to squander!
     
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  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >So casual sex between strangers was so rare as to be almost non-existent except among the most powerful.
    I'm not entirely sure how sex between strangers can be anything other than casual. I suppose it could be quite earnest.

    There's a confusion of terms here. There's simply no way to measure the frequency of sex between strangers. It's not the sort of thing that got recorded. Sex between strangers is not at all the same thing as extramarital or premarital sex. Those were not at all unusual at every level of society, right down to your local village. Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie's book Montaillou has some examples, but there are whole books on medieval sexual practices.

    Prostitution is another whole field that has also had excellent research in the past forty years or so. People readily turn to cities for examples, but once you move outside the city, things get interesting. The whole matter is murky, but we can certainly say there was sex for recompense in rural areas as well as in urban. You can get an idea of the complexity by considering the wide range of sexual relations humans manage to get up to, versus the legal definition of prostitution and how that gets recorded in documents, and the social perception of prostitution and how that gets reflected in literature and other sources.

    And yes, most fantasy novels don't venture into such matters, preferring to take the easy stereotypes and tropes. It's another area where much good writing could be done.
     
  4. Radav

    Radav New Member

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    Having children is a great way of making labourers for the fields without actually paying them. Children both had a great value and little value, depending on how useful they were. If you even had a child for long in the first place. The level of deaths among infants in the past, both far and recent, would be enough to bring our modern world to its knees in horror. To them it was the norm.

    Basically what I'm getting at is a child was not the financial burden as might be thought of today by some. I don't think the risk of death of the mother was high enough to dissuade either. You go to the tavern. You get drunk. Things happen.
     
  5. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

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    skip.nox's knowledge on medieval matters is far greater than mine. But if I recall right, medieval bathhouses were seen as dens of sin. Apparently people liked to do more than just washing in them.
     
  6. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >were seen as dens of sin.
    Now, a bathhouse is right in my wheelhouse. Sorry, couldn't resist.

    Bathhouses were seen ... ah, but by whom? That ol' passive voice, right? Bathhouses were perfectly legitimate, often run by the city itself or at least licensed and supervised. Not dens of sin at all. Then along comes (drumroll, please) the Protestant Reformation. And nobody expects the Protestant Reformation!

    It's with the reformers that we move from the occasional huff or puff about bathhouses (the most common medieval complaint was about gambling) to a constant outcry about ... yes, about sin! Especially by the so-called Second Reformation (later 16thc), we get both Protestant and Catholic reformers on a campaign to discredit and shut down bathhouses. Given the lack of internal plumbing or even bathtubs at this point, it's hard to see this as a great leap forward in civic hygiene. But hey, you know: sin!
     
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  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    True, but they are not without cost. Every child grows up and must be settled. The girls married off (and a dowry provided), the boys given land or else sent out into the cold world with next to nothing. The trick was having the right number of children. Too few and you might have to hire a man. Too many, and you can't feed them all.

    And the arithmetic was a bit different in the towns, where we have some actual statistics (at least by the 15thc). There Herlihy and others have shown that couples would have children later during hard economic times, mainly through the device of marrying later. We can see it in the countryside as well, but good demographic data don't come around there until the 17thc or so.

    That said, I agree with RadavRadav that modern notions about children and families in the Middle Ages are usually off the mark. The reality was more complex and way more interesting.

    So now I have to wonder: how would this extend to non-humans in a fantasy world? We could have dwarves or orcs regard their children as little more than draft horses. We could have elves or trolls procreate so rarely that a child becomes a prized village possession. There's gotta be some story possibilities in there.
     
  8. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

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    Yes, I wrote that and a minute later I realized I was way too vague. But I also misremembered, I thought the bathhouses were closed in the fifteenth century. I'd completely forgotten it was a consequence of the Reformation.

    Maybe I should do some research and do blog post about it.
     
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  9. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

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    Hmmm, as a devout medievalist I'm once again chafing against what I perceive to be uniform concepts of medieval practices when there was a full on spectrum both across Europe and across the millennium.

    One very important thing to remember re sex is this: in an agrarian economy where fields and farming science were able to provide for a finite few, marriage was literally a licence to create new mouths, hence the hysteria (often) regarding bastards. Obviously, there were different rules re the bastards of nobles, but the bastards of the peasantry and middle class were despised.

    Having said that, there were any number of exceptions to the general rule, not least after the great plague of the C14 when populations were decimated and new workers were needed to keep regions viable.

    Ultimately though, men and women have urges and those urges will always be expressed. And sometimes, the very illicit nature of something makes it even more alluring.
     
  10. Nighty_Knight

    Nighty_Knight Scribe

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    I don’t see why there wouldn’t have been. Maybe not as much as our current time. But people like sex, regardless of the era. And uneducated, poor people have just as much as anyone else, and they end up plenty of unintentional children.

    Now, I’m sure plenty of people were weary of the consequences. But how many people never take those into account. Dumb people and smart but irresponsible people have been around since the beginning of mankind.
     
  11. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

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    In medieval Europe it was only the small elite who owned property who were actively encouraged - if not forced - to marry before having sex by the Church or by the laws of the land. The key reason was that inheritance laws meant only legitimate children (i.e. those born within marriage) were allowed to inherit property. People without property almost never married so the requirement to be monogamous simply did not exist.

    It also needs to be kept in mind that there were a lot of restrictions as to whom a person could have sex with and in many cases having sex with the wrong person could have deadly consequences. These could include a woman during her menstrual cycle, a person from a different class or a person with a dormant or non-diagnosed disease. Thus, the very notion of casual sex as we would understand it today would've been meaningless at the time. A person couldn't just walk into a tavern and have sex with whomever they wanted, no matter what the average movie or fantasy video game would have you believe.

    For non-property owning people having sex with more than one partner wasn't as foolish as it might seem. Chances were very good that a woman would die in childbirth or shortly afterwards and the majority of children did not make it to adulthood (which was normally defined as 13 for girls and 16 for boys) so having sex with a multitude of people ensured at least some of the children would survive long enough to become a valuable asset on the landowner's property or wherever else they might've worked.

    A useful guide to medieval society is provided by The Fifteenth Century 1399-1485 by E F Jacob (Oxford University Press, 1961). It's particularly good in that it doesn't just focus on the top levels of medieval English society but also what life was like for the people at the very bottom such as the peasants. Another useful book is Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (Vintage Books, 2009).
     
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >People without property almost never married so the requirement to be monogamous simply did not exist.
    This goes against pretty much everything I've ever read. Do you have a source for this? I'm interested.

    I'm not sure what the OP means by "casual" in this context. Perhaps James Wilson is still around and could elaborate. But I do agree that "casual sex" would have a different connotation in the Middle Ages. I don't know that this actual phrase, or even a cognate, ever appears in the texts.
     
  13. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Sage

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    The term "casual sex" simply did not exist at the time. There were various words used to describe sex outside marriage of which fornication was one. However marriage among people who didn't have property or possessions to pass on was rare. This was the case in 15th Century England. .I cited the E F Jacob book as a reference.
     
  14. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Slightly off topic but my mother grew up in a rural part of Ireland in the 1930s. Her mother was very proud of the fact that all her children [my mother being the youngest] were conceived in wedlock. The same could not be said for the eldest child of most of the families around, if family lore was to be accepted as true. My mother thought it not unusual for a couple to get married after the woman was pregnant but before the child was born.
     
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  15. The Dark One

    The Dark One Maester

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    I seriously do not know where you got this from, but marriage was a quintessential medieval institution - a sacrament - one of the pinnacles of life during the Age of Faith. There may have been occasional times and places over a 1000 years across Europe where it was less important (like post plague England for example) but for the most part it was something to which most adults aspired.

    See above for my cognate comments on sex during the period.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Barbara A. Hanawalt's The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England is a great resource for exploring sexuality, marriage, and other related customs/realities of medieval England. I'm not sure how well mainland Europe and other areas of the world hold up under this lens, but I'd bet it's probably close.

    Unwed sex, the importance of marriage for peasants and nobles alike, etc. etc.
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    It's been years since I read Jacob, but I just ordered it from ABE Books. I'll echo on Hanawalt; she has also Growing Up in Medieval London which is quite good. I can cite a half-dozen other sources, for Italy, Germany, France, but I'm really curious to know what Jacob says on this. There's no sense in arguing until we have the cited source in hand. And I don't mean to argue to prove anything, but only because I know others come to these threads and wouldn't want to have anything too confusing to persist.

    And I want to reiterate the central point here: the term "casual sex" is modern. One cannot apply it directly to the Middle Ages without some modifications and nuance. Sex out of wedlock is more easily defined, but the OP was asking about medieval attitudes, which is murky business all the way round.
     
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  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    Yeah, in one of my cultures, marriage is more likely the consequence of sex than anything else, except maybe for arranged marriages among the nobility. Sex before marriage is expected... sex before being WILLING to marry your partner would be frowned upon. However you look at it, there’s no stigma attached to being pregnant before marriage or even having the child, but economics along with social pressure would push marriage.

     
  19. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >no stigma attached to being pregnant before marriage
    This was, as near as we can tell, the case in much of rural medieval Europe, but not the having the child part. You got married before the child was born, to keep the child legitimate. Since civil marriages were both quick and easy, this could be done. Having the marriage sit well with family and community was the greater challenge. If all approved, then the marriage was simply the finishing touch. When the parish registers begin to speak, we can find plenty of examples of births happening well short of nine months after the marriage.
     
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  20. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I think it is murkier because the OP specifically introduced the subject of secondary worlds and seemed to suggest that an entirely created world must resemble our own history—not only that, but presumably a medieval European history.

    But I'm not sure that modern attitudes are less murky, tbh, so...
     
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