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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

    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.
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

    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!
    TheKillerBs likes this.
  3. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >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.
    Orc Knight, TheKillerBs and Rogue like this.

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