1. Girl-on-girl action was not necessarily considered sex. Although the attitude towards female same-sex acts in sources from the European Middle Ages is not straightforward, it is evident that such acts were not always considered sexual in their nature. Since the emphasis in medieval understanding of any sex act was on the role of penis and penetration in general, the only aspect of sexual activity between women that was consistently considered as sex was when dildo was used for penetrative purposes. Other types of female gay sex were sometimes considered as distasteful, ridiculous or even sinful acts, but were rarely legally prosecuted. Men, on the other hand, did not have the privilege to enjoy any legal form of action with one another. The situation was further complicated for men by the fact that there was a very strict rule about where to deposit semen – the only acceptable place being a vagina. Of one’s own married wife and during reproductive sex, of course.
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2. Female orgasm was highly valued. Based on the idea that the only valid purpose of sex is procreation, and the belief that successful conception can only occur if both partners orgasm, medieval sexual norms actually required a female to orgasm every time. There’s a dark age catch of course: any sexual pleasure apart from the climax itself was very much unwelcomed, the only acceptable pose was missionary, partners were supposed to be fully dressed, kissing was regarded as inappropriate and foreplay was out of the question – just to mention a few of medieval restrictions that applied to the marital duty. So, if you were a pious medieval wife, there is no doubt you would require a decent amount of luck with the whole orgasming thing.
3. You could have committed adultery without having any contact with another person. That is, if you were a woman, of course, and depending on where you lived. Byzantine women were considered guilty of adultery if they spent a night outside of their husband’s or parents’ house, and in Slavic parts of Southern Europe, even attending some public events like certain festivals would be enough to constitute a proof of infidelity. Expectedly, men did not have such restrains, but, surprisingly enough, were often subject to even greater punishment for adultery than women. This, of course, was not based on the tendency to balance legal treatment of the sexes, but rather on the legislative approach to marriage in which woman was seen mostly as a property of her husband. Therefore, any adultery was seen as a heavy offense of one man against another man’s property.
4. There were grey-zones where extramarital sex was tolerated. Yes, even with all the pious nonsense, people were horny enough for a society to turn a blind eye towards sex outside of wedlock. For common people, female virginity was not seen as an important prerequisite for marriage as it was for, say, aristocracy. This created a more relaxed atmosphere in middle and lower layers of society in which dating culture and teenage sex flourished. If both a man and a woman were single, the act would be referred to as “simple fornication”, indicating that it was not a big deal. Even though they were not completely legal, such relations were widespread, often completely tolerated, and even if legally sanctioned, they were merely fined. Not surprisingly, such a fine, known as legerwite, was only intended for women and there’s no indication that the male equivalent of the fine ever existed. Nobles had a higher regard for female virginity as it was often a condition required for marriage, but were no strangers to extramarital activities, regardless of the sex. Male affairs were of course tolerated to a higher degree, so men, even those of clerical profession, often had concubines. But some sources indicate women had their own share of fun as well. In his book “The Art of Courtly Love”, Andreas Capellanus describes a woman that refused to have sex with her former lover after she married another man. Interestingly enough, she is scolded not for premarital activities but for neglecting her former lover afterward with the explanation:
“The later contracting of a marital union does not properly exclude an early love except in cases where the woman gives up love entirely and is determined by no means to love any more.”
(Quote taken from book “Sexuality in Medieval Europe” by Ruth Mazo Karras).
5. There were sex cults and cemetery orgies The Cathar heresy, widespread in some parts of Europe, was believed to have had a very relaxed approach to sex outside of marriage. In fact, they supposedly regarded adultery no different than marital sex as long as no pregnancy occurred to complicate matters – which is a rather relaxed attitude even by mainstream present-day standards. In special circumstances, social norms regulating sexual behavior broke down completely. And no circumstances were more special than the outbreaks of the bubonic plague, aka Black Death, that killed anywhere between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia, which made up to 60 percent of European population. In the setting that felt like the end of days, people gave in to the most bizarre of behaviors. It goes without saying that nothing spells bizarre like a graveyard orgy. In an act of defying omnipresence of death, the survivors of plague engaged in massive group sex on cemeteries to the point where church officials issued official excommunication threats in an effort to curtail the practice.
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