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Sex Tips from Late Medieval France

Sex Tips from Late Medieval France

By Danièle Cybulskie

If there’s one thing medieval writers loved, it was giving advice – especially in matters of the bedroom.

In 1503, Symphorien Champier, a doctor-in-training, wrote The Ship of Virtuous Ladies, a book which contains a list of great women and their deeds to serve as an exemplar for contemporary female folk. Having studied so much Galen and Hippocrates (as well as Aristotle and Plato), however, Champier can’t help but throw in some sex and conception tips to keep everyone healthy. Without further ado, here are some of Champier’s best tips:

1. The Right Age

Following Plato, Champier declares that the perfect age for women to marry is 16-20, and for men, 30-35. Any younger, and you might marry a girl who will be sick forever – “So instead of being served by them, [you] must serve them”, Champier warns. The only exception is if the young woman is tall. If she is short, you should definitely wait until she’s 21. And if both man and woman are over twenty-one, you’re in the clear: “the children will be attractive and have good temperaments, with well-proportioned members and will have good minds.” Be sure to wait, if at all possible, because if you have children earlier, “they will be imperfect and short.”

2. The Right Time

People should not have sex at just any old time of the year, Champier says. If you want to conceive, make sure you have sex in the spring, because it’s “warm and moist”, which is the best kind of humour. “Next after spring,” if you can’t manage it then, “winter is the season most conducive to conception, while summer is bad and autumn is the worst of all.” As for time of day, it can’t be right after eating. As we’ve always been told about swimming right after a meal, the consequences would be dire:

If a man, when he is full and has eaten, enters the world of the carnal, he weakens his body and his nerves and causes pain for himself in his legs and knees. He also causes obstructions all throughout his body and causes thick humors in his body; and if he does this regularly, his body parts retain too much water, he has great difficulty breathing, and his limbs start to shake.

If you thought it was safe to have sex before eating, think again:

If he acts carnally when he is hungry or thirsty or when he has an empty body or when his body has been bled … he damages his body and dries it out, and its natural heat dissipates, negatively affecting his sight, and sometimes he becomes paralyzed.

(Same goes for if you’re just been bled, bathed, worked, fasted, or been sad.) You’ve been warned. Best to play it safe and just have sex first thing in the morning, “after a [good] night’s sleep.”

3. The Right Food

(After going on about how they’re “envious and arrogant”) Champier advocates not judging men and women who are sterile too harshly. After all, it’s pretty easy to become sterile, as he goes on to demonstrate. For example, “when a woman drinks too much cold water or when she eats a lot of bitter food or vinegar.” Men who “drink too much water or eat bitter things” will have the same issues. Eating too much or too little can also result in sterility, too. And, as Champier kindly reminds us,

It often happens to the most wise and prudent and to princes, because they are more fragile and are more prone to experience unexpected things than are others who are raised on beans and chestnuts.

4. The Right Amount

Always with our best interest in mind, Champier reminds us that it’s dangerous to have too much sex. He cites Avicenna and Rhazes, saying too much “harms the nerves. It harms and weakens the stomach, it makes one older quicker, it makes one lose hair, and it worsens one’s eyesight.” Pointing to nature, Champier notes that

Male sparrows live only a year or two because of their debauchery … and, as we often see, those who take beautiful women die young and sometimes immediately because of their excessive pleasures.

Even if you make it to old age, you may still be in trouble. “When one is excessive during one’s youth in this kind of enterprise,” Champier continues, “in old age one suffers from gout and one’s members become debilitated.” Fortunately, although medieval women have always been known to be lusty, you can depend on wives to keep their husbands’ health in mind:

Since women love their husbands and want to live together with them for a long time, they bridle their excessive sexual desires, and they keep in mind the dangers that can follow from them.

Virtuous ladies: don’t let your husbands oversex themselves.

5. The Right People

It turns out that not everyone is cut out for sex, according to Champier – their bodies just can’t handle it. Sex is meant for “a sanguine person who is warm and moist” or even “a phlegmatic person.” But thin people should just not do it. Like, at all:

Those who have a dry and thin body should flee the carnal as one flees an assassin or a highway bandit. There is nothing more deadly.

Other people who should sit out lusty activities are “people with bad eyesight or a weak stomach”, “those who are not accustomed to such acts”, and those who’ve been out of action for a while. “More than anyone else,” Champier declares, “old people must avoid carnal acts.” Life is short. Don’t shorten it with bodily pleasures. (A medieval attitude if ever there was one!)

For more advice on how to be a virtuous, attractive, and adequately lusty lady, check out The Ship of Virtuous Ladies (this version translated by Todd W. Reeser).

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on her website or on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: Lovers in bed from a medieval manuscript – British Library MS Sloane 2435 f. 9v


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