The Garn LeBaron Writing Project

Scholarly Articles About Interesting Subjects

Sexual Relations In Renaissance Europe

with 8 comments

by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 1995 – 2021, all rights reserved

There is perhaps no activity more universal to the human condition than sex. People of all ages and cultures throughout history have engaged in sexual activity for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being for the purpose of reproduction. Sex is not only shaped by culture, but also serves to shape the culture as well. From the predominantly homosexual culture of ancient Greece, to the “free love” of the 1960’s, to the prudish Victorian culture, sex has played a major role in determining how people respond to their environment. In their study of sexuality in the United States, D’Emilio and Freedman claim that:

” . . . the meaning and place of sexuality in American life have changed. . . We argue, in short, that sexuality has been continually reshaped by the changing nature of the economy, the family, and politics.” (D’Emilio and Freedman 1988, xi-xii)

Obviously, this claim does not just hold true for sexuality in America. The perception of sexuality today is different than it was in 1500. Our perception of sex and its place in our cultures changes because–as many authors have pointed out– gender and sexuality are cultural constructions, often devised to serve political ends. This paper will examine sexual relations during the Renaissance and the Reformation, roughly from 1300 to 1700. It will discuss the nature of sexual relationships during this period, examine sex as a part of culture, investigate how the church and religious leaders dealt with sexuality, and explore the role played by sexually transmitted diseases in shaping Renaissance society.

I. The Nature of Sex In the Renaissance

For women, the prime benefit of the middle ages was the emergence of courtly love. Although they were still regarded by men as inferior, and simply as vessels for producing children, women did gain from the spectacle of the troubadours wandering the countryside presenting their love lyrics. The appearance of a society based on the concept of courtly love placed women on the pedestal of virtue. This created a dualism in society that continued throughout the Renaissance. Women were simultaneously viewed as both virtuous and beautiful, and as wanton pleasure seekers (Tannahill 1980, 264-267). This last view is corroborated by the fact that much of the period folk literature expressed male fears about women as potential castrators, and about women who had the power to exhaust their husbands and make them ill as a result of their voracious sexual appetites (Hale 1971, 130).

The belief that women were capable of receiving pleasure during sex is illustrated by this statement from McLaren (1984, 15): “As one midwifery text explained, the clitoris was the organ ‘which makes women lustful and take delight in copulation.’ Without it, ‘they would have no desire or delight and would never conceive.'” As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance began, men still controlled sexuality, sometimes physically:

“The chastity belt appears to have been developed in the fourteenth century, possibly in Italy, though its name of “Florentine girdle” is not conclusive; it has always been customary to blame foreigners for inventions that belong on the shady side of respectability. The belt may originally have been designed as a protection against rape, a common hazard in medieval times, but it proved a godsend to husbands who still subscribed to the age old belief that women were natural wantons.” (Tannahill, 276)

According to Ruggerio, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the emergence of two sexual worlds: the world of marriage and procreation, and the libertine world in which women were raped, prostitutes pursued, nuns seduced, and boys sodomized. Some men and most women would have passed all their lives in the first world. An unspecified number of men and a minority of women on the other hand, lived either wholly in the second world, or went back and forth between the two according to their stage of life. According to Trumbach:

“These two worlds did exist, but it is likely that there was a profound rearrangement of their relationship to each other well before the twentieth century. The change would have occurred around 1700 with the emergence of modern culture. At that point, the rise of egalitarian ideas and their impact on an older patriarchy began to change the nature of marriage, gender, and sexual relations, and opened the way for the development of romantic and companionate marriage, the concept of gender equality, and the division of the world into a heterosexual majority and a homosexual minority.” (Trumbach 1988, 506-507)

In Ruggerio’s first world of marriage and procreation, sexual relations were largely for the purpose of procreation. Since sexual pleasure was supposed to be sinful, it is probable that many people only engaged in sex for this specific purpose. Socially, sex was generally seen as a necessary evil, but many obviously participated for reasons other than procreation. A quick look at the records of illegitimate births confirms that sex did not always occur inside of marriage (McLaren, 14).

One of the problems that people faced was the lack of reliable methods of birth control. Publications of folk remedies also indicate that people had sex for reasons other than having children. One widely practiced method of birth control, frowned upon by the church, was the practice of anal intercourse.

“Heterosexual anal intercourse was, in fact, a standard if reprehensible contraceptive method in France in the medieval and post-medieval period, as it had been in Classical Greece; Brantome says that several husbands of his acquaintance used their wives “more by the rear than the front, and only made use of the front in order to have children.” (Tannahill, 285)

For families surviving near subsistence level, it was essential not to be overburdened with children, so “abstinence, coitus interruptus, and buggery were practised within marriage.” (Davenport-Hines 1990, 33) While apparently widespread in France, Italy, and England; Spain took great pains to prevent the practice of anal intercourse whether heterosexual or homosexual, a policy which later had dire consequences for the Indians of Mexico and South America.

Enduring sexual relationships and marriages often began with violent seductions that could be legally classified as rape. Consequently, the rape of young women of marriageable age received the lightest punishment of any sexual crime. On the other hand, violence against children, the elderly, or one’s relatives was more harshly punished. The rape of a noblewoman by a plebeian, or the seduction (as it was presented) of a nobleman from his familial duties by a common woman– these were taken most seriously of all because the patricians who applied the law were interested not in upholding Christian morality, but in defending patrician honor and family continuity. (Trumbach, 507-508)

Societies of the Renaissance were organized in such a way as to attempt to control the passions of the flesh. Such passions, left untamed, were thought to threaten the social order. One of the popular ways of binding such passions was through marriage. Unlike marriages of today, these were often alliances that bound two families together. Marriage was frequently referred to as a “yoke,” with the people in the yoke the team of oxen working together to further the benefit of the families (Ruggerio 1993, 4). Other attempts to control bodily passion were largely the province of the state and the church.

In the fifteenth century, the development of the private bedroom had important impacts on sex. People now had more privacy. This probably made sex more frequent, and also led to more partners. German and French historians refer to the period as “the age of bastards” (Tannahill, 277).

With the reformation in the sixteenth century, sexuality in Ruggerio’s world of marriage changed significantly. While sex in marriage had previously been a sin, albeit a minor one, the reformation brought forth the ideas that marital love, mutual pleasure and desire, and enhancement of marriage could be achieved with, or benefit from, the practice of sexual intercourse. Although moderation was still advised, and sex outside of marriage was still condemned, sex became a part of the emerging romantic love where marriage was based on romance rather than on family interests.

“The Protestant attitude toward sexuality rested upon a larger system of beliefs about the family. Just as reformation ideas emphasized the importance of the individual, so too did Protestantism encourage a heightened sense of the family as a discrete unit. Once deeply embedded with in kinship and community networks, the nuclear family that emerged in this period stood as an independent entity, a “little commonwealth” ruled by its own patriarch, and mirroring the political unit of the state. Courtship and marriage within the middle and upper classes continued to hinge largely upon property alliances. . . For other social groups, however, love became one element in the choice of a mate. Once wed, husbands and wives were encouraged to learn to love each other, a significant departure from an older ideal of extramarital and unrequited courtly love.” (D’Emilio and Freedman, 4)

In Ruggerio’s libertine world, there lived the prostitutes (courtesans), the sexual criminals and perverts, and the sodomites. Prostitution was widespread in the Renaissance and in all the major cities they could be found in great numbers.

“On a more professional level, the Englishman who lived near London could visit the brothels of Southwark, safe in the knowledge that they were under the respectable jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Winchester. Private enterprise prostitution had flourished in Europe since time immemorial, and nothing its rulers could do succeeded in stemming the tide. Indeed, when St. Louis (Louis IX of France) tried to put an end to it, the irate bourgeois of Paris complained that it was no longer safe for their wives and daughters to appear upon the streets. . . The number of “public women” in Rome in 1490 is believed to have been about 7,000, which was a reflection of the fact that the Eternal City was inhabited mainly by men; the women lived in houses belonging to monasteries and churches, and it was quite usual to see them parading the streets in company with priests. In Venice, according to the chronicler Sanudo, there were 11,654 filles de joie in a population totalling 300,000.” (Tannahill, 278, 280).

Although the term “sodomite” had different connotations during the Renaissance, it did include the practice of homosexuality. However, sodomy also included other activities such as bestiality, and general debauchery. The best way to describe the difference between the “sodomite” of the Renaissance and the “homosexual” of the 1990’s is the delineation provided by Dall’Orto:

“The recent stimulating discussion about the “historical construction of the homosexual” deals with the problem of when who we now call “homosexual people” began to identify themselves as a “different” category, and when society began to see them as a distinct minority. In other words, when did the “homosexual” take the place of the “sodomite.” Recently, the original hypothesis that the category of homosexuality was created about 1850 through the diagnostic and classificatory work of physicians, psychiatrists, and neurologists has yielded to other theories, and the beginning of a homosexual subculture, with features comparable to the modern ones, has been fixed–for now–at the beginning of the eighteenth century.” (Dall’Orto 1988, 33)

As the Renaissance began, there were proscriptions against sodomy, but they were not strongly enforced. In the fourteenth century, a variety of anti-sodomy laws were enacted by the North Italian city states. These enactments laid the groundwork for a greater European trend toward secular anti-sodomy legislation in the fifteenth century. Although punishment was initially lax, in fifteenth century Venice, sodomy was “the one sexual crime where stern language and stern punishment coincided” (Ruggerio 1988, 144). There were also a number of anti- sodomy purges throughout Italy during the fifteenth century, the Savonarola episode in Florence being the most notable (Dyne 1988, 511).

These purges appear to have taken place for two reasons. First, the practice of sodomy was initially believed to have been a lightly regarded step along the path to adult heterosexuality. Yet “a growing awareness and fear of a homosexual subculture crystallized the perception that some continued to prefer homosexuality to heterosexuality as they grew older” (Ruggerio 1988, 160) Secondly, many people came to associate sodomy with the plague. They believed that the practice of sodomy had incurred the wrath of God, manifest as the recurrent outbreaks of the plague. There was also the problem of declining population in plague stricken Italy. People looked down on practices like sodomy in a society that was having difficulty keeping reproduction at a constant level.

“The sermons of Bernardino of Siena are probably the most extensive and vivid commentary on sodomy in late medieval Italy that we possess by a single contemporary. One of Italy’s most popular and authoritative preachers, canonized in 1450, Bernardino was an astute observer and critic who was highly sensitive to the social and political problems of his culture. Constantly reminding his audiences of their dramatic population losses, Bernardino placed the blame squarely on sodomites. . . It is this heightened sensitivity to reproductive problems that probably accounts for Bernardino’s piercing attention to such socio-sexual factors as critical ages for males, sodomites’ erotic preferences, and marital status.” (Rocke 1988, 8, 23)

These factors all conjoined to create a new, more hostile atmosphere for those who chose to practice sodomy. The Italian authorities instituted a number of measures in an attempt to constrain the practice of sodomy. These included the official sponsorship of prostitution, new and harsher laws for those caught practicing sodomy, and more effective police surveillance.

Florence and Lucca went so far as to establish civic magistracies, in 1432 and 1448 respectively, whose sole task was to prosecute the crime of sodomy (Rocke, 8). As in other times throughout history, even though the regulatory system attempted to prevent sodomy, the practice continued.

II. Sex And The Church

For women in the Middle Ages, the creation of special status for the Virgin Mary within the church was very important. Arriving from Byzantium, the cult of the Virgin was brought to Europe during the twelfth century by people returning from the crusades. Her popularity grew until she held a very important place in the Church’s pantheon by the fourteenth century. This facilitated women’s progress since, “for many long centuries, the Western Church had equated women with Eve, the architect of man’s downfall; when Eve at last gave way to Mary in the fourteenth century, all women benefited.” (Tannahill, 259)

Under the influence of St. Bernard, many Cistercian abbeys were created. The monks of the Cistercian Order were dedicated to the Virgin, wearing white in her honor. They also began to build special chapels to her in their cathedrals. By the thirteenth century, the combination of worship of the virgin and the love lyric had transformed Mary into the ideal archetype of womanly virtue. Although her image was initially quite courtly, the influence of the Franciscans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries transformed the Holy Virgin into the protector and mother of the poor and downtrodden (Tannahill, 270).

While the church helped to benefit the image of women, it also kept them in a position of inferiority. One of the most influential authors of the Church’s position on sex and women was Thomas Aquinas. His position on women became the position that clergy in general subscribed to for over 400 years. He argued that since women had been created from Adam’s rib, they were designed for union with men. However, she was to be man’s partner only when she was biologically indispensable (e.g., procreation). Aquinas also thought that since the man was the head of the family, had the capacity for reason that women lacked, and since he took the active role during sexual intercourse; the male sex was clearly superior.

Regarding marriage, Aquinas thought that it had only two recommendations: It allowed children to be conceived without sin, and it kept men out of sexual trouble. Aquinas also went into great detail listing the various sexual sins in their corresponding order of magnitude. These included:

“. . .bestiality (zoophilia), sodomy (homosexuality), nonobservance of the proper methods of coitus “either in the employment of undue means [artificial aids?], of by resorting to other monstrous and bestial modes of intercourse [presumably anal and oral],” masturbation, incest, adultery, seduction, and plain everyday fornication.” (Tannahill, 272).( parens./brackets in original)

The church also took a most interesting position regarding prostitution, considering that fornication and adultery were considered sins. The church could not and did not want to ban prostitution. St. Augustine referred to prostitution as sordid and shameful, but also said “yet remove prostitutes from human affairs, and you will pollute all things with lust; set them among honest matrons and you will dishonor all things with disgrace and turpitude.” Aquinas compared prostitution with “the filth in the sea or the sewer in a palace. Take away the sewer, and you will fill the palace with pollution. . . .Take away prostitutes from the world and you will fill it with sodomy.”

So the church found itself in an interesting position. Supporting one evil to prevent a greater one led the church to create a number of brothels. In Avignon, a church brothel was created where the girls spent part of their time performing religious duties, and the remainder of their time helping customers “see God.” Pope Julius II was so impressed with the arrangement that he founded a similar institution at the Vatican. However, the church also realized that prostitution was also a sin. Mary Magdalene was appropriated by the church to be the patron saint of “fallen women.” Throughout Europe, “Magdalene homes” were built to house women who had seen the error of their ways and wanted to mend their behavior. These homes were supported by local patronage, and local people obviously gave generously, as the Soul House in Vienna became the richest institution in the city. It created quite a scandal in 1480 when most all the ladies living there suffered from a multiple relapse. (Tannahill, 278-279)

The reformation had a substantial impact on how the clergy perceived sexuality. The new views of protestantism, with an emphasis on individuality and the family created important changes in clerical views regarding sex. While the Catholic Church saw sexual sin as part of Adam’s fall, and thus expressed some ambivalence toward both marriage and sins of the flesh; the Protestants saw marriage as salvation from sexual sin.

To Luther, virginity or abstinence from sex were abnormal conditions which could be overcome by marriage, which was just as necessary to men as eating and drinking. Even though separation without remarriage was the only form of divorce that Christ had specifically sanctioned, Luther chose to accept this as advisory rather than mandatory. He believed that adultery on the part of either partner automatically dissolved a marriage, and that if a woman refused conjugal rights to her husband or one partner prevented another from leading a pure life, divorce was the only practical alternative.

While Luther primarily saw women as potential marriage mates and sexual partners, Calvin took the slightly more constructive view that women could also be indispensable companions and helpmates (Tannahill, 327-328). As the views of Calvin and Luther gained currency across Europe, the Catholic idea that marriage was acceptable primarily as a way to channel lust and prevent sexual sin gave way to a belief that marital love, as well as the need to produce children, could justify sexual intercourse. At the same time, by placing a new emphasis on the importance of sexuality within marriage, Protestantism distinguished more clearly between proper sexual expression (sex between married partners) and sexual transgression (acts that occurred outside of marriage). (D’Emilio and Freedman, 4)

This new emphasis on sex only inside the marriage relationship meant that Protestants did not treat prostitution with the same ambivalence that the Catholics did. While sodomy was still considered a “crime against nature,” and Henry VIII proclaimed in 1533 that the crime of buggery would be sentenced by hanging (Davenport-Hines 1990, 59), prostitution was now frowned upon. Young men were urged to marry and fulfill their sexual desires in the marriage bed rather than seeking the company of prostitutes. Many of these new protestant values were influenced by a new epidemic which swept Europe just as the reformation began.

III. The Impact of Syphilis

Perhaps no other aspect of human sexuality transformed Europe as thoroughly during the Renaissance and Reformation period as the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Particularly, the spread of syphilis led to far reaching changes. There is no consensus among scholars as to the origins of syphilis. Its most obvious origin is the Americas, since it first became widespread in Europe not long after the return of Columbus in 1493. This event is referred to as the Columbian Exchange. Others contend that syphilis was formerly a relatively harmless organism which mutated into a more virulent pathogen, or that it had been commonly mis-identified as leprosy before the fifteenth century (Tannahill, 281-282; Davenport-Hines, 19).

Whatever the actual origins of syphilis, it became a new European plague and spread rapidly at the end of the fifteenth century. It spread so quickly as a result of war. When Charles VIII of France invaded Naples in 1494, he brought a mercenary army gathered from all the nations of Europe. As Ferdinand V moved to the defense of Naples, armies on both sides contained Spanish soldiers infected with syphilis. By the time Charles dispersed his army in July of 1495, many of them were afflicted with the new pox. When they all returned to their homes, the disease rapidly appeared all over Europe and was ubiquitous by 1500 (Davenport-Hines, 20).

The early outbreaks of the disease were especially devastating, presumably because there was no natural immunity to it. Patients usually suffered from open sores, acute fever, severe headache, intense osteocopic pains and delirium, with death the common sequel. In the advanced stages of the disease, the syphilis organism would invade the brain, causing insanity (Davenport-Hines, 20). However, even more devastating than the physical symptoms of the disease, were the social consequences.

William Clowes was the first British venereologist. In 1579 he published the first written account of syphilis. He regarded his patients with a great deal of intolerance, stating,

“I protest that the very cause that moved me to let forth this book, is not to encourage those wretches that wallow in the sin of fornication, but to admonish them speedily to amend their lives, lest the Lord God in His just wrath do one day make the disease to be incurable. This pestilent infection of filthy lust is a sickness very loathsome, odious, troublesome and dangerous, which spreadeth itself throughout all England and overfloweth as I think the whole world. It is testimony of the just wrath of God against that filthy sin of fornication, the original cause of this infection, that breedeth it, that nurseth it, that disperseth it.”(Quoted in Davenport-Hines, 30)

Clowes attitude toward his patients was shocking. He referred to them as “vile creatures” or “lewd wicked beasts,” and stated that syphilis was the licentious and beastly disorder of a great number of rouges and vagabonds.” His solution to the problem was to have the magistrates of England identify “the offenders” and “execute upon them such condign punishment as may be a terror to the wicked, the rather to abstain. . . from such abominable wickedness.”(Davenport-Hines, 30) In part, the response to those with syphilis was so violent due to the fear of a new unknown pathogen. It was also violent as a result of new ideas which had gained currency with the coming of the reformation.

“Lutheran Protestantism eliminated intermediaries between God and the individual’s soul: God became at once more awesomely distant and yet more awesomely close. Providentialism–the intervention of Divine Power–was seen in everything from a change in the direction of the wind to the fall of kings. This concept of Providence denied that events were random or that justice was arbitrary. Everything happened because it had a reason, God’s reason. With the rise of puritanism, the idea of a wrathful God taking vengeance on sinners through the workings of Providence became ubiquitous.” (Davenport-Hines, 32)

It is also probable that the success of the new Protestant ideology was due at least in part to the scourge of syphilis. The growth of the new puritan ethic was probably stimulated by the sexual guilt and anxiety engendered by the epidemic. Puritan imagery clearly emphasized “both the sin and the contagious danger of syphilitics, preyed on primitive fears, and reinforced tendencies to ostracize venereal patients.” (Davenport-Hines, p.33)

Perhaps due to the tremendous guilt created and the way in which syphilitics were treated, there arose a variety of ineffective treatments for the syphilis that were often more harmful than the disease itself. The most notorious of these treatments was the heavy use of extremely toxic potions consisting mainly of mercury. Shakespeare and Dryden both made note of this particularly nasty treatment in their plays and poetry. Women came in for especially heavy abuse. It was assumed that, since their sex organs were internal, that they were vessels diabolically intent on infecting as many men as possible. Others contended that intercourse with a menstruating woman brought the infection about (Davenport-Hines, 42-45). Syphilis had a dramatic effect on prostitution. When syphilis arrived in England, authorities there quickly shut down the “stews” of Winchester (Tannahill, 281). Prostitutes became the new social lepers of European society. “Whores became a new category of untouchable upon whom fears could be protected and violent language could be hurled.” (Davenport-Hines, 53)

The condom was originally developed as a defense against syphilis. Made of animal gut and tied around the penis with a ribbon, it was a luxury that could only be afforded by the wealthy. Objections about their proclivity for blunting sensitivity aside, they soon became widely used by those who could afford them by the sixteenth century (Davenport-Hines, 51-52). Just as AIDS is the sexual scourge of today, syphilis was the sexual scourge of the sixteenth century. The solutions for the avoidance of syphilis were remarkably similar to our own modern solutions for the avoidance of AIDS. Those who contracted syphilis were treated very much like many who have AIDS are treated today.

IV. Conclusion

While it would be easy to dismiss the views regarding sexuality of those living from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries as hopelessly backward and primitive; in reality they cannot be so easily dismissed. The people of this era were not privy to the medical and anatomical knowledge that we possess today. Additionally, the church played a far more powerful role in regulating sexual practices than it does today. People faced secular systems of sexual regulation that they no longer face, and the penalties for deviance were much harsher.

There are striking similarities between Renaissance sexuality and contemporary sexuality. Prostitution flourished, sexually “deviant” practices existed despite societal prohibitions, and sexually transmitted diseases were feared for the same reasons they are today. Although sexual activity was circumscribed due to a lack of birth control and because of its association with sin, sex was still an important part of life and enjoyed a prominent place in conversation and literature, as well as the bedroom. Powerful political currents in society still determined which sexual practices were acceptable and served to regulate the role of women and minorities within Renaissance culture. People continued to live and love each other as they saw fit, even when confronted with powerful institutional opposition and the threats to health that syphilis introduced.


Dall’Orto, Giovanni. 1988. “Socratic love” as a disguise for same-sex love in the Italian Renaissance. Journal of Homosexuality, 16 (Spring/Summer) : 33-65.

Davenport-Hines, Richard. 1990. Sex, death, and punishment: Attitudes to sex and sexuality in Britain since the Renaissance. London: Collins.

D’Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. 1988. Intimate matters: A history of sexuality in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Dyne, Wayne. 1988. Review of Ganymede in the Renaissance: homosexuality in art and society. In Journal of Homosexuality 16 (Spring/Summer) : 511-12.

Hale, J. R.1971. Renaissance Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McLaren, Angus. 1984. Reproductive rituals: The perception of fertility in England from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. London: Collins.

Rocke, Michael J. 1988. Sodomites in fifteenth century Tuscany: The views of Bernardino of Siena. Journal of Homosexuality, 16 (Spring/Summer) : 7-31.

Ruggerio, Guido.1993. Binding passions: Tales of magic, marriage, and power at the end of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

________.1985. The boundaries of Eros: Sex crime and sexuality in Renaissance Venice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tannahill, Reay. 1980. Sex in history. New York: Stein and Day.

Trumbach, Randolph. 1988. Review of The boundaries of Eros: Sex crime and sexuality in Renaissance Venice, by Guido Ruggerio. In Journal of Homosexuality, 16 (Spring/Summer) : 506-08.

Written by Garn LeBaron

June 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Mr LeBaron,
    I enjoyed a lot reading your work. I’m a Sex Educator, Counselor and Sex Therapist. I was looking for some ideas in order to present a conference and even if I already read Tannahill, Welch, Ryan & Jetha in order to make a chronological sense, I’ve got a great idea reading your work.
    I’ll certainly will quote you in my speech.
    Thank you so much.
    Alicia Vega-Israel

    Alicia Vega

    July 12, 2013 at 5:47 am

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