Orgies, Homosexuality, and Prostitutes: What Sex Was Like During the Black Death

Have you ever wondered what sex during the Black Death was like? It sounds sick and twisted, but life goes on, as they say, even during an epidemic. People are still people, even when a ton of people are dying (at least 75 million died during the epidemic). Sex during the Black Plague (another common name for it) was in many ways a lot like sex during the rest of the Middle Ages, but the extreme conditions led to some extreme expressions of sexuality.

Sexual activity during the Black Death was in some ways pretty wild, with some “revelers” deciding to hump the rest of their seemingly short lives away. But doctors at the time were also telling people to avoid overexerting themselves in the bedroom because they thought the “bad air” would reach them easier if they did. Read on to learn more about what sex during the Black Death was really like.

 

There Were Orgies in Graveyards

The Black Death was a stressful time to be alive, for obvious reasons. One way to cope, according to historian David Herlihy in The Black Death and the Transformation of the West, was showing “revulsion toward death and the dead” by celebrating life… with cemetery orgies! That’s right: at Avignon Champfleur cemetery, for example, things got so bad that a papal official had to threaten the “fornicators and adulterers” with excommunication for committing “unseemly acts” on the graves. Prostitutes even took advantage of this “celebration of … victory, however temporary, over death” to solicit in the cemeteries. It wasn’t all fornication: revelers also dared to dance, fight, throw dice, and play other “unseemly” games among the graves as well.

Limited Sexual Activity Was Advised

Medical logic at the time said that too much sexual activity “overheated the body,” according to Joseph Patrick Byrne’s The Black Death, and this allowed “bad air” to enter the body through one’s pores, increasing the chances of catching the plague. Heavy breathing during sex might also lead to inhaling too much “bad air.” A German physician even advised that “all physical exertions and emotions of the mind,” including running, jumping, jealousy, and “licentiousness” should be totally avoided, lest you catch the dreaded Black Death. What could one do? They could “spend their time … relating tales and stories and with good music to delight their hearts.” Sexy!

Prostitution Was Institutionalized

As the death toll of the plague increased, so did the working conditions of working girls, according to Jeffrey Richards in Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages. They began to enjoy a so-called “seller’s market” due to an “all-round labor shortage,” leading to “a general improvement of their conditions.” Leah Lydia Otis writes in Prostitution in Medieval Society that as the Black Death waned, there was a “quantum leap” in the “institutionalization of prostitution.” Municipally-owned brothels were built, complete with “royal safeguards.” Otis does note, however, that the demand for prostitutes began to wane at that time, as well.

Sexual Immorality Was Thought to Have Helped Cause the Plague

In Daily Life During the Black Death, Joseph Patrick Byrne writes that many lawmakers at the time adopted the “Christian belief that sin angered God, who expressed his divine wrath through plague” and secularized it, via legislation. Many older “moral laws” essentially became just plains laws. This meant sexual immorality was heavily legislated. This “sanitary” legislation targeted sodomy and prostitution especially. In Florence, for example, prostitutes were “kicked out” of the city in the waning years of the Black Death. When the industry reemerged in the decades that followed, they were still forbidden to work on the streets (brothels, however, were a-okay).

There Was a ‘Vital Urban Subculture’ of Homosexuality

According to the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Volume 2, a “vital urban subculture” of homosexuals existed during the Black Death. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that “more detailed records of the life and attitudes of homosexual men and women” emerged, but this vital subculture “certainly” was alive, though “one catches only fleeting glimpses of it in the literature.” A few decades prior to the Black Death, King Edward II of England was murdered, quite possibly for being gay, which certainly didn’t help the cause. (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart received a lot of criticism for its negative portrayal of Edward.) The belief that “sexual immorality” such as “sodomy” helped cause the Black Death surely was another factor in keeping the subculture hidden during the period.

‘Pseudo-Flagellants’ Performed Unusual Sex Acts in Public

So-called “flagellants” during the Black Death were, according to Professor Mark Damen of Utah State University, “professional self-torturers” who went around whipping themselves for a fee “to bring God’s favor upon a community hoping to avert the bubonic plague.” They were literal “whipping boys” that people used to buy “remission from sin.” The Church, of course, outlawed this behavior, to little effect. But there was another group of lesser-known “pseudo-flagellants” that went from town to town performing “unusual sexual acts in public” for a fee. The Church outlawed them, as well, but Damen says that did little to “hinder their progress.”

Incidents of Incest Increased

In Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts, Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price write that incest in England actually increased during the Black Plague. Why? Simple arithmetic. The plague “destroyed between one-third and one-half” of the population, making exogamy (marrying only outside the clan or community) “improbable.” The problem, Donavin says, wasn’t keeping cousins from marrying, but instead the opposite: “finding living cousins with whom one might preserve the patrimony”! A lot of noble families died off during the plague years, meaning “intrafamilial marriages greatly increased.”

Fines for ‘Fornication’ Increased

Richard M. Smith writes in Land, Kinship and Life-Cycle that the severity of fines for fornication in England increased, even as the severity of other legal fines generally decreased, in the middle of the Black Death period (1349). Smith says “it is difficult not to interpret” the high fines during this period as “punitive.” The courts, essentially, decided to ramp up the punishment for sexual immorality in response to the Black Death. Blame the fornicators, basically. Smith does note, however, that attitudes about unseemly acts such as fornication, and thus the inclination to increase the fines for such acts, may have been changing even before the tragedy of the plague struck.

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