Essays on the nobility of medieval scotland


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Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key. Too much sex would leave the body depleted; in the most serious cases it could have fatal consequences, as Count Ralph found to his cost.

On the other hand, medieval medical authority held that too little sex presented a medical problem: celibacy was potentially detrimental to health, particularly for young men. Long-term celibacy meant the retention of excess semen, which would affect the heart, which in turn could damage other parts of the body. The celibate might experience symptoms including headaches, anxiety, weight loss and, in the most serious cases, death. Although celibacy was highly valued as a spiritual virtue in medieval society, in medical terms the celibate was as much at risk as the debauchee.

Conventional opinion attributed his death to the resulting celibacy, making him the most famous victim of death by celibacy. According to the 12th-century Norman poet Ambroise, abstinence claimed many victims:. For most crusaders, sexual abstinence was at most a temporary inconvenience, to be endured only until they returned home and were reunited with their wives.

Becket lived for many years after this and ultimately died a martyr at the hands of an assassin , but other bishops were less fortunate. An unnamed 12th-century archdeacon of Louvain, having struggled to remain celibate for a long time, was promoted against his will to the bishopric of the same city.

For a month, he abstained from all sexual activity, but soon his genitals swelled up and he became seriously ill.

The importance of education

Within days, he was dead. Non-saintly celibates who faced the challenge of celibacy tended to favour the obvious cure.

Others, hoping never to face this predicament, adopted behaviours informed by medical theory believed to protect the health of a celibate man by promoting alternative forms of excretion. Humours-based medical theory held that all bodily fluids were processed forms of blood, and that their common origins rendered them interchangeable.


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Weeping for example, the lachrymose prayers favoured by pious individuals could also serve as an alternative to sexual intercourse, with the blood that would have been converted into semen instead producing tears. Exercise and bathing, both of which produced sweat, were also useful for those who wished to practise long-term abstinence.

As well as taking measures to encourage the excretion of superfluities, a celibate man needed to be careful about what he put into his body. Diet thus directly related to sexual health. The problem was threefold. Firstly, the proximity of the genitals to the stomach meant that the former would be warmed by the food or wine contained in the latter, providing the heat that defined the male body, and was necessary for the production of semen.

Secondly, semen was thought to be the product of completely digested food, with nourishing foods such as meat and eggs especially conducive to its production.

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Records of the Parliaments of Scotland

Finally, certain windy foodstuffs including beans produced an excess of flatulence, which in turn produced an erection. Taken together, these factors made overindulgence at the table a real problem for priests. Numerous medieval writers told tales of monks who ate too well, and consequently experienced a violent desire for sex, along with almost continuous emissions of semen.

On the other hand, knowledge is power, and religious men could use fasting as a practical strategy to protect themselves from the health risks posed by clerical celibacy. Salted fish, vegetables in vinegar, and cold water were thought to be particularly suitable foods for monks. In addition, some medical writers recommended anaphrodisiacs for men who wished to avoid sexual intercourse.

Life in the Middle Ages The Noble

The 11th-century physician Constantine the African recommended rue, a strong and bitter tea made from an evergreen shrub. Two centuries later, Peter of Spain the only practising physician ever to become pope was also recommending rue; alternatively, one could drink juice of water-lilies for 40 days. A lthough the most famous cases of death by celibacy relate to male clerics, women were, in their own way, equally vulnerable to this medical problem.

According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception — and just like semen, the female seed needed to be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb. The symptoms of this condition included fainting and shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. If this was not possible, there were a range of useful remedies, including restricted diets and vinegar suppositories.

Some physicians, however, recommended a rather startling alternative: masturbation. Unsurprisingly, the medieval Church took a rather dim view of this practice: most medieval penitentials handbooks for confessors identified masturbation as a sin, and imposed heavy penances for it — typically around 30 days of fasting, but sometimes as much as two years. On the other hand, masturbation was usually placed towards the bottom of the hierarchy of sexual sins, and confessors were permitted to make some allowance for those including unmarried youths who lacked another outlet for their desires.

Later medieval physicians were rarely as explicit as Galen and other ancients. Late medieval medical books rarely mentioned male masturbation. For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments, including, stimulation of the genitals either by the patient or by a medical professional. For a month, he abstained from all sexual activity, but soon his genitals swelled up and he became seriously ill. Within days, he was dead. Non-saintly celibates who faced the challenge of celibacy tended to favour the obvious cure. Others, hoping never to face this predicament, adopted behaviours informed by medical theory believed to protect the health of a celibate man by promoting alternative forms of excretion.

Humours-based medical theory held that all bodily fluids were processed forms of blood, and that their common origins rendered them interchangeable. Weeping for example, the lachrymose prayers favoured by pious individuals could also serve as an alternative to sexual intercourse, with the blood that would have been converted into semen instead producing tears. Exercise and bathing, both of which produced sweat, were also useful for those who wished to practise long-term abstinence.

As well as taking measures to encourage the excretion of superfluities, a celibate man needed to be careful about what he put into his body. Diet thus directly related to sexual health. The problem was threefold. Firstly, the proximity of the genitals to the stomach meant that the former would be warmed by the food or wine contained in the latter, providing the heat that defined the male body, and was necessary for the production of semen. Secondly, semen was thought to be the product of completely digested food, with nourishing foods such as meat and eggs especially conducive to its production.

Finally, certain windy foodstuffs including beans produced an excess of flatulence, which in turn produced an erection.

Taken together, these factors made overindulgence at the table a real problem for priests. Numerous medieval writers told tales of monks who ate too well, and consequently experienced a violent desire for sex, along with almost continuous emissions of semen. On the other hand, knowledge is power, and religious men could use fasting as a practical strategy to protect themselves from the health risks posed by clerical celibacy.

Salted fish, vegetables in vinegar, and cold water were thought to be particularly suitable foods for monks. In addition, some medical writers recommended anaphrodisiacs for men who wished to avoid sexual intercourse. The 11th-century physician Constantine the African recommended rue, a strong and bitter tea made from an evergreen shrub. Two centuries later, Peter of Spain the only practising physician ever to become pope was also recommending rue; alternatively, one could drink juice of water-lilies for 40 days. A lthough the most famous cases of death by celibacy relate to male clerics, women were, in their own way, equally vulnerable to this medical problem.

According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception — and just like semen, the female seed needed to be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb.

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The symptoms of this condition included fainting and shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. If this was not possible, there were a range of useful remedies, including restricted diets and vinegar suppositories. Some physicians, however, recommended a rather startling alternative: masturbation.

Unsurprisingly, the medieval Church took a rather dim view of this practice: most medieval penitentials handbooks for confessors identified masturbation as a sin, and imposed heavy penances for it — typically around 30 days of fasting, but sometimes as much as two years. On the other hand, masturbation was usually placed towards the bottom of the hierarchy of sexual sins, and confessors were permitted to make some allowance for those including unmarried youths who lacked another outlet for their desires.

Author's Response

Later medieval physicians were rarely as explicit as Galen and other ancients. Late medieval medical books rarely mentioned male masturbation. For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments, including, stimulation of the genitals either by the patient or by a medical professional.

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