Search This Blog

Monday, July 19, 2010

Today's Guest Katharine Ashe: Sex in History

Today we welcome guest blogger Katharine Ashe, who talks about a subject near and dear to the hearts of romance authors--and everyone else--sex. Katharine will give away one copy of her debut Regency historical, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS. Leave a comment for a chance to win. Check back here to see who that lucky person is.

The winner is yadkny. yadkny, please contact Katharine at to collect your prize.

Did people in the past treat sex the same way we do?

I am a romance novelist. In my secret identity I am a professor of European history. (I like to think of myself as having a secret identity. It makes me feel like Superman.) Recently I taught a course on sex in the Middle Ages. My students studied chastity, virginity, marriage, adultery, prostitution, masculinity, femininity, and the medieval theology of procreation.

During that semester at a party I met a psychiatrist. Her specialty was therapy for college students. Interesting, I thought. Body image is so important to young people, and in class we’d discussed medieval ideas of the body relating to sex. I mentioned this to my new acquaintance. She cocked her head and replied, "But they didn’t have much sex back then, did they?"I kid you not.

I hear so many fallacies about history I’m mostly inured to them by now. But this one brought me up short. How on earth did she think we got here if people in the past didn’t have much sex? Nonplused, I was! But when I shared the story with my students, they were incensed. They waxed eloquent:

"Chaucer’s Wife of Bath Tale is as bawdy as it gets."

"The fact that numerous medieval guides to women's health directly addressed sexual intercourse means that, yes, they did have ‘much sex back then’."

"The ‘pop-culture’ romanticism of the Middle Ages does not accurately portray real people, rather caricatures."

Ah ha, I thought. Perhaps we are getting to the crux of the matter. And then,

"History suffers from the fatal flaw that it appears to be a universal language. Everyone experiences history, learns history, has history touch their lives in some way - whether they study it in a formal sense or not. For this reason, history suffers."

Hm… Everybody thinks they know history even when they don’t?

If so, maybe they have good reason to misunderstand the past. People in previous eras often did not see the world as we do, particularly in the realm of sexuality. What once defined a man’s masculinity, for instance, does not necessarily define it now. To support this assertion, I offer here three randomly chosen examples drawn from societies typically included in the history of that behemoth called (cue Cecil B. DeMille movie music and Charlton Heston voiceover) WESTERN CIVILIZATION. In other words, examples from our cultural predecessors.

· In ancient Athens it did not make a man appear less virile to have youthful male lovers. It made him more so.

· King Philip of France sought to ruin the wealthy Templar order. Before Philip’s inquisitorial court, Templar knights vehemently denied charges of blasphemy (like spitting upon the cross). Most, however, readily confessed to another accusation: their superiors said they could have carnal relations with each another in order to remain chaste with women. Very few knights admitted to actually doing so, and those under torture. But the suggestion that they were allowed to didn’t seem like a big deal. Despite all, their valor upon the battlefield went unquestioned.

And to bring us somewhat closer to the present,

· A slender gentleman with an elegant leg and Brutus-cut locks, pinching snuff between his thumb and forefinger, would be laughed out of any Hooters in America today. But in 1818 London, that same fellow could make the ladies swoon.

A Regency gentleman’s sense of masculinity was not threatened by crossing his legs, and he did not require biceps like a stevedore to be appealing to women. So— No, of course— Notions of masculinity, femininity, sex, and the kitchen sink were not the same "back then" as they are today. Not by any means.


Humans are…human, and frankly always have been. Medieval people had sex. Like us, they had lots of it. They also danced, sang, ate, fought, and prayed. Like us. Likewise, gentlemen in the Regency read, drank, lied, loved, cried, played sports, and rescued helpless victims. Like men still do today.

And they also had sex. Lots of it.

What is the funniest, most unusual or shocking account of historical sex you’ve heard or read? One randomly chosen commenter today will win a signed copy of my debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, in which my indisputably masculine Regency hero does not once cross his legs, but does however at one point buff his fingernails against the lapel of his exquisitely tailored coat.


By Katharine Ashe

A Secret Identity
When pirates storm Lord Steven Ashford’s ship upon the high seas, it brings him closer than ever to the nefarious criminal he seeks to ruin. Only one seductive detail threatens his victory: the scandalous beauty imprisoned with him, Lady Valerie Monroe. Temptation has never been so intoxicating or so forbidden, for Steven is disguised as a French priest. If they make it off the ship alive, to protect her from his enemies, he must never see her again…

An Undeniable Love
Back in England, and under the ton’s scrutiny for a reckless past she hasn’t escaped, Valerie dreams of the breathtaking "man of the cloth" with whom she shared her greatest adventure. Then he reappears in society under his true identity, Viscount Ashford, but despite the danger their consuming passion cannot be denied. Now standing in the way of their desire are Valerie’s wounded heart, Steven’s lone destiny, and a villain that will stop at nothing to crush them both.

BIO – Katharine Ashe

Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. RT Book Reviews awarded her debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, a "Top Pick!" review. Please visit her at


Linda Banche said...

Hi Katharine. I don't know why anyone would expect the past to be exactly like the present, but you find that attitude in lots of places. If people in the past didn't have sex, none of us would be here!

I like a story with a little mystery in it. SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS sounds like my kind of book. Lots of luck.

Katharine Ashe said...

Hi, Linda. Thanks for having me on the blog today! And thanks for your good wishes. :)

Joyce Moore said...

Hi Katharine: Interesting post. I always wondered about the men in ancient Rome who had "boys", and it seemed contradictory because they also had female lovers. That would make an interesting topic in itself, and you shed some light on that era with your post. Thanks for being our guest.

Melinda Leigh said...

Interesting post! I'm always fascinated by the huge swings between openness about sex and prudery (they were still doin' it, though) throughout history. Is it coincidence or do women's rights seem to ebb and flow right along with this general liberalism?

Nancy said...

A psychiatrist -- who has to have had years of education-- thought they didn't have sex in the middle ages? Did she sleep through her history and literature classes?
My debates have never been over whether men and women engaged in sex but whether it was common for the unmarried of the upper classes to do so. How important was a bride's virginity to a husband of the upper classes? ( even before they thought in terms of class)

Katharine Ashe said...

Joyce, I'm so happy to be here on your marvelous blog today. Thank you!

Melinda, thanks for commenting! It's truly a fascinating subject. You know, as a (responsible-eh em) historian I've got to reply that there are so very many factors that go into any particular cultural notion at any one time, it's nearly impossible to make comparative generalizations. But I don't think I'd necessarily say that political (or any other kind of) liberalism automatically coincides with women's rights. Medieval townswomen, for instance, oftentimes (depending again upon place and century) had many rights over property, and occasionally a say in municipal government and trade organizations, but their sexuality was strictly circumscribed by church law. According to church law, however, they did have the right to demand their conjugal right (sex!) from their husbands. :)

Nancy, it's true, in at least European societies, women from the elite strata -- especially the landholding strata -- were expected to maintain their virginity until marriage, and then only to have sex with their husbands. Such virginity was meant to be maintained for many reasons, including a centuries-long cultural understanding (going back to even before Christianity) that a good, worthy woman was above all else a chaste woman.

Barbara Monajem said...

Funny as the psychiatrist's comment is, I can relate to it. When I first learned history in school, they never mentioned sex. I got the impression from the older people around me that young people nowadays were different. That they didn't follow the morals of the past. And of course there were all the myths about the very proper Victorian Age. I didn't think about it much at the time, but it did seem to my young and unenquiring mind that people weren't anywhere near as obsessed with sex in the past, LOL. It was fun gradually learning about what actually went on. :)

Katharine Ashe said...

Hi, Barbara. Isn't that the truth? I learned a heckuva lot about constitutional conventions and gothic cathedrals and practically every battle from the Nile to the Little Big Horn... but almost nothing about sex. I guess our teachers (or school boards!) supposed our young impressionable minds might be wrongly impressed. ;) When you read texts written in historical eras, though, it's hard to miss the preoccupation with sex. Upon occasion I've introduced perfectly respectable historical documents in class that some college students blush to read because the writers were so... um... let's just say *honest*.

catslady said...

If I'v learned one thing it's that it all depends on who is doing the writing. History gets written by the victor. I definitely didn't learn a lot in school - dried statistics and slanted views. I also have to assume that most things written for a long time were written by men. Everything is relative and societies definitely change. Personally, I think our Puritan past and some religions have been reasons that sex can be thought of as shameful. There has always been sex lol but how it is viewed is what has changed over the centuries. I really can't think of anything shocking as long as it is between consenting adults.

Delilah's Dish said...

If people in the past didn't have lots of sex, we wouldn't be here today, lol!

Great blog, Katharine, as usual!

Delilah's Dish said...

Oh that was me....


creatnchris said...

Hi Katherine,

I really enjoyed reading your post and your book sounds wonderful! I think that we are more open to talking about sex than people were in other eras, but all the same, sex is as ancient as the world is or we wouldn't be here today blogging about it!

Best wishes on your debut book!

Katharine Ashe said...

catslady, History (with a capital H and Cecil B. DeMille music) is truly written by the victors, isn't it? Fortunately, now wonderful scholars are writing amazing histories about things like women and gender, and that scholarship is making its way into primary and secondary textbooks. It's very exciting!

Thanks, Marquita! I saw your FB post about the Wife of Bath teaching you about lusty females in history. :)

creatnchris, thank you so much! I agree - Western societies, especially Anglo societies, have recently come out of a period of real sexual uptightness. But you might be surprised at how bawdy some historical cultures were. I sometimes teach students an ancient Greek play called Lysistrata (5th-century BC, by the comic playwrite Aristophanes). It's a political play about war. In it the women of all the warring societies get together and vow to refuse their husbands sex until the men stop fighting and killing one another. In agony, their husbands eventually call a truce. It's hilarious, biting, and unbelievably raunchy!

Miranda Neville said...

Great post, Katharine. I loved the Greek example (big Mary Renault fan) and I am currently writing a Regency hero who is a consummate dandy - it's a challenge to balance history with the modern concept of a sexy hero.

The one thing I will say is that it's hard to find real-life first-hand documentation about sexual practices (i.e. what they did in bed). Only in recent decades have average people been so ready to share! I've spent time reading 18th century porn to try and figure it out. Aretino's sonnets, the classic renaissance porn, are full of anal sex (m/f I hasten to add) but his French and English 18th century followers were more into the weird positions. Does this mean 16th century Italians liked anal and 18th century Frenchmen didn't?

Good luck with the book release - I can't wait to read it.

Katharine Ashe said...

Wow, Miranda. Your research sounds... pretty darn fun. I'm assuming your question is rhetorical? (Because I frankly can't think of *anything* sexual that 18th-century Frenchmen didn't like.)

I do love a dandy. The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of my all-time favorite heroes, though he's more of a fop, I suppose, and he's got the advantage of also being a dashing hero risking life and limb for his wife and lots of other folks. I suspect the dandy you're writing now is just as deliciously masculine as your heroes always are!

*yadkny* said...

Hi Katharine,
Thanks for the great post! It was really fascinating to see the different POV's. It's true and I agree with you... how did we get here if people back then weren't having sex? It just doesn't make any sense if they weren't. I would love to attend one of your courses! I learned alot just from the post.
In response to your post question... I can't say that at this point there is a funny, most unusual, or shocking account of historical sex that I can think of. I will have to read the rest of the comments to see if anyone else came up with anything.

BTW - The cover on Swept Away By A Kiss is beautiful:)

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Katharine,
Great blog. And I agree if people in the past didn't have sex we wouldn't be here.



Katharine Ashe said...

LOL, yadkny. Maybe we're just hard to impress! But I do like Miranda's scandalous research into historical sex. Very intriguing... And I'd love to have you in one of my classes--what fun! Thanks for your kind words about the cover of Swept Away by a Kiss. :)

Margaret, you know, the more I think about it, the more I think that psychiatrist must have just been a little off her game that night. I mean, really... :)

Mary Ricksen said...

It's been around for as long as we have and it's what drives us as instinct. Sex has always been and will always be.

Katharine Ashe said...

Amen, Mary! Sometimes (as in the case of my hero and heroine in Swept Away by a Kiss), when wrapped up with love, it's an even bigger driver than survival. ;)

Louisa Cornell said...

They didn't have much sex? Where did those large families come from, under a series of cabbage leaves? No television, no internet, after sunset very little light, what did she THINK they did for entertainment?

And lets face it, you can't get much more sexually ambiguous than Alexander the Great, but I seriously doubt any of those generals he conquered thought of him as a sissy.

During my singing career I sang a Samuel Barber cycle of songs based on the poetry of 8th Century Irish monks. One of my favorites was entitled Promiscuity in which one monk makes a rather insinuating statement about another monk. The simple lyrics are :

I do not know with whom Edan will sleep,
but I do know that fair Edan will not sleep alone.

Not much sex? Please!

Congrats on your debut Katharine! Can't wait to read it!

Katharine Ashe said...

Louisa, marvelous examples! I'm laughing and smiling. Singing the poetry of medieval monks must have been such fun! Thank you for sharing these, and for your kind words. :)

Risitas Españolas said...

Hi Katharine,
I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to read your debut novel. For as long as I have known you, you have always been interested in everything history. I am sure your book will be a wonderful trip down an lesser known path in history...

I loved your blog post and following your instructions from FB I am posting a link to an interesting article which I am sure you heard about: the discovery of a prehistoric sex toy. If you ever run into that psychiatrist again, perhaps you can share the news with her!

librarypat said...

Your post and these comments have been most interesting. When I was in the Peace Corps, 40 years ago (ouch, that sounds terribly long ago, I guess that qualifies as history), the country I served in was strict with their attitudes towards women and behavior. Single women did not go out alone and if you went with a male, you had a chaperone. Women were expected to be chaste until marriage. Men on the other hand expected to get away with whatever they could.. Thus the need for chaperones. In contrast to that, the conversations and comments by married women and older women, married or not, were ribald. When my friend (now my husband) came over to visit shortly before I finished my 3 years, we were standing in the middle of the town square and them old maids I lived with were loudly commenting on the size of his "assets." this was not done in english and I needed some translation, which I thankfully got later. I would have been terribly embarrassed if I had known what they were saying (although I had my suspicions).

Arianna said...

I can't think of shocking thing I've read off the top of my head, however, I did see the Pompeii exhibit in Naples a few years ago, with an entire back room dedicated to sexual art. That, I think, is when I realized romance novels were not simply making up all the sex back then!!

My favorite part of museums and ancient art is the power of equalizing. I love knowing that people 50, 100, 1000 years ago had the same sort of brain activity that we do today.

Furthermore, when it comes to sex, it's even more interesting. I was talking to my college roommate just last week and we were saying how we can be just as titillated by a soliloquy from Mr. Darcy or Mr. Rochester as we would from seeing Hugh Jackman or Antonio Bandares buck naked. I think because society was so publicly stifled, they learned to get pleasure from basic gestures. It still feels like a punch in my gut whenever I see Colin Firth smile (his toothy grin) only because he didn't for the majority of Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, I got so angry watching the new Count of Monte Cristo movie considering Dantes and Mercedes jumped right into the sack, without developing their characters enough for the audience to be comfortable with it...and I'm sorry, the Dantes I know would NEVER do that. I don't feel there is anything wrong with our characters enjoying a little premarital sex, but it still has to be in character!

Katharine Ashe said...

Fabulous link, Risitas. I'm going to work this into the course I'm teaching on ancient and medieval sexuality this fall. Thanks!

librarypat, what a terrific story -- marvelous that you had that experience! And I'm really impressed you encouraged the ladies to tell you what they were saying. :) (Btw, 40 years ago doesn't seem long to me!)

LOL, Arianna - historical romance writers aren't making it up! And you are so right about Mr. Darcy etc. (though honestly I wouldn't *mind* seeing Hugh Jackman buck naked...). My most recent star crush was on a Bollywood actor. Watching his first film, my first Bollywood film, I eventually realized that they were never going to kiss. What dismay! But the thing is, I *liked* it. He was so sexy just smiling at her, and unbelievably sexually appealing in his actions and words. They had beautiful chemistry, too. It's truly all in how the characters are drawn.

Jane Writes Romance said...

It's dreadful, I know, but the first thing that popped into my head re historical sex was a sixth form Latin lesson, where the red-faced teacher tried to explain an odd reference in Horace to a red mullet and somebody's, ahem, bottom.

Truth is stranger than fiction, that's for sure. And I tend to prefer romantic fiction to classical authors these days. ;)

Good luck with your writing!


Katharine Ashe said...

Hilarious, Jane!! Thanks for the belly laugh. :)

Katharine Ashe said...

Thank you for such marvelous comments, ladies! It was great fun blogging with you all this week. :)

Congratulations, *yadkny*, for winning the drawing for a signed copy of Swept Away by a Kiss. (I love giveaways. It's like Christmas.)