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How was sex approached in eras where family co-sleeping was normal?(r/AskHistorians)
Well, Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk covers the history of both the bedroom and the bed, and by extension some of the situations you’re talking about here.
>Medieval lives were much more communal than those of today, but that’s not to say that they contained no notion of privacy at all. People still took the trouble to seek out private moments, such as the times when lord and lady lay curtained off in their four-poster bed, or when a courting couple walked out into the woods in merry Maytime, or when a person knelt in prayer in an oratory.
> Nor was sex restricted to the bedroom. Edmund Harrold, a priapic wig-maker living in late-Stuart Manchester, kept a detailed diary of his sex life, including comments such as ‘did wife 2 tymes couch & bed in an hour an[d] ½ time’. In 1763, James Boswell exceeded him with a clever actress/prostitute named Louisa: ‘a more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in rapture … I was somewhat proud of my performance.’ On this occasion they were in a bed, but it’s only fair to point out that the lanes and fields were far more attractive to medieval and Tudor young people who lived in otherwise communal spaces. The fact that early bedrooms were shared could certainly inhibit romance. The seventeenth-century Abigail Willey of Oyster River, New England, would stop her husband ‘coming to her’ when she didn’t feel like it by making her two children sleep in the middle of the bed rather than taking their usual position at the sides.
>The chivalric cult had a strange parallel in the sleeping arrangement known as ‘bundling’, which was common both to rural areas of seventeenth-century Wales and to eighteenth-century New England. This was likewise a non-sexual relationship, where a young man and woman passed the night alone in a bedroom together, but remained fully clothed. Sometimes they were even tied down or a board was placed down the middle of their bed. The idea was to make it through to morning without having sex, in order to find out whether they got on well enough together to marry. Until 1800, when it began to arouse a new moralistic disapproval, to ‘bundle’ was considered both chaste and sensible as it led to more successful marriages:
>Cate Nance and Sue proved just and true
>Tho’ bundling did practise;
>But Ruth beguil’d and proved with child,
>Who bundling did despise.
>The other explanation for this curious custom can be found in the architectural design of pre-modern rural cottages. Obviously, in an age when houses contained far fewer rooms than there were family members, the young people were short of private places in which to become acquainted. It was a kindness on the part of a girl’s parents to leave a young couple alone together in the upstairs bedchamber, the rest of the family gathering in the kitchen or parlour below instead. The ropes and the board assuaged the parents’ conscience, as they were responsible for finding their daughter a suitable husband, yet also for preserving her virginity. On the other hand, pre-marital sex was not seen as disastrous for people of the middling or lower sort, and a pre-marital pregnancy could be welcome proof of fertility. ‘You would not buy a horse without trying it first,’ explained one Norfolk farmer to his vicar.
Fascinating book. Highly recommended.