Premarital Sex in Early Modern Europe

“Prior to the sixteenth century, marriage had not been the dominant lifestyle for adult men and women, and those who did marry often waited until their mid to late twenties before they were financially able to do so. Given the large numbers of unmarried freemen, clergy, and religious single young adults made up a sizable segment of society…..”

“For the majority of youth in the late medieval and Reformation Europe, premarital sex seems not to have been a great issue of conscience, despite the clergy’s determination to make it such”

– Ozment

I find it interesting that in this 16th century Europe described in Ozment’s book, The Burgermeister’s Daughter, premarital sex was not an uncommon practice. In fact, according to Ozment’s description, the church and moral contingents of the day seemed to struggle as much as modern day with enforcing such moral codes as no sex outside of wedlock. It seems in fact, that it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that “laws regulating proper sexual behavior” were enforced. This is compatible with the information I found in Mary E. Weisner’s book, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, where one of the “occupations” for women was “selling sex for money”. Weisner explains how later this exchange was called “prostitution”, and how as Europe moved into the late 15th century, women who prostituted themselves were increasingly alienated from society.  So they would not be mistaken for “honorable” women, women prostitutes were made to wear arm bands or headcoverings in public. There was a switch from selling sex as an economic terms, to seeing it in a moral light, which Weisner indicates was encouraged about by protestanism. She references how Luther detested the word “whore”, and saw it as the lowest insult to throw at his theological opponents. Women during this period could in some cases  expect to be formally punished in court for their prostitution. However, those of a higher status were often not brought to court for their sexual misdeeds. Rather, as Johanna Rickman writes in, Love, Lust License in Early modern England ,  they were sometimes shunned by their social group for their misconduct. Thus it seems that their was a double standard concerning the punishment of sexual misconduct, yet this double standard led to the same end of alienation for those who had participated in sex outside of wedlock. The law was enforced on those of a lower class, yet for those of a higher class, the law was not enforced, yet in a different, and equally shameful way. 


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