The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages (Paperback)

The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages By Katherine Harvey Cover Image
Not In Store / Available To Order (allow for shipping time to bookstore or direct-to-home)


An illuminating exploration of the surprisingly familiar sex lives of ordinary medieval people.
The medieval humoral system of medicine suggested that it was possible to die from having too much—or too little—sex, while the Roman Catholic Church taught that virginity was the ideal state. Holy men and women committed themselves to lifelong abstinence in the name of religion. Everyone was forced to conform to restrictive rules about who they could have sex with, in what way, how often, and even when, and could be harshly punished for getting it wrong. Other experiences are more familiar. Like us, medieval people faced challenges in finding a suitable partner or trying to get pregnant (or trying not to). They also struggled with many of the same social issues, such as whether prostitution should be legalized. Above all, they shared our fondness for dirty jokes and erotic images. By exploring their sex lives, the book brings ordinary medieval people to life and reveals details of their most personal thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, it provides us with an important and intimate connection to the past.

About the Author

Katherine Harvey is an honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. She holds a PhD in medieval history from King’s College London and has published widely on the Middle Ages.

Praise For…

"When does sex become rumpy-pumpy? . . . By the Middle Ages sex is indisputably odd. Reading Harvey’s The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, I found myself thinking: weird, weirder, and, occasionally, whoa! This is an eye-watering, jaw-dropping, blush-raising book. Harvey, a medieval historian and honorary research fellow at Birkbeck, has peeped through the keyhole of the past and caught the Middle Ages in flagrante. The tone is spot-on: curious but not prurient; correct yet amused."
— Laura Freeman

"The story of Simon the goat-lover is just one of hundreds of weird and wonderful anecdotes that rub together in Harvey’s jaunty study of late-medieval sex. . . . Her book is an enjoyable romp, smart as well as funny. It left me fully satisfied, with a big smile on my face."
— Dan Jones

"An expansive, accessible and highly engaging account of what we do—and don't—know about western European sexual culture in the Middle Ages. The book offers multiple insights into the realities of medieval sex."
— BBC History Magazine

"This lively, engaging study combines a scholarly rigor with a sharp eye for telling detail, told in a fluid style that keeps the pages turning. A culture in which clerics commissioned sheelagh-na-gigs—graphic carvings of women displaying their genitals—to adorn their holy buildings perplexes us. Harvey takes great care to explain this complicated culture."
— Irish Times

"[An] irresistibly eccentric cultural history. . . . Impeccably researched and impossibly entertaining, The Fires of Lust is a work that transcends its scholarly purpose."
— Australian

"Harvey takes the reader on a memorable, occasionally eye-watering, journey beneath the medieval bedsheets, from swallowing a bee as contraceptive to applying quicklime to the penis to cure STDs. It's an enjoyable romp."
— Sunday Times

"When it came to copulation, spinning a good yarn was preferred. Harvey’s The Fires of Lust is part of that venerable tradition. She has written an entertaining but thoughtful study, descriptive without becoming didactic or pedantic. Her message is, depending on your perspective, reassuring: 'then' is not all that different from 'now'—when it comes to sex, la plus ca change, la plus la meme chose."
— Arts Fuse

"I can’t think of more brilliant Christmas book to give to one’s significant other if they have even a passing interest in medieval Europe or the rich and extraordinary sex life of its inhabitants."
— Erotic Review

“In her provocatively titled book, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, Harvey sets out to challenge stereotypes and explode myths about sex and sexuality in the Middle Ages. She does this admirably, conveying the richness, complexity, and diversity of medieval ideas and medieval people’s sexual behaviors. . . .  Harvey utilizes a wide body of legal, theological, and medical sources contextualized by a prodigious array of case studies that bring medieval people to life and demonstrate how theory worked (or did not) in practice. . . . Harvey has provided an excellent introduction into the beliefs and the lived experience of sex in the Middle Ages. Her book is rigorous, empathetic, and deeply engaging. Fires of Lust is an excellent overview, especially for non-specialists, students, and general interest readers."
— Journal of British Studies

"A lively and readable account rooted in a deep knowledge of the scholarly literature on sexuality in medieval western Europe. Harvey’s specialism in the history of medicine provides particular depth, and is integrated with legal and cultural material to create a sparkling and convincing whole."
— Ruth Mazo Karras, Trinity College Dublin

“Masterful. There is no better guide to what occurs betwixt the sheets of the medieval bedroom than Harvey. The Fires of Lust—an absolute triumph.”
— Kate Lister, author of “A Curious History of Sex and Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts”

“With unabashed directness, a delicate touch of wit, and constant humanity, Harvey surveys the world of medieval sex and sexuality. Throughout The Fires of Lust she situates the twin themes of morality and medicine in the social and material world that medieval people inhabited. What those people thought, felt, feared, and hoped for all play a part, alongside the pronouncements of theologians, lawmakers, and intellectuals. Here, in its messy complexity, is medieval life—life laid bare, but always with respect and care. A triumph.”
— John H. Arnold, Professor of Medieval History, University of Cambridge, author of “Belief and Unbelief in the Middle Ages”

"Learned, fun, and full of surprises—a fascinating, wide-ranging guide to medieval sexual attitudes and experiences."
— Fara Dabhoiwala, author of "The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution"

Product Details
ISBN: 9781789146561
ISBN-10: 1789146569
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Publication Date: December 2nd, 2022
Pages: 296