Wanking in Ancient & Medieval Times

Vitruvian Man, 1492, Leonardo DaVinci’s sketch of a naked man. The subject of solo sex tends to awaken laughter, not serious study, however today we know that our ideas about masturbation have a fascinating, conflicted, even momentous history.

What is it about Masturbation that arouses so much nervousness and anxiety in Western culture? Not all cultures share this, and it is not even found in our own cultural history.

Actions and attitudes begin with ideas, so the questions need to be asked. What ideas contributed to our current cultural attitudes toward solo sex? Where did they come from? How did they develop? To find the answers we have to look at the history of masturbation.

Starting with cave drawings, on to silk paper sketches and other early media, it is clear that in ancient times masturbation was depicted as normal, healthy and good. In fact, some peoples saw a relationship between sex and an abundant harvest, and any kind of sex would do.

In parts of the Ancient World masturbation to ejaculation was regarded as a creative activity of the gods. To the Egyptians it was the process by which the sun god Atum “copulated with his fist” and created the Universe, as well as Shu and Tefnut, the first man and woman. The Sumerians Mesopotamian god Enki masturbated and his ejaculation filled the Tigris River with flowing water. Clearly, wanking was seen as a divine pleasure and process.

Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks were not all that concerned about masturbation, nor were the early Jews, in spite of the story of Onan in Genesis, upon which some Christian groups base their opposition. In fact, the Greeks saw it as a gift of the gods and merely a normal expression of sexuality, a good way to relieve one’s frustration. In one Greek myth when the nymph Echo rejected Pan, his father Hermes taught him to masturbate to help him get over his grief and cheer him up. Pan enjoyed it so much that he taught it human shepherds, who passed this new experience on to the rest of us.

. . .the Greeks
saw it
as a
gift of
the gods. . .

But they did believe it to be a private activity. One day the philosopher Diogenes went into the agora and masturbated in public. He was trying to prove to people that there was nothing about being human that was shameful enough that it needed privacy. The spectators might not have thought masturbation was shameful, but disagreed about the need for privacy.

The Greek physician Galen believed that it was dangerous to not ejaculate frequently, and that a build-up of semen could make one sick. A hundred years later the famed father of medicine, Hippocrates, disagreed and warned that too much could do physical harm, even damage the spinal cord. (Spoil sport!)

Athenian women bought dildos, fake penises (olisbos) made of padded leather or wood with which to masturbate. However, some Greek men saw solo sex as a poor man’s pastime. A prosperous Greek would rather hire a hooker.

When Rome came to power it was expected that boys to channel their sexual energies into gymnastics and philosophy. Masturbation was thought to make them grow up prematurely.

Medieval Christianity

Sadly, it was early Christianity that introduced the idea that solo sex was wrong. It was wrong because it was “contraceptive.” So strong was this idea that Augustine of Hippo (350-430 C.E.) taught that any form of stimulation that resulted in a man ejaculating anywhere but in a vagina was worse than fornication, rape, incest, and adultery. Masturbation was "unnatural" but fornication, rape, incest, and adultery were less serious because they were "natural" sins that could result in conception. This idiocy became accepted as official “truth.”

Thomas Aquinas

Saint Thomas Aquinas. Jump ahead to the 13th century and Thomas Aquinas again promoted this idea in his Summa Theologica. Because some of the great “Fathers” of the “church” declared such nonsense it has had a terribly negative affect on Believers right up to present time. And sadly, while the Bible joyously celebrates married sex, some parts of the “church” honoured celibates more than any other kind of person.

Jean Gerson

In De Confessione Mollitiei, the 15th century Jean Gerson suggested priests coach their parishioners to confess to so they could “extract from their heart the abominable pus of this foul sin.” He told them to begin with questions like "Friend, do you remember, during your childhood, around the age of 10 or 12, that your penis became erect?" and then get more progressively explicit.

Some more humane and sensible theologians felt a person could masturbate to satisfy the "needs of nature and of health." Gerson disagreed so strongly that he believed a doctor recommending solo sex to his frustrated patients was committing a mortal sin. And so strongly was it officially opposed that many European counties had laws against it, with the imposition of severe civil penalties, even exile. Emperor Charles V's "Penal Rules" of 1532 went to the extreme of imposing the death penalty for those who masturbated. Needless to say people still masturbated, carefully, in secret.

Gabriello Fallopio

GabrielloFallopio. Interestingly, toward the end of the 16th century, the church acknowledged that masturbation was a very common practice. And the Renaissance doctor Gabriello Fallopio suggested boys “pull on” their penises with frequency and enthusiasm to make them longer, stronger, and more virile. (Of course, doing so immediately makes a penis “longer” and “stronger,” and the results do make one feel very virile!) The “church” came back with Abregé de la Somme des péches by the Franciscan Benedicti who insisted that sex with oneself was a mortal sin.

Then 50 years later J. Caramuel’s wrote Theologia Moralis. It was strongly condemned by Pope Innocent X because it hinted that masturbation just might be a healthy activity. “A sick man in fact is required to take whatever remedies are necessary for the conservation of this health, and we know that there are illnesses which are linked to the quantity and the quality of semen, that these illnesses are life-threatening, and that they can only be cured by the emission of semen.” While today we know that his ideas on having excess semen are wrong, no one will disagree that the “emission of semen” sure does make one feel better, even if only for a few moments.

In 1676 Letters of Advice from Two Reverend Divines to a Young Gentleman, about a Weighty Case of Conscience, and by Him Recommended to the Serious Perusal of All those that may Fall into the Same Condition was published, expounding the evils of masturbation. In it a young man “confessed" to the devastation that masturbation brought to his life, and his healing through penance. (Ho hum.)

But in 1696 another voice of reason, Nicholas Venette, wrote Tableau de l'Amour Consideréré dans l' Estat du Mariage in which he said that since men can masturbate and get rid of old seed, they are superior to woman. “Woman does not have the ability to pollute herself, as does man, or to discharge her superfluous seed. She sometimes retains it lengthily in her testicles or in the horns of her uterus, where it becomes tainted and turns yellow, murky, or foul smelling, instead of white and clear as it was formerly. Unlike man, who, by polluting himself frequently, even during his sleep, benefits from a seed that is always renewed and never remains in his canals long enough to become corrupt.” Humorous in a way to be sure, refreshing none the less in that it put a positive spin on self stimulation and the benefits of “renewing” one’s seed. Sounds good to me!

The Reformation

The Reformation preachers and theologians saw sex somewhat differently. They at least believed in the goodness of married sex. Marriage was the fulfillment of human and divine love. If masturbation was wrong, it was wrong because it involved the waste of the seed of procreation, not due to the private pleasure it involved, or because it was damaging to one’s health or morals.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther. But sadly, in the 16th century, Martin Luther continued the Roman Catholic idea that Onan's sin was masturbation. “Onan must have been a malicious and incorrigible scoundrel. This is a most disgraceful sin. It is far more atrocious than incest and adultery. We call it unchastity, yes, a Sodomitic sin. For Onan goes in to her; that is, he lies with her and copulates, and when it comes to the point of insemination, spills the semen, lest the woman conceive. Surely at such a time the order of nature established by God in procreation should be followed . . . He was inflamed with the basest spite and hatred . . . Consequently, he deserved to be killed by God. He committed an evil deed. Therefore God punished him . . . That worthless fellow . . . preferred polluting himself with a most disgraceful sin to raising up offspring for his brother.” (Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 38-44; (1544)

John Calvin

John Calvin agreed. He said, “It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is doubly horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born . . . Moreover he [Onan] thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime.” (Commentary on Genesis)

Cotton Mather

CottonMather. Cotton Mather, a 17th century Puritan wrote “The Pure Nazarite, Advice to a young man, concerning an impiety and impurity (not easily to be spoken of) which many young men are to their perpetual sorrow, too easily drawn into.” In it he said, "It is time for me to tell you that the crime against which I warn you is that self-pollution, which, from the name of the only person that stands forever stigmatized for it in our Holy Bible, bears the name of ‘onanism’"

Oh those dreary pleasure-killing divines!

But historians tell us that, in practice, not everyone bought into this, and while “official” doctrine condemned the practice, the general populace and average village priest did not regard the matter of monumental importance. In ancient history, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance people certainly did masturbate. In Samuel Pepys’ diary he notes times when he enjoyed both partnered and private sex, and does so without any sense of shame or self-consciousness.

Well then, when did the all out war on Solo Sex begin? And when did it appear beyond the walls of the “church?” For that we have to wait a while longer. Things are about to get really strange.


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