Classical novels tell in detail how the nobles fell in love in the 18th-19th centuries: they exchanged letters, danced at balls, met secretly in the garden and got married in the church. But what happened between the spouses in the bedroom? How did people learn about sex? What happened to the peasants? We deal with the book “Sweeping Bans: Essays Sexual Culture of the 11th–20th Centuries”, which was co-authored by women’s history researchers Natalya Mitsyuk, Natalya Pushkareva and Anna Belova.

What did the nobles have

How did we get acquainted

The young nobles had practically no opportunity to get to know each other: meetings were allowed only in public places, and talking about feelings without an engagement was considered indecent. The higher the position of the family, the stricter morals were. Young people could meet at children’s and adult balls, at family events and on trips. Often, young aristocrats did not need to look for a mate – her parents picked her up. Marriage among the nobility was perceived primarily as an economic transaction: the mutual inclination of the bride and groom was not considered mandatory.

Noble girls had practically no idea about sexual relations, and any interest in them was condemned by the family and society. The only source of information about relationships with men was romance novels and books that they could find in the home library. However, the reading of both novels and medical literature was controlled in every possible way. It was for this that the already adult young lady needed a governess. According to the memoirs of Anna Petrovna Kern, she was forbidden to read such literature if it had not previously been approved by the governess.

Despite the condemnation of love literature, the noblewomen still got to it – we know this, for example, about Pushkin’s Tatyana. According to the books, they imagined relationships with men as courtship, holding hands, passionate speeches and languid glances, and the highest degree of intimacy for them was a kiss.

Puberty of aristocratic women took place in conditions of severe suppression of sexuality and shame, so their experiences did not find an outlet. Often girls, deprived of the opportunity to meet young people, directed their feelings towards teachers and tutors, or invented novels for themselves. From here, loves “in the first comers” could arise. Anna Belova calls it “repressed sexuality.”

For a long time her imagination
Burning with grief and longing,
Alkalo fatal food;
Long hearted languor
It pressed her young breast;
The soul was waiting … for someone …

Lines about Tatyana in Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin”

Noble youths had much greater freedom both in public life and in sexual education. They had at their disposal a home library, which was not controlled by a governess, peasant and yard “girls”, with whom relations were not condemned, as well as “uncles” from servants. In addition, talking about women and sex and visiting brothels were part of the army culture, where young nobles served.

According to Belova, medical and erotic books could even be given to young men on purpose. For example, Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin in his memoirs admits that the bookseller at the university where he studied, in exchange for the translation of some publications, gave Fonvizin “seductive books, decorated with bad prints, which corrupted my imagination and revolted my soul.” Also, young men could take on the role of educators of their passions: Fonvizin recalls that he brought the very “seductive books” to the girl he liked, and Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy gave Sofya Andreevna to read his frank diary before the wedding.

If men’s memoirs and cadet poetry are to be believed, pre-marital sexual contacts between nobles did occur, despite strict morals. Most often – in a provincial environment, where control over young people was not so strict.

“I shellbered with her daughter; she was also about sixteen or eighteen. Every evening after supper … I go to her: she is already in bed. I sit down, play, kiss her on the lips, on the neck, chest and stroke with my hands, where I please. Once they became so soft that they both became beside themselves. She stretched, put out the candle, and said: “I am all yours,” only in such a tone that I felt and came to my senses what the consequences might be, for which I would make her unhappy; got up and went out.”

M. P. Zagryazhsky “Notes of Mikhail Petrovich Zagryazhsky (1770–1811)”

Despite the fact that sex education was available only to men, in the event of pregnancy, the responsibility still lay with the girl who “did not save her honor.”

How did you get married

In the first season of The Bridgertons, when Daphne temporarily runs away from the guests at her wedding, she is left alone with her mother, Lady Bridgerton. She shares her memories of her wedding and says that she did not want the feast to end, because she was afraid of the wedding night. She then very awkwardly tries to explain to Daphne how sex works, using the example of two beagle dogs. In fact, this episode is not far from the truth: Belova writes that mothers did sometimes talk about their wedding night with their daughters immediately before the wedding. Brides could genuinely love their suitors, but the thought of their wedding night terrified them. It often happened that the first sex was traumatic for women.

It was assumed that the purpose of a woman is marriage and motherhood. However, the noblewomen, when they married, did not know anything about sex or where children come from.

The memoirist Anna Evdokimovna Labzina first married in 1772 to Alexander Matveyevich Karamyshev, a mine surveyor at the Berg Collegium. Anna was 13 years old, her husband – 27. In her memoirs, Labzina writes that Karamyshev did not enter into a relationship with her at first, but had a relationship with his niece. Finding the two of them in bed, due to inexperience, Anna concluded that he just loves her deeply.

“I took my niece to live with him. During the day, all together, and when we went to bed, then at night his niece came to us and went to bed with us. And if it seemed cramped to her, or for some other reason that I didn’t understand then, they sent me to sleep on a sofa.

Anna Labzina, “Description of the Life of a Noble Woman”

Anna Belova writes that male memoirists perceive sexual relations between spouses calmly, calling them “ordinary natural actions.” But women in their memoirs call sex “bestial love” and “bestiality.” Marriage often turned out to be stressful for women: they perceived marriage primarily as a new social role and range of responsibilities, and their husbands expected them to be sexually liberated. “You should first teach me how to live with my husband, and then give me away. You brought me to such a point in a short time that I don’t know what I am and what to do!” – Labzina accuses her mother and nanny in her memoirs.

It was also not customary to discuss childbearing issues in noble families, and this information reached the girls poorly.

“Then you suddenly begin to find out that God is not at all involved in anything, that it was not an angel of God who brought me to earth, as I was taught, and that the children will not be born at all because the husband and wife went to church.”

Leo Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana in her diary at the age of 18

Nevertheless, according to Belova, noble girls were prepared in their own way for the upcoming birth: they were taught to endure pain. Girls from childhood could be taught to a rigid corset and a straight posture through beatings, to coarse food and hardening. The young ladies were trained to reduce physical sensitivity.

Everything connected with the body was perceived by the women themselves as dirty and shameful – so much so that they hardly talk about it even in their own memoirs. And if sexual relations are mentioned at least in passing, then menstruation, according to Anna Belova, is not mentioned anywhere.

Due to the large age difference between spouses, it often happened that even a young woman remained a widow. Widows were the most protected social group: they received complete power over themselves, property and children. Some of them used this right and entered into more conscious marriages, choosing their own husbands. And such marriages often turned out to be happy. This is proved by the examples of the same Anna Labzina, Natalia Pushkina-Lanskaya, Anna Kern-Markova-Vinogradskaya, Glafira Alymova-Rzhevskaya-Maskle.

Anna Labzina married a second time in 1794 to the philosopher, writer and freemason Alexander Fedorovich Labzin. Anna was 36 years old, her husband – 28. They were both religious and mystical and quickly found a common language. The Russian Biographical Dictionary (1914) states that their marriage lasted 29 years and was happy, unlike the marriage with Karamyshev. Anna took an active part in her husband’s activities: she helped with the translation and publication of his works, participated in the creation of the Dying Sphinx Masonic lodge, and even attended meetings. When Labzin was exiled to Simbirsk on a denunciation, Anna followed him.

What did the peasants have

How did we get acquainted

In the peasant environment, young people had more opportunities to build romantic relationships than the nobles: holidays and rituals came to their aid. Gender historian Natalya Pushkareva writes that during the celebration in honor of the pagan god of “marriage” Lada, games with erotic elements were arranged. Participants in the festival could sing “shameful songs”, dance and even have sex. Moreover, married people could also participate in such festivities. For girls, such games often ended in “corruption of virginity”, which caused sharp condemnation from the ministers of the church, but was tolerated by the peasants themselves.

Echoes of a tolerant attitude towards premarital relations among the peasantry are found even in Soviet cinema: in the film “The Story of Asya Klyachina, who loved, but did not marry” (1967), the unmarried main character is expecting a child from a local driver. The girl is perceived by her fellow villagers rather as a badass, but is not condemned.

Frame from the film “The Story of Asya Klyachina, who loved, but did not marry” (1967), director Andrei Konchalovsky

Also, peasant youth could socialize in “girls’ conversations” – something like a village club for boys and girls. Young people spent time together without adult supervision, they could kiss, hug and sit on each other’s laps – and all this was considered quite acceptable. At the same conversations, proposals were made directly to the girls, and not to their parents. Doctor of Historical Sciences Anna Belova believes that such “conversations” made it possible to make a relatively smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.

How did you get married

In the peasant environment, sex was treated as a natural part of life – this is still left over from paganism. The main source of information about how the intimate life of peasants was organized is church documents in which priests gave characteristics to “fornication” and “sins” and brought down anger on unlucky apostates. For example, they suggested that men who lead too wild a sexual life, at least “fornicate” with only one woman: “Even if you can’t keep it, be with one.” One of the tasks of the church was to eradicate paganism, including emancipation in sexual relations.

Marriage through “wedding” did not take root among the peasants immediately. A pagan marriage was arranged through “kidnapping” – the ritual of kidnapping the bride by the groom with her own consent, which survived into the 19th century. According to Pushkareva, the persistence of such a tradition suggests that the girl’s consent was also taken into account, and the marriage was built on mutual sympathy.

The ministers of the church regulated marital relations in some detail: it was necessary to have sex only for the continuation of offspring, on certain days and in certain positions. For example, in church records, the wording “perform fornication from behind” has been preserved. According to Pushkareva, the abundance of records about various types of “fornication” and the sayings recorded by Dahl indicate that the peasants were not always willing to comply with church prescriptions. For example, this: “Sin – while the legs are up, but lowered – so God forgave.”

The Orthodox Church in the period of the New Age in matters of sexual relations was much more liberal than the Catholic. For example, sex with a pregnant wife was not prohibited (only contacts during menstruation were prohibited). Abortion and contraception in the form of “potions” were condemned by the church, and penance was imposed on the woman. Witch doctors and midwives who could perform an abortion procedure could receive excommunication as a punishment. At the same time, in Europe they could be accused of witchcraft and executed.