Sex and sexual relationships in the Middle Ages, much like during any age, were fraught with contradictions.
Most of these contradictions stemmed from the involvement of the medieval Church in dictating proper sexual conduct. In turn, according to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, the Church’s involvement was owing to the fact that,
Many theologians were completely unable to reconcile sex and the sacred because sex was viewed as something unholy and unclean (p. 86).
Frances and Joseph Gies expound upon this notion in Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, stating that, “[T]he Church held a narrow view of bedroom propriety” (p. 303), and that, “Sex as a subject for consideration was even more important to the Church than to the laity, who regarded it more casually.” (p. 303).
Over the course of the Middle Ages, from the 6th century to the 15th century, the Church devised a number of rules regarding the proper process, function, and viewpoint toward sexual relations, as well as punishments for those who disobeyed these rules.
To begin with, the only people meant to be having sex were spouses. Those who engaged in sexual practices outside of marriage were committing the sin of fornication, for which the penance was often severe according to the circumstances of the parties involved (e.g. whether the woman was a virgin, whether the woman was another man’s wife).
The Gieses write,
A whole spectrum of penalties were applied to “fornication”[.] The Penitential of Columban ruled that a layman who begot a child with another man’s wife should do penance for three years, “abstaining from juicy foods and his own wife”, and paying a fine to the wronged husband. Fornication with a widow drew a one-year penance; with a girl, two years plus “the price of her humiliation” to her parents, but if the man chose to marry the girl, both partners were let off with a year’s penance. (p. 64)
Even sex between spouses was not without its religious regulation, though. In the eyes of the Church, the sole purpose of marital sex was procreation.
Indeed, procreation was deemed a duty, in keeping with God’s benediction to “Go forth and multiply”. As such, anything that deviated from this objective—from so-called “unnatural” (i.e. non-inseminating) sexual practices to contraception—were condemned.
Contraception in particular, the Gieses write in Women in the Middle Ages, was “[C]ondemned by the Church, sometimes as homicide, sometimes as interference with nature, sometimes as the denial of the purpose of marital intercourse.” (p. 55).
Williams and Echols add to this idea by pointing out that the Church even condemned couples who used abstinence as a form of contraception, which was perceived as an insult to God’s plans (p. 78).
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Abstinence as an act of piety, however, was another matter. In Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, the Gieses quote a penitential (a manual used by confessors for determining penances) from the early Middle Ages:
“We advise and exhort that there be continence in a marriage … since marriage without continence is not lawful, but sin, and [marriage] is permitted by the authority of God not for lust but for the sake of children.” (p. 62)
A marriage that was spiritual (rather than physical) was praised so long as husband and wife made the decision together to abstain from sex.
Because if they were not unanimous in the matter, yet another contradiction came into play, that being the notion of the marital/conjugal debt—an ecclesiastical doctrine that maintained both partners’ obligation to engage in intercourse whenever one or the other partner requested it.
Failure to do so often resulted in one’s spouse petitioning the Church court for the restitution of his or her conjugal rights, upon risk of excommunication for the refusing party.
In the words of the Gieses in Women in the Middle Ages, “The Church regarded the marital debt with great seriousness.” (p. 52).
It was very important to the Church that the sexual needs of both partners remained satisfied within the confines of marriage. But not for the partners’ mutual pleasure or to help strengthen their relationship.
Rather, the conjugal debt was a preventative measure to discourage either party from committing an even graver sexual sin—adultery, masturbation, or even immoderate lustful thoughts.
Even though the conjugal debt ostensibly applied to both sexes equally, the belief existed throughout the medieval times (whether conveniently or in truth) that women experienced stronger sexual feelings than men and were promiscuous by nature, thus requiring the imperative of the conjugal debt for their own protection.
Williams and Echols quote 13th century canonist Cardinal Hostiensis, who claimed that, “Husbands [have] a moral obligation to keep their wives sexually satisfied, lest they be tempted to stray to other beds.” (p. 168).
(This perception of women’s insatiability, as well as the society of misogyny and sexual mistreatment of women that it enabled, will be the topic of another post on medieval sex.)