The Joy Burden of Sex in the Middle Ages – pt. 2 (Medieval Mondays #10a)

(Continued from Part 1)

The previous post on sex in the Middle Ages discussed its various contradictions as espoused by the medieval Church.

Another important inconsistency was that even though sex was considered a requirement between spouses, this didn’t mean just any sexual act was acceptable.

In Women in the Middle Ages, authors Frances and Joseph Gies explain that,

The medieval Church felt called on to judge the question of position in intercourse, it’s ideas coinciding with those of popular morality then and long after: the only “fitting way” was with the woman supine beneath the man, so regarded as natural and appropriate not only because it seemed to symbolize man’s superiority to woman, but because it was credited with favouring conception and thus fulfilling the procreative purpose. (p. 54)

The Gieses go on to explain how deviations from this fitting sexual position were not only sins, but mortal sins that were viewed as using one’s body in a manner not intended by God.

In confession, a ranked system of penances was imposed for any of the following non-prescribed sexual practices:

  • Intercourse with the woman on top
  • Anal sex
  • Homosexuality (which was neither a term nor a concept that existed in the Middle Ages.  Instead it was deemed as heterosexuals who had chosen to engage in deviant practices.)
  • Oral sex (considered in an early medieval penitential manual to be “the worst of evils” – Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, p. 64)
  • Masturbation
  • Contraception (either coitus interruptus or contraceptive potions)

However, throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, confessors were very vague in their questioning about sexual sins.  They feared that explicitly naming sexual practices would inadvertently give the parishioners ideas about new things to try in bed.

Instead, the confessor might couch his questions in terms of the seven deadly sins, with no specific mention of sex at all.

Or, as quoted in Women in the Middle Ages, he might state that “You have sinned against nature when you have known a woman other than as nature demands”, and if asked for specifics, reply that “You know well the way that is natural.” (pp. 54-55).

Such reticence to speak plainly (to say nothing for the existence of so many rules around marital sex) of course casts serious doubt on just how effective confessors were in stamping out sexual sins.

Proper ways and proper days

Some penitentials used by confessors imposed rules on not only what sexual practices were acceptable, but when sex was permitted.

According to Marty Williams and Anne Echols, authors of Between Pit and Pedestal: Women in the Middle Ages, sexual activity was restricted to only Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays that were not holy days or fasts, thus leaving all other days (including the 40 days of Lent) off limits (p. 78).

In Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, the Gieses expand on this idea as perceived during the early medieval Church:

Most penitentials prescribed abstinence from sex during Lent.  That of Finnian recommended continence for three 40-day periods as well as Saturday or Sunday.  Sex was also to be shunned during a wife’s pregnancy, or at least for the last three months, and for forty days after birth. (p. 63).

So too was sex during the daytime and more than one round of intercourse at a time considered a sin.  All of which was in sharp conflict with the notion of the conjugal debt—the obligation of spouses to provide each other with sex whenever they requested it—as discussed in the previous post.

The issue of sexual pleasure was another matter that the Church weighed in on, successfully introducing even more contradictions to the mix.

For the most part, the Church maintained that the sin involved in sex initiated for pleasure (as opposed to for procreation) was not a mortal sin so long as procreation wasn’t prevented.  According to Saint Augustine, this sin could be atoned for through almsgiving and other common acts of charity.

But even when sex was initiated to make a baby (or for some other such acceptable purpose, such as to avoid fornication, or in payment of the conjugal debt), this didn’t exempt one from the sin of any pleasure that resulted from the act.

According to the Gieses in Women in the Middle Ages, some theologians even drew a distinction between “enjoying” and “suffering” pleasure. (p. 54)

Churches of glass

Perhaps the biggest contradiction of all regarding the Church’s regulation of sex during the medieval times was the fact that, according to Williams and Echols,

The Church talked a good game, however its inability took keep even its own officials chaste diminished its moral authority. (p. 86)

The authors go on to explain how celibacy within the Church had always been preferred, but that some churchmen were originally allowed to marry.

It wasn’t until the 11th century, following a reform aimed at discouraging churchmen from buying church offices for their offspring, that all clerics were prohibited from marrying.

This prohibition was very unpopular, however, and for some time quite ineffective, with clerics merely calling their wives or mistresses their “housekeepers”.

Meanwhile, other priests, according to Williams and Echols,

[S]upposedly threatened the virtue of village wives and daughters when their congregations tried to deprive them of feminine companionship, thus leading communities to force their priests to wed in order to safeguard village women from the danger they assumed any unmarried cleric represented. (p. 87)

The authors go on to reveal that this perceived danger was sometimes all too real, with courts referring to predatory priests as a “common ravisher of virgins and wives”.

Large numbers of churchmen were also known to frequent brothels and bathhouses, as well as to harbour a thriving homosexual subculture within some monastic communities during the 12th century.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Image source #1 and #2)

5 thoughts on “The Joy Burden of Sex in the Middle Ages – pt. 2 (Medieval Mondays #10a)

  1. Good grief 🙂 But it’s interesting that the required celibacy of the clergy might have been because of inheritance issues rather than (as is generally supposed) allowing them to focus on higher matters.


    • I think that it initially had the cause of allowing clerics to focus on higher matters – the metaphysical rather than the physical, if you will – since, as explained by the authors I quoted in the post, celibacy was always preferred.

      However, I once heard it stated – quite sensibly, in my opinion – that celibacy itself is a calling, as much an inspired vocation as priesthood itself, which is an entirely separate matter. I believe that the early Church recognized that celibacy isn’t for everyone, which is why some churchmen were previously allowed to marry. It was only when the cases of simony became widespread that the full marriage ban came into effect. Thus demonstrating that human nature being as it it, regardless of the place and time, there are always those who will ruin a good thing for everyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

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