Sex, the State and the Church in the Middle Ages: An Overview
Published Online (2005)
Introduction: An individual’s sexual behaviour in the Middle Ages was not a personal matter. The twin powers of state and Church attempted to control every aspect of people’s lives; and sexual behaviour was no exception: ‘One’s choice of sexual partner affected one’s family and the inheritance of property. One’s choice of sexual act affected the social order and therefore was of concern to the entire community’.
The state and the Church often stood in opposition to each other: for example, the aristocracy, with its inheritance rules and its obsession with bloodlines, was accustomed to arranging marriages based on the benefits to the families involved, in terms of power and wealth; the wishes of those being married were of minor importance, which often led to forced (non-consensual) marriages. The Church, conversely, supported consensual marriage; but this was not so that a demurring party could marry the spouse of his/her own choice, but to promote the right of an individual who preferred the chaste life of the cloister to take up that choice.
Women were considered a disruptive influence on men and sexually predatory by both Church and state; the Church promoted virginity as the ideal state (for men and women), while the numbers of female inhabitants were kept to a minimum and their movements restricted in medieval aristocratic households, which were ‘for all intents and purposes male. The masculine character was reflected in the small number of women in aristocratic households; for instance, in the fifteenth-century household of the Earl of Northumberland there were nine women and 166 men. This proportion includes servants of the household who would have been predominantly male, with only a small number of female launderers, chamberers and nursery servants’. Women of higher status had their own households in the castle or palace: ‘increasing status seems to be accompanied by greater segregation of women’s quarters, so that residences of the highest saw a duplication of households for male and female members of the castle. This tendency towards female segregation is apparent even where women appear to have been active in commissioning their quarters’. In aristocratic records, ‘courtesy and household books indicate a hostility towards the presence of any unnecessary women’.