MA Thesis, Seton Hall (2010)
The penitentials were handbooks for priests used in private confession throughout western Europe from the early sixth through the eleventh centuries composed of lists of sins and their corresponding recommended penances. Through the penitentials it is possible to gain a glimpse into the daily lives of early medieval people through the sins they confessed to and which were eventually included in the handbooks. This study will examine how the penitentials were used as teaching tools for the Christianization of sexual morality and as an apparatus for maintaining the separateness between the carnal and the spiritual necessary for the holy to coexist with the sexual. This study will take the form of a closer examination of smaller specific categories of deviance: the nocturnal emissions of clerics, sexual relations during menstruation and pregnancy, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, and adultery. What the penitentials have to say regarding each of these topics will be systematically analyzed for patterns both geographically and temporally as well as being placed within its medieval context.
In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas writes, “Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination, and order. Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy.” By this definition, anything which is against the natural order of things is necessarily unholy. In many ways Douglas’ idea of finding holiness in the rules of sexual morality applies very well to the sexual mindset of the Middle Ages. It could he argued that medieval sexual morality is about the categorization of all sexual activity into two categories: good vs. evil or acceptable vs. unacceptable and, as Douglas asserts, those things which violate the social order or the separateness of the holy from the carnal were evil, or unacceptable. For example, the seminal emissions of priests polluted a sacred body or ran the risk of polluting a sacred space, thus mixing the sacred and the corporeal. Whether it was appropriate for a menstruating woman to enter a church was a controversial topic since a woman in the course of her monthly “sickness” was considered the very essence of corporeality and could not be allowed to pollute the sacred realm. Homosexuality, bestiality and incest were all sexual sins that were thought to violate the boundary between man’s holy nature as the image of God and the pure corporeality of lust unredeemed by the potential for procreation. Similarly, the use of contraceptives transformed the sanctified relations between a husband and wife by preventing “the good of marriage” that is, children. With the sanctifying aspect removed, the sex act was considered only an expression of disordering lust. Put simply, non-procreative sex acts removed the holy in favor of the corporeal. Adultery presented an even greater threat because it was seen as an unsanctified relationship in which children were not the desired outcome. If the couple did manage to gain some small spiritual redemption through the birth of children, they violated sexual morality by violating the social order, making adultery doubly dangerous. Overall, the unifying factor within medieval thought on these topics and on sexual morality in general is the pervasive uneasiness about the relationship between spirituality and carnality. In short, medieval theologians needed a way to make a fundamentally carnal act holy, or at least spiritually acceptable, and to relate to the faithful in what circumstances the spiritual and corporeal could mix, albeit uncomfortably, and in whicb circumstances they had to be rigidly separated. The penitentials were one major venue for the expression of these categories.