By Lucie Laumonier
This article explorers high and late medieval clerical prescriptions on marital sex and provides the reader with a guide to engage in proper licit intercourse, “medieval style.” With whom and why should you have sex? When can you engage in sexual activities and when should you refrain from them? How and where is it appropriate to have intercourse?
Attitudes toward sexuality in the Middle Ages were largely shaped by the Church. Only permissible when between spouses, sexuality was solely aimed at reproduction. Medieval canonists and theologians commented abundantly on sexuality. The austere views of the church on sexuality contrasted with medieval literature in which authors depicted a more joyful and spontaneous image of sexuality. Yet, what historians know about the Middle Ages sex draws in a large part from the church’s normative frames and from sources pertaining to their enforcement to trials and disputes in the courts of justice. The Church’s views on sexuality were not set in stone but changed through time: sexuality became more of a direct concern for the reformists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries who defined broad guidelines for the laity to follow.
With whom and why?
Sexuality primarily aimed at procreation and was only licit between wedded spouses. This broad ethical precept should suffice to steer the reader in the right direction, for its implications are self-explanatory: no sex outside of marriage, no sex for non-reproductive purposes.
It was only during the 10th and 11th centuries that the Church started to assert exclusive jurisdiction over marriage, and during the 12th and 13th that canonists established a legal definition of Christian marriage which lasted for centuries. Since then, matrimonial validity rested only on the free consent in exchange of vows of the groom and bride, as long as they were legally allowed to marry.
The church distinguished two types of vows (or types of consent to marriage) that were on equally binding: the betrothal, during which a couple promises to marry each other in the future (marriage “per verba de futuro”), and the exchange of vows in the present tense (“per verba de praesenti“). A promise of marriage in the future could be broken, unless the couple had intercourse. If they had, they were legally married. Consummation made a betrothal a legally valid marriage, which could no longer be broken. A lot of confusion arose from this definition of marriage and many cases heard by ecclesiastical courts concerned people on who disagreed on what had happened had they talked and fornicated, or exchanged promises of marriage in consummated the union?
Since Pope Alexander III (1159-81) had established matrimonial validity on consent only, a couple married per verba de praesenti need not consummate the union to complete it. The exchange of promises in the present sufficed. However, the non-consummation of the unions needed to be voluntary to keep the marriage standing. It was this possible to be legally married and to never consummated the marriage if both partners had taken vows of chastity. “Chaste marriages” often characterizes the lives of lay saints.
If either spouse was incapable of intercourse the marriage could be dissolved. Impotence (masculine and feminine) a physical impairment rendering sex (and thus procreation) impossible, was considered an impediment to marriage, enabling the annulment of the union after a trial. Many writers warned that impotence was difficult to assess and that many used it as an excuse to find a new spouse with whom their affliction was miraculously cured. To obtain an annulment of the marriage for impotence, sufficient proof just had to be brought in court (witnesses were especially important), and the spouses should have unsuccessfully tried to consummate their marriage for a minimum of three years.
Outside of betrothed couples and married couples, people who had sex with each other were committing a sin of fornication, the gravity and consequences of which depended on certain circumstances.
In the Early Middle Ages, clerical attitudes toward sexuality were highly restrictive: the list of “chaste days” during which partners should refrain from intercourse roughly match the religious calendar. No intercourse was permitted on the major holidays (such as the Nativity or Easter), neither on the six weeks of Lent, nor on Sundays and fish days. Only a few days were left for people to have sex although most historians doubt that these rules were really followed. By the twelfth century, canonists showed a more permissive attitude towards sexuality, more in tune with lay expectations and habits. The clergy invited lay people to refrain, if possible, from sexual activities on Sundays dedicated to the Lord rather than be rather than being an absolute command, observance of the holy days had become more of a guideline. Sex should also have been avoided during the wife’s menstruation, pregnancy and lactation, an opinion equally found in clerical and medical sources, all through the Middle Ages.
Once the marriage was consummated, sex should be given “on demand.” The concept of marital debt was entrenched in tradition: Saint Paul had asserted that husbands and wives should pay each other what was due, and they both had power over the other’s body. These conceptions of marital debt were carried out through centuries. Both husbands and wives and had the right to demand intercourse, and both had the obligation to comply, except if they had taken vows of chastity, or if the demand was unlawful. While medieval marriage was usually characterized by an imbalance of power between husband and wife, the former having the upper hand on the ladder, the marital debt put both partners on equal footing. The topic of marital debt raises questions about whether or not medieval people conceptualized conjugal rape (rape within marriage). Given that spouses who had consummated their union were legally obliged to have sex, in the eyes of the law, the answer was no. Marital violence could however be punished, giving some legal grounds to abused spouses to file complaints against their abuser.
How and where?
In order not to be sinful, sexual activities between spouses should be open to the possibility of conceiving children. Practices that did not enable procreation or that intentionally prevented it were thus sinful, if not perceived as “unnatural.” Likewise, having sex solely for pleasure was considered a sin; sexual pleasure was not a problem in itself, for it was believed that it is enabled conception but the point of sexuality remained procreation. Books of penance, especially the very restrictive early medieval ones, listed the punishments for those who confessed fornication for pleasure, coitus interruptus and other forms of contraception, oral sex anal sex, etc.
Medieval sex was construed as something men did to women, who let them (or did not let them) do. In Latin and vernacular languages, verbs associated with intercourse were in the active voice when performed by men, but in a passive voice when women were subject of the sentence. Sexual practices deemed undermining masculine dominance (such as the woman on top of the man) were frowned upon. Women were thus associated with a form of passivity in the sexual act, while men were the doors. Yet, in clerical, medical and narrative sources, all written by men, women were often described as lustful and actively seeking sexual encounters, sometimes resorting to sorcery to obtain what they wanted.
Little is known about the actual intimate lives of couples. Medieval literature yields a spontaneous and often humorous glance at sexuality, which contrasted with the restrictive attitude to the Church, but the veracity of any source is difficult to ascertain. Bedrooms were not private places in the Middle Ages: the bed was often more shared with children and other relatives in humble households, while, in more wealthy houses, servants usually slept in their master’s room. But maybe sex was not as a private act as it is today. A lot of sex also seems to have happened out in the open – in the fields, backyards and alleyways, even in cemeteries or – in the middle of the day – in empty churches and empty houses.
From the Church’s perspective, the sinfulness of sex was compensated by its purpose: procreation and expansion of the human race. If sex was enjoyable, it was for me to render the act of conception more pleasant for the partners. The pleasures of the flesh, as any earthly delight, were a temptation that should be overcome. The Church’s view on marital sexual was not solely restrictive. The high medieval reformist had taken a rather “down-to-earth” approach to sexuality, making it a central element of the lay marriage. Many argued that sexuality intimacy participated in creating affection and love between the spouses, and marital affection was construed by the Church as a defining component of a successful marriage.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 6 E VI f. 323