Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In this pre-Christian era, even more notably than in the early Middle Ages, the running was made by the women. Their method of wooing was often most determined: Deirdre seizes Naoise by the ears, tells him that she is a young cow and wants him as her bull, and refuses to release him until he promises to elope with her. Nevertheless, polygamy was not uncommon, and many of the heroes are portrayed as having two or more wives. Marriage, even more so than in the days of chivalry, was a temporary affair: thus Fionn marries Sgathach with great pomp “for one year”, and frequent change of partners was usual until quite late in the Middle Ages, a fact which makes Henry VIII’s marital experiments more easily understandable. Dunham asserts that most of the Frankish kings died prematurely worn out, before the age of thirty.

Nudity was no cause for shame: not only were warriors normally naked, except for their accoutrements, but women also undressed freely: thus the Queen of Ulster and all the ladies of the Court, to the number of 610, came to meet Cuchulainn, naked above the waist, and raising their skirt “so as to expose their private parts”, by which they showed how greatly they honoured him.

In such times, to be called a bastard was a mark of distinction, for the implication was that some especially valiant knight had slept with one’s mother: this is why the bastard son of Clothwig, the founder of the Frankish kingdom, received a far larger share than his legitimate brothers when the kingdom was divided up after his father’s death. William the Conqueror by no means resented the appellation “William the Bastard”, as our history books usually fail to make clear. Indeed, it was almost obligatory for a hero to be a bastard, and bastardy was constantly imputed to Charlemagne, Charles Martel and others, as also to semi-legendary figures, such as King Arthur, Gawain, Roland, Conchobar and Cuchulainn. (21) This pride in bastardy is not wholly unknown in modern times: some twenty years ago, for instance, a British Prime Minister used to boast of his illegitimacy.

In circumstances such as these, the Church’s first object was necessarily to establish the principle of lifelong monogamous marriage, without which its stricter regulations were practical meaningless. The Anglo-Saxon synod of 786 decreed

“that the son of a meretricious union shall be debarred from legall inheriting…. We command, then, in order to avoid fornication, that every layman shall have one legitimate wife, and every woman one legitimate husband, in order that they may have and beget legitimate heirs according to God’s law.”

It was long before this attempt succeeded. The tenth-century ordinances of Howel the Good, for instance, allow seven years’ trial marriage, and one year’s trial marriage existed in Scotland up to the Reformation. (232)(240)

In this period marriage was still (as it had been in the Classical world) a private contract between two individuals – one for which the blessing of the Church was customarily sought, but not invalidated by its absence. Today we hardly remember that there was once a time when the Church did not claim the power to make a marriage.