Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

3. Mediaeval Sexual Ideal

The medieval Church was obsessed with sex to a quite painful degree. Sexual issues dominated its thinking in a manner which we should regard as entirely pathological. It is hardly too much to say that the ideal which it held out to Christians was primarily a sexual ideal.

This ideal was a highly consistent one and was embodied in a most elaborate code of regulations. The Christian code was based, quite simply, upon the conviction that the sexual act was to be avoided like the plague, except for the bare minimum necessary to keep the race in existence. Even when performed for this purpose it remained a regrettable necessity. Those who could were exhorted to avoid it entirely, even if married. For those incapable of such heroic self-denial there was a great spider’s web of regulations whose over-riding purpose was to make the sexual act as joyless as possible and to restrict its performance to the minimum – that is, to restrict it exclusively to the function of procreation. It was not actually the sexual act which was damnable, but the pleasure derived from it – and this pleasure remained damnable even when the act was performed for the purpose of procreation, a notion which reached its crudest expression with the invention of the chemise carouse, a sort of heavy nightshirt, with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact.153 The belief that even within marriages the sexual act should not be performed for pleasure, still persists to the present day, more especially in the Catholic Church, where it remains official doctrine; it was publicly reasserted by the Popes once again, while this book was being written.

Not only the pleasure of the sexual act was held sinful, but also the sensation of desire for a person of the opposite sex even when unconsummated. Since the love of a man for a woman was held to be simply desire, this led to the incontrovertible proposition that no man should love his wife. In fact Peter Lombard maintained, in his apologetic De excusatione coitus, that for a man to love his wife to ardently is a sin worse than adultery – “Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est.”

It was about the eighth century that the Church began to develop the enormously strict system which ruled in the Middle Ages. A series of “penitential books” began to appear which explored the subject of sex in all its details; every misdeed was described and elaborated at length, and penalties were prescribed for each.

This code comprised three main propositions. First all, who could were urged to attempt the ideal of complete celibacy while for those with priestly functions it was obligatory. In this direction the mediaeval Church could scarcely go further than had the early fathers. Jovinian had been excommunicated for daring to deny, what St. Augustine had asserted, that virginity was a better state than marriage. St. Jerome tolerated marriage simply because it provided the world with potential virgins. But by an extraordinary twist of the imagination, the idea evolved that virgins were the brides of Christ. Hence it followed that anyone who seduced a virgin was not commiting fornication but the more serious crime of adultery, and what is more, adultery at the expense of Christ. The outraged deity was therefore entitled to the revenge which tradition always accorded to a husband in such a position. How literally this fantastic doctrine was held can be shown by a quotation from Cyprian: “If a husband come and see his wife lying with another man, is he not indignant and maddened ? . . . How indignant and angered then must Christ our Lord and Judge be, when He sees a virgin, dedicated to Himself, and consecrated to His holiness, lying with a man…. she who has been guilty of this crime is an adulteress, not against a husband, but Christ.” Evidently the saint saw nothing ludicrous in the premise that the son of God would feel exactly the emotions of outraged property sense which would be felt by the most boorish of human beings.