Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Once given that virginity was a good, the principle was, as usual, extended far beyond the sexual act, as we see, for instance, in the case of the virgin Gorgonia, who “with all her body and members there of. . . bruised and broken most grievouslie” yet refused the attentions of a doctor because her modesty forbade her to be seen or touched by a man; and was rewarded by God with a miraculous cure.

Since virginity was a good, it was good for wives to deny themselves to their husbands, and since doubtless many of them were suffering from the shock of a painful initiation as well as the conflicts of conscience, many of them did so. Whether this increased the sum total of chastity seems doubtful, since many husbands were driven to vice in consequence, to the point where the Church felt obliged to intervene.

The second step was to place an absolute ban on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating. In some penitentials fornication was declared a worse sin than murder. In the penitentials of Theodore and Bede the penance imposed for simple fornication was one year, but the penalty was increased according to the frequency of the act and the age and discretion of the parties. Adultery was more serious than fornication with an unmarried person, and sexual connection with a monk or a nun more serious still, while if a member of the clergy fornicated with a monk or nun, Dunstan’s penalty was ten years fast, with perpetual lamentation and abstention from meat. Later, the seducer of a nun was denied burial in consecrated ground. But it was not the sexual act alone which was tabooed. Attempting to fornicate, kissing, even thinking of fornication were forbidden and called for penalties: in the last case, the penance was forty days. Nor was it the intention alone which made the crime. Involuntary nocturnal pollutions were a sin the offender must rise at once and sing seven penitential psalms, with a further thirty in the morning. If the pollution occurred when he had fallen asleep in church, he must sing the whole psalter. (172)

The penitentials also devoted a disproportionately large amount of their space to prescribing penalties for homosexuality and for bestiality, but the sin upon which the greatest stress of all was laid was masturbation. In the five comparatively short mediaeval penitential codes, there are twenty-two paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer than twenty-five dealing with masturbation on the part of laymen, to say nothing of others dealing separately with masturbation on the part of the clergy. (172) According to Aquinas, it was a greater sin than fornication. This is particularly significant, for we now know that the belief that sexual pleasure is wicked springs primarily from parental taboos on infantile masturbation; the fact that the punishment is given when the child is too young to under stand its significance, and when masturbation is the only means by which he can afford himself pleasure by his own unaided efforts, results in a fear of pleasure becoming embedded in the unconscious, and being generalized until it becomes a fear of pleasure in all its forms. No doubt the Church realized, even if unconsciously, that the maintenance of its system of repression was ultimately founded on the willingness of parents to frown on infantile masturbation, and, therefore, concentrated a great deal of attention on the matter.

This interpretation would not hold water if it could be shown that the Church, while condemning sexual pleasure welcomed alternative forms of physical enjoyment. But it is easy to show that this is not the case. Porphyry, as early as the third century set the tone by condemning pleasure in all its forms. “Horse racing, the theatre, dancing, marriage and mutton chops were equally accursed; those who indulged in them were servants not of God but of the Devil.” (172) Augustine called him the most learned of all the philosophers and established this doctrine upon a formal basis.