Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

That the Church’s fear of sex was exaggerated and obsessive will already be clear: but, more than this, it was fundamentally superstitious. It preserved the primitive magical belief in the power of sex to contaminate. It was for this reason that married couples must not only abstain from intercourse for three nights after their marriage – the so-called Tobias nights – but having once performed the sexual act, must not enter a church for thirty days after, and then only on condition of doing forty days penance and bringing an offering. Some of the magical precautions taken at and after the wedding, including the blessing of the bride bed, have already been described. Theodore further extended this principle of contamination when he ruled (what had been previously denied) that it was a sin for a menstruating woman to enter a church, and imposed a penance for infraction of this rule. For the same reason, a woman who had borne a baby had to be ceremonially purified before she could be re-admitted to communion. These primitive superstitions derived from pre-Christian Jewry. There can hardly be any better example of the extraordinary persistence of the past than the fact that to this very day the Church maintains in its rites this pagan purification ceremony, under the name of the Churching of Women. Indeed, it carried such ideas much further than had the Jews, as we shall shortly see.

It was, of course, because of the magical character of the sex act that it automatically converted spousals to marriage, and this was why marriages of children could be declared void if copulation had not taken place. Furthermore, if two person within the prohibited degrees married each other, copulation turned this into a marriage which, though illegal, was valid and which the Church then had formally to annul. The modern practice of treating such a marriage as automatically void dates only from the reign of William IV.

Still more eloquent of the superstitious nature of the Church approach to sex are its regulations concerning incestuous marriage. Many peoples, though by no means all, have regarded it as incestuous to marry a parent or a sibling. The Christian Saxons had regarded it as incestuous to marry first cousin, arguing that since marriage makes man and wife “one flesh” to marry a deceased husband’s cousin is incestuous. But in the eleventh century the Church became increasing obsessed with incest fears and extended the ban to second and finally to third cousins. (It was later reduced.) But this was not all. So strongly was the principle of sympathetic contagion embedded, so intense were the fears of incest, that godfather and godmothers were included in the ban; next, even the relations of the priests who had baptized or confirmed a person finally, even two persons who had stood sponsor to the same child might not marry each other! (240)

No doubt, in some small villages, these regulations must sometimes have eliminated every available candidate and condemned people to celibacy in just the same way as do the complicated exogamic regulations of the Australian black-fellow.

In addition, no Christian could validly marry a Jew or the follower of any other religion. Indeed, copulation with a Jew was regarded as a form of bestiality, and incurred the same penances. (240) In this there is a certain irony, since it was from the Jews that the Christians derived their laws against bestiality. Marriage with a heretic, however, though illicit, was not invalid until the Council of Trent tightened up ecclesiastical laws in the Counter-Reformation.

It might be thought that this lengthy catalogue of prohibitions would have exhausted the list of attempts which zealots made to complicate and hinder the performance of the sexual act, but there is yet one more to record. They argued that no one might marry for a second time, even if the first partner had died, a doctrine which was alleged to be supported by the Pauline text saying that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery; though Paul had made it clear that this referred to putting away a living wife. It was also as part of this programme, and not from ethical considerations, that the mediaeval Church set its face against polygamy. The Jews, of course, had been polygamous, and the early Christian fathers – unlike the Greeks and Romans – did not object to it. Even the strict Augustine thought it was permissible to take a second wife if the first were barren, and many early English and Irish kings lived in open polygamy. (239)