The proposition that the sexual act had power to contaminate was difficult to reconcile with the fact the Christ, who had been born of a woman, was without sin. To claim descent from the union between a woman and a god was a standard way of claiming semi-divine status in the classical world, and it was in accordance with this principle that the Jewish Messiah was expected to be born of such a union. The Christians adapted this to their ends by claiming that He had been born of a “virgin”, that is, without performance of the contaminating sexual act, though in classical myth, of course, there was no such reservation. But even this degree of antisepsis was insufficient and the further idea was propagated that Christ had been born without contact with “the parts of shame” (as the Germans still call them) by emerging through the breast or navel. So widely was this believed that Ratramnus wrote a long, controversial book to prove that He had been born through the sexual organs in the normal way. (A pendant issue was the question whether Christ was divine from the moment of conception or only from some later point in intra-uterine life: this, too, persisted to modern times, and was only settled in 1856.) Others, who found it difficult to believe that even God could impregnate the Blessed Mary without her losing her virginity developed the idea that she was impregnated through the ear, by the Archangel Gabriel, or by God Himself. An Arab physician declares, “Nafkhae is the name of that particular form of air or vapour which the angel Gabriel is said to have blown or caused to pass from his coat sleeve into the windpipe of Mary, the mother of Jesus, for the purpose of impregnation.” (257) In some early paintings the Holy Ghost, in the form of a dove, is seen descending at great speed with the divine sperm in its bill; in others the seminal words are seen passing through a lily, on their way from Gabriel’s mouth to Mary’s ear, in order to remove any impurities; in one early carving, they came direct from God’s mouth through a tube which led under her skirts. (190)
The process of decontamination was at one time extended to the point at which not only Christ, but Mary herself, was considered to have been born parthenogenetically.
The Church’s attitude to the ‘copula carnalis‘ is especially interesting in view of the oft made claim that the Church substituted for Saxon purchase of the bride the higher concept of a contract freely entered into between responsible individuals. Leaving aside the casuistry of such a claim when applied to children of tender years betrothed by parents, it is incompatible with the doctrine that copulation had magical significance. In contemporary Catholic teaching it is bigamy to marry a woman who has previously committed fornication; and it is bigamy to continue to sleep with one’s wife after she has slept with someone else. (38) Evidently, the performance of the sexual act is believed to create some new relationship between individuals – and even to destroy a preceding relationship regardless of whether the parties freely enter into a partnership or whether they have no such intention. Thus, what the Church has substituted for purchase, in which at least one party is free, is a magical contamination which leaves neither party free.
But in mediaeval times, it was realized that such a doctrine would have the unfortunate consequence that a married couple could obtain a divorce by simply swearing that ‘copula carnalis’ had not occurred, a thing which could seldom be disproved unless there were children. Since the fundamental object of the Church was to minimize sexual opportunity this was to be avoided at all costs, and an attempt was therefore made to maintain the position that, while ‘copula carnalis‘ converted betrothal to marriage, absence of it did not imply that the marriage was void.