Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The question was important since the Church recognised no justification for divorce. The early Church had recognised divorce for a limited number of reasons, including barrenness and religious incompatibility, and the penitential books allowed divorce in cases of prolonged absence or capture by the enemy, but the fully developed mediaeval code conceded only annulment or separation. Persons wishing for a divorce were therefore forced either to prove that their original marriage had been invalid, or to rest content with a separation, which could be obtained by proving cruelty, adultery or heresy, but which ruled out the possibility of remarriage to another. Fortunately there was a good number of circumstances which the Church was prepared to recognise as making a match invalid, and some of them were vaguely defined, as for instance “lack of public decency”. Thus, for a sufficient consideration the Church could usually be induced to find a reason for permitting an annulment – the only drawback being that an annulment made any children of the marriage bastards. This power of granting annulments became a major source of revenue to the Church and a source of great scandal. (147)

Since the simplest way to obtain an annulment was to prove the existence of an earlier marriage, it was tempting for anyone who wished a divorce in order to remarry, to declare that spousals had secretly been entered into at some prior date. This was why the Church was so insistent on the presence of witnesses, and, since witnesses can sometimes be bribed, of a priest. It was also because of this danger that the crying of banns was generally introduced in the mid-Fourteenth century, since this provided an opportunity for anyone knowing of an earlier marriage to come forward.

It was, of course, as part of its comprehensive attempt to regulate all sexual matters that the Church urged people to take their marriage vows in church, but it could not, in view of its general position, assert that a privately conducted marriage was invalid. It was the Tudor monarchs, untroubled as they were by questions of theology, who first made church marriage compulsory.

Marriage being, as we have seen, a contaminating process, the Church refused to perform it at certain times of the year: the exact periods varied, but usually embraced Advent, part ( if Lent, and the period between Rogation and Trinity Sundays – that is, the greater parts of March, May and December. (Hence the proverbs, now almost forgotten: “Marry in Lent, and you’ll live to repent. Marry in May and you’ll rue the day.”) At one stage there were only twenty five weeks in the year when marriages were legal – though a marriage undertaken in the forbidden periods, though illicit, was not invalid. The Church also restricted the hours during which marriage could be celebrated. Declaring that such things should be done openly, it first declared that marriage must take place in daylight, but later defined daylight as 8 a.m.. to noon. Though this rule was abolished by the Reformation, Laud restored it and it was embodied in statute law in George II’s time, which accounts for the arbitrariness of the present hours of marriage in England, and perhaps for the fact that the meal following is still called a breakfast. Though the legal hours were extended in modern times, the penalty on any clergyman who performs the frightful crime of marrying a couple after the proper hour, unless by licence, remains at fourteen years penal servitude. (137)

The sexual obsessions of the Church bore with especial hardness on woman. By the Saxons she had been treated as property; now she was treated as the source of all sexual evil as well. Chrysostom, less vindictive than some, spoke of women as a “necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill”. But by the Middle Ages even these qualifications were no longer acceptable “A Good Woman [as an old Philosopher observeth] is but like one Ele put in a bagge amongst 500 Snakes and if a man should have the luck to grope out that one Ele from all the snakes, yet he hath at best but a wet Ele by the Taile.” It was argued that sexual guilt really pertained to women, since they tempted men, who would otherwise have remained pure. One is reminded of the reply of Innocent III to one of his Cardinals: “If one of us is to be confounded, I prefer that it should be you.”