Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Perhaps the most startling of the devices evolved by these courts was their attempt to use marriage as a punishment for fornication. In the procedure evolved in 1308 by Archbishop Winchelsey, a contract was drawn up on the first offence stating that, in the event of a third offence, the parties were to be considered as having been man and wife as from the time of the first offence. (172) The legal difficulties consequent upon making a situation in the present depend upon a future event can be imagined! The courts had at their disposal the ultimate penalties of suspension from church, and of excommunication in two degrees. The greater of these was a truly drastic Penalty involving loss of all civil rights, and imprisonment if the offender persisted in his sin. In addition to any penance or penalty imposed, the offender usually had to make a public confession of his sin in church, in front of the congregation and clad in a white sheet, although in more corrupt times it was often possible to commute this by a payment in cash.

In time, the Church so influenced public opinion that the secular courts began to support and reinforce the ecclesiastical courts, and many of these extraordinary prohibitions became embodied in the law.

At the Reformation, as we shall see later, many sexual crimes were taken over from the ecclesiastical courts and embodied in civil law: some of these – adultery, for instance-were proper matters for the civil courts, since the rights of persons other than the offender were involved. Others, however were of purely religious origin, notably the laws against adult homosexuality and suicide. The fact that in England today civil prosecution is brought against anyone who attempt suicide does not reflect a fear that people will escape their obligations to society by this method but derives directly from canon law and the notion that it constitutes a spiritual crime — as the Church’s refusal to bury a suicide in consecrated ground still—reminds us.

But it soon was evident that no mere physical system of supervision could hope to regulate the most private doings of a man and even his very thoughts: only a system of psychological control based on terror would serve. The offender must, of his own accord, confess his own sin. The incentive for such confession was found in the claim to be able to remit sins. Christ had given Peter the power of “loosing and unloosing”. This was interpreted as the power to admit to Heaven or to refuse; and it was further postulated, first, that Peter could hand this power on to a successor, and he in turn to his successor, and secondly, that each of these could bestow the power upon lesser members of the hierarchy, and thus to every ordained priest. But to make this power effective it was necessary to emphasize the attractions of Heaven, and the disadvantages of Hell. Unfortunately, the picture drawn of Heaven proved insipid, and it became necessary to dwell with increasing heaviness upon the appalling nature of the torment reserved for sinners, rather than on the loving kindness of God – or perhaps we should attribute this to the fact that Church leaders were often more interested in imagining sadistic horror as a fate for others than eternal bliss. It came to be held that only one person in a million could hope to reach Heaven, and historians have noted the increasing emphasis on the doctrine of damnation throughout this period, and the gradual substitution in the iconography of a stern and vengeful father figure in place of the merciful intercessor, Jesus.

These were the complex regulations with which the Church surrounded sexual activity. It must be conceded that the claim that these regulations were introduced solely on ethical grounds does not bear examination. Nor is it easy to justify the claim that the Church was concerned to foster rewarding personal relationships.