Marriage: Moral Duties

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Marriage: Moral Duties


Sex and Affection. The medieval church recognized that both sexual relations and affection between spouses were necessary to maintain the indissoluble bond of marriage. Husband and wife were charged with the moral responsibility to attend to both aspects in their life together.

Conjugal Duty. The importance of the sexual dimension was highlighted by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he wrote: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command” (1 Corinthians 7.3-6). Thus, Paul argued, coitus was so important in the marriage relationship that neither spouse could deny the other legitimate marital relations. This doctrine came to be known as the conjugal debt. One of the reasons Paul gave so much importance to the conjugal debt was his fear that, without a legitimate outlet for sexual desire, a person would fall into the serious sins of adultery (sexual relations in which one or both participants is married) or fornication (sexual relations between two unmarried participants). He introduced his discussion by saying, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7.1-2). The medieval Church so feared that people would not be able to control their lust that it rigorously interpreted Paul’s teaching, asserting that neither husband nor wife had the right or ability to deny the other sexual access. Each was required to render to the other the conjugal debt whenever and wherever it was sought. To refuse was considered a serious sin because one spouse would be exposing the other to sexual temptation that might prove irresistible. The only exception to this rule was if, by mutual consent, the spouses decided to abstain from marital relations for a definite period of time so that they could concentrate on prayer, fasting, and other religious activities. The important condition was that both spouses should agree, and neither spouse should take unilateral action that would deprive the other of conjugal rights.

Enforcement. Though Paul’s advice was straightforward, the canon law related to it created a complicated doctrine with layers of meaning and interpretation. According to canon law, spouses were under a mutual obligation to pay the conjugal debt, so logically there had to be legal mechanisms to enforce it. In general, priests warned married people in sermons and during confession of the serious consequences of not living up to their marital obligations. If the Church became aware of an individual’s recalcitrance, it had more coercive means of enforcement. A spouse could ask the ecclesiastical courts to make the other marriage partner pay the conjugal debt. This strategy became particularly useful in forcing a partner who had deserted the family to return home. One could also prosecute a lover or anyone else who interfered with the sexual rights of a spouse.

Clerical Suspicions. Another problem surrounding the doctrine of the conjugal debt was clerical suspicion of the physical pleasure inherent in it. The Church had inherited an ascetic view of life from antiquity. Although no less an authority than Paul had proclaimed conjugal relations the legitimate outlet for human sexual desire, theologians and canonists gradually developed the notion that, since there was always a degree of pleasure inherent in sexual relations, then some aspect of sin inhered in every sex act, even those between married people. In the middle of the twelfth century, Gratian taught that there was a qualitative difference between rendering the conjugal debt and seeking it. He adopted Augustine’s view that rendering the debt when it was sought was blameless, but exacting the debt because of lust or sexual incontinence was a venial sin. This clarification was a significant departure from the original teaching of Paul, who had not distinguished between the spouse who sought the debt and the spouse who rendered it.

Sexuality. Some of the subsequent commentators who reinterpreted and refined the notion of the sinful nature of conjugal relations approached the issue from a far more negative perspective than Gratian. For example, the Italian canonist Huguccio (died 1210; also known as Hugh of Pisa) argued that because sin adhered to any sort of sensual pleasure, and every sex act, regardless of motivation, involved pleasure, then even marital relations motivated by a desire for procreation were sinful. The only distinction was the degree of sin involved, depending on the motives for intercourse. Other commentators, however, took the position that only lustful pleasure was sinful, and, therefore, sex for purposes of procreation or rendering the conjugal debt was without sin.

A Reciprocal Obligation. Medieval theologians and canonists considered the obligation of the conjugal debt to pertain equally to husband and wife. Historians have cited this teaching as proof that marital sexuality was one area of medieval life in which women had complete equality with men. While women might be considered subordinate to men in ecclesiastical doctrine, secular law, and daily life practice, in the marital bedroom the husband and wife were on an equal footing. A woman’s sexual desires and her right to satisfy them legitimately within marriage were protected by the Church and proclaimed publicly through sermons and in confession. Yet, some historians have questioned if a woman who was subordinate to her husband in daily life and was expected to be obedient in all things, suddenly could assert her sexual rights as an equal. In fact, Thomas Aquinas addressed this issue in the thirteenth century and concluded that “the husband and wife are not equal in marriage, neither is the conjugal act in which what is more noble is due the husband, nor in regard to the administration of the home, in which matter the wife is ruled and the husband rules.” Thus, he perceived the wife to be as subordinate to her husband in sexual matters as she was in every other aspect of life.

The Sin of Lust. The prevailing medieval view was that women were by nature sexually passive while men were sexually active. Consequently, it was considered proper and natural that only men would actively seek payment of the conjugal debt. The English moralist Thomas of Chobham (circa 1158 - circa 1233) discussed the problem of a man who constantly sought sexual relations from his wife because he was consumed by lust provoked either by her beauty or by the temptation of other women. Identifying this overexaction of the debt as sinful, Thomas wrote that men motivated by lust alone were guilty of lascivious kisses and filthy embraces and committed serious sin, albeit with their own wives. Despite such views, men were generally considered to have a stronger libido than women and thus a greater need for access to conjugal sex.

Female Sexuality. Prevailing medieval notions of decency would have been affronted by female displays of sexual assertiveness. Moralists seemed aware of the potential double standard inherent in fulfilling the conjugal debt. While medieval Europeans assumed that a man would be forthright about seeking marital relations, they also expected that, given her natural modesty and sexual passivity, a woman might be hesitant to ask her husband for sex. Consequently, a husband was instructed to watch his wife for indirect signs that she might want to have intercourse but was too embarrassed or shy to ask. As Aquinas stated, “The husband is bound to render [the conjugal debt] to his wife when she does not ask.” Other moralists offered opinions that, in fact, limited a woman’s sexual access to her husband. For example, if her husband had already rendered the debt and was tired, the wife did not have the right to ask for sex again. If she did, she was considered to be behaving like a prostitute. Some scholars have suggested that the doctrine of the conjugal debt deprived a woman of the ability to reject her husband’s sexual advances. Thus, women were considered to be sexually available at all times, but the physical limitations that could inhibit male sexual performance were such that a wife might not always be able to exact the debt whenever she wanted. In practice, then, the equality and reciprocity of the conjugal debt may have been illusory.

Marital Affection. As the consensual nature of marriage gained greater recognition, the emotional relationship between spouses gained increasing importance. Marital affection (affectio maritalis) was closely linked to the consent to marry and was considered indispensable for the creation of a valid and indissoluble marriage. This legal concept was incorporated into the medieval Church doctrine from Roman law. For the Romans, marital affection was a quality that distinguished the marital relationship from concubinage. Children born from a relationship imbued with marital affection were able to inherit their parents’ property. For the Romans as well, it was implicitly understood that when marital affection ceased to exist between spouses the marriage itself ceased to exist. By the early sixth century the concept of marital affection included an emotional aspect similar to love, as well as implying the intention of the couple to procreate and to live together in a union that would be monogamous and enduring. In other words, where marital affection existed so did the three “goods” of marriage articulated by St. Augustine. Roman law did not establish criteria for judging the presence or absence of marital affection in a relationship. It was necessary to rely on external manifestations of consent and, when it was available, the legal registration of marriages.

Love and Sex. In the middle of the twelfth century, Gratian asserted that marital affection was the essential ingredient that distinguished real marriage from simple cohabitation. Moreover, Gratian argued that marital affection was necessary to form a marriage bond that could be broken only by the death of a spouse. For Gratian, marital affection did not necessarily include the intention to procreate. Perhaps most important, Gratian distinguished between consent to accept a person as spouse and marital affection, which imbued the relationship between the spouses with a specific emotional quality.

Enduring Affection. Marital affection was expected to last throughout the marriage, and spouses were told that they could and should cultivate it actively so that it would grow and develop in the course of their union. Pope Alexander III was so convinced that marital affection could be cultivated that he ordered troubled or separated couples to reunite and behave toward one another with marital affection. He did not seem to consider the potential for obstacles such as hostility, differences in social class, or adultery to impede this process. Similarly, Alexander exhorted anyone who was married to a leper to care for that spouse with marital affection. While some historians have suggested this charge included rendering the conjugal debt, others have argued that this directive referred only to the kind of mutual care expected of married couples.

Detecting Marital Affection. It was difficult for outsiders to judge the presence or absence of marital affection in a relationship. Frequently inappropriate behavior such as domestic violence was characterized as contrary to the ideals of marital affection; in other cases so was husbands’ failures to provide their wives with proper clothing, nourishment, and other necessities. Although ecclesiastical authorities remained unable to articulate or investigate the internal emotional manifestations of marital affection, they nevertheless continued to recognize and assert its centrality to the relationship between spouses.

The Lay Interpretation. The idea of marital affection was not limited to the theoretical discussions of canonists and theologians. Evidence from marriage cases brought before the ecclesiastical courts suggests that marital affection was a meaningful concept among the laity. For example, in one case heard in York, England, in the fourteenth century, a man explained that he wanted to base his marriage on “an affection that holds good,” that is, an enduring emotional affection. Many witnesses described marital affection as an ongoing process that began with the initial promises to marry and endured thereafter. It also was frequently mentioned in connection with sharing the marriage bed, although by no means was it limited only to conjugal relations. The substance of marital affection for the laity, however, was connected to the ownership of property. Marital affection was not only an essential ingredient of a marriage but also a requirement for spouses to be able to receive property from one another, just as it had been in Roman law.


James A. Brundage, “Sexual Equality and Medieval Canon Law,” in Medieval Women and the Sources of Medieval History, edited by Joel T. Rosenthal (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), pp. 66–79.

Dyan Elliott, “Bernardino of Siena versus the Marriage Debt,” in Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, edited by Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler (Toronto & Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1996), pp. 168–200.

Elizabeth M. Makowski, “The Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law,” Journal of Medieval History, 3 (1977): 99–114.

John T. Noonan, “Marital Affection in the Canonists,” Studia Gratiana, 12 (1967): 481-509.

Pierre J. Payer, The Bridling of Desire: Views of Sex in the Later Middle Ages (Toronto & Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1993).

Frederik Pedersen, “‘Marita/is Affectid’: Marital Affection and Property in Fourteenth-Century York Cause Papers,” in Women, Marriage, and Family in Medieval Christendom: Essays in Memory of Michael M. Shee-han, C.S.B., edited by Constance M. Rousseau and Joel T. Rosenthal (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1998), pp. 175–209.

Michael M. Sheehan, “Marita/is Ajfectio Revisited,” in The Olde Daunce. Love, Friendship, Sex, and Marriage in the Medieval World, edited by Robert R. Edwards and Stephen Spector (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp. 32–43.

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Marriage: Moral Duties

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