The Marriage Relationship: Sexuality and the Church

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The Marriage Relationship: Sexuality and the Church


Marital Relations. Married people were confronted with a bewildering array of teachings and prohibitions controlling and restricting marital sexuality. First and foremost was the notion that sexual intercourse rendered the participants unclean. As a result, the Church tried to restrict when, where, and how married people could have sex. Intricate regulations prohibited sex during the holy seasons of Advent, Lent, and Whitsuntide; on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; and on other holy days. Intercourse was also forbidden during menstruation, pregnancy, and lactation. Moreover, newlyweds were expected to wait three nights to consummate their union and couples who had sexual relations were advised not to receive communion the next day. Related to these notions of pollution were prohibitions against sex in a church, cemetery, or other holy place. While these restrictions may sound unrealistic and even unnecessary, there was little privacy in medieval houses, so an empty church or deserted cemetery might, in fact, have provided a couple with the privacy they could not find elsewhere. It remains uncertain to what extent any of these regulations influenced actual sexual behavior.

Roots. These rules were developed in the sixth century, primarily in the teachings of the penitentials. Much of the worldview that the early Church Fathers absorbed into Christian theology came from the ancient Stoics, who had praised abstinence and chastity, even within marriage, and taught that sex was only permitted for purposes of procreation. Christianity also incorporated many of the teachings of Judaism, especially those pertaining to ritual purity and blood taboos. Finally, the ancient Gnostics, who denigrated the physical world and promoted complete abstinence, influenced Christian attitudes toward the body, reproduction, and sexuality. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Church associated sex with the loss of reason and rational control of the senses. Gradually, sex came to be viewed as the primary source of sin. Although Jesus had not spoken about sexuality, and St. Paul had indicated that marriage had been instituted to provide a legitimate outlet for sexual desire, the medieval church was preoccupied with examining, evaluating, and controlling marital, as much as extramarital, sexual activity. The rigid views of the Church gradually overshadowed the relationship between sexual activity and love and affection.

Abstinence versus Marriage. For the Church Fathers, such as St. Jerome (circa 347–419), virginity was preferable to marriage. He wrote that married people would be rewarded in heaven thirtyfold, widows sixtyfold, and virgins a hundredfold. For Jerome, every sex act was shameful and sinful, and he likened a man who loved his wife too much to an adulterer. His contemporary St. Augustine, however, believed that marriage and the capacity for procreation had been granted to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall. If Adam and Eve had engaged in sexual intercourse in Paradise, Augustine argued, it would have been totally blameless and devoid of lust and irrationality. Consequently, marriage and sexuality were inherently good, but were tainted by Original Sin. He preached that intercourse within marriage and for the purpose of procreation was blameless, and that marital relations motivated by lust were only a minor sin. (Sexual acts outside marriage, however, were always sinful.) Although Augustine’s milder evaluation of human sexuality prevailed during the Middle Ages, always lurking behind the clergy’s rigid condemnations of lasciviousness was Jerome’s uncompromising harshness.

Sex and Conception. The idea that the conception of children excused sex acts of their sinfulness posed a problem for canonists and theologians. If a child were conceived, presumably the act was blameless. While some writers continued to teach that the couple received some taint of sin, a small minority, such as the French theologian Anselm of Laon (died 1117), believed that the love between married people gave even childless unions some merit and excused the sexual relations of a couple who could not have children. Procreation still remained paramount for churchmen, who censured couples for any kind of contraceptive behavior, including practicing unusual sexual positions.

Regulation of Sexuality. By the mid twelfth century, canonists such as Gratian reduced the number of prohibited days and de-emphasized sexual abstinence for married people, but from that time through the mid fourteenth century, the Church was preoccupied with the canon law pertaining to the regulation of sexuality. Fornication came to be considered a crime, and ecclesiastical courts established new procedures to enforce its moral code. Moralists began lamenting the frequency of fornication among the laity and reminded them in sermons and during confession that fornication was a mortal sin. Couples who were rumored to be fornicators were called before the court and required to account for their behavior. They might be sentenced to some form of public penance, such as being whipped around the church on three successive Sundays. Fornicators who habitually consorted with one another might be required to abjure further sexual relations on penalty of marriage {sub pena nubendi). Such a couple would make a conditional promise of marriage in the future that would be ratified if they engaged in sexual relations again.

Degrees of Sinfulness. Sexual sins were ranked according to their degree of sinfulness. This hierarchy was established originally by Augustine, who believed that fornication was the least sinful offense. Adultery was more sinful than fornication, and incest was even worse. The worst sins were those sex acts considered “unnatural,” an elastic category that ultimately encompassed any sexual activity that was not between married people for purposes of procreation and not performed in the “missionary position.” Any other sexual position was proscribed. In the thirteenth century, definitions of sex acts that were contrary to nature (contra naturam) were clarified and included under the broad rubric of sodomy. This list included not only “unnatural” heterosexual positions, but also masturbation, homosexual acts, and, worst of all, bestiality. While bestiality and homosexual acts could lead to prosecution by secular as well as ecclesiastical authorities, the other sexual crimes were generally dealt with in confession and were assigned appropriate penances. Consequently, it is impossible to know what, if any, effect such prohibitions had on how people, married or single, actually behaved and the extent to which the moral code of the Church might have influenced private sexual behavior.


James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Brundage, “Playing by the Rules: Sexual Behaviour and Legal Norms In Medieval Europe,” 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. 23–41.

Brundage, Sex, Law and Marriage in the Middle Ages (Aldershot, Hampshire, U.K. & Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1993).

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The Marriage Relationship: Sexuality and the Church

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