The medieval Church was obsessed with sex to a quite painful degree. Sexual issues dominated its thinking in a manner which we should regard as entirely pathological. It is hardly too much to say that the ideal which it held out to Christians was primarily a sexual ideal.
This ideal was a highly consistent one and was embodied in a most elaborate code of regulations. The Christian code was based, quite simply, upon the conviction that the sexual act was to be avoided like the plague, except for the bare minimum necessary to keep the race in existence. Even when performed for this purpose it remained a regrettable necessity. Those who could were exhorted to avoid it entirely, even if married. For those incapable of such heroic self-denial there was a great spider's web of regulations whose over-riding purpose was to make the sexual act as joyless as possible and to restrict its performance to the minimum - that is, to restrict it exclusively to the function of procreation. It was not actually the sexual act which was damnable, but the pleasure derived from it - and this pleasure remained damnable even when the act was performed for the purpose of procreation, a notion which reached its crudest expression with the invention of the chemise carouse, a sort of heavy nightshirt, with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact.153 The belief that even within marriages the sexual act should not be performed for pleasure, still persists to the present day, more especially in the Catholic Church, where it remains official doctrine; it was publicly reasserted by the Popes once again, while this book was being written.
Not only the pleasure of the sexual act was held sinful, but also the sensation of desire for a person of the opposite sex even when unconsummated. Since the love of a man for a woman was held to be simply desire, this led to the incontrovertible proposition that no man should love his wife. In fact Peter Lombard maintained, in his apologetic De excusatione coitus, that for a man to love his wife to ardently is a sin worse than adultery - "Omnis ardentior amator propriae uxoris adulter est."
It was about the eighth century that the Church began to develop the enormously strict system which ruled in the Middle Ages. A series of "penitential books" began to appear which explored the subject of sex in all its details; every misdeed was described and elaborated at length, and penalties were prescribed for each.
This code comprised three main propositions. First all, who could were urged to attempt the ideal of complete celibacy while for those with priestly functions it was obligatory. In this direction the mediaeval Church could scarcely go further than had the early fathers. Jovinian had been excommunicated for daring to deny, what St. Augustine had asserted, that virginity was a better state than marriage. St. Jerome tolerated marriage simply because it provided the world with potential virgins. But by an extraordinary twist of the imagination, the idea evolved that virgins were the brides of Christ. Hence it followed that anyone who seduced a virgin was not commiting fornication but the more serious crime of adultery, and what is more, adultery at the expense of Christ. The outraged deity was therefore entitled to the revenge which tradition always accorded to a husband in such a position. How literally this fantastic doctrine was held can be shown by a quotation from Cyprian: "If a husband come and see his wife lying with another man, is he not indignant and maddened ? . . . How indignant and angered then must Christ our Lord and Judge be, when He sees a virgin, dedicated to Himself, and consecrated to His holiness, lying with a man.... she who has been guilty of this crime is an adulteress, not against a husband, but Christ." Evidently the saint saw nothing ludicrous in the premise that the son of God would feel exactly the emotions of outraged property sense which would be felt by the most boorish of human beings.
Once given that virginity was a good, the principle was, as usual, extended far beyond the sexual act, as we see, for instance, in the case of the virgin Gorgonia, who "with all her body and members there of. . . bruised and broken most grievouslie" yet refused the attentions of a doctor because her modesty forbade her to be seen or touched by a man; and was rewarded by God with a miraculous cure.
Since virginity was a good, it was good for wives to deny themselves to their husbands, and since doubtless many of them were suffering from the shock of a painful initiation as well as the conflicts of conscience, many of them did so. Whether this increased the sum total of chastity seems doubtful, since many husbands were driven to vice in consequence, to the point where the Church felt obliged to intervene.
The second step was to place an absolute ban on all forms of sexual activity other than intercourse between married persons, carried out with the object of procreating. In some penitentials fornication was declared a worse sin than murder. In the penitentials of Theodore and Bede the penance imposed for simple fornication was one year, but the penalty was increased according to the frequency of the act and the age and discretion of the parties. Adultery was more serious than fornication with an unmarried person, and sexual connection with a monk or a nun more serious still, while if a member of the clergy fornicated with a monk or nun, Dunstan's penalty was ten years fast, with perpetual lamentation and abstention from meat. Later, the seducer of a nun was denied burial in consecrated ground. But it was not the sexual act alone which was tabooed. Attempting to fornicate, kissing, even thinking of fornication were forbidden and called for penalties: in the last case, the penance was forty days. Nor was it the intention alone which made the crime. Involuntary nocturnal pollutions were a sin the offender must rise at once and sing seven penitential psalms, with a further thirty in the morning. If the pollution occurred when he had fallen asleep in church, he must sing the whole psalter. (172)
The penitentials also devoted a disproportionately large amount of their space to prescribing penalties for homosexuality and for bestiality, but the sin upon which the greatest stress of all was laid was masturbation. In the five comparatively short mediaeval penitential codes, there are twenty-two paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer than twenty-five dealing with masturbation on the part of laymen, to say nothing of others dealing separately with masturbation on the part of the clergy. (172) According to Aquinas, it was a greater sin than fornication. This is particularly significant, for we now know that the belief that sexual pleasure is wicked springs primarily from parental taboos on infantile masturbation; the fact that the punishment is given when the child is too young to under stand its significance, and when masturbation is the only means by which he can afford himself pleasure by his own unaided efforts, results in a fear of pleasure becoming embedded in the unconscious, and being generalized until it becomes a fear of pleasure in all its forms. No doubt the Church realized, even if unconsciously, that the maintenance of its system of repression was ultimately founded on the willingness of parents to frown on infantile masturbation, and, therefore, concentrated a great deal of attention on the matter.
This interpretation would not hold water if it could be shown that the Church, while condemning sexual pleasure welcomed alternative forms of physical enjoyment. But it is easy to show that this is not the case. Porphyry, as early as the third century set the tone by condemning pleasure in all its forms. "Horse racing, the theatre, dancing, marriage and mutton chops were equally accursed; those who indulged in them were servants not of God but of the Devil.'' (172) Augustine called him the most learned of all the philosophers and established this doctrine upon a formal basis.
Of the existence of such prohibitions, most people have some dim appreciation, since they are still maintained, if with diminished strength, in many quarters today. What is less generally realized is the extensive nature of the attempt which was made to limit and control the sexual act when performed within the marital relationship. Thus the sexual act must be performed in only one position, and numerous penalties were prescribed for using variants, the approach "more canino" - which was held to afford the most pleasure being regarded with especial horror and calling for seven years of penance. Confessors were required to ask specifically about these and every other possibility, and the manuals with which they were later supplied contain questions concerning every imaginable variant of the sexual act: in the present condition of the laws against obscenity it would be inadvisable to quote them here. (86)
Not content with this, the Church proceeded to cut down the number of days per annum upon which even married couples might legitimately perform the sexual act. First, it was made illegal on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which effectively removed the equivalent of five months in the year. Then it was made illegal for forty days before Easter and forty days before Christmas, and for three days before attending communion (and there were regulations requiring frequent attendance at communion). It was also forbidden from the time of conception to forty days after parturition. It was, of course forbidden during any penance. (172)
Such were the ideas from which European sexual ideals have been principally derived. As we shall see, both the general conception of sex as sinful, and many specific prohibitions and enactments, survived almost unmutilated until modern times and still affect our conduct today. Nevertheless it would be giving a false impression to suggest that the Church prepared these codes with the businesslike and ruthless detachment of a Russian commissary. Rather is it the case they were thrown together in a passion of despairing guilt . The picture we get is of a number of individual figures, like Augustine or Aquinas, Damiani or Bernard, tormented by the virtual certainty of damnation for all who so much thought of sexual pleasure, desperately striving to build dam against the rising tides of sensuality, in a frantic attempt to save people from the results of their own folly. Never mind the justifications, never mind the cruelty and injustice, if only this frightful disaster can be prevented.
Only real desperation is enough to explain the ruthlessness with which the Church repeatedly distorted and even falsified the Biblical record in order to produce justification for its laws. For such extreme asceticism is not enjoined by the Bible, and certainly not by the New Testament. As Lecky shows, "The Fathers laid down as a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable and even laudable", and he adds, "immediately, all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity." (156)
The Church claimed that this stringent taboo on sex had been proclaimed by St. Paul, but in point of fact, although Paul had gone much further than anyone before him in the direction of discountenancing sexual activity, he did not get nearly as far as this. In view of the vast edifice of repressive legislation erected on this tiny base, it is worth giving Paul's actual words, well known as the quotation is:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. For I would that all men were even as myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn. Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment. If thou marry thou hast not sinned; and if a virgin marry she hath not sinned...
In this passage we can see the expression of a belief in the general desirability of sexual continence, but also the quite distinct recognition that continence is a "gift of God" which many do not have, and a specific assertion that it is not sinful to marry, and that the purpose of marriage is to avoid fornication; this can only mean that it is to provide a legal alternative. Nowadays the Pauline view is expressed by saying that the purpose of marriage is "the relief of concupiscence" while the extreme mediaeval view is expressed by saying that the sole purpose of marriage is procreation.
Paul also made it clear that he was not propounding the official teaching of Christ, but was simply giving his personal opinion in reply to a number of questions which had been put to him by the Church at Corinth.
Attaching, as it did, such importance to preventing masturbation, the Church sought a Biblical justification, and had no hesitation in twisting the facts to its purpose. Genesis xxxviii refers to Onan's seed falling upon the ground and his subsequently being put to death. The idea was established - and is still widely believed - that this passage refers to masturbation, and the word onanism has come to be used as a synonym for it. Actually, it refers to the practice of 'coitus interruptus'; and the reason why Onan was put to death was that he had violated the law of the levirate, by which a man must provide his deceased brother's wife with offspring.128 Even the Catholic writer Canon A. de Smet, in his book Betrothment and Marriage, admits this:
"From the text and context, however, it would seem that the blame of the sacred writer applies directly to the wrongful frustration of the law of the levitate, intended by Onan, rather than the spilling of the seed."
It was as part of its comprehensive attempt to make the sexual act as difficult as possible that the Church devised laws against the practice of abortion. Neither Romans, Jews nod Greeks had opposed abortion, but Tertullian, following an inaccurate translation of Exodus xxi. 22, which refers to punishing a man who injures a pregnant woman, but which appeared to prescribe punishment for injuring the foetus, gave currency to the idea that the Bible held abortion to be a crime. He devoted much ingenuity to determining when the foetus became animate, and decided that it was after forty days in the case of males, eighty in the case of females. (Modern English law is even more absurd, for it does not stay the execution of pregnant women until the fourth month of pregnancy, yet may prosecute for abortion before that time.) Jerome, though knew Latin, perpetuated the error. (190) Though the error has long since been exposed, the Church still maintains this position, and it has become incorporated in the law of the state which beautifully demonstrates that moral laws are not really derived from Biblical authority, but that Biblical authority is sought to justify regulations which, because of unconscious prejudices, seem 'natural' and right.
Still more drastically, the Church revamped the story of the Fall to support its general position on sex. The doctrine was gradually propagated that the reason for Adam's expulsion from the garden of Eden was that he had performed the sexual act, or at least had acquired sexual knowledge. The temptation with the apple became the symbol of a sexual temptation, and Eve, the temptress, was specifically a sexual temptress. As at embroidery on this it was asserted (and is still widely remembered) that menstruation represented a curse imposed on women in punishment for Eve's part in this seduction. But a single reading of the Book of Genesis is enough to show that this is not what was asserted. It contains, as a matter of fact, two versions of the Fall. In the first (Genesis iii), Adam eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it is for acquiring this knowledge that he is expelled. In the second (Genesis vi), certain angels have intercourse with humans, teach them the arts and sciences, and are expelled from heaven. This is the story of which Milton made use: and it is the version to which Christ makes a passing reference. Both stories concern the acquisition of knowledge by men and are versions of the Prometheus myth - Lucifer, the light-bringer, is an exact analogue of Prometheus who steals fire from the Gods. (251)
That the Church's fear of sex was exaggerated and obsessive will already be clear: but, more than this, it was fundamentally superstitious. It preserved the primitive magical belief in the power of sex to contaminate. It was for this reason that married couples must not only abstain from intercourse for three nights after their marriage - the so-called Tobias nights - but having once performed the sexual act, must not enter a church for thirty days after, and then only on condition of doing forty days penance and bringing an offering. Some of the magical precautions taken at and after the wedding, including the blessing of the bride bed, have already been described. Theodore further extended this principle of contamination when he ruled (what had been previously denied) that it was a sin for a menstruating woman to enter a church, and imposed a penance for infraction of this rule. For the same reason, a woman who had borne a baby had to be ceremonially purified before she could be re-admitted to communion. These primitive superstitions derived from pre-Christian Jewry. There can hardly be any better example of the extraordinary persistence of the past than the fact that to this very day the Church maintains in its rites this pagan purification ceremony, under the name of the Churching of Women. Indeed, it carried such ideas much further than had the Jews, as we shall shortly see.
It was, of course, because of the magical character of the sex act that it automatically converted spousals to marriage, and this was why marriages of children could be declared void if copulation had not taken place. Furthermore, if two person within the prohibited degrees married each other, copulation turned this into a marriage which, though illegal, was valid and which the Church then had formally to annul. The modern practice of treating such a marriage as automatically void dates only from the reign of William IV.
Still more eloquent of the superstitious nature of the Church approach to sex are its regulations concerning incestuous marriage. Many peoples, though by no means all, have regarded it as incestuous to marry a parent or a sibling. The Christian Saxons had regarded it as incestuous to marry first cousin, arguing that since marriage makes man and wife "one flesh" to marry a deceased husband's cousin is incestuous. But in the eleventh century the Church became increasing obsessed with incest fears and extended the ban to second and finally to third cousins. (It was later reduced.) But this was not all. So strongly was the principle of sympathetic contagion embedded, so intense were the fears of incest, that godfather and godmothers were included in the ban; next, even the relations of the priests who had baptized or confirmed a person finally, even two persons who had stood sponsor to the same child might not marry each other! (240)
No doubt, in some small villages, these regulations must sometimes have eliminated every available candidate and condemned people to celibacy in just the same way as do the complicated exogamic regulations of the Australian black-fellow.
In addition, no Christian could validly marry a Jew or the follower of any other religion. Indeed, copulation with a Jew was regarded as a form of bestiality, and incurred the same penances. (240) In this there is a certain irony, since it was from the Jews that the Christians derived their laws against bestiality. Marriage with a heretic, however, though illicit, was not invalid until the Council of Trent tightened up ecclesiastical laws in the Counter-Reformation.
It might be thought that this lengthy catalogue of prohibitions would have exhausted the list of attempts which zealots made to complicate and hinder the performance of the sexual act, but there is yet one more to record. They argued that no one might marry for a second time, even if the first partner had died, a doctrine which was alleged to be supported by the Pauline text saying that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery; though Paul had made it clear that this referred to putting away a living wife. It was also as part of this programme, and not from ethical considerations, that the mediaeval Church set its face against polygamy. The Jews, of course, had been polygamous, and the early Christian fathers - unlike the Greeks and Romans - did not object to it. Even the strict Augustine thought it was permissible to take a second wife if the first were barren, and many early English and Irish kings lived in open polygamy. (239)
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.
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."
Here, too, we find the principle of magical contamination creeping in. Not merely the sexual act, but the mere presence of a woman was liable to attract evil, so that during the plague it was inadvisable to sleep with women or even go near their beds, as this would increase the risk of infection - hence the maxim "In peste Venus pestem provocat".
This degradation of the status of woman was very different from the position which had existed in the earliest days of Christianity. Under Roman law, at the end of the period of the Antonine jurisconsults, women had had a status in law equal to that of men. And in the Early Church they had been allowed to preach, to cure, to exorcize and even to baptize. All these rights had been gradually removed, and by the Middle Ages married women ceased even to have legal existence. Though unmarried women had certain legal rights, and could dispose of their own property on reaching their majority, married women were mere shadows of their husbands. "The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage . . . for this reason a man cannot grant anything to his wife or enter into any covenant with her: for the grant would be to presuppose her separate existence, and to covenant with her would be only to covenant with himself", says Blackstone. (240)
Furthermore any suit against a woman automatically made the husband a defendant: hence husbands must have power to prevent their wives from doing anything which might seem to involve them. It was upon this proposition that the husband's right to inflict "moderate chastisement" on his wife was based. Though the canon law enjoined husbands to treat their wives mercifully, the civil law said that he could "beat her violently with whips and sticks". It was permissible to thrash a woman with a cudgel but not to knock her down with iron bar. (137)
Because the wife was the husband's property, to seduce her was an offence against property, and even in early Victorian times, the husband's first recourse was to bring an action for damages against the paramour. But it was for psychological reasons that the chastity belt was invented. It is a common misconception that these were invented for the benefit of husbands leaving on long absences at the Crusades; their invention is almost certainly later in date, as Dingwall has shown. They were generally designed to prevent penetration per anum as well as per vaginam. Cases of their use by jealous husbands are found at many dates, down to the present day, but popular feeling has always been against them. Brantomet describes how a vendor of these articles, who appeared at the fair of St. Germain, was chased away by the angry populace.
The levers by which the Church was enabled to obtain some observance of this unparalleled code of sexual repression was the power which it claimed to remit sins, conjoined with the use of the confessional and the provision of ecclesiastical courts.
The ecclesiastical courts had exclusive rights to try all offences against Church, as opposed to civil law, and sexual offences were almost entirely a matter for the ecclesiastic courts. They attempted to deal with offences against canon law by methods peculiarly their own, and gradually built up system of law completely different from the common law of the land, from the law of Justinian, and from the decretals of Gratian which were supposed to embody the law of the Church. Where the common law was primarily concerned to protect individuals from damage by other individuals, the canon law had a wholly different criterion and frequently regarded as offences actions which harmed none, except possibly the performer. Thus they proceeded against people for "impure thoughts" in a manner exactly analogous to thought-control devised by modern dictatorships. They attempted to prescribe behaviour not only in the major matters of Life, but in many minor matters which could never be made legal offences, such as rejoicing at seeing priests in trouble, refusing to sing in church, sitting in the wrong pew, and even for "passive encouragement" of such crimes. To do this - they had to proceed by methods which inevitably caused numerous injustices.
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.
For in the eyes of the Church, for a priest to marry was a worse crime than to keep a mistress, and to keep a mistress was worse than to engage in random fornication - a judgment which completely reverses secular conceptions of morality, which attach importance to the quality and durability of personal relationships. When accused of being married, it was always a good defence to reply that one was simply engaged in indiscriminate seduction, for this carried only a light penalty, while the former might involve total suspension. (154) The simple clergy found it difficult to accept this scale of values, and frequently settled down to permanent relationships or entered into spousals and claimed to be married. For this they were periodically expelled from their livings and the women driven out or seized by the Church. It is against this background that one has to assess the numerous stories of immorality and licence among those in holy orders. The many children born to nuns, and even abbesses, appal us less than the rumours of bestiality, and the frequent orders of visitants that nuns should get rid of their domestic pets. And as was noted in the last chapter, the Church had to act repeatedly against priestly sodomy. In these circumstances the introduction of a system of "protection", under the name of 'cullagium', whereby the clergy could obtain licence to live in sin by making a regular payment to the Curia, can only be regarded as a step forward. (154) Indeed, the Church went further in the direction of actually encouraging vice. One feudal lord, finding that so many of his tenants were paying fines to the Church that they could not pay their rents to him, strictly forbade them to break the canon laws of morality, and such was his power that these offences practically ceased among his dependants. The Church authorities, however, alarmed at the effects on their revenue, soon protested against his interfering in a Church matter. (172) By the fourteenth century commercialism had gained such hold that one could not only purchase indulgence for sins but could even hire people to do one's penitential pilgrimages for one.
While it is true that many of the great Church reformers, men such as Bernard and Damiani, were driven by a horror of sex which was as sincere as it was exaggerated and irrational, yet is also true that beneath a conscious hatred of sex always lies a unconscious fascination with it. As one reads the penitential books, it is impossible to avoid gaining, at the same time another and less worthy impression: that of a neurotic obsession with sexual matters, of a truly pornographic character. For instance, in Egbert's penitential, supposed to cover all cleric abuses, all but two of the offences discussed are concerned with sex. (176) This was certainly not for lack of other targets: the were plenty of religious abuses to attack, from simony to blasphemy. But these were not of interest to the writers of the penitentials. May says:
"Anglo-Saxon church penitentials place upon matters of sex more emphasis, both in quantity of regulation and minuteness of detail, than has, probably, any other general code of conduct."
It is impossible to resist the conclusion that these authors were in love with their subject.
And this, of course, is the inevitable result of repression-as distinct from sublimation. Many Christian ascetics have described how they could never get rid of the thought of sex and tormented themselves in their attempts to get rid of sexual temptations. Some fasted in the hope that this would reduce their desire; others kept a butt of water in their cell to stand in when the temptation became unendurable. In this unenviable state, men are quick to find sexual overtones in every object, every action of others. And it was just these men, restless, unhappy, obsessed, driven by the energies of their bottled up libidos, who were apt to attain positions of power in the Church and stamp it with their character. The Cardinalate might become venal, the Pope involved in political issues, but there was always a Bernard or a Damiani to whip the flagging horse. Such men can be found, of course, in all periods; the crucial fact was the existence, in the form of the Church, of an institution through which they could attempt to impose their ideals on the average sensual man.
The question which arises, then, is whether a policy of sexual repression, imposed by obsessives, is really the policy test adapted to regulate sexual instincts. It is not an academic question, for the attempt to use repressive methods is still favoured by some today. The Middle Ages provides a unique opportunity to observe that policy in action in a chemically pure form.
But whether right or wrong, it is the unremitting application of this standard for many centuries which has formed the pattern of European morality. As Briffault points out,
"the Patristic conceptions which pronounced the extinction of the human race to be preferable to its reproduction by human intercourse would today by most people be accounted morbid and even nauseating aberrations . Sexual morality, as currently conceived, has nothing to do with the insane vilification of sex, with the visionary exaltation of virginity, with the condemnation of marriage as a necessary evil.... yet it is to the ascetic ideal that European standards owe their existence.... The moral standards applied to sex relations are the residual product of that exaltation of ritual purity which pronounced a curse upon sex, stigmatized women as the instrument of Satan and poured scorn upon motherhood. It is in the doctrines of Ambrose and Origen, of Augustine and Jerome, that European sexual morality has its roots." (23)