Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fessing up - more medieval sex-life

'Have you had sex with your wife on a Sunday?' You shall do penance for four days on bread and water.'

'Have you had sex with your wife or with another woman from behind doggy style? If you have done this, you shall do penance for ten days on bread and water.'

'Have you kissed some woman due to foul desire and thus polluted yourself? If you have done this, you shall do penance for three days on bread and water. But if this happened in church, you shall do penance for twenty days on bread and water.'

'Have you tasted your husband's semen in the hope that because of your diabolical deed he might burn the more with love for you? If you have done this, you should do penance for seven years on the legitimate holy days.'

Excerpts from History Laid Bare by Richard Zacks, in turn extracted from the early 11thC penitential of Burchard of Worms.

Continuing my blog post on medieval attitutes to sexuality, the above is copied from a penitential written around 1012 by German bishop Burchard of Worms. It's part of a twenty volume work covering every imaginable sin, but volume 19 chapter 5 contains the ones pertaining to sexual sins, of which 194 are listed. I should think that by the time the scribe finished writing them down, he would have had to go and dunk himself in a cold bath and head for confession himself! It appears that every permutation likely to ocurr in the confessional has been touched on and then some! The ones above are the more mundane. I haven't listed the ones pertaining to nun ravishing, various forms of incest and ummm... bread abuse.
Obviously people did these things or there wouldn't be a need to have the guidelines, although some sins were rarer than others and some were seen as far more serious. Semen swallowing for example, gets you seven years' worth of penance, whereas kissing is only three days (except in a church!) and sex on a Sunday four. Other than the missionary, alternative sexual positions equals ten days on bread and water. It upset the order of the world to have the woman on top or to engage in unnatural sexual positions. And since sex was for conception as mentioned in my earlier post, there was only one place semen was supposed to be deposited so there were heavy penances for putting it elsewhere.
Albert of Cologne, a Dominican friar and bishop was of the opinion that the missionary position was 'the blameless path.' A slight deviation was the sideways position, 'then comes the sitting position, the standing, and, finally, the greatest sin is 'retrorsum' like mares. That's why certain people have said this position constitutes a mortal sin, but that's not my opinion.'
Did people keep to the letter of church law? Did they go to confession with clear consciences? Again, it's a case of different strokes for different folks. Side by side with strictures from the church to behave in a sexually restrained and exemplary fashion, went medieval straightforwardness, fun and bawdiness. (you only need to see the British joy in Pantomime to see it at work in the national psyche). Grape Street in London was once Gropecu*t Lane. Pelican Street in Paris was once (13thC) the Rue de Poile-Con (Cu*t trimming street). Then there was Swylcontdich in Cheshire. By 1848 it was Swillinditch. Alongside the religious chants, the teachings, the warnings from the pulpit, were bawdy folk tales and soldier's songs involving lusty copulation all night long. There are explicit riddles such as this one from a book of Anglo Saxon Riddles.

I am a wonderful help to women
The hope of something good to come
I harm only my slayer
I grow very tall, erect in a bed
I am shaggy down below
The lovely girl grabs my body, rubs my red skin
Holds me hard, claims my head.
That girl will feel our meeting!
I bring tears to her eyes!
What am I?

You can almost hear and see the giggles can't you? Answer is at the end of the post.

A marriage did not have to be consummated to be valid but the non consummation had to be voluntary on both sides. If either party was unable to have sexual intercourse then the marriage could be dissolved. A jury of matrons could be called to examine the woman and say whether or not she was capable and and the same for the man. There is a known English court case where a man was brought before a female jury, having been accused of being unable to produce the goods. The jury then proceeded to give him a physical examination. One of their number showed him her breasts and fondled him him intimately and tried to get him interested while the others looked on. When nothing stirred in the bushes, he was pronounced a fraud. In another case though, similar treatment resulted in a response that made the jury declare that the man's equipment was 'large enough for any woman living in the world.'

As a writer of historical fiction, I have plenty of examples of variation through which to choose my path. I think the most important thing for me in choosing that path is being as aware as possible of all the variations. Absorbing the rich melange of thought and custom by detailed reading across the disciplines is, I believe, the best way to get the hang of a workable model of the mindset.

Illustration of a Medieval badge from The Secret Middle Ages by Malcolm Jones.

Here are some books from my own library covering the subject - not comprehensive. I have other works with snippets here and there.

History Laid Bare - Love, sex and perversity from the ancient Etruscans to Lawrence of Arabia
by Richard Zacks

Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others by Ruth Mazo Karras.

The Language of Sex: Five Voices from Northern France around 1200 by John.W. Baldwin

Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook edited by Conor McCarthy

The Medieval Idea of Marriage by Christopher Brooke

Medieval Obscenities Edited by Nicola McDonald

Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England by Ruth Mazo Karras

Handbook of Medieval Sexuality edited by Bullough and Brundage

The Secret Middle Ages by Malcolm Jones.

Answer to the Riddle - an onion....


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. Makes you wonder about all those medieval novels with sex in any way shape or form and no one worries about doing penance.....

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Misfit - As I mentioned, there was a little room for variation, but some of the stuff that happens in certain novels - you know whereof I speak- would have been seriously beyond the pale. And you are right. No one ever goes to confession!

Steven Till said...

Do you know where the idea came from that sex was for conception only, and that "there was only one place semen was supposed to be deposited?" I believe the Church used the passage in Genesis where God told Onan to impregnate his brother's wife (after his brother had died), but Onan refused, and God struck him dead.

Genesis 38:9, 10 -- And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother's wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him also.

I believe the Church used this passage as a basis for their belief that sex was for conception only, because Onan spilled his seed on the ground instead of depositing it in his brother's wife as commanded.

What do you think?

Christy K Robinson said...

Interesting juxtaposition of bread abuse and penance! :)

It's interesting that religious extremists try to control their sexual urges by controlling other appetites, including food. The Kellogg foods founder was such an extremist, and his sanitarium and sex-crazed patients were the subject of the novel and movie, The Road to Wellville.

BurtonReview said...

Wow.. Love this post! I can just imagine the priests crossing themselves while they hear their confessors. teehee

Yvette Hoitink said...

I love your explanations about medieval attitudes towards sex. I found this medieval bestiary online which is also brilliant. For example, take this fragment from page 91:
"From the paternal seed girls are born; from the maternal, boys; because each birth consists of a double seed, and when the greater of the two parts overcomes the other, it produces a similarity in sex. "

I don't know if that was a common view of things but it is rather interesting and thought you might like it.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Christy, the bread abuse begins to spread over into the lovespell/witchcraft element. I can just imagine Burchard getting really hot in his habit writing this one. Basically it involves an aphrodisiac loaf where 'Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do? You take off your clothes and smear honey all over their naked body and lay down their honey-drenched body onto some wheat scattered upon a linen on the ground; they then roll around a lot this way and that, and then carefully collect up all the grains of wheat which stick to their wet bodym and place them in a mill and make the mill go backwards against the sun and grind to flour, and they make bread from the flour and give it to their husbands to eat that they may become feeble and waste away. Penance is forty days bread and water (which seems a bit lenient - as in doing away with one's husband when compared with seven years for a blow job!)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Christy - meant to mention too the Zacks book has some of Henry Kellog's work in it - including a suggestion to use Cornflakes as an enema to prevent lustful excitement - yikes!

Yvette, thanks for yours. What an interesting url. I am saving the site to look at it in more depth. I had read about that theory of paternal and maternal seeds to explain how babies emerged as a particular sex, but not in any detail

Annis said...

I would have thought an examination by a Jury of Matrons would be enough to make any poor male shrivel in dismay!

I seem to recall a scene in Diana Norman's "Morning Gift" where the heroine Matilda's first husband Sigward describes the off-putting humiliation of one of these examinations (one reason why he was so delighted that everything worked as it should on their wedding night)

Your man of the admirably responsive equipment must have been made of sterner stuff!

Carla said...

Great post. I do like the onion riddle.

Don't the Welsh Laws of Hywel Dda contain a similar sort of practical exam? You have to sympathise with the poor guys :-)

Christy K Robinson said...

Um, back to the bread abuse -- I imagined that a man masturbated with a loaf of bread and then confessed it. Which would make the bread-n-water penance way funny! But a naked woman covered in honey and wheat kernels sounds much more kinky...

Helen Hollick said...

I assume that many women welcomed some of the Church laws for it was the only form of contraception available. No sex on Sundays, Holy Days, etc. If I remember rightly, there were several specific times of the year when sex was banned (throughout Lent? Not sure if I'm right there) Was sex on a Friday also taboo?
A woman had to be "churched" after giving birth i.e. go to church and be cleansed, before which time sex was not permitted - again a way of ensuring the poor woman got some peace from her husband's "wifely demands"
Tough life being a woman back then if you enjoyed sex - half the time you were not permitted to have it, the rest of the time you were not supposed to get pleasure from it.
So when did the saying "No sex please, we're British" get changed from "No sex please it's Sunday"? #laugh