'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....