Most of us have at least a vague awareness of the existence of the sexual prohibitions of the medieval Church, since many of them are still maintained, if in diminished strength, today. What is less generally recognized is the extent to which the Church attempted to limit and control not only sex outside of marriage, but within it, too. The sexual act could be performed in only one prescribed position, with the male above, and penalties were prescribed for any variance. This concept was described from the notion that other positions were more sexually enjoyable, and was consistent with the idea that sex should be kept as pleasureless as possible.
Not content with this, the Church proceeded to reduce the number of days per year during which even man and wife might legitimately perform the sex act. First, sex was made illegal on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which effectively removed the equivalent of five months out of every 12. Then it was made illegal for 40 days before Easter and 40 days before Christmas, and for three days before attending communion (and there were regulations requiring frequent attendance at communion). Marital sex was also forbidden from the time of conception to 40 days after birth. It was, of course, also forbidden during penance.
These are the principles from which our modern Western sexual ideals have been principally derived. Taylor points out that the Christian attitude of antisexuality, even within wedlock, was in marked contrast to that of Mohammedans, who held that there were grounds for divorce if the sexual act was not performed at least once a week.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the early Christian Church prepared these codes of sexual conduct with the brutal single-mindedness of the Nazis preparing to pop another batch of humans into the ovens. Rather, it was a case of these dicta being promulgated in a passion of despairing guilt by a group of individual men like Augustine, Aquinas, Damiani and Bernard, who knew nothing of the true sexual nature of man, and who were tormented by the virtual certainty of eternal damnation for all who so much as thought about sexual pleasure. All about them, they witnessed sensuality and in a frantic attempt to save the people from themselves, they instituted and perpetuated ever more rigid rules of abstinence. Never mind the cruelty, never mind the injustice, if only this frightful and damning disaster could be somehow prevented.
That these ideas were pathological, there can be no doubt. But the motives were pure, even if the end results were grotesque in the extreme. "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," says Taylor. For such extreme antisexual sentiment is not to be found in the Bible and certainly not in the New Testament. As W.H. Lecky states, in The History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, "The fathers laid down a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable and even laudable...[and] immediately, all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity."
The Church claimed that its stringent taboos on sex had been proclaimed by St. Paul, but in actual fact, although Paul had gone much further than anyone before him in disallowing sexual activity, he had never suggested anything as radical as the sexual code of the medieval Church. Paul also made it clear he was not propounding the official teachings of Christ, but was simply giving his personal opinion, in reply to a number of questions put to him at the Church of Corinth.
Attaching, as they did, so much importance to preventing masturbation, the medieval churchmen sought biblical justification and finding none, evidenced no great reluctance in twisting the Scriptures to suit their purpose. Genesis 38 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, from which is derived the word onanism as a synonym for the practice. Actually, the biblical passage refers to coitus interruptus and it had a property interest as its raison d'etre rather than a sexual one; N.E. Himes, in A Medical History of Contraception, confirms that the reason that 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, so that the family's possessions could be handed down to direct descendants. The Catholic writer Canon E. de Smet, in his book Betrothment and Marriage, also comments upon 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 levirate, intended by Onan, rather than the spilling of the seed."
"It was part of its comprehensive attempt to make the sexual act as difficult as possible," observes Taylor, "that the Church devised laws against the practice of abortion." The Romans, Jews and Greeks had not opposed abortion, but Tertullian, following an inaccurate translation of Exodus 21:22, which refers to punishing a man who injures a pregnant woman, popularized the notion that the Bible held abortion to be a crime. Rabbi Glasner states, "The Bible itself does not mention it at all.... One might argue that the therapeutic abortion, at least, would not be considered objectionable, since the embryo was considered a part of the mother (like a limb), and not a separate entity." Taylor states that though the error in translation has long since been recognized, the Church still maintains its position opposing all abortion, and this opposition has become incorporated into secular law. Which nicely demonstrates that moral laws may not as often be derived from biblical authority, as biblical authority is sought to justify the particular prejudices and predilections of the time.
The Church's interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden provides an even more striking example of construing Scripture in ways not inherent in the text. To support its general position on sex, the story was changed to suggest that the "forbidden fruit" Adam tasted in the Garden was sex, with Eve cast in the role of the temptress. Thus the Original Sin that Adam handed down to all of us was sexual in nature. But the Bible makes no such statement; the Book of Genesis indicates that Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it is for acquiring this knowledge, which made him godlike, that he was expelled from Eden. No reference is made to sex in connection with Adam's fall from Divine favor. (It should be noted that in the story of the Garden of Eden, the female is again viewed in an unfavorable light—not only is she created from one of Adam's ribs, placing her in a position of being his possession, but Eve is also the one who tempts Adam into breaking God's commandment, thus causing his downfall. In a variation of the story, menstruation was explained as a "curse" imposed upon women for Eve's treachery in seducing Adam.)
Sexual Contamination in Women
The sexual obsessions of the Church were especially hard on women. Pre-Christian societies had treated women as property; the medieval Church perpetuated this belief and considered them the source of all sexual evil as well. One philosopher of the period stated, "A Good Woman 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."
Taylor points out that the Church's concern over sex was derived from earlier pagan superstitions. It preserved the primitive belief in the power of sex to contaminate. It was for this reason that married couples were required to abstain from intercourse for three nights after marriage—the so-called Tobias nights—and once having performed the sexual act, they were not allowed to enter a church for 30 days, and then only on condition of doing 40 days of penance and bringing an offering. Theodore further extended the belief in sexual contamination when he ruled that it was a sin for a menstruating woman to enter a church and imposed a penance for any infraction of this dictum.
We remarked earlier on the incest fears that pervaded early Christianity, and these further emphasize the superstitious nature of the Church's attitude toward sex. Many cultures, though by no means all, have regarded it as incestuous to marry a parent or sibling. But in the 11th century, the Church became increasingly obsessed with incest fears and extended the ban to first, then to second, and finally to third cousins. But this was not all. So strongly was the notion of sympathetic contagion embedded in the collective psyche, so intense were the anxieties concerning incest, that godfathers and godmothers were included in the ban; next, even the relatives of the priests who had baptized or confirmed an individual were included; finally, even the two adults who had been the sponsors to the same child in baptism or confirmation were restrained from ever marrying one another. In some small villages, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these regulations sometimes eliminated every available candidate and condemned individuals to a lifetime of celibacy in the same way, as Taylor points out, as the complicated exogamic regulations of the Australian blackfellow.
As a further restriction on marriage, Christians were forbidden to marry Jews, or followers of any other religion. In fact, copulation with a Jew was regarded as a form of bestiality and carried the same penalties. And in this there is a certain irony, since it was from the Jews that the Christians derived their laws against bestiality.