It might be assumed that such a lengthy list of prohibitions would have exhausted the ways which zealots found to complicate and hinder the performance of the sexual act, but there is yet one more: the Church proclaimed that no one could marry for a second time, even if the first partner had died—a doctrine which was allegedly supported by the Pauline text stating that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery; even though St. Paul had made it clear that in this he referred to putting away a living wife. It was part of this same program that the medieval Church opposed polygamy, though the Jews had been polygamous, and the early Christian fathers did not object to multiple marriage either. Even the strict St. Augustine considered it permissible to take a second wife if the first was barren.
Because it considered marriage a contaminating process, the Church at first refused to perform the marriage ceremony, but later—as a part of its comprehensive attempt to control all sexual matters—it urged couples to take their marriage vows in the church; because of its negative position regarding the married state, however, it did not assert that a civil marriage was invalid, for to do so might have indirectly implied a greater approval of the marital state than they were then willing to accord. It was the Tudor monarchs, untroubled by such questions of theology, who first proclaimed church marriage compulsory. The Church then refused to perform marriage ceremonies at certain times of the year; Taylor reports that at one point "there were only 25 weeks in the year when marriages were legal...." The Church also restricted the hours during which the marriage vows could be taken; first declaring that such an occurrence should be done openly, "it established that marriages must take place in daylight, but later defined daylight as eight A.M. to noon."
Since it was the intent of the Church to reduce sexual opportunity to the minimum, it recognized 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 in wartime, but the fully developed medieval code conceded only especially granted Church annulments and separations (the latter allowing for no possibility of marriage to another).
It is from the Church's superstitious or near-magical view of the sex act that we get our idea that a marriage has not been truly consummated until coitus has been performed. By "logical" extension of this premise, it was considered bigamous for a woman to marry if she had previously committed fornication with someone else; it was also considered bigamous for a husband to continue to sleep with his wife after she had slept with another. The performance of the sex act was thus believed capable of creating some new relationship between individuals and could even retroactively destroy a previously licit relationship.
It was felt that sexual evil really dwelt within woman, since she tempted man, who would otherwise remain pure. Thus, not only sexual intercourse, but the very presence of a woman was thought to attract evil and contamination. During the plague it was considered inadvisable to sleep with women or even go near their beds, as this increased the risk of infection implying that the spread of disease is a uniquely heterosexual phenomenon.
This degradation of the female and the lowering of her status was very different from the position she held in earliest Christian times. In Christian Rome, women had enjoyed a status nearly equal to that of men; they had been allowed to preach, to cure, to exorcise and even to baptize. All these rights had been gradually taken away, and by the Middle Ages married women ceased even to have legal existence. Blackstone commented: "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."
Because a wife was her husband's property, to seduce her remained an offense against property (even as in early pagan times), and as late as the Victorian era, the husband's first recourse was to bring civil action for damages against a wife's lover. A husband had the right to inflict "moderate chastisement" upon a wife who did not obey him and civil law allowed him to "beat her violently with whips and sticks." J.C. Jeafferson, in Brides and Bridals, notes that it was permissible to thrash a woman with a cudgel, but not to knock her down with an iron bar.
A quite different attitude toward women also began to develop during the Middle Ages, and from it we derive many of our own traditions regarding romantic love. A school of poets sprang up, who called themselves troubadours, and who extolled the virtues of a relationship between a man and a woman, in which the woman was placed on a pedestal and the man sought to win her favor. The rules governing "courtly love," as it was called, were elaborately worked out and were written down about 1186 by Andrew the Chaplain, of the Court of Queen Alienor; this Treatise of Love was soon translated into the principal foreign languages and became a standard work throughout Europe.
The Church opposed the troubadours because they elevated the position of women, but the concept of courtly love was not a sexual one; it was the preliminary wooing that was the important thing, and the underlying antisexual nature of these romantic relationships (which is responsible for some of today's most persistent notions about chaste romance) indicates that this was simply one more attempt to sublimate the tremendous feelings of guilt, about any male-female association, that Church-perpetuated repressions had produced. Andrew's Treatise listed a number of reasons for not bringing a romantic affair to any physical conclusion and listed as the "worst" of crimes, "engaging in the work of Venus." A majority of the troubadours' poems were actually rife with religious references and they did much to glorify the Virgin Mary.
Each troubadour extolled the virtues of a particular woman whom he both loved and obeyed—whom he wooed, but hoped never to win, whom he considered superior in every way. Taylor comments that it would probably be a good psychiatric guess that the troubadours were, or would have been, troubled with impotence if finally faced with their mistresses; this is consistent with the observation of Rilke to the effect that the troubadours feared nothing so much as the success of their wooing. Many were probably passive homosexuals. Thus the troubadour Rambout of Orange says that if you wish to win women, you should "punch them in the nose" and force them, as this is what they like. "I behave differently," he adds, "because I do not care about loving. I do not want to be put to trouble for the sake of women, any more than if they were my sisters; and so with a woman I am humble, obliging, frank and gentle, fond, respectful and faithful...." In Dante's Purgatorio, two troubadours are found in the sodomites' circle of Hell.
L'amour courtois of the Middle Ages was, according to Morton H. Hunt, author of The Natural History of Love, in his chapter in Julian Huxley's The Humanist Frame, "...a compelling relationship which could exist only between a man and woman not married to each other, and in which the man was the pleading, humble servitor and the woman the disdainful, cruel tyrant. It was compounded of quasi-religious exaltation, much public discussion of aesthetic matters and of etiquette, 'purified' and often unconsummated sex play, and the queer fusion of chivalric ideals and concepts of good character with the practice of secrecy, deception and illicit relationships...." Hunt says in addition: "[Courtly love's] proto-romantic qualities of sadness, suffering, distance from the beloved, difficulty of attainment of desire, secrecy and the like can all be explained in psychological terms, but they would never have been admired and idealized had love not been forced by...religious asceticism, and the subservient status of the wife, to remain outside and alongside marriage.
"...Courtly love, during its early centuries, was ideally functional for both the individual courtier and the courtly class. But for the bourgeois of the Reformation, it was dysfunctional in that, among other things, it required more time, money and cultivation of taste than the middle class possessed; moreover, it was in conflict with their general sense of morality. When, however, it was modified enough to be amalgamated with marriage, these dysfunctions disappeared. Thereafter, romantic love leading to romantic marriage ideally suited the commercial and business classes...." It is in this modified form that romantic love found its way down to the present time, reaching its apex in the 19th century. Of this period, Hunt says: "...The 19th century—that high-water mark of romantic and sentimental feeling—was a time when many men were made impotent or masochistic by the prevailing love mores and many women were warped by frigidity and frustration."
In The Medieval Manichee, S. Runciman reports that the very same area which gave birth to Courtly Love (Provence and the Languedoc) developed a related religious movement known as Catharism. Though soon declared by the Church to be heresy, it became so popular that it was openly preached, was supported by many nobles and seems to have replaced, to a large extent, the orthodox Church until the savage persecutions of Simon de Monfort wiped it out, and wiped out most of the troubadours, too. Catharism stressed sexual abstinence: fully initiated members were required not to sleep with their wives. They felt it was desirable to forgo all fleshly pleasure, not because it was "wicked," but because they believed it slowed up the attainment of enlightenment. A number of similar sects sprang up, which were related to the chaste romanticism of the period. In these, women were accorded a higher status than they enjoyed within the orthodox Church, but chastity was stressed, even between man and wife.
The notion that man should, and could, rise above sexual temptation was not a new one, by any means, and we have mentioned that the earliest Christians first sought to transcend sex and, failing in that, turned to repression, which the Church found worked far better. The orthodox Church vigorously attacked all of these sects as heresy, but it was, in time, itself affected by the ideals of this romanticism.
Taylor observes that in the hands of the saints, the notion of transcending sex "was twisted into a more athletic and masochistic form, becoming the famous 'trial by chastity,' in which one sought to demonstrate one's self-control by finding the greatest extremes of temptation...." It is said that St. Swithin constantly slept in one bed with two beautiful virgins, which led fellow clergymen to rebuke him for the risk he was incurring. St. Brendan attempted a similar feat, but found that, though he could resist the temptation, he was unable to get off to sleep, and returned to his monastery discomfited.