Penitentials were handbooks listing many sins a confessor could be expected to encounter during private confession and the appropriate penances he should assign for each act (or the appropriate moneys the penitent should pay to commute a penance).
The penances tended to be things like fasts, repetitions of psalms on your knees or standing, giving alms, and the sins were everything from fornication to murder. But it’s the fornication that took up the lion’s share of these handbooks, and every conceivable act was detailed along with the (heavy) price it exacted in penance.
So, dare one ask how exactly this would go down? Here’s a sample from Corpus Christi College’s Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore:
- Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.
- If the effeminate male (bædling) fornicates with another effeminate male (bædling), (he is to) do penance for 10 years.
- Whoever does this unintentionally (unwærlice) once must fast for 4 years; if it is habitual, as Basil says, for 15 years if he is not in orders and also one year (less?) so as a woman does. If it is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years. If he is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
- If he fornicates interfemorally (between the limbs), he must fast for 1 year or the 3 40-day periods.
- If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days.
- He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
- If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
- If a woman fornicates [with another woman?] she must do penance for 3 years.
- If she touches herself in the same way, i.e., in emulation of fornication, she must repent for 1 year.
- Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.
Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you are off the hook, either. Sex without the intention of getting knocked up? Sin. Sex on a holy day? Sin.
Here, then, is the flowchart James Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe compiled from the various penitentials so as to assist one to determine if prospective sexual activity is in fact lawful:
Now, another thing that should be held in mind before letting your eyes bug out and pray your time machine never drops you in the Middle Ages is that these proscriptions exist precisely because people were, well, doing exactly the things it was saying not to, and frequently enough that cultural (and legal) authorities were trying to affect the situation.
Via The History Blog,