Friday, March 28, 2014

What Ho There? Sex in Medieval Times

Hello ladies.  Would you like to see
my "broadsword"?

With “The Tudors” and “The Borgias” I would have thought the question of premarital sex during the Medieval era would have been answered.  Heck, basic human behavior, which certainly hasn’t changed much in 500 years, let alone 2,000, should have answered the question from a common-sense perspective.  Alas, fantasy writers, usually wonderful people with very open minds and inquisitive natures, seem to have locked this one down and thrown away the key without ever looking inside the chest.

Let’s be clear: people had sex.

Certainly, there is a myth of domination from the Roman Catholic Church over everyone’s life starting with the Holy Roman Emperor on down to the lowliest dirt-scratching peasant.  Medieval Europe, and especially Medieval England, are seen to be bastions of Catholics, piously going about their business of being all feudal and wearing smocks (France, a veritable bastion of Catholicism and sex always seems to get left out in the cold).  The political power of the RCC was certainly vast and impressive.  At points, the RCC had as much, or more, power than any rival nation, such that to stand against the Church was to stand against a varied collection of allies who might crush you beneath their booted heel.

Remember, this is the institution that called for, and received, the Crusades.

"May the Peace of God be upon you!"
But also remember, that the RCC at one point had established the Peace and Truce of God, which in part forbade fighting on certain days between Christians.  The attempt to marry both the Crusades, a decidedly military venture, and the Peace and Truth of God resulted in the chivalric movement—knights could brutally kill each other, but they had to follow the rules for their brutality.

Alas, the split-personality of the RCC resulted in major gaps of their supposed control.  control that never really existed in the first place on such a basic human desire as sex.  Most Christians throughout Christiandom were Cafeteria Christians.  They took what they wanted from the buffet, made certain not to fog up the sneeze guard too much, and otherwise left the rest alone.  Frances and Joseph Gies in Life in a Medieval Village provide for us a clear understanding of just how much control the RCC had over the general parishioner:

"Wanna go somewhere and pay a fine?"
“Court records contain numerous instances of women leaving their villages in company of men without any mention of marriage. They contain even more frequent instances of "leirwite" or "legerwite" (lecher-wite), a fine for premarital sex, literally for lying down. On some manners a separate fine called "childwite" was levied for bearing a child out of wedlock, but in Elton premarital sexand pregnancy were lumped together. Twenty-two cases of leirwite are listed in surviving Elton records between 1279 and 1342, with fines of either sixpence or twelve pence in a single three pence. In all but one, only the woman is named, and she paid the fine: in the single exception, in 1286, Maggie Carter and Richard Miller were fined sixpence each.”

Wait until you see my Basilica.
Indeed, this doesn’t just include the laity, but the clergy.  Monks, priests, nuns, bishops, cardinals and popes themselves seemed to regard their vows of poverty, chastity and humility (if they took them) more as guidelines than actual restrictions.  There are well known and well documented priests and popes who not only had sex, but were legally married.  Adrian II, Clement IV, John XVII were all married.  As pope, Adrian lived with his wife, Stephania and their daughter in the main papal residence, the Lateran Palace.  There’s a lovely list of popes who had less-than-legitimate relationships, but certainly quite legitimate sexual relations resulting in a myriad of illegitimate children.

You might recall that one of Martin Luther’s “bold” points of reformation for the RCC was the abolishment of the vow of chastity for the clergy.  Luther felt, as he stated in his letter To Several Nuns, that service to God required sex, and that sex was not only natural but God-given:

“Though womenfolk are ashamed to admit to this, nevertheless Scripture and experience show that among many thousands there is not a one to whom God has given to remain in pure chastity. A woman has no control over herself.  God has made her body to be with man, to bear children . . . Suffice it to say that no one needs to be ashamed over how God has made and created him, not having been given the high, rare mercy to do otherwise.”

"Must go faster!  Must go faster!"
Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church trudged onward, and maintained its attempts to curb God-given sexual desires, inadvertently causing all manner of emotional strife and no few scandals.  Or, as Dr. Ian Malcolm illuminated, “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is.”

So what do we know?  Sex happens.  Premarital sex happens too.  It happened before there was a Roman Catholic Church.  It happened while there was a Roman Catholic Church.  It certainly happened during Medieval times, even while the Roman Catholic Church tried to stop it.

And uh.  Well.  There it is.

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