Christianity is unique in having hated
and outlawed sex and in making people feel guilty because
they are sexual beings.
Karen Armstrong, The Gospel According
Despite the Church's revulsion at all matters sexual, or perhaps
because of it, churchmen have throughout the centuries felt
obliged to impose their views on others. Sex was held to be
disgusting enough even when it was carried out in the most conventional
way. It was acceptable only between a man and (one) wife, only
for the purpose of conception, only on approved days, only at
night, only in bed, only in moderation, and only in the permitted
manner. Priests encouraged couples to remain partially clothed.
Only one copulatory position was allowed. Others were regarded
as debauched or bestial. The story grew up that the Devil mated
women from the rear, so this method was regarded with particular
horror. To this day missionaries try to stop converts from practising
it, and encourage the adoption of the one acceptable position
which is thus known as the missionary position. Theologians
once held that a wife's acquiescence in any deviation from their
approved position was as grave a sin as murder1.
The whole area was set about with danger. At one time sexual
intercourse of any sort was discouraged for much of the year.
As one commentator has observed:
Some rigid theologians recommended abstention on Thursdays,
in memory of Christ's arrest; Fridays, in memory of his death;
Saturdays, in honour of the Virgin Mary; Sundays in honour
of the Resurrection; and Mondays, in commemoration of the
departed. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were largely accounted for
by a ban on intercourse during fasts and festivals
the forty days before Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas; the
seven, five, or three days before Communion; and so on2.
At one time there had been 273 fast days and feast days, but
the number was down to 140 by the sixteenth century. Copulating
at prohibited times could have terrible consequences. Churchmen
assured their flocks that it could lead to leprous, epileptic,
possessed or deformed children3.
Copulation was also prohibited while the wife was menstruating,
in accordance with the requirement of Leviticus 18:19. Pope
Gregory I warned that "the law of God punishes a man with
death if he has intercourse with a woman during menstruation"4.
Intercourse was also prohibited while the wife was pregnant,
since the object could not be procreation.
Even when intercourse was permitted, the Church considered
it sinful to enjoy it too much. If you enjoyed it as much as
you would enjoy adulterous sex, then it was adulterous
sex even if it was with your spouse:
Nothing is more sordid than to make love to your wife as
you would to an adulteress. The origins of love are respectable,
but its perversion is an enormity.
§1. It gives no respectable motive for losing one's self
control. Hence, the Sentences of Sixtus says, ``He is an adulterer
who is too passionate a lover of his wife.''
(Decretum gratiani, Case 32, q IV, C5)
Sex even within marriage was considered somehow dirty, and
called for cleansing before doing something as important as
entering a church:
After sleeping with his wife, a man should not enter a church,
unless he is washed with water.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 32, q IV, C5)
Marriage was tolerated as the best that ordinary people could
manage. According to St Jerome
there was as much difference between wedlock and virginity as
there is between managing not to sin and being a saint. Marriage
was an unfortunate but practical remedy against sin. Virginity
was much more, a true holy state. Childbirth was a particularly
sinful activity and required reconciliation with the Church.
(This reconciliation was originally a ritual purification after
the birth, later to become the Churching of Women.)
Now the sin of bearing a child is rather underplayed, but in
the past a mother who died in childbirth might be refused a
Christian burial because of her sin5.
This did not happen everywhere. In some places she was permitted
a Christian burial, but her child, dead inside her, was not.
Not having had the chance of baptism, the child was infected
by Original Sin, and thus ineligible for a Christian burial.
The child had to be buried in unconsecrated ground. As one fifteenth
century priest, John Mirke, put it:
A woman that [has] died in childing shall not be buried in
church, but in churchyard, so that the child first be taken
out of her and buried outwith churchyard6.
other words the dead baby had to be cut from its mother's womb
so that it could be buried separately, on its own, in unhallowed
The whole area of sex is set about with possibilities to sin.
Demanding sex from a spouse without intending to procreate was
venial sin. Lustfully exciting a spouse was a mortal
sin. Masturbation and coitus interruptus were grave
sins. The Christian obsession with limiting sexual activity
has led to some laws that now seem anachronistic. For example,
it is still an offence in England for a man to have anal sex
with his wife, although it is no longer an offence for him to
have anal intercourse with a man. Masturbation was still illegal
in at least one US state into the 1960s. So were other sexual
activities. In 1988 a certain Jim Mosely was shocked to find
himself sentenced to five years in gaol in Georgia, in the USA.
His crime, unwittingly revealed in a divorce hearing, was having
had oral sex with his wife8.
Around 1,000 years earlier, in Europe, he could have expected
seven to 15 years penance roughly the same as for anal
intercourse, and twice that for murder9.