So I’ve mentioned that I’m a discussion leader for a class on religion, gender, and sexuality. It’s been huge fun so far. Today my group ended up talking about abstinence-only education. One of the men said his public school had used an abstinence curriculum featuring sex that leads to heroin use and a stolen kidney! Oooh, I think they were doing it wrong.
But that’s not what I really meant to share. As you probably know, by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had decisively elevated virginity as holier than matrimony. But given Paul’s injunction that it was “better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:9), and also given that the vast majority of Christians weren’t flocking to monasteries, the Church was wrestling with how to regulate sexuality within marriage.
Enter the Penitentials. Monks began writing down and codifying regulations on sex from the sixth century onward. If you broke the rules set forth in the Penitentials, you had to confess your sin to your priest and he’d prescribe the proper penance, which might involve fasting, fines, or sexual abstinence. For a few centuries, the Penitentials were the key instrument for disciplining the faithful.
As Michel Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, the Penitentials also gave people a raft of ideas about specific ways in which it might be deliriously fun to sin. But that’s another story.
As a non-Catholic, I first encountered the Penitentials through a book I read in grad school, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe by James Brundage, which I got to revisit for class today. Brundage’s book is a 698-page scholarly tome covering the Church’s medieval ideas about homosexuality, adultery, and the whole gamut of sexual behavior. But if all you want to know is how sex in marriage was circumscribed, Brundage provides a great one-page flow chart. Our students loved it. And I have to agree it’s pretty hilarious – from the safe remove of the twenty-first century. My favorites are the rules against getting naked and against doing it in church.
(Click on the chart to embiggen it.)
The chart comes from Brundage; I swiped the scanned version from BoingBoing.