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Law, Sex and Christian Society

James Brundage Law, Sex and Christian Society

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In 1998, President Clinton announced to the world in his State of the Union address that he never had “sexual relations” with intern Monica Lewinsky. When pressed on the matter later that year he admitted that there had been an “improper physical relationship” with Ms. Lewinsky, but defended his position on the matter on the basis that while she had performed fellatio on him he had not reciprocated and thus had not “had sex” with her. Clinton’s hair-splitting argument prompted a national debate about what actually constitutes sex.

Had Clinton lived a thousand years earlier his argument would have fallen on deaf ears. For medieval Christian writers it wasn’t performing oral sex but receiving it that was the greater sin. The early eighth century Penitential of Theodore, a handbook for confessors that advised them on how much penance to prescribe for various sins, stipulates that “someone who sends semen into the mouth shall do penance for seven years: this is the worst of evils.” On other occasions it seems that 12 years or even life-long penance was more appropriate. In either case, it’s the one receiving the blowjob who is in trouble (Sorry, Bill, but your actions were an abuse of power). Moreover, they were in a great deal of trouble: in ascending order of severity sexual crimes progressed from masturbation, to fornication (sex between unmarried partners), adultery, bestiality, anal sex, and then oral sex. Of course, this is just one particular view of things so we should be careful of concluding that this is what all Catholics or even Catholic clerics thought.

Even for the married (male-female) medieval couple, navigating the regulations about when and how one could have sex was remarkably complicated. James Brundage’s Law, Sex and Christian Society includes a somewhat hilarious flowchart illustrating the decision-making process. Sex was only permissible if the couple had been married for more than three days; the wife was not menstruating, pregnant, or nursing; the couple wanted a child; it was nighttime on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday; the couple was not entirely naked; and they weren’t contemplating having sex in a church. Sex also should not take place during Lent, Advent, Easter, Whitsun week, or on a fast or feast day. And even if you met all of these regulations and were careful to ensure that you never saw your spouse naked, you should have sex only once, and avoid lewd kisses, intercourse “from the rear,” and oral sex. As Brundage puts it, “The regime seems well devised to rob marital sex of spontaneity and perhaps of joy.” It really raises the bar on what it means to have ‘bad sex.’

It’s not entirely surprising that the standards of acceptable sexual interaction have shifted in the past millennium. Even in comparatively brief periods of time perspectives could easily change. Dr. Erik Wade of the University of Bonn has argued that in the 700s, before the Penitential of Theodore was written, bestiality was a pretty minor sin. Then it transitioned, he told me, to a serious sin comparable to homosexuality “and by the late Middle Ages, bestiality was considered one of the most horrific sexual sins.” The shift, he added, took place precisely because of the comparison with homosexuality, which the church regarded as a serious offense. The irony here, he added, is that “while modern conservatives might resist gay rights by claiming that they are a slippery slope to legalizing bestiality (as Justice Scalia liked to claim!), medieval clergy seem to have [thought the reverse and] made bestiality’s reputation bad by comparing it to men who have sex with men.”

When it came to sexual indiscretions, however, women largely flew under the radar. Apart from adultery, Wade told The Daily Beast, women’s sexuality was rather under-theorized: “The Church rarely paid much attention to women having sex with each other and often treated female homosexuality as a minor sin, at least until the late Middle Ages.” There are other sexual sins that people seem to have worried about, however. The penitential manuals, Wade argues, addressed questions that people had posed to the archbishop. Other fairly common inquiries found in these texts include the penance for sex between the thighs, incest, men raping women, pedophilia and—in one unusual tidbit—how much penance a nun should do for having sex with another nun using a “device.”

One omission from penance lists is rimming, or anilingus. Given that awareness of rimming in (straight) mainstream culture is relatively recent, perhaps this doesn’t strike us as surprising. For anyone who has examined medieval manuscripts, however, it’s a strange oversight because so many manuscripts contain images of anuses being kissed and licked. The reason for the disconnect, Wade told me, is that “these images, as well as the references in literature to lips encountering backsides, seem to all be comical.” In one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale, for example, a woman tricks her suitor into kissing her “arse” rather than her lips. There are plenty of examples, Wade said, of comical scenes involving kissing a person’s behind, but none of them seem to be explicitly sexual.

If ass-kissing was something other than pure comedy, then the roots of its meaning was theological. In her book Sin and Filth in Medieval Culture: The Devil in the Latrine, Martha Bayless explores how Christians considered the lower parts of the body—especially the backside— to be a source of sinfulness and, well, filth. Wade explained that this is “why medieval illustrations of devils often had faces on their groins or backsides, to show that their bodies were as disordered as their morality. Kissing a rear end meant that your morality was distorted.” Images of witches sealing pacts with the devil often show them kissing his anus or the anus of a cat. When the Knights Templar were disbanded for heresy, part of the accusations against them involved devil worship and the related practice of anal kissing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that people weren’t engaged in anilingus, Wade said, “They likely were. It’s just that at a cultural level, the act seemed to signify something else.” The humorous undertones persisted in 18th century cartoons that showed politicians kissing the behinds of voters.

What this draws our attention to is how profoundly culture influences our perception of aesthetics, beauty, and pleasure. “Modern American society,” Wade said “certainly hasn’t considered the anus to be an ‘appropriate’ sexual site. That’s changing, but only slowly.” It’s not only that our sense of which parts of the body are considered erogenous zones has changed; how we categorize certain behaviors has altered. Until recently labels “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were meaningless in contexts that condemned oral and anal sex between genders. In the medieval period, some manuals for confessors group sex “from behind” or anal sex between a married couple not with sexual sins like masturbation or adultery, but rather with other marital issues. It’s not at all clear that they saw anal sex between a man and a woman and anal sex between two men as the same kind of thing even if they thought both were sinful.

The effect of all of this is that while, to the modern viewer of medieval manuscripts, rimming is everywhere, to the medieval viewer it wasn’t a sexual practice. Anilingus fell somewhere between comical and demonic. It’s precisely because it was seen as humorous that we have the modern expression “Kiss my ass!”

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