Sin, crime and the pleasures of the flesh

The medieval church judges sexual offences

Authored by: James Brundage

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:


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The sexual behavior of Christians worried medieval Church authorities. Christian moralists disapproved of all types of extramarital sex, including premarital intercourse, adultery, concubinage, and prostitution. They sternly prohibited sexual contacts of any description between persons of the same gender. Church fathers agreed that masturbation was immoral and forbade Christians to indulge in the practice. They feared that even unconscious sexual arousal during sleep might be sinful. Sexual activity of any kind that involved priests, monks, nuns, and others who had taken vows of celibacy posed a perennially embarrassing problem for the Church’s leaders. Even sexual activity by married couples presented moralists with a constant stream of problems. Church doctrine, to be sure, permitted married Christians to have sexual relations with one another, but only in moderation and for the proper reasons. Since they also believed that sexual passion should have no place in Christian marriage, the Fathers of the Church fretted about the frequency and timing of marital intercourse. Church authorities consequently prohibited married couples from indulging in sex during a large part of the year and even tried to prescribe the posture in which Christian couples could properly indulge their libidinous desires (Brundage 1987). This chapter will examine the ways in which medieval Church authorities tried to implement these teachings and to regulate the sexual activities of the Christian faithful.

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