The lecture will discuss the medieval Christian Church and its stance toward marriage, including marriage forms, beliefs about sexuality, abortion and contraception. Many of the lectures in this series have exposed the diversity of church concepts about the nature of the trinity, the church services, and so on. It took many church councils and much censoring of so-called heresies to reach fixed dogma on various doctrinal issues.
Marriage was no exception to the process. In fact, the question of what constituted a marriage, including its form, was loose and contested for several centuries. It seems odd that such an important institution as matrimony would not have been provided with rules for the performance of its rites and ceremonies. But for many years, regulations on how marriage ceremonies should be conducted were lacking. It was also unclear what sort of documentation was needed for a marriage to be considered legal.
Marriage was not declared a sacrament until the 1184 CE Council of Verona. The Second Council of Lyon in 1272 CE and the Council of Florence in 1439 CE reaffirmed it as a sacrament. The rules for betrothals and marriage were very loose in both the early and the medieval church. There were differing opinions by theologians about what constituted a valid marriage. Such contradictions resulted in a wide array of legal disputes.
Before discussing the topic of marriage in the medieval church, we need to understand some of the marriage customs and practices of ancient Greece and Rome, because the church was influenced by them. Christianity is known as a sex negative religion, and I shall be focusing on its disdain for sexual pleasure. It differs from Islam and Judaism, both of which believe in sexual pleasure when expressed between married couples. Both of those religions forbid other forms of sexual expression outside of marriage. But Christianity elevated continence and virginity above marriage from the religion’s earliest beginnings.
The Hellenistic Greek culture which followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE was awash in asceticism. Hellenistic society was a vibrant and economically wealthy one, possessed of active trade routes and commerce. But those people who had left their homes for new countries often experienced uneasiness and felt a lack of rootedness. Some turned to mystery religious cults. Others were attracted to asceticism. There had been an ascetic strain, a minority one, in Greek culture from earlier times.
The Orphic and Pythagorean sects disdained sexuality, as did Plato (428-347 BCE), one of Greece’s most important philosophers. The ascetic influence may be traced from some of the classical Greek sects, then through Plato to Philo, the Jewish neo-Platonic thinker of the 1st Century CE and then to the philosopher, Plotinus, in the 3rd Century CE. Plotinus moved from his native Alexandria to Rome, where his philosophy found favor with the Emperor and his wife.
The strain of disdain for worldly pleasures and emphasis on the spiritual came about because such thinkers believed there was a higher reality that people must strive to achieve. Such concepts were a serious influence on the new Christian religion.
There was no definitive statement on marriage made by Christianity’s putative founder, Jesus. Let me emphasize once again, as I have numerous times in this series of lectures, that we have no evidence that Jesus was a historical person. But the gospelists spoke as though he were and quoted words he had spoken during his ministry. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus appeared to have spoken more negatively about divorce than marriage, making statements about it at least twice. He equated divorce with adultery, especially if the divorced person, male or female, remarried.
When the apostles asked Jesus whether it was better to simply remain unmarried, he answered: “All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs which were born from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs which were made eunuchs of men, and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”
Jesus’ statement was ambiguous and difficult to understand. There were some Christians who took its meaning literally, the most famous being Origen, (d. 251-254 CE) the Church Father, who castrated himself. Common sense prevailed, however, and the church councils began to forbid such self-mutilation by the 4th century. Most of the Church Fathers interpreted Jesus’ cryptic statements as recommending self-imposed continence.
But there were other ambiguous statements about marriage attributed to Jesus in the New Testament gospels. What was meant, for instance, by his utterance that a man should hate or leave his own wife and children in order to be his disciple? Did he mean that a person should leave his family in order to find salvation, or did he mean those who were without a wife and children should remain so?
Jesus also famously declared: “Everyone that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery already with her in his heart.” This last declaration played havoc with the conscience of the Church Fathers. Already frustrated by sexual renunciation, they were all too ready to lust after women in fantasy when they encountered them. But Jesus appeared to find such sexual thoughts as wicked as committing a physical act with a woman. The guilty Church Fathers projected their sexual temptation on to the women, whom they began to see as temptresses. Their resentment of women because of their own desire for them increased the misogyny they had inherited from the classical world.
The historical founder of the church was Paul, who created more ambiguity when he tried to interpret from Jesus’ statements what the correct sexual standard for Christians should be. He rather uneasily decided to allow marriage for those who could not “contain” their sexual desire. His statement that it was “better to marry than burn” seemed a reluctant concession to human frailty. He also stated that it was a heresy to forbid a person to marry. Aside from Paul’s opinions, there is no comprehensive treatment of sexual matters in the New Testament.
There are only answers to some questions that Paul and other church leaders were consulted about. It would be left to later church leaders to create official dogma about sexuality and its expression.
In the earliest days of the church, there were more pressing concerns than marriage. Jesus was believed to be returning to mankind very soon. There was the expectation that he would then punish the wicked and reward the faithful. Apparently there were a few Christians who believed they could fill in the time before that spectacular event by indulging in pleasures such as fornication and not working. Paul quashed such notions, cautioning the Thessalonians that they needed to obey god’s will and abstain from fornication.
We cannot just look at the mainstream church and its sexual attitudes, however. It is important to keep in mind the Gnostics, who made up a significant portion of the Christian faithful. The Gnostic belief system may generally be summarized as more extreme than Christianity with regard to its rejection of the body. There was a widespread idea among Gnostics that a false creator, or fallen creator, sometimes called the Demiurge, had fashioned the earth and all its inhabitants. They believed there was a supreme, all spiritual god that humans must strive to be united with, in order to achieve the oneness they had lost. Gnostics thought that greater spiritual knowledge would enable them to achieve gnosis, or wisdom. Then their souls, leaving behind their corrupt bodies, would achieve unity with the true god.
For some time, the various Gnostic sects were serious rivals to the Christian Church, although the majority of them, at least in the early years, considered themselves Christians.
The church claimed they were heretics and brutally persecuted and destroyed each new Gnostic manifestation. Most Gnostics believed that sex was a chain that kept people tied to the corrupt earth and they tried to eschew sexual intercourse, marriage and procreation. Some groups prohibited their members from marrying.
The disparate cultural, religious and philosophical currents discussed above created a quandary for the church that was difficult to resolve, even though it was better organized and stronger than its rivals. The Roman Emperor, Constantine, had made the Christian Church the empire’s semi-official religion in 321 CE. The Christian emperor, Theodosius, made it the official one in 380 CE. But as time went on, Christians began to become increasingly aware that Jesus’ return was not going to come soon. They decided to focus on creating a loving and spiritual community on earth while they waited for Christ. With its increasing dominance, the church had already begun to acquire many members, but it wanted to become larger and stronger. It needed more people to swell its ranks. An excellent way to become larger was to acquire new converts. Members giving birth to children they would raise as Christians was another.
The church opted for survival. While some of the Church Fathers flirted with the notions of some pagan and Gnostic thinkers that sexual intercourse should never be permissible, common sense prevailed. Requiring complete celibacy for all Christians was rejected. The majority of the Church Fathers determined that intercourse within marriage was acceptable if undertaken solely for procreation. Any sex outside of marriage was forbidden, as well as marital sex that did not lead to the reproduction of children.
Even though marriage was acceptable, the Church Fathers found celibacy and virginity much more desirable. Christians were ascetics in spirit, if not practice, which meant that all forms of sex that did not lead to reproduction were condemned. The Church Fathers decided that sex was not to be enjoyed, even when it led to the procreation of children. According to Vern Bullough, sexual intercourse was a practice to be regarded as an “evil”, whose only good was in procreation.
Perhaps the elevation of celibacy and virginity was partially responsible for the church’s apparent lack of initiative in creating strict rules for those who wished to contract marriages. It took many church councils and many hundreds of years before marriage rules were codified. Until the Council of Trent, which took place from 1545 to 1563 CE, there was no need for witnesses to validate a marriage. Marriage customs in the early church followed the loose system adopted from ancient Greece and Rome. Although the ancient cultures had rites, ceremonies and celebrations of weddings in abundance, none of them were necessary to legalize a marriage. The early church borrowed much of its approach for what could be considered valid marriage from the pagan societies.
Roman marriage was considered legal if both partners consented to it. However, a marriage between two parties was not considered valid in Rome without the father’s consent. Neither Greek nor Roman culture put a great deal of emphasis on love between the couple. The aristocrats and wealthy families arranged marriages for political and/or profitable advantage. The lower classes looked for spouses who could be a help to them in sustaining hard to keep households.
The ideal relationship for Greek males aged twenty-three to twenty-eight was not with the young girls of thirteen to eighteen they married, but with the young boys of thirteen to eighteen whom they mentored. The Romans put more emphasis on the relationship between spouses, and Roman couples often became friends as well as formal couples. Expectations of passionate love in marriage were low in both Greek and Roman cultures, particularly in the Greek system.
The Christian Church borrowed many customs, speeches, official clothing, building styles and so on from the earlier pagan religion and from the government of the Roman Republic. The church also assumed the rather informal Roman custom of regarding unconstrained consent of both parties as the primary sealing of a couple in marriage. We shall see the difficulty the church encountered when it tried to add the consummation of marriage through intercourse as a ratification of the rite.
Although neither the pagan religion nor the Roman government claimed jurisdiction over the exchange of consenting couples’ marital vows, the Roman family and Roman society had expectations for married couples. Like most of the societies of the ancient world, Romans believed that the central purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate children.
Stephanie Coontz has an interesting view of role of the Roman father, which she states was quite similar to the role of the Christian father. The Roman paterfamilias literally raised his child because he had to pick up the newborn to signal that the child was allowed to live and be accepted into the family. If the baby was a girl, she was often left to die by exposing her to the elements, or allowed to live by letting someone else adopt her. Christian fathers did not have the right of meting out life or death to their infants, but their power over their families was very significant.
There was little familial equality in either the Roman or Christian household. Roman sons and daughters were under the power of the father until his death, as were their sons and daughters. At the Roman patriarch’s death, the next oldest male succeeded him. Coontz states that in the Roman family and then in the Christian one in Western Europe, the head of the family was actually excluded from membership in the clan. “Men were not in families,” she argues, “they ruled over them.” She believed that is why family advice manuals were addressed to wives and not husbands for many centuries. Husbands had to know how to rule over the behavior of their families, not how to behave within the family.
There were very few sexual rules Roman citizens were expected to follow. But as the state began to try to regulate citizens’ morals and behavior, some sexual matters no longer remained in the Roman family, but became the province of the government. Roman men were not supposed to allow themselves to be penetrated by another man; if they were and it was discovered, the penalty could be loss of property and sometimes death. Women were supposed to be virgins before their marriage. They were forbidden to engage in adultery after their marriage and a husband was expected to leave his adulterous wife. Such a woman might lose half of her dowry as well or be exiled to an island. Divorce was fairly casual, with both parties making a simple statement of their agreement to sunder their marriage.
The coming of Christianity, first ignored in Rome, then mildly persecuted, and then made into its official religion in 380 CE, changed the European view of marriage and its customs for centuries. Early Christianity was hostile to marriage and kinship obligations to a degree unknown by ancient societies. The church has attempted to “play down” its former antipathy to marriage, but the historical record proves otherwise. Kinship ties, so important to the ancient world, also became unimportant, even undesirable.
It is important to keep in mind the early Christian belief in Jesus’ Second Coming. That notion created a conviction that the worldly ties of children and family must be broken to achieve the new dispensation. Christians had also come to believe that marriage undermined the rigorous self discipline needed to achieve spiritual salvation. Here is a quotation from I Corinthians 7:32-34: “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord. But he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife… The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
While Christianity had borrowed so much from pagan culture, the differences between the two were pronounced. Christianity had another source for its beliefs and customs in the Judaic religion, from which it had originated. But Christian sex-negativity was markedly different from Judaism’s positive view of sex. The Jewish religion called marriage a commandment of god’s and embraced sexuality within marriage. The Talmud enjoined its scholars to marry before embarking on their studies so as not to be preoccupied with sexual thoughts while studying.
The Christians grudgingly agreed that marriage was essential for some people. Paul had stated that it was “better to marry than to burn.” But the Church was not enthusiastic about marriage and even hostile to sexual pleasures within the married state. The 6th century Pope Gregory stated that marriage was not sinful, but that it did not take place without “carnal pleasure.” He maintained that “such pleasure cannot under any circumstances be without blame.”
The church had a strong position against divorce as well, even though it was no champion of marriage. Jesus was believed to have overturned the Mosaic acceptance of divorce. The Church Fathers quoted Jesus’ New Testament words: “What therefore god hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”(Mark 10) Furthermore the prohibition against divorce was applied to both men and women, a significant break with other religions.”
Despite its strong injunctions against divorce, historians have demonstrated that the church was flexible on the issue for its first thousand years. It also waffled concerning its support for monogamy. According to Coontz: “The conflict between theory and practice added a new wrinkle to political marriage struggles as the church’s power and influence grew in the waning days of the Roman Empire.” This statement requires elaboration.
There was a seismic shift in the church’s position as the Roman Empire broke up. From the time of the Emperor Constantine’s embrace of the church, Christian officials took on the jobs of tax collectors, record keepers, and legal representatives of the state. They were no longer simply the people’s spiritual guides and leaders.
During the following two centuries, the Church spread its tentacles across more geographical territory and grasped at more quasi-governmental functions. The Bishop of Rome gathered power to his office over the bishops of the provinces and took on the title of Pope. The word, pope, came from the Latin, papa, or father.
The more the Latin empire crumbled, the more the church claimed and emphasized its supreme moral authority. It was one of the few institutions which were still able to raise money, administer legal matters, preserve records, teach literacy and even conduct international diplomacy. As the local aristocrats battled to control the little kingdoms that were everywhere springing up, the Pope’s sanctification or recognition of a ruler’s authority was feverishly sought. From being not just indifferent, but sometimes hostile to the things of this world, the church became deeply engaged with the politics of marriage, divorce and family life in the new kingdoms of Western Europe. From a position of prizing celibacy over marriage, the church now often had to decide who should have their marriage annulled to keep peace among aristocratic power players and who should marry which relative in order to consolidate peace between two kingdoms. The real politique of Europe won over the putative moral position of the early church.
But I would like to shift from the intrigues and schemes of the nobility and the church, to what some historians have called the other ninety-five percent, the common people, and the types of marriage and divorce codes applied to them.
However, it is important to keep in mind that in the final analysis, the rules for contracting and dissolving marriage in general emerged at least partly from the arrangements and compromises between the church and the monarchs and nobles who courted its favor and tried to thwart its rules. For over eight hundred years, the church showed next to no concern over how marriages were formed and divorces achieved among the common people. This fact is interesting in light of the church’s obsession with sex and with heresy.
I would now like to turn to some of the practical difficulties faced by a church which, while theoretically against sex, was forced to deal with its real life aspects and exigencies. For example, there was the question of concubines. Many Christian men, some of them priests, had concubines. Frequently, such women came from a lower social class than their lovers. No such relationship was considered a valid marriage unless the man stated his intentions to marry his concubine. A Christian was supposed to have only two choices- celibacy or marriage. Any type of sexual intercourse between two people with no intention to marry was deemed a sin, a type of fornication. The church was opposed to such relationships, but trying to eliminate them was an impossible task for many centuries.
The Church Fathers struggled with the definition of a valid marriage for many years. Gratian’s canon, the Decretum, from the first Council of Toledo in 400 CE, allowed men who had only one concubine to take communion. Gratian and Peter Damian both maintained that a valid marriage needed to be contracted with the consent of both parties and ratified with intercourse. Such an opinion created significant difficulties for other church theologians.
If intercourse was necessary for the ratification of a true union, what was the church’s position on the marriage between the Virgin Mary and Joseph? Theologians and clerics maintained that the union between Mary and Joseph was a chaste one, with no intercourse. The so-called brothers and sisters of Jesus were said to be cousins or adopted children, or Joseph’s children from a former marriage. Gradually Joseph’s iconography pictured him as a rather elderly man, with the implication that he was more of a protector than a lover of Mary. If the Virgin’s marriage had been chaste, then how could theologians reconcile that fact with their insistence that intercourse was necessary to make a marriage valid?
The theologians decided that a valid marriage was based on consent along with affection. One theologian wrote that: “… a joining of bodies is not marriage, nor does it make a marriage.” This rule of consent was observed by Western Christianity. From the 9th century on, the Eastern Church also required a nuptial blessing to make the contract valid. According to James Brundage: “Most marriages did consist of couples exchanging public consent, receiving a nuptial blessing, and contracting marriage in some ritual fashion.’ But such rites, public contracting and even witnesses were not necessary to make a marriage legal.
Canon law urged couples to contract public marriages, but did not require them to do so. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 CE discouraged private and informal marriages, forbade priests to officiate at them and insisted couples must announce their intention to wed publicly. But such rules were very difficult to put into practice. Secret unions were still valid.
Canonists insisted that couples were forbidden to contract secret marriages but then conceded that such marriages were valid. Huguccio, (d.1210 CE) an important medieval canonist of marriage laws, put a doctrine in place that created more confusion. He decided that when there had been a consensual agreement between a couple to marry in the future, any sexual intercourse after that promise created a presumption of consent to marriage and that the marriage should be valid from the time of that coitus. His doctrine was adopted by Pope Innocent III (1198- 1216 CE) and emphatically affirmed by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241 CE).
By the middle of the 13th century, jurists began to hold that a man and a woman who openly cohabited established a presumption they were married. James Brundage has combed through the surviving evidence from the medieval ecclesiastical courts and found that clandestine marriages were extremely common even though officially frowned upon. Research into the records of two 14th century English tribunals has revealed that nearly ninety percent of cases heard by the courts concerned clandestine marriages.
But the aforementioned Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 CE began to formulate some rules. The council stated that three things were necessary to validate a marriage. (1) The bride had to have a dowry. It goes without saying that a young woman would be forced to be less independent of her parents if she needed a dowry. (2) Banns had to be published beforehand and (3) the wedding had to take place in a church.
Marriage began to be negotiated by both sets of parents, and a prenuptial contract was often included in the settlement.
The contract spelled out property agreements, dowry amounts, inheritance provisions and so on. Banns were read in church for three consecutive weeks, before the wedding. In case someone in the community knew of a reason the marriage should not take place, such as a prior marriage, for example, that person had a duty to come forward with his or her information. There was a final exchange of vows in church, with the priest’s blessing and witnesses present. But friars were not under the authority of the bishops as the clergy were, and could be persuaded to conduct a hasty or secret marriage.
It is very odd that the church, which was burning and persecuting not only individuals but entire regions for heresy, whether real or imagined, should have allowed such muddled marriage laws to stand until about 1563 CE. Dogma concerning heresy was often very specific and minute. Medieval common law was somewhat flexible and common sense, better adapted to the needs and wishes of real people in real situations. But the church finally began to initiate new marriage rules and enforce earlier ones that were rigid and lacking in compassion.
The 1563 CE Council of Trent overhauled marriage laws and laid down inflexible rules for the keeping of concubines. This reformed Tridentine marriage law was far more inelastic and inflexible than those passed by earlier church councils. It stated that Catholics were either married or not married, and no legally acceptable alternative was offered. The history of post-Tridentine marriage cases in canonical courts demonstrates that the system has had problems dealing with human vagaries and needs. Its rigidity created countless tragedies. Illusory certainty, a strong point of the church as it advanced through the centuries, was paid for with too high a price in human suffering.
Despite the reforms of Vatican Two, from 1962 to 1965 CE, divorce continues to be forbidden in the Catholic Church.
Evolving church canon law made it harder to contract a legal marriage and almost impossible to get out of a legal marriage. James Brundage makes clear how draconian such canons became. As early as the 12th Century, Gregorian reformers had begun to insist that the laity should not be allowed to divorce and the clergy should not be allowed to marry. The church was showing its true nature, the desire to grasp power and to control people, particularly their sex lives. Church law did not make provision for divorce. It did condescend to grant people judicial separations.
But even the judicial separations were allowed for merely three reasons: adultery, a partner’s heresy, which was described as spiritual fornication, and extreme cruelty. The cruelty had to be very extreme for the church to allow a woman to initiate a hearing for separation and then to have the hearing granted. But neither partner, having been granted a separation, was allowed to remarry.
There was a provision for annulment, which did allow for remarriage. But it was draconian. A woman who was unable to produce a child was somewhat protected- she could not be set aside by her husband. But a husband’s impotence was legitimate justification for annulment. However the church created a humiliating “test” to ascertain if the man were really impotent, or if the husband and wife were in collusion to end the marriage. One church expert laid out the ordeal:
“The man and woman are to be placed together in one bed and wise women are to be summoned around the bed for many nights. And if the man’s member is always found useless, and as if dead, the couple are well able to be separated.”
There was a recorded case in 1433 CE at York, England, that demonstrated the “wise women” sometimes took their witness position very seriously, in fact, too much so. One witness showed an impotent man her naked breasts. Then she warmed her hands at the fire and rubbed the man’s penis and testicles. She embraced and kissed him with fervor and often, according to accounts. She also stirred him to show himself a man. The woman affirmed to church authorities that during the whole time, the man’s penis was “scarcely three inches long, … remaining without any increase or decrease.”
One hopes the poor man enjoyed his annulment. He certainly earned it. This humiliating ordeal must be one of the most egregious in the church records. “One does not know what to make of the motives of the enthusiastic witness.” Conscientiousness, sadism or simply a twisted sexuality are all possible motivations but we shall never know. The truth is lost to history.
There were two other grounds for an annulment. The first was if the couple were too closely related by blood or by the marriage of other relatives, they could receive an annulment. The second justification for annulment was previous consent to a different partner. If one party had previously consented or promised to marry someone else, the marriage could be annulled.
Coontz states: “A fortune hunter could claim that a rich woman had previously consented to a marriage and was therefore legally obliged to break off her engagement to another man.” A woman might find herself in an unhappy marriage and assert she had previously consented to another man. She might state that she had to leave her present husband and go live with her real spouse.
People made such allegations frequently and they were very difficult to resolve. Medieval courts did not always have any paper trail and there was only the doctrine of consent for proof of marriage. According to historians, the greatest number of marriage disputes in the Middle Ages was not over annulment, but the continuing issue of disagreements over whether a marriage had been legally contracted by consent.
I would now like to turn to the strange history of the church’s laws with regard to incest. As we have seen, the church’s casual attitude to marriage with consent was belied by its draconian annulment regulations. But the church was not ever nonchalant about the question of incest. It exhibited a phobia about what it deemed incest very early in its history, even though there was not much definition or basis for it in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Leviticus 20, 21 did forbid a man to marry his brother’s widow. By the mid 6th Century, church synods began to call such marriages of in-laws incestuous. The prohibitions did not end there. During the 6th and 7th Centuries, bishops forbade the marriages of first and second cousins, step-mothers and step-daughters, and of the widows of uncles. Coontz adds: “In 721 CE, Pope Gregory II even forbade marriage with the godmother of one’s child or the mother of one’s godchild.”
Contracting marriage became more difficult as the rules forbidding so-called incest expanded. This was because most young men did not have the means or time to travel very far to find a mate who was not related to them in some manner. The church rules did not allow people to marry anyone up to the 7th degree of separation, or as the church said: “… as far as memory could go back.” In other words, one was forbidden to marry a descendant of one’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather.
The church kept adding to the incest prohibition. In the 8th Century, the church decreed that people could not marry in-laws, the kin of godparents or godchildren, or a relative of someone the person had once had intercourse with. One could not marry the relative of someone a person had previously promised but then failed to marry. Almost any match, obviously, could be found to be invalid.
The incest prohibitions gave the church a great deal of power in all the political struggles of the Middle Ages. It could keep the monarchs and the nobility from contracting marriages to consolidate their wealth and power. The church often used the idiosyncratic incest rules to keep itself in a crucial position amid the power struggles of the age- the church could claim a violation of incest laws in order to invalidate a match that was not to its advantage or liking.
It would appear from the facts that the church was primarily interested in maintaining its power position vis-à-vis the nobility with its incest regulations. In spite of significant meddling in the marriages and annulments of the upper classes, the church continued to be erratic when it came to the enforcement of marriage regulations among the common people.
While it never failed to be arbitrary in its judgments, it spent little time delving into the legality of the incestuous relationships of the common people. Historians state that the church had no difficulty deciding to sell dispensations to a commoner who was willing to buy a formal or legal exemption. Most commoners saved their money and simply ignored the rules.
The complications among the high born and wealthy families because of the strange and unexplainable rules forbidding incest were complex and often caused nobles to avoid such entanglements whenever possible. Such avoidance ended with the creation of a far-flung group of cooperating lineages, and according to historians, a more inclusive noble class than in many other regions of the world. Less noble families, however, continued to ignore church laws on incest when it was expedient to do so.
It was the 1215 CE Fourth Lateran Council which reduced the far-reaching incest prohibitions to four degrees of separation. The church stated that it could then enforce the incest ban more strictly. However, the popes continued to issue dispensations whenever it was politically expedient. Pope Boniface (1389-1404 CE) did not prevent, and perhaps encouraged, the sale of marital dispensations. They were openly available for people to buy. The churchmen even offered a sliding fee, depending on the importance or value of the concession.
I would now like to turn to two topics about which the early Greek and Latin Church Fathers were ambiguous and divided in their opinions – contraception and abortion. The Latin and the Greek languages distinguished between the words used to define both practices.
According to John M. Riddle, the common usage blurred the distinctions. As far as can be determined, the Greeks, Romans and Germanic people did not find contraception or abortion immoral. But Riddle states that ancient law protected a male’s right to have a child when a woman he had impregnated wished to abort it. The rule can be traced back to the Assyrians and the law codes of the early medieval states continued to follow it.
The Catholic Church made some modifications to the tolerant pagan attitudes but did not significantly change them during its first thousand years. Jerome (347-420 CE) denounced women who used contraceptives and/or abortions to prevent childbearing. Minucius Felix (approx. 150-270 CE) condemned women who drank mendicants, stating they extinguished the future men and committed parricide. Around 390 CE, John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople, fulminated against the practice of contraception, arguing that contraception was like sowing a field to destroy the fruit. He, too, brought up the question of murder. But his position was not taken up at that time by the church. It was not until the 13th Century that the church hardened its position on birth control.
Augustine (354-430 CE), the Bishop of Hippo, had followed the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (385-322 BCE) for his position on contraception and abortion. Aristotle stated that the psyche or soul did not enter the embryo until the fetus had developed into a recognizable human form. Both men were most likely aware that accidents or caesarean practices sometimes caused a woman to give birth before her full term. They knew that some children who were delivered when they were not at full term survived. Therefore Aristotle concluded that the psyche or “animation” occurred sometime before birth.
Gregory of Nyssa (330-395 CE) agreed. He did not believe the unformed embryo could be thought of as a human being. According to Riddle, what the Christian Church believed about birth control for its first twelve hundred years was not essentially different from the conclusions of the ancient pagan thinkers.
As we proceed with our history of medieval attitudes and practices with regard to contraception and abortion, it is important to keep the actual women who underwent such procedures in mind. We are confident that we know what the Church Fathers thought about contraception, abortion, child-bearing and so on. Their writings are on the record for us to easily determine many individual theologians’ thoughts on these issues. What we cannot know, except by inference, is what the women, the mothers, thought. No one bothered to record their opinions. However, those medieval women knew of the herbs and other substances that would induce an abortion or prevent pregnancy. We shall see they used certain herbs and substances to induce miscarriage or bring on menstruation after a delayed period.
Augustus Caesar (died 19 CE) and the thinkers he respected during his reign had been most concerned with the declining Roman population. The Roman government had a policy of periodically distributing child-rearing aid from the 1st to the 3rd Centuries. We are unable to determine to what extent the church was influenced by the low birth rate to have induced it to take up a negative position on the topic of birth control. It is certain that population concerns were significant after the bubonic plague raged through Europe in the 14th Century and killed approximately one quarter of the population.
There were likely many factors that persuaded both the government and the church fathers to adopt a pro-birth policy during the Middle Ages.
The theologians changed Aristotle’s question around. He had asked: “When is a fetus capable of being a person?” Christian medieval thinkers were preoccupied with turning Aristotle’s query into “When does the soul enter the fetus to become a human with both body and soul?” Albert the Great (d. 1280 CE) believed that the spirit or soul of the child came from god, not from the parents. He thought that the fetus developed just like those of animals, but that a time came when it connected with god, the divine intelligence.
Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), the great church theologian, also maintained that the soul is created by god. Other theologians followed approximately the same lines of thought. Robert Kilwardby (1272-1279 CE), the Archbishop of Canterbury, quite logically stated that if an embryo died before it had received a soul, no soul would perish, because a soul cannot exist without a body.
Most medieval theologians believed that women could terminate what we call a pregnancy in the interval between intercourse or conception and the fetus taking on a recognizable human form. The theologians were uneasy about contraception and abortion however. We know the church took a negative position on the topic, stating that humans should not intervene to prevent conception or birth. But there was no hard and fast rule for birth control during the Middle Ages. Riddle states that abortion was not approved, but to a certain extent, it was tolerated.
He cites a penitential that claimed intent was an important factor in the degree of sin. If a woman was poor and aborted because she would have difficulty feeding the child, she was considered less sinful than a woman who aborted to conceal the so-called crime of fornication.
One penitential from the Middle Ages instructed the priest to ask a woman: “Have you drunk any maleficium, that is herbs or other agents so you could not have children?” If the woman answered, “yes”, she was given a penance of forty days. One volume around 1000 CE used the word, “homicide,” when describing the actions of a woman who aborted after the baby’s limbs were formed. This conclusion was in accord with the earlier opinions of Aristotle and Augustine. Notice the use of the word, “maleficium,” a word associated with witches. Most of the books that mentioned the topic of contraception assumed that using drugs and other medicines were the common methods employed.
Interestingly, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1171 CE) knew that a “menstrual stimulator would prevent birth if a seed or embryo was growing on the uterus.” She was her convent’s abbess and took great interest in the herbal remedies offered by nature. Her written work was a significant source of information on the drugs used to bring about abortion.
That Hildegard’s treatise was not the only source of information about herbal contraceptives and abortion. The Benedictine Abbey in Lorsch, Germany owned a medical manuscript penned by its monks. Folio 19 contains a “cure” for all types of stomach aches. The monks claimed the ingredients in that recipe would “move a woman’s menses.” Many of the herbs they included in the medication’s recipe would stimulate menstruation.
There is still extant a 13th Century treatise, called Women’s Secrets, that reveals medieval women knew that “there was an interval between a man’s semen and the uncertain point at which a woman’s body turned the man’s seed into an embryo.” They knew there was a window during which a woman could end a pregnancy and no one from that era would regard it as an abortion.
Not only did women use contraceptives and early term abortion ingredients during the Middle Ages, but they also found new drugs, such as Tansy. We have discovered, from the numerous references in legal, theological and some medical documents that so-called medicinal agents to prevent contraception or induce abortion were known and used throughout the Middle Ages. However, most medical documents did not mention contraception or abortion. Many medieval doctors still abided by the Hippocratic Oath from the ancient world, which stated: “I will never give a woman an abortive.” But there were some medieval physicians who advised that in some cases, such as the opening being too small for the safe delivery of a child, or when both mother and child were in danger of death, an abortion should be performed.
Medieval women did not reveal all they knew about preventing or terminating a pregnancy. But painstaking research has uncovered that they knew remedies that we have forgotten. Those remedies were indeed women’s secrets. It is gratifying to learn about them so many years and so many ethical stances removed. It is heartening to find that medieval women often took more control of their lives than we citizens of the present day would have believed possible.
(For a more extensive listing of the herbs women used for contraception and abortion during the Middle Ages, please see John M. Riddle’s excellent and comprehensive article, “Contraception and Abortion in the Middle Ages” in The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality listed in the Bibliography.)
It was not until 1869 CE that Pope Pius IX decided to finish with the philosophical and theological opinions about the point at which the soul enters the human embryo or fetus. It was during the First Vatican Council of 1869-1870 CE that the Pope was definitively pronounced to be infallible on matters of faith and morals for the whole church. Pius IX proceeded to remove the concept of a formed or unformed fetus from the discussion. The Catholic Church stated that life and ensoulment begins at conception. The Catholic Church characteristically moved from a muddle of contradictory beliefs and laws about preventing or terminating pregnancy to a rigid and unthinking prohibition of the practices. Its position on divorce and prohibitions against contraception and abortion created unimaginable misery.
In the present day, the church continues to battle secular government in many countries with regard to birth control and women’s reproductive health. In some areas of the world where the Catholic Church continues to have influence, strict prohibitions on abortion remain in place. We have always known that the church was a strong inhibitor of human flourishing. What this lecture has revealed is an additional censure. The early and medieval church did not have a defined position on many issues of concern to people. Apologetic claims that the Catholic Church’s canon law and doctrines are consistent and centuries old are disingenuous.
Church dogma has been revealed to be a kind of patchwork quilt of muddle, inconsistency, political convenience and indifference to human suffering that gradually evolved over many centuries.
Despite evidence that women and wives did take some control over their own lives, women did not have significant legal rights or religious importance in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. The Church Triumphant held power and influence both in the West and the East. Bedeviled by heresy and heretics, it tried to torture, burn and silence dissenters. It must have seen its own lack of success, but that caused it to merely increase its savagery in an attempt to create a monolithic society dominated and instructed by the Catholic Church.
But the church found itself suddenly threatened by a breathtaking act of insolent insubordination. In 1517 CE, Martin Luther attacked the selling of indulgences, as well as other dogma and practices of the Catholic Church. He then formed his own religion. Coontz states: “Within a few years, many German princes converted to Lutheranism. It rapidly became the state religion of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Between 1520 and the 1550’s, different varieties of Protestantism were adopted by various Swiss cities. The papacy’s thousand-year monopoly over Christian doctrine was ended. One of the central disputes between Catholics and Protestants emerged as differences concerning the role of marriage.
The Protestant rebels were in bitter opposition to the papal policies and pronouncements on marriage. Lutherans insisted marriage was a “glorious estate.” They had looked at the Bible and found no foundation for monasteries and convents.
They refuted the notion that celibacy was the best state to aspire to and that marriage was merely a necessary evil. They had already begun to help “escaped” nuns, and on assuming power, they closed down the monasteries and convents in the areas over which they had control. Luther married an ex-nun, who had left her convent with eight other nuns hidden in a delivery wagon.
The nuclear family had begun to achieve economic independence and political clout as well. Thinkers began to focus on the personal relations between man and wife in the 16th and 17th centuries and somewhat less, at least in theory, on the worldly principles of finding mates whose social station matched. The Catholic Church was beset on all sides. It watched as entire nations abandoned it for various varieties of Protestantism. Many rulers converted to the Protestant religion for political purposes. They wished to free themselves from the Vatican’s long-distance interference, including the regulation of marriage. They were also tempted by the vulnerable church’s economic resources and wanted to divert those riches to their own coffers.
Then the church made a major error with regard to England. The monarch of England, Henry VIII, had married the wife of his deceased brother. The Pope had granted a dispensation so the marriage would not be considered an incestuous one. But Henry’s wife had several stillbirths and produced only one daughter. Henry wanted a healthy male heir and tried to divorce his Spanish wife, Catherine, and marry her lady-in-waiting. Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor, had recently captured Rome and the Pope was his virtual prisoner. Charles was Catherine’s nephew, and probably under some duress, the Pope refused to grant Henry an annulment.
However, times had changed. Monarchs no longer had to pretend obedience to the Pope and to the Church. Henry saw that rulers in Germany and Scandinavia had finished with the Catholic Church and had established religious alternatives of their own. He decided to marry his pregnant concubine and grab the wealth of the English Catholic Church. He announced that he was the new protector of the English clergy and inserted a new archbishop who granted the king his annulment. In 1534 CE, Henry took over all the property and wealth of the Catholic Church and established new Church of England. All the English monasteries and nunneries were closed.
The Catholic Church was in no mood for submission. It continued to insist on the superiority of celibacy over the married state. In 1563 CE, the Council of Trent issued this definitive statement: “If anyone says that the married state excels the state of virginity or celibacy and that it is better and happier to be united in matrimony than to remain in virginity or celibacy, let him be anathema.” Coontz states that the Protestants insisted marriage was the fundamental building block of society. Luther said: “… all creatures are divided into male and female; even trees marry; likewise budding plants; there is also marriage between rocks and stones.”
Social changes had put people out of work during that era. More people worked on day jobs when they could find employment. Many people were reduced to wandering on the roads. This state of affairs alarmed the authorities. They did not want such people to become a charge on the parish. In Germany and France, unmarried women were not allowed to establish residency in a city without a job as a household servant.
If they lost their employment, they were forced to leave the city. Couples who had no jobs were not even allowed to marry because they were not financially able to establish households.
The societal shifts created a hardening in what either religion would accept as a valid marriage. Neither religion wanted to accept the validity of an informal marriage contract as in the past. The Protestants in Zurich, Switzerland passed a law that a marriage was not valid unless attended by two pious, honorable and incontestable witnesses. In both Zurich and Geneva, the courts were allowed to rescind marriages of young people who had married without parental consent even if they had been living together for some time. In 1534 Nuremberg, Germany, a law was passed that made parental consent necessary to contract a valid marriage.
The German law applied to men until they were twenty-five years old and to women until they were the age of twenty-two. Coontz states that during the 1520’s and 1530’s, Strausberg raised the age for legal marriage for men to twenty-five and women to twenty, and then changed it to the age of twenty-five for both sexes. The Protestants were quick to invalidate secret marriages even if they had been consummated with sexual intercourse or long term co-habitation. The Catholic Church followed suit. The French courts passed an edict in 1556 CE that required parental consent for men up to the age of thirty and women up to the age of twenty-five. Later the French church decreed that any couple of any age who married without parental consent could be banished or imprisoned.
The Protestant churches wanted to “put an end to the long-standing acceptance of pregnancy that occurred between betrothal and marriage.” In the 1620’s, English women who were found pregnant at the altar were sent to church courts for punishment. The practice of annulling secret marriages added to the number of illegitimate children. The Catholic hierarchy entered the fray against illicit sex as well. Coontz states: “In 1556 France, Henry II issued an edict requiring single or widowed women who were pregnant to register at local government offices and submit to interrogation.”
As we have seen so often during this series of lectures, religion never neglects an opportunity to create, as one author has said, extraordinary mischief. The attempt to control people’s sexual lives, love lives, and family lives is an egregious example. The combined laws on sex, marriage, divorce and birth control created untold misery and heartbreak.
The draconian situation remained unchanged until the time of the 18th Century Enlightenment. Two exponential societal changes took place at that time and changed marriage norms. The first change was that wage labor employment opportunities created serious alterations in how marriage might be contracted. Young men did not want to wait until they inherited land or could take over some sort of business from their fathers. The men no longer had to serve time as apprentices either, which had previously forced them to spend several years in their masters’ homes. A woman did not have to work solely as a domestic servant any longer and be compelled to live in her employer’s home. She could do day labor and earn her own dowry. Young people became less dependent on their parents due to such economic changes.
When they eventually earned the necessary wages, they could marry and live on their own.
The second change paralleled the market changes. There were new political and philosophic ideas circulating at that time. (Please see the two lectures, The Enlightenment, Part 1 and Part 2, at AtheistScholar.org.) The thinkers of the 18th Century Enlightenment began to challenge the dogmatism of both religion and government. They initiated a new dialogue that championed individual rights and the use of reason rather than force. Since they believed in the pursuit of happiness, they insisted that marriage should be based on love, not the pursuit of wealth or status or power. The historian, Jeffrey Watts, has said that although the 16th Century Protestant Reformation had already “enhanced the dignity of married life by denying the superiority of celibacy,” the 18th Century Enlightenment “… exalted marriage even further by making love the most important criterion in choosing a spouse.”
The Enlightenment also exposed many institutions that had prevailed for centuries to scrutiny and criticism. The philosophers held, and disseminated, the opinion that marriage was a private contract that ought not to be too closely regulated by church and state. The Enlightenment helped bring many sweeping changes and reforms to the Western world, and marriage for love was a fine by-product of the philosophers’ ideas. I am always fascinated by the way secular thought dispels the bitter oppression created by religion. That we in the present day are free to marry for love and to divorce if the marriage proves inadequate for our happiness is a liberty we have in part inherited from the Enlightenment.
In the present day, several nations, including the United States, have made marriage between same-sex couples legal as well. But we remain threatened by the dark and muddled tenets of religion which are always on the side of human repression. Religion is vociferous and relentless in its attempt to control peoples’ lives in all aspects- sexually, socially, and economically.
Secularity brings about a progression of human flourishing and societal improvement. We must protect our newly gained, rich advancements by propagating rationality wherever and whenever we can, and by insisting on liberal human rights. We must and we shall go to court again and again to protect our hard-won privileges. We cannot afford to lose the war over marital and reproductive rights. Religion has openly demonstrated that it would turn back the clock and convert free men and women into puppets that would dance to its warped and dangerous tune. But we have changed the music and if we protect it with all our strength and rationality, the dance is ours to enjoy.
Abbot, Elizabeth. A History of Marriage. Toronto: Penguin Group, 2010.
Brundage, James. “Concubinage and Marriage in Medieval Canon Law. In Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. 33-51.
___________. “The Problem of Impotence.” In Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 135-141.
___________. “Sex and Canon Law.” In Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 89-102.
Bullough, Vern L. “The Christian Inheritance.” In Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 1-14.
___________. “Formation of Medieval Ideals: Christian Theory and Christian Practice.” In Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 14-22.
Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2010.
_______________________________. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. This volume contains an excellent Bibliography.
Gies, Joseph and Gies, Frances. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Payer, Pierre J. “Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages.” In Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. 3-33.
Riddle, John M. “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages.” In Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2010. 261-279.