Penance for Sex May 23, 2008

Penance for Sex

Back in the Middle Ages, sex was frowned upon. “Carnal relations,” even with one’s wife, were considered filthy.

Intercourse for procreation was tolerable, the holy fathers begrudgingly admitted, but anyone who indulged in sex because they were in love or seeking physical pleasure was on a fast track to damnation. In fact, this attitude eventually led the Church to legislate on the most intimate details of married life: In 1215, the cleric Johannes Teutonicus was the first to announce that there was only one “natural” coital position — what we today call “the missionary position,” a term that was coined in the 1960s — which was also optimal for conception. Attempting any other position was a mortal sin, Johannes opined, involving exotic and unnecessary forms of stimulation.

This led theologians of the time to consider various non-missionary sexual positions and the penance for each one.

St. Albert The Great helped write a handbook for clerics listing the lengths of punishments — how long you had to live on bread, water, and abstinence — for each type of “pleasure” undertaken.

Let’s play a game.

I’ll list a few positions.

You guess the order of punishment, from mildest to harshest.

  • Mutual masturbation
  • Coitus in terga — anal sex (with a cleric)
  • Semenem in ore — oral sex
  • Masturbation (men)
  • Coitus retro — rear entry
  • Women who use sex toys
  • Dorsal sex (woman on top)

All done guessing?

The answers:

Position Punishment
Masturbation (men) 10 Days
Mutual masturbation 30 Days
Coitus retro — rear entry 40 Days
Women who use sex toys 1 Year
Dorsal sex (woman on top) 3 Years
Coitus in terga — anal sex (with a cleric) 10 Years
Semenem in ore — oral sex Up to 15 years

By the way, this quote was particularly creepy:

(Curiously, sodomy at this time was considered no worse if performed with a boy than a woman; it was not until 1533 in England that male-on-male “buggery” became a criminal offense).

(via The Daily Dish)

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  • mikespeir

    Well, there goes the rest of my life!

  • Siamang

    Semenem in ore — oral sex Up to 15 years

    Totally worth it.

  • pen_devil

    REALLY hope those aren’t retroactive.

  • This led theologians of the time to consider various non-missionary sexual positions and the penance for each one.

    I don’t get it. Does this mean theologians just made up various punishments? “Sure, 15 days for pre-marital sex sounds nice, we’ll go with that”

    I hope I am reading this wrong…

  • “Carnal relations,” even with one’s wife, were considered filthy.

    It better be filthy or else you’re doing it wrong. 🙂

  • Polly

    Can you imagine a bunch of celibate men sitting around talking, thinking and wringing their hands about all the different kinds of sex? Maybe someone knows a word for the manic sexual obssession that ensues when one denies their own powerful, biological urge for sex and it results in the need to find avenues for expressing that unfulfilled need. That avenue can even be talking about how NOT to have sex.

  • the Shaggy

    Coitus in terga — anal sex (with a cleric)

    … the hell?

  • Justin S

    Well, looks like I’m going to hell. (But we all knew this anyway). It appears I’ll have to eat bread and water until I’m about 137 years old…

  • Mriana

    Oh that was nice. Women get a longer sentence for having adult fun with themselves or their husbands. 🙄 No wonder so many religious women have issues with sex and self-esteem to this day.

  • Richard Wade

    It’s interesting that dorsal sex (woman on top) rates a punishment of 3 years, even though it’s face-to-face like the acceptable “missionary position.” It just demonstrates that it’s not about sex it’s about control. The clerics could never accept allowing a woman to be in a position of control even for a few minutes.

    You know, the basic attitudes of many Christians haven’t really changed much in the last 793 years.

  • Karen

    You know, the basic attitudes of many Christians haven’t really changed much in the last 793 years.

    Man, that’s the truth! Interesting to know the specific historical basis for all the prudery I was raised with.

  • monkeymind

    Hah! I spy a loophole! No punishment for cunning linguists – that is if you translate the Latin literally and keep it to that narrow definition.

  • The “woman on top” one jumped out at me too, Richard. What a weird thing to have so high on the list. I mean, if your problem is forms of sex that can’t result in conception, “woman on top” intercourse should be at the bottom of the list (or maybe second to bottom, just above rear entry). It may not be the optimal position for conception, but at least it’s possible.

    And female masturbation (women who use sex toys) should be lower on the list than male masturbation, since it doesn’t “waste” seed that could otherwise be used for conception.

    But of course, as you pointed out, the conception thing is largely a red herring.

  • Siamang

    If these folks were making the rules today, all procreation would be in-vitro from sperm acquired via hypodermic needle!

  • BMcP

    Dorsal sex (woman on top) 3 Years
    Semenem in ore — oral sex Up to 15 years

    I am soooo in trouble.. :0

  • Vincent

    I took a course in college called “Mariage and Sexuality in Medieval Europe.”
    I read several of those lists, determining the proper penance for various forms of sexual activity. Some of them I’d never heard of. I remember having to ask the professor in class to explain what some of them were.
    good times 🙂

  • 1533 was the year that Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, six months before the annulment of his first marriage, and the year that the English Reformation really took off as an excuse to rob the churches of their wealth and beat up the Papists. Mainly to rob them, I think. Henry did have several wars that needed funding.

    Perhaps the high number of homosexual monks in the dissolved monasteries had something to do with the change in law. Perhaps it was simply a way to exert the divine authority of kings. It’s horribly unfair no matter what the excuse.

    One question though, are the sentences concurrent or consecutive? It makes a big difference.

  • Jen

    Of course, in all fairness, back in the Middle Ages the clerics were having as much sex as the rest of the people, if not more, because they had the money. Popes back then were awesome. Sergius III was the the most awesome.

    The basic message I am getting from this is that women shouldn’t have orgasms. That doesn’t seem to have changed at all, except for maybe that Christian sex toy store.

  • cipher

    And Catholics today will tell you that they never had the kinds of problems with sex that Protestants did!

  • Maria

    truly sad. quite hypocritical them thinking they are so “pure” when they sat around and thought up all this stuff

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