Medieval penitential sex flowchart

Canons of Theodore, Corpus 190, pg. 404Penitentials were handbooks listing many sins a confessor could be expected to encounter during private confession and the appropriate penances he should assign for each act (or the appropriate moneys the penitent should pay to commute a penance).

They were first compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century when the practice of private confession began to supersede the public confessions of sins and imposition of penances of early Christianity and spread to the continent, continuing to be published through the 12th century even though they were officially condemned by the Catholic Church during the Council of Paris in 829.

The penances tended to be things like fasts, repetitions of psalms on your knees or standing, giving alms, and the sins were everything from fornication to murder. But it’s the fornication that took up the lion’s share of these handbooks, and every conceivable act was detailed along with the (heavy) price it exacted in penance.

Here’s an example from Corpus Christi College’s Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore:

Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.
Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years.
If the effeminate male (bædling) fornicates with another effeminate male (bædling), (he is to) do penance for 10 years.
Whoever does this unintentionally (unwærlice) once must fast for 4 years; if it is habitual, as Basil says, for 15 years if he is not in orders and also one year (less?) so as a woman does. If it is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he fornicates interfemorally (between the limbs), he must fast for 1 year or the 3 40-day periods.
If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days.
He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
If a woman fornicates [with another woman?] she must do penance for 3 years.
If she touches herself in the same way, i.e., in emulation of fornication, she must repent for 1 year.
One penance applies to a widow and a virgin; more (penance) is earned by her who has a husband if she fornicates.
Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.

And it goes on and on like that. Marriage is no cure either, because there are endless strictures against marital sex as well. If it’s not procreative, it’s fornication. If it’s done on a holy day, it’s fornication. You see above what happens if it’s oral: you get a life sentence of penance.

The penitential writers saw marital sex as a concession, not as a right or even a gift from God. The pleasure it brought was inherently sinful, a gateway to lust, so sex within marriage should be carefully contained and scheduled to ensure the most possible procreation and the least possible pleasure. Married couples had to abstain regularly or the very state of their marriage would degenerate into an illegitimate and sinful union. Even the children born of sex during a period where the couple should have abstained — mainly based on the Church’s liturgical calendar and on the wife’s reproductive cycle — were to be considered bastards.

Which brings us to the inspiration of today’s little historical sermon. Many years ago in college I read a fascinating book called Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe by University of Kansas history professor emeritus James A. Brundage. It’s a remarkable analysis of Medieval authorities’ legal proscriptions about sex, starting with ancient Roman and Greek law codes, then moving on to Medieval strictures as seen in the penitentials, canon law, Germanic legal statutes, and ever so much more.

I regularly think of the chapter on the penitentials in particular, mainly because of one truly awesome flowchart. Unfortunately my copy of the book is squirreled away in my parents’ attic along with many of its college tome brethren, so yesterday when it popped into my head that I really need to blog about this greatest of historical graphs, I thought “Hey! There’s an interweb now! I bet I can find it online.” And so by Thor’s hammer I did.

It seems the chart has made a strong impression on many other people as well, and since Brundage’s book is standard in Medieval history and in history of sexuality studies, I am far from alone in wishing to pay it homage.

What it is is a flowchart Brundage compiled from many penitentials which helps the pious man figure out if he can have lawful intercourse. (Click for the large version.)

Penitential sex flowchart

Genius, is it not? I bet you’ll find yourself thinking “STOP! SIN!” at random/randy times now too. :giggle:

That’s not to say that Medieval folks actually lived according to the flowchart rules, of course. There’s always a huge gap between proscription and reality. People did it then like we do it now: whenever they could. But it is a fascinating glimpse into the both prurient and ascetic world of Medieval confessor literature, and what kind of standards Medieval people might have measured themselves against.

42 thoughts on “Medieval penitential sex flowchart

    1. Maybe it’s a Ramadan thing where you don’t eat between sunrise and sunset. Or else they could be referring to abstaining from eating meat or fish. There seem to have been several levels of fasting.

      1. No, the no-food-during-daylight fast is only Muslim. Christian fasting does not, basically, mean NOT to eat – that is a misunderstanding. It means rather WHAT to eat: that is, to abstain from a range of foods such as meat – as you rightly state.

        However, some saints did impose on themselves a kind of fasting which also implied eating less, for instance, only once a day; or only feeding from bread and water (number of times a day unspecified). In other words, fasting could in some cases take on what we would today call an anorectic character – of trying to eat as little as possible.
        But that was in special and rare cases, not the ordinary case.

        Ordinary people’s fasting prescribed from outside as a penance would “only” mean only not to eat meat, or drink wine, or however the forbidden things were defined. Of allowed foods, there was no restriction as to amount. One was allowed to eat one’s fill. This is also the way it is today in monasteries – in eastern (orthodox) christianity, for instance, there are very long fasting periods several times each year – forty days before easter, I think, and others of the same length. In these periods, they do not consume meat, oil/butter, egg or wine – but they eat DELICIOUS food during this period, not least in the monasteries! – since they have learnt to cook such fasting dishes especially well. (It is worth visiting an orthodox monastery just for trying those dishes!) Moreover, a recent health examination of monks of the Mount Athos showed that they rarely or never got cancer, though living to a very high age; the fasting periods, and their diet as a whole, is extremely beneficial. A book has now been written on it passing on the diet to people outside just for its health effects.

  1. When I was a Young Thing in a Catholic girls’ high school, they had these “dating manuals” in the back of the library–they were old even then–that had a female body sort of blocked into segments like one of those cows where they mark out the cuts of meat. The segments indicated whether letting a guy touch you there was a mortal or venial sin, and even gave you a sense of how much purgatory time you’d have to do if you died before you could confess said transgressions. So if you were getting groped in the back seat of a car, and The Blob got you (in horror movies monsters always get you when you’re making out in cars), you might have to spend like 10,000 years in Purgatory if your date’s hand was in the Mortal Sin Zone (otherwise known as the “down there).

    1. That’s pretty hilarious. I assume you all wrote copious graffiti on every page. My Catholic school didn’t have give us any manuals. They just positioned nuns all over the place at dances.

  2. I sense a plot to encourage folks who’ve given one hummer to keep putting out. You earned lifetime penance with the first one; now you might as well just spread some happiness!

  3. I would suggest another book that i believe would go perfectly with this one.
    John Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality; Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

    In this one you will find out why I mentioned young boys in my previous comment. Lets just say the Romans and Christians up to the 8 century were – lets just say that they were very open minded people.

    1. I’ll be sure to check it out. As far as I know, Romans were not in fact terribly accepting of man-on-man sexuality. They openly derided the Greeks for their appreciation of the erastes-erominos relationship.

      That’s the reason fellating is a worse sin than being fellated in the penitentials (which began being written long before the 8th c.): because it was considered a submissive, effeminate posture.

      1. Well as far as this book goes one can depict from it that Romans were not only opened for man-to-man action, they actually were very pro of it. But only as you said this went for active homosexuality not the passive one. For example if it came out that a man from the higher social classes was indulging himself in passive homosexual relations he could even loose roman citizenship. But there were of course exceptions like Octavian August who supposedly still a boy passively gave him self to his uncle Julius Cezar.

        1. There were many rumors about Julius Caesar’s sexuality, inlcuding the one about him having sex with Octavian and another even more long-lived one that he had had a sexual relationship with King Nicomedes of Bithynia as a young man. These rumors weren’t considered a positive or even neutral thing, though. They were malicious gossip spread to impugn his dignitas.

        2. To blacken the man – if i remember correctly the accusations were that with the Bithynian king Julius was passive.
          Leaving this aside, what is more interesting is than the lyrics of 6-8 century that was very fond of man-man relations and than how it died away to the 11 century. What is more interesting is how with the uprising of renaissance the world saw the magnitude of homosexual lyrics expand from years 1050-1150 and than die away till the second half of the 19 century.

  4. Allah You are the Most Praised and Trust Worthy One. We seek Your Divine Help, Forgiveness, and Protection. May G-d Help us sincerely repent. May G-d Help us perform and complete our fasting. May G-d Help us better our souls in virtue before our time of death. Amin.

  5. I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your blogs really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later on. Cheers

  6. I went to school with two of Profesor Brundage’s kids, his son Greg and his daughter Bridget, so I was also a frequent visitor to the Brundage home. This was while he was head of the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Given the publishing dates, he must have been preparing this book during those years. It certainly explains the looks he gave guys who paid too much attention to Bridget, who was a knockout par excellence for whom the fires of hell were not sufficient deterrent to lust.

  7. The flowchart didn’t originate with Prof. Brundage; it was done later. The appropriate passages in the book are on pages 91-92. I would suggest that “For my daughter?” isn’t necessarily a Christian sentiment, but, rather a paternal one.

    In fact, the Brundage household was a fairly liberal one, and neither Greg nor Bridget were over-parented.

  8. Well, if you think fasting is joke, just wait till you see what Hell is like!

    Here’s a taste of purgatory:

    A Religious of the monastery of St. Elizabeth, conversing one day with St. Lidwina, and speaking of the cells of the monastery, of the chapter room, of the refectory, etc., of his community, she gave him as exact and detailed a description of his house as though she had passed her life there. The Religious having expressed his surprise, “Know, Father,” said she, “that I have been through your monastery; I have visited the cells, I have seen the angel guardians of all those who occupy them.” On of the journeys which our saint made to Purgatory occurred as follows:

    An unfortunate sinner, entangled in the corruptions of the world, was finally converted. Thanks to the prayers and urgent exhortations of Lidwina, he made a sincere confession of all his sins and received absolution, but had little time to practice penance, for shortly after he died of the plague.

    The saint offered up many prayers and sufferings for his soul, and some time afterwards, having been taken by her angel guardian into Purgatory, she desired to know if he was still her angel, and in what condition. “He is there,” said her angel, “and he suffers much. Would you be willing to endure some pain in order to diminish his?” “Certainly,” she replied, “I am ready to suffer anything to assist him.” Instantly her angel conducted her into a place of frightful torture. “Is this, then, Hell, my brother?” asked the holy maiden, seized with horror. “No, sister,” answered the angel, “but this part of Purgatory is bordering upon Hell.” Looking around on all sides, she saw what resembled an immense prison, surrounded with walls of a prodigious height, the blackness of which, together with the monstrous stones, inspired her with horror. Approaching this dismal enclosure, she heard a confused noise of lamenting voices, cries of fury, chains, instruments of torture, violent blows which the executioners discharged upon their victims. This noise was such that all the tumult of the world, in tempest or battle, could bear no comparison to it. “What, then, is that horrible place?” asked St. Lidwina of her good angel. “Do you wish me to show it to you?” “No, I beseech you,” said she, recoiling with terror; “the noise which I hear is so frightful that I can no longer bear it; how, then, could I endure the sight of those horrors?”

    Continuing her mysterious route, she saw an angel seated sadly on the curb of a well. “Who is that angel?” she asked of her guide. “It is,” he replied, “the angel guardian of the sinner in whose lot you are interested. His soul is in this well, where it has a special Purgatory.” At these words, Lidwina cast an inquiring glance at her angel; she desired to see that soul which was dear to her, and endeavor to release it from that frightful pit. Her angel, who understood her, having taken off the cover of the well, a cloud of flames, together with the most plaintive cries, came forth.

    “Do you recognize that voice?” asked the angel of her. “Alas! Yes,” answered the servant of God. “Do you desire to see that soul?” he continued. On her replying in the affirmative, he called him by his name; and immediately our virgin saw appear at the mouth of the pit a spirit all on fire, resembling incandescent metal, which said to her in a voice scarcely audible, “O Lidwina, servant of God, who will give me to contemplate the face of the Most High?”

    The sight of this soul, a prey to the most terrible torment of fire, gave our saint such a shock that the cincture which she wore around her body was rent in twain; and, no longer able to endure the sight, she awoke suddenly from her ecstasy.

  9. The Blessed Virgin stated in Fatima that more people go to Hell for sins of the flesh than any other reason. Which, of course, means that most of us who were trained during the Sexual Revolution in the 60’s are headed for tortures beyond human imagination. As are our children.

  10. As a non Catholic, it would be interesting and informative to see a 365 day calendar marked up with Xs on the days when you had to abstain to get a feel for now much of the calendar was off limits.

  11. It looks like they gave the least amount of punishment for homosexual relations if the partner was a young boy?

  12. Ehh… Correction. Fasting does mean don’t eat, or eat too little (some bread and water, for example). Not eating certain foods is called ABSTINENCE. By certain foods I mean meat (except fish and cold-blooded animals). :hattip:

  13. Footnote should be, all those priest who charged money to forgive sins, went to hell. But the booby prize is that everybody goes to heaven. There ain’t no hell like the one we are living in.

  14. The population of hell must’ve been getting low in the late 50’s and early 60’s, with all the Leave it to Beaver families where Father Knows Best. So God created a sexual pandemic in the 60’s to meet His quotas and refill hell. Being alive in the 60’s was just bad timing.

  15. The population of hell must’ve been getting low in the late 50’s and early 60’s, with all the Leave it to Beaver families where Father Knows Best. So God created a sexual pandemic in the 60’s to meet His quotas and refill hell. Being alive in the 60’s was just bad timing. :yes:

  16. It is notable that none of these were obligatory rules on a dogma’s level. And it is unlikely that all of them were used by all priests everywhere during, say, 1500 years – as this is a collection of all the rules found in different books.

    What I find interesting is that Saint Paul saw marriage and sex much more naturally and simply than these rules did. He had only two concerns against sex. One was his false belief that the End of the World will be within a few years and some “great tribulation” will introduce it. That is partly why he did not suggest marriage. And the other was that for him a passionate love for God and an intensive and fervent prayer life was self-evident and he thought it would or should be so for every Christian. But marriage – not only sex in it but also every other worldly aspects – might object such a spiritual life. That is the other reason why he suggested not to marry – but he did not forbid it.
    So all those later rules should be discerned (by Catholics as well as by Protestants) in this light. Everything in a Christian life should express a genuine, honest love (good will) for God and for “neighbor”.Deep prayer life, ideally, would not prevent a mutually gentle and generally joyful sexual life of a Christian couple but geatly strengthen it.
    I think that monks could see sex as something alien and dubious and that is why they could see it, one-sidedly, only as a threat to be limited as much as it is possible. And the source of spiritual life was mainly monks during most of the history of the Catholic church. And that might be the cause of the big difference between Saint Paul’s (and the Bible’s) approach and that of those later books.
    On the other hand, sex became a popular drug and an ideological idol by the 20th century. And this means that “anything goes” and the ideal of having sex only in a faithful heterosexual marriage with only one couple and (at least theoretically) open to procreation became insignificant for many. And this is not how society works sustainably, or with other words following such a sexual ideal by masses means a crazy Ponzi-scheme for whole societies and countries. And that is not something one could call a Christian ideal with a modicum of common sense.

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