The Holy Guide to Coital Positions
As is life in the Middle Ages wasn't tough enough...
The finest theologians soon began devoting a great deal of thought to which coital positions were more pleasurable — and thus more evil — and special handbooks were distributed to Church confessors. Although not exactly the Kama Sutra, these summae confessorum described the offending positions and prescribed the penance for each one. Alexander of Hales railed against coitus retro, the rear-entry position, as a mortal sin, for it was coupling “in the manner of brutes.” St. Albert the Great discussed in detail four other forbidden positions: lateral (side by side), seated, standing, and anal sex. (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).
The handbooks listed recommended penance of bread, water, and abstinence for exotic congress. A consensus on the punishments included the following:
Dorsal sex (woman on top): three years
Lateral, seated, standing: 40 days
Coitus retro — rear entry: 40 days
Mutual masturbation: 30 days
Inter-femural sex — ejaculation between the legs: 40 days
Coitus in terga — anal sex: three years (with an adult); two years (with a boy); seven years (habitual); 10 years (with a cleric)
Theologians were divided on the punishment for coitus interruptus, the withdrawal method that frustrated procreation, arguing for a penance of between two and 10 years, while semenem in ore (semen in the mouth) could attract anywhere from three to 15 years. Pierre de La Padule added that sex during menstruation, sex in churches and sex preceded by kissing and fondling were almost as bad as the previously mentioned positions. Masturbation was so common that it only incurred a 10-day penalty for men and 30 days for monks, but women who used “erotic devices” did penance for one year.
By the 1400s, it seems, the Church had to give up on such detailed analyses, possibly because the congregation was beginning to get ideas. • 19 May 2008
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Brundage, James A., “Let Me Count the Ways: Canonists and Theologians Contemplate Coital Positions,” Journal of Medieval History, vol. 10, 1984, 81-94; Richards, Jeffrey, Sex , Dissidance and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages, (New York, 1993).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.