Somehow the human race survived the Middle Ages, no mean feat when you consider how much literature was out there condemning sex. Church thinkers like Saint Jerome announced that carnal relations were “filthy” even within the bounds of holy matrimony: “The wise man should love his wife with cool discretion,” Jerome opined, “not with hot desire… Nothing is nastier than to love your own wife as if she were your mistress.” 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.
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).