wages of sin is death”: haunting words, even for those who don’t know their context (Paul’s
Epistle to Romans, 6). Or their continuation, which makes all the difference: “but the gift of
God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This, of course, is the crux of Christian morality,
that most of what we do during the course of our lives only corrupts us, but through the love of
Christ we can be saved. The implication comes rushing into the mind of the would-be sinner: Well, if
I can confess my sins and be absolved, why not sin wildly, confess it all and go to Heaven having
lived a really fun life? The answer, for those who don’t already know it, is penance: the fact that your
confessor will give you a certain number of prayers and punishments to follow during this life
depending on the level of your sins.
I had all this in mind while reading the current
* * *
Voicebox on Catholicism and sex, and I
thought it might be interesting to investigate the history of the Church’s views on sins of the bodily
sort. So I tracked down a series of medieval “penitentials”: manuals for priests on how to conduct
confessions and dispense penance. Three of the penitentials I found (two from the seventh and one
from the ninth century) had whole chapters on fornication, and excerpts of two of them are reprinted
below. They contain a number of surprises: that “whoever sends seed into the mouth” — or whoever
takes it — is committing the “worst evil,” that men are punished for homosexuality more than women,
that (in one text) copulating with an animal is no greater a crime than masturbating alone and, finally,
that, if you don’t have a wife, your penance for bestiality is cut in half. This last is a rare Christian
concession to the dynamics of human desire, the implication being that if you don’t have a good
woman to come home to, the milkcow looks that much more attractive.
From The So-called Roman Penitential in Medieval Handbooks of Penance
translated by John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer
6. If anyone commits fornication as [did] the Sodomites, he shall do penance for ten years, three of these on bread and water.
10. If anyone commits fornication by himself or with a beast of burden or with any quadruped, he shall do penance for three years; if [he has] clerical rank or a monastic vow, he shall do penance for seven years.
11. If any cleric lusts after a woman and is not able to commit the act because the woman will not comply, he shall do penance for half a year on bread and water and for a whole year abstain from wine and meat.
14. If anyone begets a child of the wife of another, that is, commits adultery and violates his neighbor’s bed, he shall do penance for three years and abstain from juicy foods and from his own wife, giving in addition to the husband the price of the wife’s violated honor.
15. If anyone wishes to commit adultery and cannot, that is, is not accepted, he shall do penance for forty days.
16. If anyone commits fornication with women, that is, with widows and girls, if with a widow, he shall do penance for a year; if with a girl, he shall do penance for two years.
17. If any unstained youth is joined to a virgin, if the parents are willing, she shall become his wife; nevertheless they shall do penance for one year and become man and wife.
18. If anyone commits fornication with a beast he shall do penance for one year. If he has not a wife, he shall do penance for half a year.
From The Penitential of Theodore in Medieval Handbooks of Penance
translated by John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer
1. If anyone commits fornication with a virgin he shall do penance for one year. If with a married woman, he shall do penance for four years, two of these entire, and in the other two during three forty-day periods and three days a week.
2. He judged that he who often commits fornication with a man or with a beast should do penance for ten years.
3. Another judgement is that he who is joined to beasts shall do penance for fifteen years.
4. He who after his twentieth year defiles himself with a male shall do penance for fifteen years.
5. A male who commits fornication with a male shall do penance for ten years.
6. Sodomites shall do penance for seven years, and the effeminate man as an adulteress.
7. Likewise he who commits this sexual offense once shall do penance for four years. If he has been in the habit of it, as Basil says, fifteen years; but if not, one year less as a woman. If he is a boy, two years for the first offense; if he repeats it, four years.
8. If he does this “in femoribus” [between the thighs], one year, or the three forty-day periods.
9. If he defiles himself, forty days.
10. He who desires to commit fornication, but is not able, shall do penance for forty or twenty days.
11. As for boys who mutually engage in vice, he judged that they should be whipped.
12. If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years.
13. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.
14. The penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication.
15. “Qui semen in os miserit” [whoever sends seed into the mouth] shall do penance for seven years: this is the worst of evils. Elsewhere it was his judgement that both [participants in this offense] shall do penance to the end of life, or twelve years; or as above, seven.
16. If one commits fornication with his mother, he shall do penance for fifteen years and never change except on Sundays. But this so impious incest is likewise spoken of by him in another way — that he shall do penance for seven years, with perpetual pilgrimage.
17. He who commits fornication with his sister shall do penance for fifteen years in the way in which it is stated above of his mother. But this [penalty] he also elsewhere established in a canon as twelve years. Whence it is not unreasonable that the fifteen years that are written to apply to the mother.
18. The first canon determined that he who often commits fornication should do penance for ten years; a second canon, seven; but on account of the weakness of man, on deliberation they said he should do penance for three years.
19. If a brother commits fornication with a natural brother, he shall abstain from all kinds of flesh for fifteen years.
20. If a mother imitates acts of fornication with her little son, she shall abstain from flesh for three years and fast one day in the week, that is until vespers.
21. He who amuses himself with libidinous imagination shall do penance until the imagination is overcome.
22. He who loves a woman in his mind shall seek pardon from God; but if he has spoken [to her], that is, of love and friendship, but is not received by her, he shall do penance for seven days.
© John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer