Article Title

Sex With Guilt


Paul Freedman


James A. Brundage. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Pp. xxiv, 674. $45.00. Paul

Medieval law was an accretion of traditions from several sources. This is well known, for example, with regard to the historical development of English Common Law. Continental and church law of the Middle Ages was built on a foundation of Roman or Roman-inspired codes and practices and so tended to emphasize statute and authoritative executive statements more than did customary laws. In both its political government and legislation the medieval church was increasingly centralized. Nevertheless, even the church faced the task of reconciling diverse norms and precedents (Biblical, Patristic, Roman, Germanic) that reflected conflicting procedures and social expectations. One might expect medieval canon law relating to sexual behavior to have been straightforward and unyielding, but this is not the case. Because of the interaction of ethical and textual traditions, and the nature of medieval society (which was rather more exuberant than is commonly believed), the development of ecclesiastical regulation was slow and complex.

The Middle Ages was hardly unique in attempting to control the manifestations of sexual desire. All societies have both informal expectations and formal rules about sex and marriage. Where they differ, often radically, is in marking off aspects of sexual and domestic relations considered private and thus left to individual conscience or preference from those subject to legal enforcement. Lawmakers of the Middle Ages were surely more willing than those of modern Western societies to control marriage and sexual behavior, but as recent experience shows, the desire for regulation and its targets can change suddenly. Contemporary shifts in outlook and law with regard to abortion, or toward physical abuse of women by their husbands, demonstrate the changes possible in mapping the boundaries of social conformity.