How far did medieval morality reflect or justify medieval ethical theory? Let us first look at the picture, with no thesis to prove.

The first moral incident of the Christian life was baptism: the child was solemnly inducted into the community and the Church, and was vicariously subjected to their laws. Every child received a “Christian name”—that is, usually, the name of some Christian saint. Surnames (i.e., added names) were of motley origin, and could go back through generations to kinship, occupation, place, a feature of body or character, even a bit of church ritual: Cicely Wilkinsdoughter, James Smith, Margaret Ferrywoman, Matthew Paris, Agnes Redhead, John Merriman, Robert Litany, Robert Benedicite or Benedict.2

Gregory the Great, like Rousseau, urged mothers to nurse their own infants;3 most poor women did, most upper-class women did not.4 Children were loved as now, but were beaten more. They were numerous, despite high infantile and adolescent mortality; they disciplined one another by their number, and became civilized by attrition. They learned a hundred arts of the country or the city from relatives and playmates, and grew rapidly in knowledge and wickedness. “Boys are taught evil as soon as they can babble,” said Thomas of Celano in the thirteenth century; “and as they grow up they become steadily worse until they are Christians only in name”5—but moralists are bad historians. Boys reached the age of work at twelve, and legal maturity at sixteen.

Christian ethics followed, with adolescents, a policy of silence about sex: financial maturity—the ability to support a family—came later than biological maturity—the ability to reproduce; sexual education might aggravate the pains of continence in this interval; and the Church required premarital continence as an aid to conjugal fidelity, social order, and public health. Nevertheless, by the age of sixteen the medieval youth had probably sampled a variety of sexual experiences. Pederasty, which Christianity had effectively attacked in late antiquity, reappeared with the Crusades, the influx of Oriental ideas, and the unisexual isolation of monks and nuns.6 In 1177 Henry, Abbot of Clairvaux, wrote of France that “ancient Sodom is springing up from her ashes.”7 Philip the Fair charged that homosexual practices were popular among the Templars. The Penitentials—ecclesiastical manuals prescribing penances for sins—mention the usual enormities, including bestiality; an astonishing variety of beasts received such attentions.8Where amours of this sort were discovered they were punishable with the death of both participants; and the records of the English Parliament contain many cases of dogs, goats, cows, pigs, and geese being burned to death with their human paramours. Cases of incest were numerous.

Premarital and extramarital relations were apparently as widespread as at any time between antiquity and the twentieth century; the promiscuous nature of man overflowed the dikes of secular ecclesiastical legislation; and some women felt that abdominal gaiety could be atoned for by hebdomadal piety. Rape was common9 despite the severest penalties. Knights who served highborn dames or damoiselles for a kiss or a touch of the hand might console themselves with the lady’s maids; some ladies could not sleep with a good conscience until they had arranged this courtesy.10 The Knight of La Tour-Landry mourned the prevalence of fornication among aristocratic youth; if we were to believe him, some men of his class fornicated in church, nay, “on the altar”; and he tells of “two queens which in Lent, on Holy Thursday … took their foul delight and pleasance within the church during divine service.”11 William of Malmesbury described the Norman nobility as “given over to gluttony and lechery,” and exchanging concubines with one another12 lest fidelity should dull the edge of husbandry. Illegitimate children littered Christendom, and gave a plot to a thousand tales. The heroes of several medieval sagas were bastards—Cuchulain, Arthur, Gawain, Roland, William the Conqueror, and many a knight in Froissart’s Chronicles.

Prostitution adjusted itself to the times. Some women on pilgrimage, according to Bishop Boniface, earned their passage by selling themselves in the towns on their route.13 Every army was followed with another army, as dangerous as the enemy. “The Crusaders,” reports Albert of Aix, “had in their ranks a crowd of women wearing the habit of men; they traveled together without distinction of sex, trusting to the chances of a frightful promiscuity.”14 At the siege of Acre (1189), says the Arabic historian Emad-Eddin, “300 pretty Frenchwomen … arrived for the solace of the French soldiers … for these would not go into battle if they were deprived of women”; seeing which, the Moslem armies demanded similar inspiration.15 In the first crusade of St. Louis, according to Joinville, his barons “set up their brothels about the royal tent.”16 The university students, particularly at Paris, developed urgent or imitative needs, and filles established centers of accommodation.17

Some towns—e.g., Toulouse, Avignon, Montpellier, Nuremberg—legalized prostitution under municipal supervision, on the ground that without such lupanars, bordelli, Frauenhäuser, good women could not venture safely into the streets.18 St. Augustine had written: “If you do away with harlots the world will be convulsed with lust”;19 and St. Thomas Aquinas agreed.20 London in the twelfth century had a row of “bordells” or “stews” near London Bridge; originally licensed by the Bishop of Winchester, they were subsequently sanctioned by Parliament.21 An act of Parliament in 1161 forbade the brothel keepers to have women suffering from the “perilous infirmity of burning”—the earliest known regulation against the spread of venereal disease.22 Louis IX, in 1254, decreed the banishment of all prostitutes from France; the edict was enforced; soon a clandestine promiscuity replaced the former open traffic; the bourgeois gentlemen complained that it was well nigh impossible to guard the virtue of their wives and daughters from the solicitations of soldiers and students; at last criticism of the ordinance became so general that it was repealed (1256). The new decree specified those parts of Paris in which prostitutes might legally live and practice, regulated their dress and ornaments, and submitted them to supervision by a police magistrate popularly known as the roi des ribauds, or king of the bawds, beggars, and vagabonds.23 Louis IX, dying, advised his son to renew the edict of expulsion; Philip did, with results much as before; the law remained in the statutes, but was not enforced.24 In Rome, according to Bishop Durand II of Mende (1311), there were brothels near the Vatican, and the pope’s marshals permitted them for a consideration.25 The Church showed a humane spirit toward prostitutes; she maintained asylums for reformed women, and distributed among the poor the donations received from converted courtesans.26

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