Right. So, I was recently reading one of my favourite blogs, specifically the recent addendum to this post, where I discovered the despicable news story of an English judge declaring that, “I cannot think of any more obviously fundamental human right than the right of a man to have sex with his wife.” Yes, that is right, anno domini 2019 Justice Hayden is basically advocating for the universal right of men to take advantage of their wives just because marriage. Now, there are a lot of things that people today decry as ‘medieval’ when said things don’t align with contemporary Western morals (things which are also often described as ‘backwards’). Usually I’m sat here screaming about how those people are total idiots. Unfortunately, this is not one of those moments, because this “right” absolutely has its roots in medieval theological philosophy on marriage. Fortunately, though, I can come barrelling to the defense of the Middle Ages, because their theory on this “right” is considerably less misogynistic (or, at least, misogynistic in a wildly different way) and abominable than the twisted ass version that Hayden is advocating.
Ok, we can probably all agree that medieval marriage is un monde à part, primarily because marriages were not contracted for love, but for financial & political gain. But, for theologians of the time, the foremost purpose of marriage was for the engendering of offspring, followed closely by its function as a remedy for lust. Because, and this is essential to keep in mind, the main concern that theologians had when thinking about marriage was how to control who fucked who, when, and for what purpose. Guys, really, clerics were so obsessed about other people’s sexual activities. And this is where it gets really interesting.
Let’s pause and back up for a minute. Because why the hell were clerics so consumed by the sex lives of others? Well, firstly because men we/are generally preoccupied with controlling who women fuck. But also because Adam and Eve, bitches. Original Sin.
But, wait; wasn’t Original Sin when Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge and then Adam followed suit?
Well, I’m glad you asked! Because, yes, literally, that is exactly what it is. But now let me introduce ma boi ST. AUGUSTINE, who came along about 390 years after the death of Jesus and changed Original Sin (and Christian sex ethics) for us all.
The tldr on Augustine: he was probably the most influential Church Father (next to Jerome), originally a heretic, very sexually promiscuous in his youth—until he wasn’t. He became a hardcore Christian (Catholic) following an awakening concerning the extremely bad copious amounts of sex he was having, stopped all that, and started writing a shit ton about God, goodness, love, and, of course, sex & virginity. Now, I’m not gonna hate on our boy Auggie primarily because, while he did totally screw Eve and all of womankind over with his sex-talk (though, let’s be real, that wasn’t very hard for any medieval man to do #thanksPaul), he was also the only major church scholar at the time defending the positive necessity of sex. Yes, you heard that right: Augustine was the Sex Chamption™ of the 4th/5th century, raging against sadsacks like Jerome and Origen who were out there like SEX=ULTIMATE EVIL. Ok, so what the hell am I on about when I say that Augustine fucked shit up?
As part of defending the goodness & necessity of sex against the inherent evil of Lust (and yes, that dichotomy was a given—hello, 7 deadly sins and 7 cardinal virtues), Augustine linked the sin of concupiscence (lust) to Original Sin in his works (listed below). Now, the philosophy of it all can get a bit complex, especially when you get deep in the gluttony=lust=feminine weaknesses (please everyone who wants to understand this more go read Payer and our girl Walker Bynum, references below), but suffice it to say that all the absurdly paradoxical and vague Christian shit lined up in Augustine’s work and the results are the following:
1/ Sex happened in Paradise (woo babies), but Lust was not present.
2/ Eve introduced Lust into mankind by consuming the fruit and encouraging Adam to do the same.
3/ Sex is now condemnable because of its inherent dependency on/decline into Lust.
4/ But sex must be at least a little pure and good since it existed in Paradise, right?
5/ Plus also sex is necessary, because without sex humans stop being born, and God can’t want that… Who would cater to his huge ego then? Who would he smite to prove his power?
Ergo, 6/ God must want us to have sex, so we should; but, we must have sex in the purest and most sinless way, because that’s the only acceptable way to do it.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning (because we can’t make misogynists look too good…) that Augustine was still like, “Ok y’all aren’t all going to Hell for propogating the human race as long as your kids aren’t bastards, but, like, virgins are still best of all.” Anyways, why is this important, and what does it have to do with the marriage debt?
Well, firstly, it’s important because (for better or for worse, depending on your personal view and also who you’re talking to), it places women, via Eve, in an active sexual role. Secondly, because marriages were made for political & financial gain, but also for the continuation of families, which means that the sex component was kind of a really big deal when it came to marriage. I told you clerics were obsessed about controlling other people’s sex lives.
Basically, all of a sudden, because of Augustine, there was finally a way for people to have sex and for that to be okay! (Not that I think people had been particularly deterred from having sex before, but, you know, having the threat of eternal damnation removed at least in some areas is kinda nice). But it was only ok in marriage and for pregnancy. The result of this was the ‘marriage debt,’ which was intended to ensure that no one be subject to a marriage that does not fulfil its main duty: child rearing. Essentially, the marriage debt stated that should one partner demand sex from the other, the latter ought to (more or less had to) oblige the former, for the request was (presumably) not for sex qua sex, but sex for reproduction. And to refuse to get pregnant is, obviously, an insult to God and you will be damned to Hell.
This sounds a whole lot like what Hayden is saying, but of note—and I cannot stress this enough—the marriage debt applied to both partners equally. Yes, you read that right. A woman had as much right to demand sex from her husband at any point (within the rules of what days sex could be had… and there is a very, very long list of days where no one could have sex because to do so would be sacrilegious) and he would have been obliged to give her some of that D. Which, like, how cool, right? Well… enter medieval misogyny. See, unlike today where we have gross ass men basically advocating for marital rape because they can’t fathom caring about a woman as anything other than a dick sheathe (and also because they have some depraved notion that we don’t also enjoy sex), the middle ages had gross ass men condemning and attempting to oppress female sexuality (haha which is how we got where we are today…) because they were convinced that women were going to take advantage of the marriage debt and… well… more or less commit marital rape. Yeah, I’m not joking. These dudes were genuinely terrified of how damn horny medieval women supposedly were (probs because most of them were gay, but that’s a theory for another time). So, of course, they put caveats in place to protect the men from ‘rape’ while still keeping the marriage debt—hence the restrictions to a few number of days and specific times of day and specific places when sex was green-lighted, as well as the fierce insistence that sex only be requested for procreative purposes.
No one was particularly worried about men abusing the marriage debt, in part, I venture, because as a general rule men were negligent of women being raped; but, also because medieval men were absolutely convinced that they were more likely to be raped by their horny af wife who wanted sex a hell of a lot more often than he did. Which, even if you just think about the theology of sex/concupiscence being linked to Original Sin, makes the sense. I mean, Eve is the one who introduced lust into the world and set the tone for all of womankind, apparently. We all be wantin’ to get some, it’s just in our ‘nature’.
So, yea, Hayden’s declaration of sex as a ‘fundamental human right’ in marriage has been around for a long ass time. But the dude has got it wrong. Assuming we agree that sex in a marriage is a fundamental right at all (and I’m not going to open that can of worms here now), it’s not just a fundamental right for man to have sex with his wife, but also for a woman to have sex with her husband. Also, would like to say that the medieval formula is very specific about the fact that the first partner must ask for sex. Yea, ok, the second partner ought to say yes (or risk being considered a terrible spouse and liable for divorce), but they are still asked first. Hayden has done completely away with that. Which is sick. And wrong. And honestly, if you’re going to mimic medieval shit, please do it right. Because, sure, it is super not cool that medieval misogyny sought to dampen that extra-scary female sexuality, but damn at least in those marriages women got to have a sexual appetite and equal opportunity to satisfy it.
Brown, Peter. “Augustine: Sexuality and Society.” The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. Columbia University Press (1988): pp. 387-427.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: the Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. University of California Press, 1988.
Payer, Pierre J. The Bridling of Desire: Views of Sex in the Later Middle Ages. University of Toronto Press Inc., 1993.
St. Augustine. De nuptiis et concupiscentia.
—. De sancta virginitate.
—. De Genesi ad litteram.