Katherine Harvey

In the late twelfth century Gerald of Wales, archdeacon of Brecon and a prolific author, wrote a tract on the proper conduct of the clergy. Gerald was writing only a few decades after the First Lateran Council (1123) had introduced compulsory celibacy for all priests, at a time when the sexual behaviour of the clergy was the subject of considerable scrutiny, and much of the tract is taken up with his thoughts on this theme.

A bishop in bed. British LIbrary: Royal 10 E IV, f. 241
A bishop in bed. (British Library: Royal 10 E IV, f. 241)

Gerald also recounts a number of anecdotes, including the tale of an archdeacon of Louvain who was elected bishop of that city against his will. In particular, the archdeacon was worried about his ability to remain celibate, and he only became so after his consecration as bishop. Within a month, he became seriously ill; ‘his genital organs swelled up with immeasurable flatulence.’ To those around him, the cause was clear: the bishop needed to have sex for the sake of his health. He was urged to ‘take a woman to himself’ but, fearing eternal damnation if he prioritised the health of the soul over the health of the body in this way, the bishop refused. The swelling grew worse, and he died a few days later.

To the modern reader, Gerald’s claim that a few weeks without sex would be sufficient to kill a man seems implausible, and yet it is far from being the only such case recorded in medieval Europe. Several saint-bishops, including Thomas Becket, were apparently advised by their doctors that they should abandon celibacy for the sake of their health – although they always refused to do so. Non-clerics were also at risk, especially if they went on prolonged military campaigns. Louis VII of France became ill after spending two months besieging a Burgundian town, and his doctors agreed that ‘prolonged abstinence from sexual intercourse had cause his indisposition.’ One account of the Third Crusade claimed that ‘A hundred thousand men died there/ Because from women they abstained.’

However implausible such claims may seem to us, they were completely in accordance with medieval medical theory. Medieval understandings of the body were based on the system of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile), which had been devised in ancient Greece by the Hippocratic School and further developed by the Roman physician Galen.  In order to maintain good health, the humours needed to be kept in perfect balance. This was achieved through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. If semen was not expelled on a regular basis it would build up within the body. Such accumulation affected the heart and the brain, causing a range of symptoms including anxiety and depression, headaches and weight loss, and ultimately, in the most serious cases, death.

A priest celebrates mass. (British Library: Harley 2915, f.84)

Although such a death might be meritorious in the eyes of the church, it seems unlikely that many men would have been willing to submit to this fate. Involuntary nocturnal pollutions offered one potential solution. The church was not entirely comfortable with this, however, not least because they polluted the body and obliged priests to seek absolution before celebrating mass. On the other hand, all but the strictest theologians were prepared to accept that the occasional emission could be no more than an essential rebalancing of the humours, and should therefore be forgiven. Only if a priest had provoked the emission (for example, if he had indulged in lustful thoughts) could he be blamed for its occurrence.

The medical stance on this matter was even more pragmatic. It was widely argued that, for most adult men, regular sexual intercourse was an essential part of a healthy lifestyle; if this was not possible, then an alternative method of dealing with the inevitable ‘superfluity’ must be found. Consequently, numerous doctors (including Galen and Avicenna) openly recommended masturbation as a way for celibate men to deal with the inevitable build-up of semen in the body, and thus to maintain their physical health. Such a solution may not have been acceptable to the church, but that it was even suggested serves as an important reminder that, for much of the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of men were forced adopt a lifestyle which was believed to be entirely incompatible with their physiology. Ecclesiastical ideals were directly at odds with medical realities, and priests had to decide whether to prioritise their physical or spiritual health. For many of them — torn between the demands of their faith and the demands of the flesh — this must have been an impossible choice.


Katherine Harvey is Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London, where here research focuses on the pre-Reformation English episcopate. Her first book, Episcopal Appointments in England, c. 1214- c. 1344, was published by Ashgate in January 2014, and she has also written several articles on the medieval episcopal body. Her current research project is ‘Medicine and the Bishop in England, c. 1100- c. 1500.’ She tweets from @keharvey2013

 



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5 Comments

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Katherine. I’ve been working on early medieval penitentials for some time now, and their detail on seminal pollution still amazes me (and amuses me somewhat, I confess). That the Church was so concerned with the minutiae of male sexuality seems almost incredible. You mention lustful thoughts and nocturnal pollution, and it reminded me of an Anglo-Saxon penitential that mentions hands-free, violent use of the mind to create an orgasm (though I’m paraphrasing here). Quite a few weeks fasting for that one, if my memory serves me well. Interestingly, on the health front, two large studies have demonstrated a statistically significant reduction in prostate cancer risk for males who regularly ejaculate: http://www.harvardprostateknowledge.org/does-frequent-ejaculation-help-ward-off-prostate-cancer. Food for (libidinous) thought!

  2. I enjoyed your post. Sex was also thought to be healthy for women. It was believed that the womb would wander otherwise.

  3. Interesting article!

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