The story is told of a young Oxford don, newly commissioned in the infantry at the outbreak of war in 1939, returning to his college after his first dinner with the regular officers of his regimental mess. He was asked what they were like. “Charming people,” he replied, “but quite extraordinary. They don’t seem to be interested at all in politics. They’re interested in sex.” A military man, musing on the three books under review on his way home from the Staff College (or the Pentagon), might be justified for thinking that, fifty years later, the shoe was now on the other foot.

As Professor Brooke writes early in his book, history in the scholarly tradition, under whose shadow he grew up in the 1940s, still fundamentally meant political and constitutional history. Since then, and especially during the last thirty years, social history has come into its own, lifted “on to a higher plane of intellectual and imaginative inquiry” by, above all, the French scholars of the Annales school. Virtually all historians would now agree that marriage and sexual relations must lie near the heart of social history, and have gained a right to a commanding interest among scholars.

Professor Brundage’s Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe is encyclopedic in scope. It opens with an examination of the debt of the medieval Church to Jewish and antique pagan teachings. Brundage stresses the emphasis of Jewish doctrine on the procreative purpose of marriage, and the sense that the sex act is to be associated with uncleanness, which can be purified through ritual. Among antique teachings, he singles out the influence of the Stoics, who took a stern and restrictive view of sexual pleasure.

The eclecticism of the early Church in fastening on these particular themes in the sexual teaching of Christianity’s parent cultures, he argues, had a profound and lasting impact. Their influence was complemented in the Church’s early period by two other strands of thinking, the emphasis of the Roman lawyers on consent as the vital factor in forging the marriage bond, and the very high valuation that the Christian fathers ascribed to virginity and the celibate life. Together these ideas dictated the shape and color of the medieval ecclesiastical jurisprudence of sex and marriage, and marked most subsequent Christian thinking on these subjects in consequence.

That jurisprudence achieved its fruition in the voluminous commentaries of the canon lawyers of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. Between their time and that of the Church fathers, the Church had had to grapple with the problem of communicating its sexual ideas and ideals, formulated in the late antique period, to the Christianized barbarians who invaded the Roman Empire, and whose customs were much less antipathetic to libidinousness, at least in males. In the fluid and politically decentralized conditions of what historians used to call “the dark ages” the clergy sought to exercise a disciplinary authority not principally through the courts, but through its penitential system, outlined in the confessors’ manuals which are called Penitentials.

The Penitentials regulated with exact nicety a restrictive code of sexual behavior and taboos, whose rigors and elaboration are wittily illustrated by Brundage in what he calls a “decision flow-chart” for a couple contemplating copulation. Opening with the question, “Are you married?” it proceeds through a series of such queries as, “Is wife pregnant?” “Is it a fast day?” “Do you want a child?” “Are you naked?” (the correct answer to this one is “no”). If the ticks and crosses are appropriately entered in the twenty boxes, you get the green light. But even then you should bear in mind some essential precautions: no lewd kisses, no strange positions, try not to enjoy it, and wash yourself afterward. The regulations of the Penitentials infiltrated the contemporary collections of Church law, and so their approach became a significant influence on the legal scholars who in an ensuing age sought to elicit from the thought and rules that they found in earlier authoritative writings a coherent jurisprudence.

Brundage has an awesome mastery of the voluminous canonical literature of the high and later Middle Ages. He organizes his treatment of its teaching on sex chronologically. The church legislation of the Gregorian “reform” period (c. 1050–c. 1140) was notable for its newly emphatic approach to the mandatory celibacy of the clergy, for its clarification of the principle of the indissolubility of the marriage bond, and very importantly, for establishing the exclusive jurisdiction of the Church’s courts over matrimonial issues. The canonist Gratian, by arranging in a systematic way in his Decretum (c. 1140) the “cacophony of dissonant opinions” that could be culled from the growing body of authoritative legislation current in his time concentrated discussion on salient issues in a way that permitted a new coherence. The rulings of the popes of the period from 1154 to 1241, and especially of Alexander III and Innocent III, finally clarified the most important issues that were still unsettled. They firmly entrenched consent of both parties as the essential legal basis of the marriage bond, asserting the principle so unambiguously as to involve the Church, somewhat embarrassingly, in upholding the validity of clandestine marriages (provided the couple were agreed and of marriageable age, they deemed priestly blessing and the presence of witnesses useful but not vital). They reduced the degrees of kinship inhibiting marriage from seven to four (degrees denote the number of steps in the family tree that separate the parties from a common ancestor) and affirmed definitively the sacramental nature of the union. They reemphasized the principles of clerical celibacy, and of the “criminality” (from the Church’s moral and penitential standpoint) of all nonmarital sexual relations. From this point on, the basic lines of the Western Christian jurisprudence of marriage and sex were clear. Subsequent commentators ranged over the fine detail, with interestingly varied emphasis on the relative moral heinousness of such “crimes” as adultery, bigamy, sodomy, fellatio, bestiality, and self-abuse.


Throughout the discussions of the canonists, between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, certain central questions recur. What is the relative importance of consent and of consummation in the making of a valid marriage? What are the grounds on which a marriage can be pronounced invalid, and is impotence one of them? What degree of restraint and modesty is to be expected of married partners in their sexual relations? How are the holiness of virginity and the sacramental quality of marriage to be reconciled with each other in Christian teaching? Is the pleasure incidental to the coupling of the sexes natural, or is it always tainted?

On all these matters, the comments of the canon lawyers, as Brundage presents them, tended always toward rigor and restriction. They were at their most humane in their emphasis on the consensual legal basis of marriage, and were evenhanded in their insistence that the woman’s assent was no less important than the man’s. Somewhat grudgingly, they conceded to consummation a place as a second key element, after consent, in a marriage, and allowed impotence as a ground for its dissolution. They could hardly avoid doing so, given their insistence that begetting children was the only untainted motive for sexual intercourse. On the strength of Saint Paul’s explicit injunction, they recognized the principle of conjugal debt, that the husband has no right to refuse his wife his favors, nor she hers to him. But even in the marriage bed, any quest for extra delights they stigmatized as sinful. Outside it, there was only sin in sex.

Thus, so Brundage argues, medieval canonical jurisprudence fashioned and bequeathed to later ages a Christian jurisprudence of sex that consistently stressed two principles, the notion that its reproductive function was the criterion of what was licit, and the notion that sex was impure or a source of defilement, at the expense of a third principle, which regarded (and regards) sex as a source of intimacy and a symbol of conjugal love. Sex is a powerful and a potentially destructive force as well as a creative one, and Brundage observes that every society has felt the need for some guidelines and taboos. But he concludes that the canonists went much too far in the promotion of psychological guilt. In individual misery and despair, the toll exacted by the sexual teaching formulated by them has, by his reckoning, been enormous.

It is the business of lawyers to look at human affairs from the outside. This is what makes the great difference between Brundage’s book and Professor Brooke’s The Medieval Idea of Marriage, for Brooke is explicitly seeking to explore the inwardness of relationships between men and women. It becomes very rapidly clear that, if you look inward through Brooke’s spectacles, a very much more humane and acceptable face to medieval thinking on relations between the sexes will appear. This more optimistic tone is one reason why it is the easier book of the two to read: a second is that it is much shorter. A third is that it is a very personal book as well as a very scholarly one, in which the author’s ability to identify with particular people in the past gains added perspective from his own profound ruminations on human relationships.

Brooke and Brundage agree on the importance of the rulings of the popes of the later twelfth and the early thirteenth centuries in the formation of the medieval Church’s marriage teaching. Both stress Alexander III’s insistence on consent, and the significance of his admission of impotence as a valid ground for dissolution, and also the importance of Innocent III’s reduction of the prohibited degrees of kinship from seven to four. Even so, a profound difference of emphasis is apparent. Brooke’s evocation of Pope Alexander’s pondering over the Gospel text which told him that a man shall “leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh” (which was central to this pope’s view on impotence and on conjugal debt) offers an immediate reminder of the care with which one may need to handle the implications of Brundage’s remark (which is no doubt correct on a word count) that “Jesus of Nazareth said remarkably little about sexual conduct.” So too the moral courage of Pope Adrian IV, Alexander’s predecessor, in affirming that there was no way in which the Church could question the consensual marriage of two serfs, whatever their lords might think about it, comes alive through the words of Saint Paul that underpinned his ruling: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Jesus Christ.”


The two professors take different approaches to the much discussed question of the unconsummated purity of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. Brundage points out bluntly that “the marriage of the Blessed Virgin and Saint Joseph was held to have been consummated by means other than carnal union,” and refers the reader to the gloss of Johannes Teutonicus on the relevant passage in Gratian’s Decretum. Without in any way shirking the magnitude of the problem (indeed it is a huge one), Brooke turns instead to Hugh of St. Victor, who recalls that the rule that “two shall become one flesh” should also mean that they became one soul: “Henceforth and for ever, each shall be to the other as a same self in all sincere love…. Such are the good things of marriage and the happiness of those who love chaste companionship.” We are reminded sharply here of the new sense of emotional commitment and bonding that the twelfth century breathed into the old legal term maritalis affectio, which to the antique Roman jurists had meant no more than simply the intent to marry. That good canonist, Pope Alexander III, had a lot to do with this reinterpretation.

Affection, in this newly charged sense of commitment, is at the heart of Brooke’s humane and sensitive exploration of the tragic romance of Eloise and Abelard. Part of the brilliance of his exposition lies in his recreation of the story’s setting, in the early twelfth-century society of the chapter of Nôtre Dame in Paris, where clerical concubinage was still at this late date tolerated and where Eloise grew up among canons who still knew family life from the inside. With this background in mind, we understand better her defiant assertion, “If the name of wife seems holier and stronger, sweeter ever to me was the name of mistress, or if you can bear it, concubine or whore.”

More essential though (for she and Abelard had a child and did marry, before fate parted them and sent them separate ways into the religious life) are the feelings that Brooke detects at the center of their relationship (“God knows, I looked for nothing in you at any time except yourself”) which they could not separate even in memory from their carnal union: “The joys of what we did are still so sweet to me that, after delight beyond measure, even remembering brings relief.”

Eloise, of course, was an exceptional woman, and Brooke is too wise a historian to attempt to overstretch the implications of her understanding of the emotions that stirred her and Abelard. Through their story he does however succeed in making room among medieval attitudes for that strand in the Church’s sexual doctrine, according to Brundage so notably undervalued, that treats sex relations as “a source of intimacy, a symbol and expression of conjugal love.”

Letters offering the sort of insight into personal relations that the correspondence of Eloise and Abelard does are of course hard to come by from the Middle Ages. For this reason, Brooke makes extensive use of literary and artistic sources to amplify his picture. This kind of evidence has of course its shortcomings from the historian’s point of view, but his defense of his manner of using it, to illuminate attitudes and assumptions rather than to establish norms, seems thoroughly justified. In the scene at the end of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, when the hero finally rejoins his wife Condwiramurs, he finds what is perhaps the perfect passage to set beside what he has taught us from the combination of the personal and the carnal in Abelard’s and Eloise’s understanding of their love. “Welcome! Fortune has sent you to me, my heart’s joy,” exclaims Condwiramurs. “I ought to scold you, but I cannot.” And if ever on a past occasion Parzival had lost the company of his wits “in blood and snow,” the poet goes on to tell “Condwiramurs now made amends for such torment…. He had never received Love’s aid for Love’s distress elsewhere, though many fine women had offered him their love.”

In Chaucer, again, Brooke finds a wider and more generous approach than seems even dreamt of in the philosophy of Brundage’s canon lawyers, a “capacious view of love and sexuality, broad enough to comprehend the sublime vision of The Book of the Duchess and the bawdy humour of the Wife of Bath.” In this broad range of perception Chaucer showed himself a true forerunner of Shakespeare, whose approach to sex and marriage Brooke examines at length.

He rounds off his exploration of medieval Christian marriage with a highly ingenious interpretation of the symbolism of Van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini portrait. This painting of a couple, Giovanni Arnolfini and his bride Giovanna Cenami, touching hands in their chamber, seems to depict the exchange of marriage vows, but it does much more than that, Brooke suggests. The bed in the background points to consummation, Giovanna’s swelling robe to hopes for children; the details of the room—the dusting brush, the fruit on a chest by the window—remind us of the ordinary things of marriage. The picture at once catches a moment and symbolizes a way of life, “a life in which consent and consummation and childbirth play their roles—and, may I add, husband and wife may grow old hand in hand together.”

Brooke has important things to say about the outward face of medieval marriage as well as of the inwardness that he evokes so vividly through this great painting. Here once again the twelfth century appears as a turning point, but now what comes to the fore is the new emphasis given to the externally binding quality of the union established by consent rather than the internal relationship that it was intended to establish. This stress on indissolubility had important social and political consequences. The previous age, which had tolerated concubinage even for clerics and had permitted the sons of canons to inherit their father’s church stalls, was undismayed by the crowning of William the Bastard as King of England in 1066, but the kings and aristocrats of the later twelfth century found that they needed to engender legitimate offspring. This could sometimes prove inconvenient, Brooke explains. The earlier Capetian kings of France had easily put aside wives who did not please or were unfecund (Robert the Pious even alternated between two, one of whom he seems to have liked and the other of whom bore him children), but Philip II found that Pope Innocent III would not let him put aside Ingeborg of Denmark, to whom he had taken an intense dislike on the first night of their marriage. This new rigor was accepted, Brooke suggests, because in the long run insistence on legitimacy actually rendered the aristocratic game of dynastic calculation surer, not more accident prone (unless, of course, one insisted absolutely on inheritance in the legitimate male line, as the kings of France came to do). That it did, on the other hand, exact its toll of human misery is clear enough, as Brooke illustrates horridly with the story of Henry VIII. The traumatic experience of his drawn-out efforts to obtain from the papacy the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon taught that revolting tyrant a clear lesson, that the best thing to do with a wife who had served her time was to cut off her head. A dead wife’s marriage does not need to be dissolved.

Royal marriage and its problems in the Middle Ages provide the links between C. T. Wood’s Joan of Arc and Richard III and the works of Brooke and Brundage. In most ways, this is a very different book, for despite the subtitle, Sex, Saints, and Government, it is the work of a historian more old-fashioned than they, at least in the sense that Wood is really more interested in politics than in sex. All the same, the changing fashion of historical interpretation has touched him too, and that is what makes his book so original and interesting.

His theme is a familiar one, the contrast between political and constitutional development in England and France in the later Middle Ages which led to a parliamentary monarchy in one kingdom and an absolutist monarchy in the other. He approaches the developments, however, in a very novel way. He attributes vital importance to differing views in the two kingdoms concerning the blood royal and the right of succession, which accorded a different measure of significance in consequence to the adulteries (or blameless lives) of queens consort. Sex thus rears its head again, to demand a piece of the action.

The essence of Wood’s argument is this. In both countries there was ascribed to the monarchy a vital role in maintaining the public welfare. In France this led to an identification of the male blood royal as uniquely designated to carry out a God-given mission of ruling, which naturally meant that the legitimacy of the heir was crucial. In England a rather different attitude developed. English common law approached in a rather common-sense way the question raised so often in inheritance disputes, “Who is the nearest heir?” accepting as such him who was generally reputed to be so. “It cannot be known who begot him,” Justice Bereford remarked, “the only proof of filiation is presumptive proof.” This method of determining an heir also applied to the king’s successor, Wood argues, and ultimately gave Parliament (representing the community) a crucial role in the recognition of royal title. That is why in France there was a tremendous public scandal when in 1314 two of King Philip IV’s daughters-in-law were detected in adulterous liaisons, whereas in England a few years later no one bothered to question whether Edward III, whose mother was a known adulteress and whose father was probably homosexual, was or was not the true heir of Edward II. He had always been accepted as such and that was enough to ensure that the community accepted him. In the long run the contrasting attitudes thus exemplified led to sharply diverging lines of development for the monarchies of France and England.

Wood is at his best writing of France and the French kingdom. He evokes vividly the early development of the family cult of the Capetian royal house, in just that period in the twelfth century when Church legislation was attaching a new importance to legitimacy. He describes nicely the way in which, later, the Capetian affiliation with the older Carolingian dynasty was emphasized in the rearrangement of the royal tombs in the Abbey of St. Denis (Carolingians on one side, Capetians on the other, with Philip II, Carolingian by his mother’s blood, bridging the two). His account of the mission of Joan of Arc is eloquent and moving. The core of the message that she brought to the Dauphin was that God had “sent her to Charles, son of Charles king of France, who should himself be King of France.” The key implication of the revelations of her “voices” was thus, to the French mind, that Charles VII really was the true heir, whatever rumors there might be about the goings-on of his mother, Isabeau of Bavaria. It was with that message that the simple peasant girl who “scarcely knew her Pater Noster and Ave Maria” rallied France.

Wood writes more about England than about France, and his spinning of the narrative is once again deft. His handling of the story of Richard III, as that of a prince skillful and bold in his tackling of immediate issues but incapable of taking a larger and longer view of the consequences even of his own actions, seems to me very persuasive. When it comes to his central thesis, however, I think that he begins to overstretch his case. No doubt ecclesiastical ideas about the authority of the Church’s General Councils did help to give form to notions of the role of Parliament, but the statement that, by Richard III’s time, “many Englishmen had come to believe that parliament was a mystical body through which the Holy Spirit spoke inerrantly” claims considerably more than just that. How then did Englishmen come to call the Parliament that sat at Coventry in 1459 the “Parliament of Devils?” And why was it that Sir John Fortescue, the contemporary writer who devoted most consideration to the nature of English governance, failed to give this central aspect of the dignity of Parliament due emphasis? (One would not actually learn, from Wood, that Fortescue had written anything at all.) It seems to me, as I think it seemed also to Richard III, that blood right (and therefore questions concerning royal marriages and the legitimacy of heirs) had more to do with ideas about royal succession in medieval England than Wood allows, and also that, as has traditionally been argued, fiscal issues had more to do with the development of Parliament than he indicates.

For a fellow historian, Wood’s is the least disconcerting to read of the three books reviewed here. He is seeking to recapture the mental world of people who are dead by probing the contemporary evidence; and in agreeing or disagreeing with him, one can hope that one is judging dispassionately and on the same basis. Brundage and Brooke both share that objective with him, but they are also both concerned with the legacy of the ideas of dead generations and with assessing the quality of that legacy, and this brings a more subjective element into the consideration of their views. The tension between the appreciations of two outstanding scholars, each stressing different strands in parallel evidence, the sympathies of one of whom lie by implication with secular pluralism and of the other with liberal Christianity, is fascinating, but it will not allow one to be dispassionate and dodge taking sides. Which leads me back to where I began. A distinction between those who are interested in politics and those who are interested in sex proves in the long run a false distinction. Any attempt to face seriously the social and ethical problems posed by sexual conduct will lead ineluctably into a sphere where debate cannot be entirely apolitical.

This Issue

November 22, 1990