Masturbation in Medieval Times Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Masturbation in Medieval Times

The history of human masturbation extends back into prehistory. Evidence of this can be seen on Prehistoric petroglyphs and rock paintings in areas throughout the world. "A clay figurine of the 4th millennium Before Current Era [i.e., B.C.], from a temple site called Hagar Qim on the island of Malta, depicts a woman masturbating. However, in the ancient world depictions of male masturbation are far more common."(McFarland B.) For example, from the inventors of the first written Western language, the Sumerians, we find references " ... To the Mesopotamian god Enki masturbating, his ejaculation filling the Tigris River with flowing water." (McFarland B.) Until the middle ages sexual activity was generally seen as natural and a normal part of healthy human development.

The attitudes towards sex and masturbation during medieval times were determined by the Catholic Church, particularly under Pope Gregory IX in the 13th Century. The Church was the main determiner of culture and norms and values during this period. The general view of sex was that it was a "necessary evil" and existed for the primary purpose of reproduction only. Simply put, the general religious attitude was that sex had been introduced to humanity " ... By the devil" and that "Sexual feelings and urges were not fully under the control of the human will ." (Blacksmith E.)

However this view of sex during the Medieval period was in fact much more complex and there were three different approaches to sexual issues in general. One approach centered on the reproductive function of sex and ." established nature and the natural as the criterion of what was licit ... " (Brundage J. 1987) This approach viewed sexual activity, and thoughts as essentially impure and a " ... A source of shame and defilement." (Brundage J. 1987) The third view was less conservative and emphasized sexual relations as an expression of love and conjugal love. Therefore, a more realistic attitude of the medieval attitude to sex was a mixture of views composed of these three stands or views. However, the Catholic Church was a dominant social and cultural force in terms of mores, norms and values in society and the view that sexuality was an "impure" element that should be avoided therefore became the "accepted" view and was enforced by the Church authorities.

The medieval Church was very concerned with sexual issues and the way that sex related to Christian doctrine. In essence the attitude adopted by the Church to sex and particularly masturbation was strict and extremely controlled, with a complex and well -defined code of conduct. The doctrinal view was based on the conviction that "... The sexual act was to be avoided like the plague, except for the bare minimum necessary to keep the race in existence. Even when performed for this purpose it remained a regrettable necessity." (Taylor G.) Even married couple's were encourages to avoid sex as much as possible. This reaction against the pleasure associated with sex can be seen in the invention of the chemise carouse, a " ... sort of heavy nightshirt, with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact." (Taylor G.)

In approximately the eighth century very strict rules and a system of morality were developed by the Church which was to have an influence well into the Middle Ages. These rules were contained in various "penitential books" which dealt with sexual mores and restrictions in great detail and with different penalties prescribed for various transgression of this dogmatic view of sexual activity. The code of the penitential books was based on three central propositions. The main proposition was the ideal of complete celibacy and the avoidance of sex. However, while these codes and rules harshly criticized all forms of sexual activity, one of the worst forms of sexuality that was out rightly condemned, was masturbation.

In some penitentials fornication was declared a worse sin than murder. In the penitentials of Theodore and Bede the penance imposed for simple fornication was one year, but the penalty was increased according to the frequency of the act and the age and discretion of the parties.

( Taylor G.)

With this attitude it is therefore to be expected that the act of masturbation should be seen as a vile and "unnatural" act which was condemned by the Church. The obvious reason for this was that while normal sexual activity between couples had the rather dubious saving grace of procreation, masturbation on the other hand did not, and was seen to be a purely selfish and sinful act. In fact, while the penitential devoted a large amount of their space to prescribing penalties for homosexuality and for bestiality,

.... The sin upon which the greatest stress of all was laid was masturbation. In the five comparatively short mediaeval penitential codes, there are twenty-two paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer than twenty-five dealing with masturbation on the part of laymen, to say nothing of others dealing separately with masturbation on the part of the clergy.

( Taylor G.)

According to the influential theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, masturbation was a sin that was much worse than fornication. In a section of the Summa, he considers masturbation as an unnatural practice. "Thomas discusses unnatural vice as including masturbation, heterosexual intercourse that does not observe the right manner of copulation, male-male and female-female homosexual relations (i.e., vitium sodomiticum ), and bestiality, in order of ascending gravity " (Dinshaw, 1999, p. 211) In his view it is a " sin against nature," while " fornication with women was seen as a " lower-order sin and could be absolved by a parish priest," yet" masturbation, because it was unnatural, could in some areas be absolved only by bishops or their lieutenants." (Beidler P.) There were also theologians during the Medieval period who considered masturbation as a form of sodomy. In 1300 the Archbishop of Sens wrote of sins against nature that "the first branch is when man or woman by him or herself, alone and aware of the fact and awake, falls into the filth of sin." (Beidler P.)

The severity and serious with which the Catholic Church considered the sin of masturbation was "justified" by references to the Bible. The Church therefore used events Genesis xxxviii which refers to " ... Onan's seed falling upon the ground and his subsequently being put to death. The idea was established - and is still widely believed - that this passage refers to masturbation, and the word onanism has come to be used as a synonym for it. ." ( Taylor G.)

However, theological experts state that in fact this was a false interpretation and the passage from the bible refers to 'coitus interruptus'. The real reason for Onan's execution was that he had violated the law of the levirate, " ... By which a man must provide his deceased brother's wife with offspring." (Taylor G.) It is therefore obvious that the Church considered masturbation of such importance that it was seemingly prepared to invent reason for its condemnation of the act.

The taboo against masturbation was to continue and still influences many areas of mortal thinking in the contemporary world. The realization that there was a physical and psychological justification for masturbation was to be revealed by psychologists like Freud and others who were to change perceptions of human sexuality.

However as historian and theologians state, the origins of the modern European view of morality and sex had its foundations in the repressive views of the medieval period.

The moral standards applied to sex relations are the residual product of that exaltation of ritual purity which pronounced a curse upon sex, stigmatized women as the instrument of Satan and poured scorn…

Cite This Term Paper:

"Masturbation In Medieval Times" (2005, November 07) Retrieved January 18, 2018, from

"Masturbation In Medieval Times" 07 November 2005. Web.18 January. 2018. <>

"Masturbation In Medieval Times", 07 November 2005, Accessed.18 January. 2018,