Medieval Sexuality and the Church?

I’ve been hearing a lot of claims that supposedly the thoughts of Human sexuality in Medieval Europe was supported directly by the church, and that medical books involving pregnancy, birth, etc. always had a dose of theology in them. I’m not quite sure if this is all true. Could someone explain?

I am not sure where you are hearing such claims. Whoever is making them should be able to provide examples. I have never heard such a thing.

The BBC.

I wouldn’t doubt it. Nearly every educational institution was run by the Church.

The understanding of science as a separate field of study apart from philosophy and theology and the idea of the scientist as separate profession as we think of them today were unknown in the Middle Ages and took hundreds of years more to evolve.

Medicine was a separate profession, but its grounding in scientific research and regulation distinction from folk/religious cures likewise took hundreds of years more to develop.

To look back and expect people and disciplines 500-1000 years ago to be like ours is equivalent to calling Julius Caesar backward and obscurantist because he didn’t use spy satellites to reconnoiter Gaul before he invaded.

The idea that the Church stood in the way of science and medicine in the Middle Ages, so dear to physicalists and secular “progressives,” is literally mocked in the Cambridge History of Science: Medieval Science. . . that is by actual experts in the field. See here.

As for anesthesia, ether-based practices were not discovered until 1846 and chloroform 1847. “no evidence supports the notion that opposition was wide-spread or orchestrated by organized Christianity.” (Ronald L. Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Reigion, p. 125)

I haven’t had time to watch the linked show, alas. But…

Giving a mother in childbirth the only known medieval painkillers was a VERY BAD IDEA.

Opium? Beer? Wine? Distilled alcohol? Yeah, let’s stop the baby’s breathing. That’ll work.

Willow bark aspirin? Yeah, let’s thin the blood so the mother will bleed more. That’ll work.

Knocking the woman unconscious or pinching her jugular? Yeah… again, a little hard on baby and mom. Being unconscious makes it hard for the mom to push. C-sections were known in medieval and ancient times, but they were a desperation move.

I don’t think celery juice would do much for you in childbirth, unless you drank enough to choke a goat. And again, going to sleep is not desirable during childbirth; you have to be awake to push.

Also, medicine was hardly a male-only world – except in places like England, which was kinda backward in the medical field. Universities like Bologna and Salerno had women as medical professors, and women physicians were at times fairly common in medieval Europe. It was also common for the women of a large household to be the pharmacists of the household, and nuns were fairly well represented as authors of books on medical topics and medicines.

Pretty much every big weighty book on any field by any educated medieval person would have a nice little foreword talking about God, the field’s place in God’s divine plan, saints that practiced the field, and whatever Biblical quotes applied to the field. And you’d probably end with a prayer for yourself and the readers. Why not? If you like that sort of thing in books about hunting or about how to dose hawks, why wouldn’t you do it on serious subjects? And why wouldn’t the reader like it, too? Also, that sort of thing assured you that the author wasn’t just some ignoramus who didn’t know bupkis; it gave you a chance to see that the man or woman could write.

On the other hand, short treatises on single subjects usually cut to the chase. They were often copied into books that already had works talking about the field’s place in God’s plan and the relevant quotations from Biblical, sacred, and secular ancient authors.

However, I can well believe that medical books may have had more talk about God, because if you’re mixing up herbs and talking about the effects of herbs and other ingredients, you want to make it perfectly clear that you are talking about natural law and the natural properties of God’s creatures. Otherwise, people looking for occult stuff are liable to interpret this stuff as magic and magical potions; they still are. A lot of learned people apparently spent a lot of time convincing their patients or readers or students that they weren’t wizards or devil worshippers or what have you.

Of course, as it turned out, a lot of ancient and medieval medical science turned out to be guesswork that didn’t work, blended with a lot of what we’d call “magical thinking” today. (Yesterday’s Greek humor theory, gone by way of India, is today’s Ayurvedic messing around.)

But medieval physicians and others studying medicine were trying not to do that.

Some quotes from Aquinas on the subject of human sexuality may be of interest.

Because it was created by God, it is impossible for sex to be evil in itself.
“. . . carnal union is the end of certain bodily organs. But that which is the end of certain natural things cannot be evil in itself, because things that exist naturally are ordered to their end by divine providence . . . . Therefore, it is impossible for carnal union to be evil in itself.”
(Summa Contra Gentiles III, 126, 2) = SCG

Prior to the Fall human beings would procreate by sex.
“God made man and woman before sin (Gn. 1,2). But nothing is void in God’s works. Therefore, even if man had not sinned, there would have been such intercourse, to which the distinction of sex is ordained.
. . .
Some of the earlier doctors, considering the nature of concupiscence as regards generation in our present state, concluded that in the state of innocence generation would not have been effected in the same way. Thus Gregory of Nyssa says (De Hom. Opif. xvii) that in paradise the human race would have been multiplied by some other means, as the angels were multiplied without coition by the operation of the Divine Power. He adds that God made man male and female before sin, because He foreknew the mode of generation which would take place after sin, which He foresaw. But this is unreasonable. For what is natural to man was neither acquired nor forfeited by sin.
(Summa Theologiae I, 98, 2) = ST [italics added]

The pleasure in sex would have been greater prior to the Fall.
“. . . In the state of innocence nothing of this kind would have happened that was not regulated by
reason, not because delight of sense was less, as some say (rather indeed would sensible delight have
been the greater in proportion to the greater purity of nature and the greater sensibility of the body), . . .”
(ST, I, 98, 2 ad 3)

Sex in marriage is holy.
“Now a human act is said to be good in two ways. In one way by goodness of virtue, and thus an act derives its goodness from those things which place it in the mean. This is what “faith” and “offspring” do in the marriage act, as stated above (2). In another way, by goodness of the “sacrament,” in which way an act is said to be not only good, but also holy, and the marriage act derives this goodness from the indissolubility of the union, in respect of which it signifies the union of Christ with the Church.”
(ST, Suppl. 49, 4)

The intensity of pleasure in sexual intercourse is not against the order of reason in human acts.
“As stated above (152, 2, ad 2; I-II, 64, 2), the mean of virtue depends not on quantity but on conformity with right reason: and consequently the exceeding pleasure attaching to a venereal act directed according to reason, is not opposed to the mean of virtue. Moreover, virtue is not concerned with the amount of pleasure experienced by the external sense, as this depends on the disposition of the body; what matters is how much the interior appetite is affected by that pleasure. Nor does it follow that the act in question is contrary to virtue, from the fact that the free act of reason in considering spiritual things is incompatible with the aforesaid pleasure. For it is not contrary to virtue, if the act of reason be sometimes interrupted for something that is done in accordance with reason, else it would be against virtue for a person to set himself to sleep.” (ST, II-II 153, 2 ad 2)

The enjoyment of sex is increased by love.
“Now, such enjoyment [of sexual relations] is increased by the love of the persons thus united.”
(SCG, III, 125, 5)

Sexual intimacy increases love between husband and wife.
“Furthermore, the greater the friendship is the more solid and long-lasting it will be. Now, there seems to be the greatest friendship between husband and wife, for they are not only united in the act of fleshly union, which produces a certain gentle association . . ., but also in the partnership of the whole range of domestic activity.” (SCG, III, 123, 6)

Sexual sins are not the worst sins.
“Gregory [the Great] says (Moral. xxxiii, 12) that the sins of the flesh are less grievous than spiritual sins.” (ST, II-II, 154, 3)

The intensity of pleasure can diminish responsibility in sexual sins.
“The sensual pleasure that aggravates a sin is that which is in the inclination of the will. But the sensual pleasure that is in the sensitive appetite, lessens sin, because a sin is the less grievous according as it is committed under the impulse of a greater passion.” (ST, II-II, 154, 3 ad 1)

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