["Figure 4.1 The sexual decision-making process according to the penitentials]
[Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, James Brundage, 1987]
The Penitentials, as they’re called, are a collection of manuscripts written between the sixth and eleventh centuries to help priests in assigning penance after hearing a confession. As a result, there are a lot of problems with using them to understand how medieval people in general thought about sex.
First of all, the Penitentials only provided guidelines for priests to use. There was certainly no expectation that anyone would follow them to the letter. Not only was there a lot of variation between documents, but even enforcing adherence to one set of rules would have been impossible.
Secondly, we have to consider the authors. The people writing these were mostly monks, many of whom probably didn’t have much or any experience with sexuality outside the repressive atmosphere of the monastery. It would be surprising if more of them weren’t scared sexual expression.
Thirdly, these were written for priests, many of whom would have been operating out in rural areas. We can’t expect that many of these priests to have read even one of these guidebooks in depth, much less more than one. We certainly can’t expect the people they ministered to to have any sort of specific idea of what specific things these authors considered sinful. And if a person didn’t mention a particular sin in confession, they couldn’t be assigned penance for it.
I’m not saying the Penitentials are useless as a source. Quite the contrary. They are, after all, a fairly common type of manuscript and provide a lot of information about the ideas that were common monastic and scholastic circles. But they should not be taken to describe how the population at large, or even most priests, felt about sexual behaviour.
*James Brundage, in his book Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe
Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, James Brundage, 1987 (Note: You can find some of the book online here. Clear the search field on the left to look at the available parts of the book that don't reference the penitentials.)
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, John Boswell, 1980 (Note: Once again, try here. Clear the search field on the left to see other parts of the book.)