Frigidity and the Decretum of Gratian

Over at New Sherwood, Jeff Cubreath reminds us how straightforward the list of defects that render a marriage null used to be.  I was particularly taken with this one:

(2) the male is impotent, the female is frigid, or the marriage is never consummated

In contemporary speech, to the extent that we use the word at all, frigidity in a woman means inability to enjoy sex, or sometimes even just inability to achieve orgasm.  I was pretty sure the Church wouldn’t forbid people like that to marry, and indeed a quick google search confirmed that, according to medieval canon law, a frigid person is one who cannot engage in sexual intercourse.  The term was gender-neutral and in fact usually referred to impotent men.  The impression the historians gave me is that the “frigidity” defect was an often-abused way for women to sue out of their marriages.  For a woman to be frigid, sex would have to be so unpleasant or painful that she couldn’t fulfill the marriage debt even by just laying down and wishing she were somewhere else.

Anyway, what made the search worthwhile was finding this translation of marriage laws in the Decretum Gratiani.  Some of the rulings are delightfully medieval.

Gratian: Married persons cannot offer continence to God without mutual consent, because not the husband but the wife has power over his body [C. 27 q. 2 cc. 19-26; cf. 1 Cor. 7:4]. But one betrothed person can choose a monastery and make a vow of a better life without consent of the other [C. 27 q. 2 cc. 27-28]. Thus there is plainly no marriage between the betrothed.

  • 1. Also, according to Augustine [C. 27 q. 2 c. 16], a woman with whom there has been no sexual intercourse has not entered matrimony. Also, according to Leo [C. 27 q. 2 c. 17], she has not entered matrimony, who has not experienced the nuptial mystery. Thus it appears there is no marriage between the betrothed.

  • 2. Also, Pope Nicholas [cf. C. 32 q. 7 c. 25] ordered that the marriages of those castrated by enemies or mutilated in their members not be dissolved on account of this disability.

  • 3. However, in the case of those unable to render the debt to their wives because of frigidity, Pope Gregory [C. 23 q. 1 c. 2] determined that such could take an oath on sacred relics, supported by seven oath-helpers, to prove that they had never become one flesh through carnal intercourse. The wife could then contract a second marriage, but the frigid husband would remain without hope of marrying.

Seven oath-helpers!  On sacred relics!  But wait, there’s more than one reason for being frigid:

Gratian:So, incapacity to render the debt dissolves the bond of marriage. But this legislation applies to a natural incapacity. In this case, she separated from her husband, not because natural frigidity prevented the conjugal debt, but because it was prevented by a hex.

Hence the question remains whether she may, in that case, lawfully withdraw from her husband and take another?

On this, Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, wrote:

  1. 4.

On those who cannot have intercourse because of a hex.

If, through sorcery or a clandestine hex, both of which are diabolical violations of justice and forbidden by God’s decree [Ex. 22:18; Deut. 18:10; Gal. 5:20], intercourse cannot occur, let those affected be exhorted to make sincere confession of all their sins to God and a priest. Then, with a contrite heart and a humble spirit, let them propitiate the Lord with profuse tears, greater works of charity, prayers, and fasting. And, as God grants, let the Church’s ministers, using exorcisms and bestowal of the Church’s other healing gifts, heal them if the Lord, who at Abraham’s prayer cured Abimelech and this house [cf. Gen. 20:17], permits this.

If he does not heal them, let them separate. But, if they form marriages with others, they cannot be reconciled to the spouses from whom earlier separated, as long as those whom they joined later are alive in the flesh, even if they regain the capacity for intercourse.

Damned sorcerers and witches!  The translator explains in a footnote

As shall become evident, the author is here ascribing the condition of being impotent with one woman to a “hex.” This was the common medieval explanation for “selective” impotence. Impotence with all woman, he will ascribe to “natural frigidity.”

As everyone who’s watched movies about the Middle Ages knows, abduction of fair maidens was a serious problem back then.  Fortunately, the Church had things worked out:

  • 5. Abduction is committed when a girl is forcibly removed from her father’s house in order to seduce her and take her as wife. It does not matter whether force was used on the girl alone, the parents alone, or on both. This is punished by death. But, if the man flees to a church with the girl he has taken, he is guaranteed immunity from capital punishment by the privilege of the Church.

Hence one reads in the[First] Council of Orleans,[c. 4]:

  1. 3.

What is done if an abductor flees to a church with the girl he abducted.

We decide and decreed concerning abductors that, if the abductor flees to a church with the girl he abducted, and it is determined that he used force on the woman herself, she is to be freed immediately from the abductor’s control. The abductor is granted immunity from the death sentence, but he shall be subjected to slavery, or have the opportunity of redeeming himself.

But sometimes fathers are happy to be rid of daughters, and chicks dug jerks even in the Middle Ages, so there was a provision where an abductor and abductee could marry after he pays his debt to society.

[Gratian:] Therefore, the foregoing authorities forbid one abducted to marry her abductor until the sin of abduction has been expiated, that is, as long as they can be properly spoken of as abductor and abducted. But, after she is restored to her father’s control, and the abductor has done penance for the abduction, they are not forbidden to marry one another if the parents consent.

Lots more like this.

8 Responses

  1. […] Frigidity and the Decretum of Gratian […]

  2. Speaking of the Decretals, In my day, every Scottish law student had to be familiar with the decretal Veniens ad Nos of Alexander III, written to the Bishop of Norwich in England some time between 1176 and 1181 relating the matrimonial woes of one William of Norwich, who betook himself to Rome to lay them before the Pope, a formidable undertaking in the 12th century.

    It remained part of the marriage law of Scotland until 1940 and actions of declarator based on it were still being raised in the 1980s

    “A certain William came to us, and showed in his report that he received in his house a certain woman by whom he had children and to whom he swore before many people that he would take her as wife. In the meantime, however, spending the night at the house of a neighbour, he slept with the neighbour’s daughter that night. The girl’s father finding them in the same bed at the same time compelled him to espouse [desponsare] her with present words.

    Recently, William standing in our presence, asks us to which woman he ought to adhere. Since he could not inform us whether he had intercourse with the first woman after he had given his oath, we therefore order you to examine into the matter carefully, and if you find that he had intercourse with the first woman after he had promised he would marry her, then you should compel him to remain with her. Otherwise, you ought to compel him to adhere to the second one as his wife, unless he was compelled by a fear which could overcome a steadfast man.” [Decretales 4.1.15]

    “Per verba de presenti” is a term of art: it means present consent, as opposed to a promise to marry in the future (per verba de futuro)

  3. Thanks for this bit of medieval life, Mr. Paterson-Seymour. I was hoping you would chime in on this one!

  4. “according to Augustine [C. 27 q. 2 c. 16], a woman with whom there has been no sexual intercourse has not entered matrimony. Also, according to Leo [C. 27 q. 2 c. 17], she has not entered matrimony, who has not experienced the nuptial mystery.”

    This was the doctrine of the Bolognese School, represented by Gratian.

    The Parisian School, represented by Peter Lombard followed the doctrine of the Roman law, expressed by Ulpian (170-228) one of the greatest of the jurists: “Nuptias non concubitus, sed consensus facit” [It is not sleeping together, but agreement that makes marriage]. (Dig. 50.17.30 Ulpianus 36 ad sab) Accordingly, Lombard says, “The efficient cause of matrimony is consent, not just any kind of consent, but expressed in words, not bearing on the future but on the present… Let us state therefore that consent to cohabitation or carnal intercourse does not make marriage; but consent to conjugal society expressed in words in the present tense (Sententiarum Libri Quatuor, Lib. IV, D. XXVII, c. 3)

    When the Bolognese pointed to “the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:24), the Parisian school countered with, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. [1 Cor 7:4] From the moment of the marriage, that is, from the moment of agreement, the man has no power over his own body, or, in other words, his body is already his wife’s and her body is his. Therefore, this is the moment at which they become “one flesh.” Their agreement makes them “one flesh” by giving to each power over the other’s body; the sexual union is mere matter of fact. As the great English legal historian, F W Maitland put it, “We must distinguish between the perfection of a legal act and the fulfilment of obligations which that act creates.”

    Alexander III confirmed the Parisian doctrine in an answer to the Archbishop of Salerno. If consent de praesenti was expressed by such words as these “I accept you as mine,” whether an oath was interponed or not it was unlawful for the woman to marry another and if she should contract a second engagement by promise even although followed by sexual intercourse she should be separated from the second and should return to the first husband. (Corpus Juris Canonici Decretales Gregory IX lib iv tit iv cap iii)

  5. I do love the excursions into historical legalistics. Good stuff. Definitely shows the ancestors had their heads screwed on right.

  6. “Bring back our maidens!” Works on multiple levels.

  7. ” …who has not experienced the nuptial mystery” is a lovely way of putting it though.

  8. Frigidity is mentioned in Dom Charles Augustine’s A Commentary on the New [1917] Code of Canon Law (p. 166 of this vol. of it), in the context of the 1917 Canon 1068 (ibid. pp. 164 ff.), the impotency diriment impediment.

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