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Sex in the Not-City: Bad Behavior in the Medieval English Village

Sex in the Not-City: Bad Behavior in the Medieval English Village


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By Esther Liberman Cuenca

In July 1339 Alice, an English peasant from the small village of Somercotes, appeared at the local church court to address some recent and disturbing rumors. Did she have sex out of wedlock with Robert, identified as the “son of John Daddi”? More seriously, did she endanger the life of her unbaptized infant daughter?

Alice confessed to having sex with Robert, but she vehemently denied the other charge. If true, she would have forever been known as the mother-who-attempted-infanticide. It’s likely that everyone knew Alice and Robert Daddi were a couple or, at the very least, friends with benefits. The judges presiding over the church courts were empowered to assign her a penance rather than punishment. Penance was supposed to be a spiritual band-aid— a kind of chicken soup for the medieval soul. Its purpose wasn’t to punish, but to restore a person back to a rosy-cheeked spiritual health. Alice was given the option of receiving three whippings during the next church procession or paying a fine to the court, which would save her from the humiliation of an awkward Sunday service. Unsurprisingly, she chose the second option. When Alice swore to her innocence regarding the rumor about her baby daughter, she was ordered to call in two “compurgators” to raise their hands up on her behalf and solemnly swear the scurrilous charge against her was untrue, not because they knew personally of all the scandalous details, but because Alice’s character was beyond reproach. She had bona fama: a good reputation.

The case of Alice from Somercotes begs many questions, some of which may challenge our modern conceptions about privacy and the roles religious authorities should play in everyday life: What sort of function did these local church courts have in everyday medieval life? Why would people voluntarily participate as either compurgators or summoners in these courts? And, most importantly, why was the policing of sexual relationships in these communities thought to be necessary in the first place?

Sex in Public Life

The local church courts were venues in which complaints about sexual transgressions, such as adultery, fornication, and incest, came to the attention of church authorities. Our modern notion of rights to privacy simply did not exist. Rumors about illicit sexual relationships were not only interesting and scandalous to the nosiest of neighbors, but charges of sexual misconduct could threaten a person’s reputation in their tight-knit village communities. Reputation was everything, the most important social currency: it determined who was worthy of your business, charity, or hand in marriage. It was precisely because their reputation was at stake that ordinary people were intimately involved in this legal process. They could personally bring complaints to the courts or urge court-appointed summoners to investigate strong and persistent rumors. All cases that came to these church courts—even disputes over marriages and wills—were ones in which a person’s good reputation was in doubt. Anxiety about sexual misbehavior was the focus of most of these grievances and women especially had far more to worry than men about gossip. Their reputations in particular hanged delicately in the balance when it came to public perceptions about their sex lives.

Penance, Pennies, and Promises

Public penance allowed a sinner to reenter the community of his or her fellow Christians. The repentant person was no longer, at least in theory, a danger to the spiritual “health” of others. Penance not only aimed to reform the sinner but to serve as a public rebuke of the sin. Once a person confessed, the court, acting as a spiritual doctor, prescribed the remedy, which was determined according to the gravity of the sin. The nature of the penance was left entirely up to the judge’s discretion. A priest in his own right, the judge was qualified to assess the penance needed. The sinner then made a solemn promise never to commit that sin again—a promise frequently broken.

The local church courts could give repentant sinners the option to substitute public for pecuniary penance. Many people, such as Alice from Somercotes, took this option instead. But sometimes the courts did not allow sinners the option to forgo corporal penalties, especially in cases of broken promises. In 1336, for example, all sinners to whom the local court in Lincoln prescribed floggings had confessed to either adultery or fornication. The amount of the penance likely took into account what the individual could reasonably afford, but repeat offenders were fined up to double or even quadruple the amount assessed on first-time sinners.

The money collected could be applied towards the beautification of the parish church or set aside to pay court scribes and summoners. A man by the name of John Markeby even offered six pence to the church altar as part of his penance. One fifteenth-century jurist prudently suggested that penitential fees should be donated to charity. Even so, one might be compelled to ask an obvious question: Were church officials merely lining their pockets with coin from the never-ending profits made from forbidden sexual unions?

Rather than looking at these fines from a profit motive, perhaps instead we should see the collection of fines in a more positive light— as part of community-wide effort to take responsibility for the church and spiritual welfare of its congregation. Indeed, it was a huge effort that required church officials and the village to take part equally.

The Urge to Purge

“Compurgation” was an important method through which people restored their damaged reputations and purged any taint from their good name. Church law outlined a particular set of requirements individuals had to fulfill to complete compurgation successfully. To be eligible in the first place, there had to be undeniable existence of an awful rumor about the person in question. The defamed individual also had to bring compurgators whose own reputations were above suspicion. Compurgators also needed to be familiar with the person for whom they would take the oath. Finally, the oath had to be worded in such a way as to not leave any doubts about the defamed person’s good character.

Compurgation helped the public and the accused come to a peaceful conclusion about the rumor at hand. When Alice Goshauk appeared at the local court to deny she engaged in adultery with John de Colhorn, a vicar, she purged herself successfully. Alice, however, had already appeared at court previously that term for committing adultery with another man, John Swalowe. John and Alice confessed to their sins, abjured their errors, and were fined. Had Alice wanted to abuse the seemingly lax requirements of compurgation, she might have called upon the same compurgators who had helped clear her name in the case with the vicar. Yet, she did not. The case of John and Alice shows how compurgation was seen as a useful method to determine the final word on a rumor, true or not. Compurgation allowed individuals to restore their reputations in a swift manner and involve neighbors as participants in their exoneration.

The severity of the alleged crime and the individual’s past infamy may have contributed to the court’s decision about the number of compurgators upon whom a defamed person was required to call. In many cases, the reasons why some were required to bring more compurgators than others remain a mystery. For example, Margot Gyloth allegedly provided Richard Savage and Petronilla Mafi a room for their adulterous affair. Margot denied the charge and purged herself successfully “six-handed.” She called upon five compurgators to take oaths on her behalf and the “sixth hand” was her own, swearing to her good name. No further explanation was provided for the number of compurgators.

A case involving a chaplain named William, who accused a male servant (also named William) of slander, ended when William the Servant purged himself eighteen-handed! Was the relatively large number of compurgators a reflection of the status difference between the two Williams, or an unspoken indication of William the Servant’s less-than-stellar reputation? When a woman named Margot was rumored to have opened her home to prostitution and “ribaldry,” she denied the charge and the rector permitted—perhaps specifically asked?—that she call upon twelve female compurgators. In this case, was the oath of a large number of women more reliable than that of men since the latter were more likely than the former to frequent brothels?

Sex in the village was an entirely different matter than sex in a big city. The system of sexual policing might have, after all, been less effective in urban places where people could go about living their lives in relative anonymity. A foreigner called to a church court in London was only required to purge himself by his own hand. He claimed that he did not know his neighbors well enough to call upon them to vouch for his good behavior.

The Power of Spoken Words

Words could tear down reputations more quickly and dramatically than the words used to build them up. Penance and compurgation were ointments that soothed the injuries inflicted through gossip. Members of these communities were personally involved in policing each other by acting as compurgators, witnesses to public penance, and court summoners. By undergoing either penance or compurgation, a person could settle, once and for all, rumors about his or her reputation. The church court ultimately provided a public space in which disruptions to the moral order could be resolved. The court’s remedies served not only to restore the sinner’s spiritual communion with God but also his or her relationship with the community at large.

Esther Liberman Cuenca is a history professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, where she teaches courses on medieval and modern history. She writes on English law, gender, and popular culture.

Top Image: The Luttrell Psalter – British Library MS Additional 42130 fol. 5r


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