Howard Brent Rachel is a former soldier from Alabama who has, with his wife and childhood sweetheart, settled down in San Antonio where he currently works as a teacher.
Orthodox Notions of Sex in Medieval Russia
Strict interpretation of scripture, at least by the long lineage of church fathers, gave little religious significance to women. Womankind was viewed as the root of sin and women serpents to lead men from righteousness, just as Eve did to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Yet, Orthodoxy had to find some way to reconcile this attitude with God’s admonition to be fruitful and multiply. Unfortunately, this called for them to deal with the problem of sex.
Sex was the Church’s number one concern, in terms of sin, carrying heavier penances than even murder, theft, or child neglect. Women being little more than walking, talking sexual temptation, couldn’t get a break in Orthodoxy’s web of sexual philosophy. A woman’s period was, at the same time, both proof that she had failed to conceive -further defiling any sexual activities that might have occurred–, and a glaring reminder of how a man had to defile himself in order to obey God’s command to multiply. Further, a woman could not even enter a church while she was experiencing her period. The number of times a woman attended church on Sundays in a given month were noted, and coming four Sundays in a row was proof of transgression, and brought with it heavy penance. Such penance could be up to 3 years denial of the sacraments, especially if it were proved that she had taken communion. Contemporary accounts, surely trumped up to scare women into line, had God turning one poor woman into a horse for taking communion during her cycle, and another stuck by lightening for inadvertently walking over the grave of a saint while thus ‘unclean.’ Though nothing further is known of the horse, the latter woman later repented and was cured of her period.
Orthodox writings decried the physical union of man with woman as base and squalid, even in marriage. Sex was for the sole purpose of procreation, and that only because of Eve’s folly. St John Chrysostom, one of the most famous philosophers of Orthodoxy, explained that it was actually the Word of God that provided the divine magic of procreation, and that had Eve not led to mankind’s ejection from Eden, some other, less base, way of procreating would have been bestowed upon them by God. Thus, though procreation was a duty, the very act that allowed it was a defilement rooted in original sin. The Church urged a celibate life for the married, with the exception of procreation. They even went so far as to discourage marriage for the sake of love, encouraging rather the opposite, that a man should not care over much for his wife, and should spend as little time with her as possible, so as not to be tempted into sin. (This despite the fact that one of the main reasons the Church cited for a man to get married in the first place, was to help prevent his fornicating or committing adultery.) The Church, in an attempt to help men abstain, dictated times when he was forbidden to engage in sexual activity: Sunday (of course), Saturdays (to prepare for Sunday), during pregnancy of partner, within 60 days of wife’s delivery, during her period, and all holy and feast days. As a final deterrent the church celebrated as examples the lives of prominent celibate couples such as Grand Prince Dmitri Donskoi, who, it is said, abstained from physical contact with his wife with the sole exceptions of those coupling which produced his children.
Sex within Marriage
Despite the Church’s cajoling, and surely to no one’s great surprise, married men and women still had sex. So, the church, not satisfied with it’s efforts merely to dissuade them, also placed restrictions on the very methodology of the act. As might be expected, the only church-accepted “mode” of sexual intercourse between a man and his wife was vaginal penetration in the missionary position, with the man ‘astride’ his wife (called “na konye”, or “astride a horse”). Everything else was considered to be illicit fornication, sodomy, or sacrificing the man’s seed to the Devil, all punishable by great penance as circumstance warranted. The dominant position of the man was of paramount religious importance. As man was made in God’s image, sex with the woman astride the man was placing the man in the more properly female, or submissive position. This was seen as shameful for the man, and thus defiled the image of God. As such, this position was considered a very grave sin, the penance for which was on par with that for adultery or incest.
Sex ‘from behind’ was punished according to the particulars of the circumstances, though fundamentally it was considered far too similar to the sexual activities of beasts of the field. Anal penetration from behind, having no procreative potential was considered sodomy and was more heavily punished than vaginal penetration from behind. In an interesting turn of circumstance, the woman was routinely assigned heavier penance for her role in activities involving anal penetration because they too closely mimicked the role the male homosexual. Vaginal penetration from behind, because it could result in procreation, was regarded as less serious. Penance would be made more or less severe according to the age of the participants, the frequency of engagement, and -for the woman- whether or not she engaged willingly or reluctantly at her husband’s urging. Penance ranged from multiple hundreds of prostrations and a lengthy fast to being denied the solace of the church for 10 or more years. It is notable that mutually agreed to anal intercourse is one of the few instances where penitence manuals mandate the same penance for both the man and the wife.
Other sexual activities within marriage seem to have been handled as lesser forms of sodomy, or in terms of wasting the reproductive effort and needlessly encouraging sexual excitement. Open-mouth kissing was never appropriate, even as foreplay and carried a mandatory two-week fast as a penance. Manual stimulation, the insertion of non-penis extremities into the vagina, and mutual masturbation were technically sodomy, but were usually punishable by a mere several weeks fasting. Oral sex, though mentioned seldom in extant penitence manuals, was considered a serious sodomy and was dealt with quite harshly, with fasts exceeding a year and possible restriction from communion. Attempting birth control or abortion was punished in a similarly strict manner, often with lengthy restriction from the Church.
Sex Outside of Marriage
Willfully engaged in, potentially-procreative sexual contact outside of marriage was termed either adultery or illicit fornication, the marital status of the woman being the defining factor. Because this behavior was willfully committed outside of wedlock, the penance was higher for both involved parties. Sodomy, a subset of illicit fornication, committed outside of wedlock carried far stricter penance due to its lack of procreative potential.
Homosexuality and beastiality were the most common forms of willful sodomy. Though not always willfully engaged in, incest brought on severe penalties, especially if through duress. These penalties, despite the duress, however, were sometimes applied to both parties. In all the above activities, penance was much higher for men who took on the submissive, or woman’s role. Beyond that, circumstances of age, frequency of engagement, and social standing could serve to increase or decrease such penance.
Adultery was defined as sexual intercourse between a woman and a man who is not her husband. Everything else was illicit fornication, regardless of the man’s marital status. As one might expect, adultery was considered far more serious, for both parties, than illicit fornication. Adultery, in some penitence manuals, carried a recommended minimum 15-year exclusion from the sacraments. There are, however, ample recorded instances of lesser penance from 2 years exclusion, accompanied with fasting and prostrations. The penalties were always more harsh for the woman, since for her there could be no mitigating circumstance, and she would inevitably be branded the instigator who tempted the otherwise pious man. If the husband knew of, and thus condoned, his wife’s adultery, he was held to be more severely guilty in the matter than the unknowing cuckold. Regardless of circumstance, anyone who died in the act of adultery was forbidden Christian burial.
Illicit fornication was virtually any other type of sex not already defined as adultery. The most common type of illicit fornication was premarital sex. Betrothed couples were discouraged from engaging in any private contact, and responsibility for this was laid upon the parents. Thus, the penance levied on the betrothed for engaging in any sexual activity before marriage was shared by those parents. This penance was not too severe, as long as it was potentially procreative, which fact tended to lend a sense of ‘naturalness’ to it. Of course sodomy was more severely punished, with the usual multipliers associated with position.
More severe was the penance for bachelors and maidens engaging in sex before marriage, with the penance often being twice as great for the maiden than the bachelor. The degree of penance for the bachelor was determined by the scandalousness of his partner. However, a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude did come into play when assigning penance to a young lad who was seen as ‘simply sewing his wild oats.’ Not so for the maiden or her partner, for deflowering a maiden, even if she was willing, was seen as rape. Further the maiden ran the risk of pregnancy, and the Orthodox Church offered her no opportunity to be ‘saved by marriage.’ Such a fallen maiden faced penance as great as 9 years cut off from the Church.., that is, if she was not immediately dispatched to a convent. Widows, as sexual partners, were treated as maidens in terms of the penance, with one notable exception: you could certainly never be accused of ‘deflowering’ a widow. In any case, the Church tended to be a bit more forgiving in cases involving widows, making them very attractive sex partners for young unattached men. Divorcees were considered to still be married, thus fornication with them was automatically considered adultery.
Sex with prostitutes and slaves carried the lightest penance, with certain exceptions. Potentially-procreative sex with a prostitute was not any more serious that simple illicit fornication with a willing partner. The fact of payment for services never seems to enter into the equation. It seemed a generally held, if little expressed, opinion that if a man was going to have sex, doing so with a prostitute was far less serious to the community’s well-being than with some other man’s wife. (This feeling, however, in no way excused sodomy.) Sex with a female slave carried the lightest penalties of all, seldom denying sacraments to either party, unless the man was married and keeping the slave right in his home. The Church recognized the difficulty a slave might have spurning the advances of her master and adjusted the penance according to whether or not her participation was willing. Women, not technically being allowed to have slaves, did not routinely face similar situations. As always, the position, the age, the frequency, and the social status of the participants often affected the penance.
Sodomy, as has been previously discussed, is a term encompassing any sexual activity that is un-natural, counter to the ‘proper order of things,’ and could never result in procreation. Sodomy included beastiality, homosexuality, heterosexual anal sex, oral sex, woman on top (in some cases), vaginal penetration from the rear (in some cases) and mutual or individual masturbation. Because this covers such a wide range, from the seemingly harmless to what was then viewed as heinous, gradations of sodomy eventually emerged.
Though still considered quite serious, masturbation was perhaps the least significant. Masturbation by men and women was treated the same for men and women in term of penance, usually calling for a week or less of fasting, according to the frequency. It was seen as inciting sexual excitement within yourself, which was evil, and usually resulted in a waste of seed. Nocturnal erections and wet dreams were viewed as instigated by the Devil, and fasting was always called for. Mutual masturbation was only a bit more serious. It could not result in childbirth, but neither was it quite actually ‘sex.’ As long as incest was not involved the penance was only a bit more severe than for regular masturbation.
Beastiality was more common in the smaller agricultural communities. Cows, pigs, and dogs were the most common ‘partners,’ though birds and reptiles were not unheard of. Because the mechanics of the matter were easier for men, it was therefore more commonly associated with them. The penance, however, was the same for men and women, with 15 years restriction from the sacraments or several years fasting being quite common. Frequency, as always was a deciding factor, with some documented cases of greater penance being assigned for sexual intercourse with mammals than was assigned for sex with yard fowl.
Canon law regarding homosexuality was the confusing product of two rival traditions. On one hand Old Testament precedent ranked male homosexual activity among the most serious of crimes. This feeling was reinforced to maintain discipline within the monastic communities of the Church. Yet the bulk of early Byzantine philosophical tradition came from the ancient Greeks who did not blanketly condemn all homosexual contact. Thus, medieval Russian Orthodoxy came to view male homosexuality as wrong not because it was evil or unnatural, but because it confused the narrowly defined gender roles inherent in Orthodox belief. As a result, the otherwise unflinchingly strict Orthodox penitential views on sex, actually made distinctions between types of male homosexual contact.
Anal intercourse between males was regarded as seriously as heterosexual adultery, carrying a similar 15-year restriction from communion. Age was the mitigating factor –young men sowing their wild seeds again- as long as it could be seen as a mere youthful experiment. Bachelors were cut a bit of slack, as well. Regardless, repercussions were even greater for the male in the submissive role, especially if the act was habitual, and much more so if he altered his appearance in any way to become more feminine. A male who thus shaved his beard would be anathematized, cut off from the church forever! In instances where an adult used a boy below the age of five, the abuser bore all the sin. If the child was greater than five, but still less than the age of majority, the parents of the child bore most of the sin for not teaching him any better.
Because mutual masturbation required neither man to assume the female role, it was viewed with more tolerance than anal intercourse, and the penance was accordingly less. Interestingly, intercrural homosexual intercourse, whereby the dominant male inserts his penis between the thighs of his partner for sex, was viewed as merely an extreme form of masturbation, despite the presence of a clearly submissive partner. The penance for this activity was typically only fifty percent greater than for simple masturbation. This is a striking departure from the norm –which commonly held the submissive as more guilty– and evidence of the strong impact of early Greek thought on Slavic Orthodoxy’s view of homosexuality. Similarly, lesbian activity was also viewed as mutual masturbation, though with slightly greater penalty than that of males. It seems from records that much lesbian experimentation and play among young women was tolerated because there was less chance to break the hymen and thus call her maidenhood into question, and it prepared them for married life without risking pregnancy.
Incest, at least according to existing records, seemed to be less a problem for the Orthodox Slavs than for their western counterparts. Though less than for adultery and anal intercourse, the penance for incest was certainly great especially if coercion was involved. Several years’ restriction from the sacraments was the price of violating medieval Russia’s laws on consanguinity. According to Orthodox canon there were four types of consanguinity: by blood, by marriage, by spiritual bond, and by adoption. Consanguinity by blood was determined by how many levels of births, called degrees, separated the two. For example: A father and his daughter were separated by one degree, the birth of that daughter. First cousins in modern reckoning were of the third degree in medieval Russia. Marriage was forbidden within the eighth degree. God-parents were considered to be spiritually related to god-children to the same degree as actual parents, unless already of another degree, or complicated by a couple being god-parents to more than one child within varying degrees of a family. For both blood-relatives and spiritual relatives, sexual activity within the eighth degree was considered incest. Relatives by marriage, or in-laws, were governed by the same definitions of consanguinity as if they were actually related, thus a man’s sister-in-law was considered of the same degree of consanguinity as the man. Restrictions against marrying relatives by marriage extended only to the sixth or seventh degree. Ignorance of pedigree was not considered a mitigating circumstance. An adoptive sibling was not within any degree of consanguinity, but the concept of adoption was considered pagan in origin, so the Church maintained its seriousness as incest despite the lack of true relation.
Sexual activity between mother and son, father and daughter, or between siblings was second in severity only after adultery. Relation between a parent and a child were often seen as the product of possession by the devil, the very idea of it being so repulsive to the medieval Russian. Penance for such incest ranged from five years fasting to 30 years without communion. Sexual activity between cousins was dealt with a bit less severely, especially as the degrees of consanguinity grew greater. As in the west, dispensation could be secured for the Princely caste.
To Keep in Mind
Having covered this dizzying array of penance for sexual activity, it is extremely important to keep certain realities in mind. Despite these Church preachings and admonitions not to marry for love, and to keep your wife at a distance, most marriages were actually made for the political or financial gain of the families involved. With our vantage point of another thousand years of history beyond that of the Orthodox medieval Russians, we can see than no church –or government, for that matter-has ever managed to check the sexual drive of it’s constituents. Indeed, despite the seeming strictness of penance called for in the cases above, it must be realized that not all of these restrictions were imposed to the same degree everywhere. The Church then, as now, was peopled with the both the free-thinking and the narrow-minded; with the understanding and with the sadistic. Medieval Russia herself was peopled, as was any place, with all manner of folk just trying to eke out a living and live a happy life by placing their faith in God and their fellow man.
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