It is no secret that many people of the Middle Ages and the medieval era liked to have sex. From the highest offices, including the Pope, all the way down to the meager peasant, sex was a pastime that was enjoyed by all. However, that did not stop the Church from getting in on the action, or rather putting a stop to the action. The Canons of Theodore were written around 700 CE and were based upon the judgement of Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury.
The Canons of Theodore were pretty strict on just about everything and there were rules regarding nearly every aspect of life. The entire second section of the canons focused on fornication, and the rules were varied and strict. There were also detailed punishments on how a person should make amends for their transgressions.
The first rule about sex in the canons is regarding punishment for having sex with a virgin. If anyone had sex with a virgin, they were to fast for 4 years, or 2 years to the fullest. If a man has sex with another man’s wife he had to fast for 4 years, 2 year wandering in grief, and then 2 more years of fasting. The rules were stricter if a man had sex with an animal or an effeminate man. The punishment for that transgression was 10 years of fasting.
It is important to note here that in the medieval era fasting did not mean that a person stopped eating completely, but rather that a person severely restricted what they could eat. Most meat and dairy was prohibited during fasting, so the majority of people relied on fish and vegetables for food during a fast.
Masturbation was also frowned upon and earned 4 days without meat. If the man wanted to masturbate but could not, then he had to fast for 40 days. It is unclear why the punishment is different, but the moral of the story is if you’re going to start, you’d better finish. If the offender was a boy that frequently masturbated, the punishment was 20 days of fasting or a whipping. There were also punishments for women who masturbated. They were to serve penance for one year. If a woman was a widow or a virgin, then she only had to do one penance. The penance was increased if the woman was married. If she were to make a device shaped like a penis and use it for pleasure, then the penance was five years.
To “ejaculate seed” into another person’s mouth was considered to be the worst evil in regard to sex and required a lifetime of penance. This is telling about just how severe the crime was because it was worse than the punishments for those who chose to have sex with their own family members. For example if a man were to lay with his sister or his mother, his punishment was 7 to 12 years of fasting. There were punishments for relationships between mother and son, and between brothers.
But punishments for different sex acts was just the beginning. The canons offered plenty of other rules that even applied to situations where the church did allow sex.