Ecclesiastical Sexual Politics

More on Matt Ridleys' book The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature:

I found the following particularly interesting – given my utter disdain for the manipulative underbelly of religion…..



Betzig’s analysis of medieval history includes the idea that the begetting of wealthy heirs was the principle cause of Church-state controversies. A series of connected events occurred in the tenth century or thereabouts. The power of kings declined and the power of local feudal lords increased. As a consequence, noblemen gradually became more concerned with producing legitimate heirs to succeed to their titles as the seigneurial system of primogeniture was established. They divorced barren wives and left all to the firstborn son. Meanwhile, resurgent Christianity conquered its rivals to become the dominant religion of northern Europe. The early Church was obsessively interested in matters of marriage, divorce, polygamy, adultery, and incest. Moreover, in the tenth century the Church began to recruit its monks and priests from among the aristocracy.

The Church’s obsessions with sexual matters were very different from St. Paul’s. It had little to say about polygamy or the begetting of many bastards, although both were commonplace and against doctrine. Instead, it concentrated on three things: first, divorce, remarriage, and adoption; second, wet nursing and sex during periods when the liturgy demanded abstinence; and third, “incest” between people married to with seven canonical degrees. In all three cases the Church seems to have been trying to prevent lords from siring legitimate heirs. If a man obeyed the Church in the year 1100, he could not divorce a barren wife, he certainly could not marry while she lived, and he could not adopt an heir. His wife could not give her baby daughter to a wet nurse and be ready to bear another in the hope of its being a son, and he could not make love to his wife “for three weeks at Easter, four weeks at Christmas, and one to seven weeks at Pentecost; plus Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays—days for penance or sermons; plus miscellaneous feast days.” He also could not bear a legitimate heir by any woman closer than a seventh cousin—which excluded most noble women within three hundred miles. It all adds up to a sustained attack by the Church on the siring of heirs, and “it was not until the Church started to fill up with the younger brothers of men of state that the struggle over inheritance—over marriage between them began” Individuals within the Church (disinherited younger sons) were manipulating sexual mores to increase the Church’s own wealth or even regain property and titles for themselves.
All internal quotations are from:
Betzig, L.L., 1992. Medieval monogamy. In Darwinian Approaches to the Past (ed. S Mithen and H. Maschner). Plenum, New York.

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