English Literature

Chastity, Marriage, Widowhood, and Virginity

Chastity, Marriage, Widowhood, and Virginity

Discussions of chastity went to the core of discourses about sex and marriage in the Middle Ages, in particular as all three topics related to women. The connections begin with St. Paul, who stated that while marital sex was the only kind of sex allowed, chastity was the preferable state. According to medieval thinking, sexuality itself was uncorrupted and directed towards procreation before the Fall, but concupiscence entered the human realm after it. Marriage was one way for the Church to recognize sexuality while regulating it, with writers such as Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Gratian elaborating the prescriptions and guidance. Combined with Jerome’s commentary on the three states available to women – virginity, widowhood, and marriage – religious writings about chastity, sex, and marriage reinforced broader societal stereotypes of women as more closely tied with physicality, weakness, and vanity (see also “Marriage,” p. 21). The Book of Vices and Virtues is a late fourteenth-century translation of the thirteenth-century Somme le Roi by Lorens d’Orléans, a Dominican friar. Both the French and the English texts are mirrors for princes, manuals for lay instruction which, in scholastic fashion, divide and subdivide topics to explicate the articles of faith, the seven deadly sins and seven virtues, and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, pity, and dread of God. Chastity is the remedy against the sin of lechery and arises out of understanding.

Chastity itself concerns seven “branches” of people: virgins not dedicated to a religious life, those who are unmarried who have had sex and are repentant, married individuals, widows, dedicated virgins, clerks in orders, and other religious people.The thridde braunche [of chastity] is the staate and the bonde of mariage, for thei schulle kepe hem everiche for other, clenliche and truliche, with-out any wrong doynge that on to that other, and that asketh the lawe of mariage that that on hold trewthe and feith to that other of his body. For after that thei ben knytte to-gidre flescheliche, thei ben al on body and on soule, as holi writ seith, and therfore schul everiche of hem love other as hymself. For as thei ben on bodi, thei schulde ben of on herte bi trwe love, ne nevere-more to departe of herte ne of body while thei lyven;1 wherfore, thei scholde kepe here bodies clenliche and chastliche, with-out here owen harme, and therfore seith Seynt Poule that wommen schulde love here hosebondes and honoure, and kepe hem chaste and sobre:2 chaste, to kepe here bodies from alle othere than from here lordes; sobre in etyng and drynkyng, for of to moche etyng and drynkynge cometh moche quekenyng of the fier of lecherie. And also scholde men kepe here bodies chast that thei ne geve nought to a-nother womman than to here owen. Mariage is a staate that men schulde wel clenliche and holiliche kepe for many skilles.

For it is a staate of grete autorite. God sett it and made it [in] paradis terrestre in the state of innocence to-fore that ever any man dide synne. And therfore schulde men kepe it holiliche for God that ordeyned it and for the stede that it was made ynne. After, it is a staate of grete worthinesse. For God hymself wolde be bore of a wif that was of the maide Marie, wherfore the maide Marie made a mantel of mariage wher-under Goddes sone was conceyved and borne. Under that mantel was hiled3 from the devel the pryvete and the counseil of oure raunsom and of oure helthe, and therfore than scholde men worschipe it moche and clenliche, and honestliche kepe it for the holynesse ther-of. After, men schulde kepe it holiliche, for it is a sacrament of holy chirche and betokeneth the mariage that is bitwexe Jhesu Crist and holi chirche, and bitwex God and the soule; wherfore, the staate of mariage is so holi and so honest that the dede that was erst dedly synne with-out mariage is with-oute synne in mariage, and not onliche with-out synne but in many caas grete thanke-worthi of God to wynne bi the lif with-outen ende, and it is wel to wite that in thre manere wises ye mowe do the dede of wedeloke with-out synne and have grete merite to the soule.

The first is whan men don that werke in hope to have fruyt of kynde to serve with God, and to suche understondyng was first mariage made and ordeined principalliche. The secunde caas is whan that on yeldeth to that other his dette whan it is asked, and therto schal rightwisnesse move a man that yeldeth every wight that is his owen; wherfore, if that on werneth that other and wole not suffre to have his right whan it is asked or praied, or bi mouth or bi signe, as many wommen don that ben schamefast to aske such thinges, he or sche that werneth to that other that biddeth, doth synne. For he doth hym or hire wrong of thing that is his by right, for that on hath right of that otheres body. But he that yeldeth that he oweth doth wel and rightfulliche whan he doth it in that entente and deserveth thanke of God, for rightwisnesse dryveth hym ther-to and not lecherie. The thridde caas is whan a man biddeth of his wif suche thing to kepe hire fro synne, and nameliche whan he seeth that sche is so ful of schame that sche wolde nevere bidde here lord of suche thing and therfore dredeth that sche myght falle lightliche in synne but he bede hire ther-of. Who-so praieth in that entente and yeldeth his dette, he ne synneth not but deserveth grete thanke of God, for rewthe moveth hym to do that. In thes thre thinges is no synne in the werke of wedloke, but in othere caas mowe men or wommen synne other dedliche or venialliche, and specialliche in thre caas. The first is whan men or wommen wolneth4 nothing in suche workes but onliche for delite and likyng and lecherie, and in suche caas may a man or a womman synne dedliche or venialliche, venyaliche, whan the delite passeth not the bondes of mariage, that is to seie whan the delite is suget to right and resoun, that he that doth that ne wolde not do suche thing but to his wif. But whan the delite and the lecherie is so grete in his wif that resoun and right is blent,5 that he wolde do as moche to hire theigh sche were not his wif, in that caas it is dedly synne. For suche lecheries passen the bondes of mariage.

Wher-fore, God is ofte wroth with suche folke and geveth ofte grete power to the devel to do hem scathe,6 as men reden of Sarre, Ragueles doughter, that was yong Tobies wif and hadde y-had sevene hosebondes, and alle weren slawen with the devel the first nyght that thei wolden ligge bi hire. Wherfore, the aungel seide to Tobie he scholde have hire to his wif. “And I schal the telle,” seid the aungel, “in which men that the devel hath power ynne,” – in hem that putten God so oute of here hertes and oute of here thoughtes that thei entenden to no thing but to here lecheries, as doth an hors or a mule or an other best, and therfore God bynemeth hem other while fruyt that th[ei] mowe have none children.7 And yit mowe men and wommen synne dedliche in a-nother manere, that is to seie whan that on draweth that other to do thing agens kynde and in other wise than kynde of man asketh or lawe of mariage graunteth. Such folke synnen more grevousliche than any of the other to-fore seid, but thilke that in here mariage kepen the drede of oure lord and [k]epen clenliche here mariage as it is ordeyned and sette, such folke ben likyng to God. The secunde caas wher men and wommen synnen in mariage is whan a man goth to his wif whan he scholde not, that is whan sche is seke, as wommen be comuneliche. He that ne spareth not whan he wot that his wif is in suche poynt, synneth gretliche, and God defendeth that a man come nought nyghe his wif in that poynt for the perel of the children that comen bitwexe hem. For, as Seynt Jerome seith, in that tyme ben ofte begete the maymed folk, that is the blynde, the halte and lame, and the messeles.8 Wherfore, the womman schal telle hire hosebonde that sche is in that plyt, in that staate, wherfore that he forbere hire to do any thing, and he is holde to suffre hire.

Also scholde folke spare of the dedes of wedloke in holy tymes, as at the highe festes that ben solempne in holi chirche for to be more the besy and entendaunt to serve God and praie goode praiers; also in fastynge tymes that ben in holi chirche scholde alle men and wommen forbere suche thinges, not for the synne that it is to do suche thing in suche tyme – in suche entent may a man do it – but otherwhile schal a man forbere thing that he may do with-oute synne for to purchase of God the bettre that a man wolde, as Seynt Austen seith.9 Also, in the tyme that a womman lith in childebed scholde every man kepe hym from suche worke for schame and for perel that may come ther-of. Men fynden in the boke that speketh of kynde of bestes that the olifaunt wole nevere touche the femele after sche hath conceyved,10 and a man schulde bi resoun be more attempre than a best, and therfore schulde he in suche tyme suffre, not for than I ne seie that he synneth if he doth that dede bi goode cause in suche tyme, but ther-of God is justice and mote be. The thridde caas wher-ynne men mowen grevousliche synne in mariage is in holy places, as in holy chirche. For in holy places that ben properliche ordeyned to serve God ynne and praien ynne, ne scholde no wight do the werk of mariage for reverence of God and of the holi place, and who-so ne kepeth hym not to do suche dedes in holi places, he synneth bi cause of the place. For suche thing may be synne in suche stede and suche tymes that is no synne elles-where . . .

The ferthe staate of chastite is of hem that han ben in mariage and deth hath departed hem. He that is left in the lif schal kepe chastite as longe as thei ben in widowhode. For that is an staate that Seynt Poule preiseth moche and seith to widowes that good is to kepe and hold that estate and, if hem like not, thei mowe marye hem agen. For bettre is hem to marye hem than brenne hem.11 For he brenneth hymself that assenteth to synne, for he putteth his herte bi wille and desire in-to the fier of lecherie, and bettre were hym to be maried than to be besette al a-boute with fier. And this is to understonde of hem that ben in the staate of symple widowhode, not in hem that ben bounden to a vowe to suche estaat that thei ne mowe marye hem with-oute dedly synne after that avowe, but algate if the avowe be symple as that is made pryveliche and with-oute solempnite, al be it that thei synnen dedliche that after suche avowe maryen hem, yit mowe thei dwelle stille in mariage but ther be any other lette,12 but hem behoveth to do here penaunce for the avowe broken. But whan the avowe is solempne, or bi the hond or bi the bisschop or bi the prelate or bi profession of religion or bi holi ordre that any wight hath take, as subdekne, dekne, or prest, than is the mariage nought but nedes behoveth for to departe such that in suche wise comen to-gidre, for they mowe not be saved in that estate.

To widow-hode schulde move the ensaumple of the turtle. For, as the bok seith of kyndes of bestes, after that the turtle hath loste here make, never after wole he holde felawschep with non other but ever-more is alone and fleth the companie of othere. Thre thinges longen to the estate of widowhode. The first is to hide hire and be priveliche dwellyng in hire place and nought for to folewe suspecious felawschep, and ther-of have we ensaumple of Judith, that was widowe and was wonder fair and comeliche, wher-of men reden in holy writt that sche hilde hire in hire chaumbre y-schut with hire maidenes;14 wherfore, Seynt Poule undertaketh thes yonge wommen widowes that weren idel and besy to go alday hider and thider and jangelode and speke to moche, but thei schulde schut hem with-ynne houses and entende and be besy to do goode dedes, as Seynt Poule techeth.15 The secunde thing is to entende to bidde God goode praiers and goodliche to be at chirche in devocion and in teeres weping, as men redeth in the gospel of Seynt Luke that thilke good widowe that hight Anne yede nevere out of the temple and served God bothe nyght and day in bidd-ynges and wepynge and fastynge.16 The thridde thing in scharpe metes and drynkes. For as Seynt Poule seith, “The womman that is widowe and ledeth hire lif in delite is ded in synne.”17 For, as Seynt Bernard seith, chastite is loste in delices, right as he that is under the water is loste, for he may nought drawe his breth.18 Non may have his heved ne his herte longe in the delite of this world that hym ne behoveth to lese his breth, that is the grace of the Holy Gost wher-bi the soule lyveth in God. To suche staate belongeth also meke clothes, that is, no grete arraye ne riche robes ne queynte, as bi the ensaumple of Judith that lefte hire riche robes and noble atire whan hire lord was ded and toke clothinge of widowhode, meke and symple, that was more tokenyng of wepyng and sorwe than of joye or of veyne glorie and, for sche toke chastite and wolde kepe it al hire lif, sche dide upon hire flesche the hayre and faste every day but the highe holi daies, and yit sche was wonder fair and yong and wise and riche, but goodnesse of herte and love to be chaste made hire do this.19 Thus schulde thei lyve that wolde kepe chastite in that estate . . .

The fifthe braunche of chastite is virginite and is the fifthe estate of hem that kepen hem and alwey han kepte hem and alwey thenken to kepe al here lyves here bodies hole, with-oute corrupcion, for the love of God. This estate is moche to preise for his worthinesse. For suche estate maketh hem that wole kepe it like to the aungeles of hevene, as the holy men seien;20 but as moche han the virgines above the aungeles, that the aungeles lyve with-oute flesche, but thes virgines overcomen hire flesche, and that is grete mervaile, for thei kepen a wel feble castel, that is here body, agens so stronge enemys as the devel is that secheth alle the sleightes that he may take with that castel for to robbe the tresore of virginite; that is the tresore that oure lord speketh of in the gospel whan he seith, “The kyngdom of hevene is liche to tresore that is hid in a feld,”21 that is virginite y-hidde in the body that is as a felde that men scholde eeren22 bi penaunce and sowen with grete travaile of good dedes. That tresore is like to the kyngdom of hevene, for the lif of virgines is like to the lif of hevene, that is to seie to the lif of aungeles, wher-of oure lord seith in the gospel that in the arisynge ther schal be no mariage as ther is here, but [thei] schul be alle as aungeles of hevene.

6 thoughts on “Chastity, Marriage, Widowhood, and Virginity

  1. My literature hero when at university “The Bell Jar”: a Masterpiece : For Sylvia Plath on her birthday.

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