‘If a small boy…’: Sex, morality and boyhood in the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials.

Article by Liz Goodwin. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional research by Liz Goodwin.

Anglo-Saxon carving of the crucifix

If anyone is looking for a Medieval way to waste half an hour (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), I’d like to recommend the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials (http://www.anglo-saxon.net/penance). In Allen J. Frantzen’s amazing online digitisation, Church rules concerning sin, sacrament and penance are divided into some of the more pressing cultural matters affecting mid-tenth- and early eleventh-century society. When studied, albeit with some caution, Frantzen asserts the deep significance they can reveal about the mentality and actions of the lay peoples subject to these rules written
within monastries. Most famously, most entertainingly and in some cases most staggeringly, the Anglo-Saxon Penitential collections talk extensively about sex. From the most intimate and ordinary of domestic interaction to some genuinely outrageous and downright bizarre practises, nothing appears to be off limits. If The Inbetweeners went on to become historians, you can imagine this is the area in which they’d specialise.

Putting aside the more shocking issues asserted by these texts (the incest, bestiality and incidents of rape), the Penitentials raise interesting questions about sexuality in youth, and in particular, young boys. This seems markedly distinct and in some cases disturbing when viewed by a modern reader, yet it appears stranger still that the entire concept of childhood is undetermined in this period. A few of the references to children were regarding conception and care of babies, ruling on issues of infanticide, legitimacy and cleansing of original sin; the (potential) parents are the ones in need of penitential guidance, rather than resulting children. The varieties of language used to describe the young only muddies the waters of childhood perception further – in the Penitentials, whilst definition is made between man and differing degrees of ‘boy’ in order to determine his level of responsibility, types of penance awarded to these behaviours were remarkably similar. Children were given ‘but little leeway,’ in their acts in which they engaged in, ‘when they [had] authority over themsleves.’ The dominating theory of Philippe Ariès, that Medieval people saw children only as smaller adults, certainly looks plausible when judging their behaviours by these texts, suggesting that ‘children were mirrors in which adults saw their own sexual anxieties present… [and] fully formed.’

With nearly half the total number of canons in these texts relating to children and sexual practise, a historian must identify exactly what these young people (predominately, and importantly, young boys) were seen to be doing that warranted anxiety. References to homosexual acts involving young boys is especially prominent (it is true to say that ‘if the boys were [pursuing girls] the authors of the penitentials were not particularly concerned,’), in one instance equating ‘illicit fornication… with animals,’ with that of sex with ‘young ones, or a man who has sex with another.’ Most bizarrely is this example from the Scriftboc text: ‘If a small boy is forced by larger one into intercourse, [he must fast] for seven nights. If he consents to it, he is to fast twenty nights.’ It seems unbelievable that it is the perceived victim of rape that has sinned and must atone, with no punishment handed out in this extract to the perpetrator. In other instances of incestuous mother/son and father/daughter relationships, it is the parent that must do penance. This contradiction raises extremely interesting questions on the very nature of guilt and innocence within gender, sexuality and, of course, age – was heterosexual abuse of the young more of a widespread concern, or did the writers of the texts wish to impress upon the young boy the seriousness and immorality of homosexual behaviour?

Anglo-Saxon carving of Christ's baptism, with Christ shown as a child.

Frantzen offers up two conclusions in his study of the role of children within Penitential sexuality. Young boys, he asserts, cannot have been excluded from frank discussions about sexual practise and ethics, demonstrating no differentiation for a Medieval monk writing between an adult and a child’s mental age. Secondly, the broadest of comparisons to gay relationships in the classical period reveal a link to children being seen as objects of temptation and inadvertent seducers of older men – by laying guilt on the victim, surely at attempt was made at ‘instilling a fear of all sexual acts,’ even the ones they had not initiated.

When viewed in a wider gendered context, however, I believe we may add a third conclusion to this. Around the same time, Odo of Cluny was writing with enormous anxiety about clerical celibacy and in particular, the inevitability and deep shame of ‘nocturnal emissions,’ in his life of Gerald of Aurillac. During his own adolescence, Odo’s biographer tells us that he suffered incredible physical pain after his father’s decision to remove him from a monastic path for a secular career, his hurt representative of the internal struggle manifesting in prospective sexual sinfulness. Rulers like Edward the Confessor were exalted in their decision to reject a sexual relationship within marriage. Dynastically, this caused huge political problems (1066 seems like the obvious example!) – the very lack of children, especially a male heir, through a moralistic rejection of sex would have far reaching implications. William Rufus, the successor to William the Conqueror, failed to live up to his father’s masculine example, near ridiculed in chronicles for his homosexuality.

Throughout the laity, secular kingship and all echelons of the Church, the issues of youth, sexuality and masculinity would hold a deep psychological pull within the tenth and eleventh centuries. We can conclude that all elements must be seen very much in tandem and not isolation; the human mores of anxiety, guilt, faith and desire can combine in such bizarrely unexpected ways. In the Anglo-Saxon Penitentials, we see all points come together in a child, the most universal of subjects, yet the most radically different in Medieval and Modern concept. Perhaps the question, then, is not what makes a child a child, but what made an adult, adult.

Perhaps this is only as eloquent as Jay or Neil would put it – but you get the idea.

For further, and far better, reading, see A. J. Frantzen, ‘Where the Boys Are: Children and Sex in Anglo-Saxon Penitentials,’ in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler (eds.) Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (2006)

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