Last week on twitter I had a little chat about the presence of dildos in the penitential of Burchard of Worms, which raised some questions.
For those who have managed to escape the morass that is the twitter hellscape, a brief recap before we get on to making a historical point™. Burchard of Worms was the Bishop of Worms, which was an extremely influential Holy Roman Imperial city, and which we generally think of now in relation to the Diet of Worms, where Martin Luther (who is just a second-rate Jan Hus, but whatever), was tried. Burchard, however, was working five blissful centuries before Luther came on the scene, i.e. at the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh centuries, and he was massively influential in making canon, or Church, law. He is also very well known for making his own penitential.
For those who were not raised Catholic, a penitential is – more or less – a book that gives guidance to priests who are giving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which was known as the Sacrament of Penance in the medieval period. This is where Catholics (aka any non-Orthodox Christians in the medieval period) go into a little booth and tell a priest what sins they have committed. The priest then tells them what penance they have to do in order to be forgiven of the sins and reconciled with God.
Now, most people may have trouble telling a priest exactly what very sinful things they have done, and when hearing the sins of their flock, priests might struggle to come up with an appropriate penance to forgive them. Penitentials help with this because they provide priests with a series of questions they can ask repentant sinners to draw out the sins they have committed, and they also suggest appropriate penances for said sins.
As exciting as all of this is, there is a boring history point to be made here, which is that penitentials are a super tricky source. We don’t know, for example, if the sins that are included in penitentials are defo rife throughout a particular parish, or if they are something that come from a lot of individual reflections on the part of priests. In other words, when we think about weird sex stuff in penitentials does that mean that lots of medieval people were doing weird sex stuff all over the place, OR does it mean that a celibate priest with a lot of time on his hands to think about sex and how VERY NAUGHTY it is came up with some strange answers? It’s hard to say, and medieval historians love to argue about that.
One way or another, however, Burchard defo wanted priests to ask any women in confession the following:
Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do, that is, to make some sort of device or implement in the shape of the male member, of the size to match your desire, and you have fastened it to the area of your genitals or those of another with some form of fastenings and you have fornicated with other women or others have done with a similar instrument or another sort with you? If you have done this you shall do penance for five years on legitimate holy days.
AKA, did you make a dildo? Did you then strap it on to someone else and get your fuck on? That is naughty and there is gonna have to be some penance.
This isn’t so surprising to most of us, given that we are talking about sex to Catholics and of course it’s all very naughty. Of course you ought not be doing it and a priest is going to tell you to repent and all that.
What is surprising about this is that your boy also talks a bit about weird sex magic elsewhere, to whit:
Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make the men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.
Now this raised some questions among my lovely followers, namely, why is the penance for having sex with a dildo worse than doing weird vagina fish magic on your husband?
The answer is sodomy.
Now we tend to think of sodomy as just butt stuff, but it’s not. Technically sodomy is any kind of sex that means you can’t get someone pregnant. So butt stuff defo is sodomy, but so it manual sex, oral sex, and sex with strap ons, of course. If you are out here making dildos and having sex with people with them you are doing a big old sodomy and it is Extremely Bad. You’ll notice that Burchard here is particularly worried about women doing this to each other here, but he also acknowledges that “others” could be getting down on this. It doesn’t really matter then if the people doing this are doing a Gay Sex or not. Anyone doing it is bad because no. It is sodomy. He rebukes it.
The fish vag magic, in contrast, is specifically talking about a magical act in the context of a marriage. This is crucial. Avid readers will recall that the only type of sex that is acceptable is penis in vagina sex between married people for the explicit purposes of procreating. As a result, the fish vag magic is less sinful than strap-on dildo sex because it is hinting at a woman looking to have more sex specifically within the context of a marriage and THAT IS FINE. Magic is bad, for sure. Do some penance on particular days for a few years. It’s not like you are having a type of sex that can never get anyone pregnant ever, though. That is what is really bad.
Of course Burchard also had time to think about what ladies might be doing with dildos on their own, and told priests to ask:
Have you done what certain women are accustomed to do, that is, you have fornicated with yourself with the aforementioned device or some other device? If you have done this, you shall do penance for one year on legitimate holy days.
Aka, do you wank with dildos or nah? The penance for this is … pretty light. One year of fasting on the holy days is doable. Does it mean that you are gonna miss out on some sweet feasts, for example, around Christmas? Yeah. But, you know, you shouldn’t have been wanking then. Not that big a deal all things considered in comparison to the other punishments, I think we can all agree.
The masturbation is a bit more chilled out because it is a sin that only involves one person doing naughty stuff. Using dildos on other people? Being very bad and doing sodomy and dragging other people into your sin. Fish vag magic? Naughty because you are doing something to someone. Wanking? Well, you’re sinning at yourself, more or less. Probs don’t do that, but even still, welllllllll, the desert fathers weren’t struggling with masturbation for nothing. It happens to the best of us.
Why is this important? Well, firstly it shows us that as wild and crazy as we may think we are with our sex toys now, there’s nothing new under the sun. It also shows us that despite some people’s ideas about a sanitised and unsexy version of the past, people have always been DTF however. Women have always been having sex with women and themselves, and basically whoever, because women are horny too.
It is also a great mini lesson in how historians work with documents that might not be a perfect example of something that definitely happened. We can read this penitential and take note of the dildo stuff as most likely happening because, you know, we still do that now. So dildo penance, probs legit. Fishes in the vag … probably not so much.
On the other hand whether or not women were actually cooking fishes vaginally to make their husbands want to bone is in and of itself not as important as the fact that Burchard was pretty sure they were. Even if it doesn’t tell us about a common practice, it tells us about what a Bishop appears to think is a common practice, and that tells us a lot about both our man Burchard and what Church leaders were spending time thinking ‘bout.
So the next time you bust out a dildo, or a strap on in order to have good and nice sex, remember you are a part of a historical legacy that makes rich old dudes sad. I think that is beautiful.
 Patrologia Latina, 140.971D-927A.
 See John R. Shinners (ed.), Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), p. 452.
 Patrologia Latina, 140.971D-927A
For more on sex in the medieval period, see:
On No Nut November
On cuckolding – a thing
On sex work and the concept of ‘rescue’
These hoes ain’t loyal: on prostitutes and bad bitches in medieval and hiphop culture
On Courtly Love, sexual coercion, and killing your idols
On Incels and courtly love
The history of penis in vagina as default sex at BISH
Sex and the (medieval city): social hygene and sex in the medieval urban landscape
On women and desire
On power and the entitlement to lower-status women’s bodies, or, the thing that IS medieval about Trump