Today we are still focusing on Augustine of Canterbury’s letter to Pope Gregory, as documented in Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In my previous post, I discussed the first half of Augustine’s eighth question to Gregory. As the question is extremely long (as well as Gregory’s answer), I am going to focus on the second half, starting with Augustine’s questions regarding menstruation. Here is the question in its entirety:
“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (Bede, pg. 76-77)
Despite Gregory’s opinions on breastfeeding, his opinions on menstruation are a bit more progressive. (Some of them, anyway.) Gregory tells Augustine that “the Old Law prescribed death for any man who approached a woman” (Bede, pg. 78) while she was menstruating. That being said, Gregory also argues that a person “should not be forbidden to enter church during these times” (Bede, pg. 78). His logic for this is the same reason why people should be allowed to enter a church after they give birth:
“[F]or the workings of nature cannot be considered culpable, and it is not just that she should be refused admittance, since her condition is beyond her control.” (Bede, pg. 78)
Gregory reminds Augustine that Christ healed a woman who “suffered an issue of blood” (Bede, pg. 78) and if that woman was allowed to touch Christ, why shouldn’t someone who is menstruating not be allowed to go to church? And why should they “be forbidden to receive…Communion at these times” (Bede, pg. 79)? They aren’t doing anything “blameworthy” (Bede, pg. 79). After all, “the monthly courses of women are no fault, because nature causes them” (Bede, pg. 79). I find Pope Gregory’s acceptance of menstruating people into church particularly noteworthy because this wasn’t the case for all religions. For example, in a Jewish text “written in Palestine or Italy in the ninth or tenth century, a menstruating woman was forbidden to enter a synagogue, to come into contact with sacred books, to pray, or to recite God’s name” (Baskin, pg. 45). While it’s unfortunate that people might be forbidden to worship purely because they are menstruating, I understand why this might be the case before the invention of tampons or adhesive sanitary napkins.
That being said, if a menstruating person chooses not to receive communion “out of a deep sense of reverence” (Bede, pg. 79), Gregory considers this “commendable” (Bede, pg. 79). However, at the end of the day, Gregory stresses to Augustine that “how can a woman who endures the laws of nature with a pure mind be considered impure?” (Bede, pg. 79).
Speaking of pure minds, Gregory moves on to impure ones when he answers Augustine’s question regarding men entering church after having relations with their wives. Right off the bat Gregory says that “it is not fitting” (Bede, pg. 79) for a man to come to church if he hasn’t washed or if he has. Gregory then clarifies that it’s not physical impurities that he’s particularly worried about, but spiritual ones. Gregory doesn’t regard men “as fitted to join in Christian worship until these heated desires cool in the mind” (Bede, pg. 80). He also wants men to think this way about themselves. After all, how can one worship God properly if they are still thinking about “wrongful passions” (Bede, pg. 80)?
The answer is that you can’t.
However, like the rest of Augustine’s questions concerning sex and the human body, there are exceptions to the rule. Gregory is pretty clear with regards to when and why (married!) people should have sex:
“Lawful intercourse should be for the procreation of offspring, and not for mere pleasure; to obtain children, and not to satisfy lust.” (Bede, pg. 81)
So if you are a man who has had relations with your wife before you attend church, why did you do it? Was it strictly for pleasure? Or were you and your spouse trying to conceive? If you were strictly motivated “by a desire for children” (Bede, pg. 81), Gregory says that “he is to be left to his own judgement [sic]” on whether or not you should attend mass or receive communion. Similar to the choice a menstruating person must make in regards to worshipping, Gregory thinks that it is up to you as long as your intentions are pure.
Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.
Baskin, Judith. “Jewish Traditions About Women and Gender Roles: From Rabbinic Teachings to Medieval Practice.” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith Bennett and Ruth Karras, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 36–49.