Marital debt

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Marital debt (commonly referred as conjugal debt) is a spouse's sexual commitment to one another. The concept stems from descriptions found in canon law of medieval Europe.


During the later medieval period (10th to 15th centuries), a new scholastic way thinking allowed the Church to solidify doctrine, leading to the formation of ecclesiastical law. This new wave of thinking stemmed from the revival and codification of some Roman laws. Particular works from Irneius and his students in 1112 and 1125 in particular, reconstructed some laws of Justinian's Code.[1] Work on laws allowed scholars to debate the issues like marriage as a sacrament.[2][3] Biblical references to marriage, like that found in 1 Corinthians 7 alludes to it as a preventative measure for "sexual immorality." Scholars like Gratian of Bologna were quick to posit their theories on marriage. His 12th century work, Decretum Gratiani, became an early text example for other canon law studies and it is here where the earliest account for marital debt is found. In it, he writes that marriage arose from wishing to prevent further sin through fornication. Gratian is also quick to point out four main reasons people may have for getting married: that is for offspring, to pay the debt, or the obligation of sex, for incontinence, or to satisfy lust and for the sake of pleasure.

A pattern of reciprocal sexual obligation then emerged. Spousal consent, from interpretations on marital debt, allowed spouses to more easily influence the lives of their other spouse. They lived in communal bond, a sexual bond known as a "conjugal domicile".[4] One notable example of the strength of this bond, was when a husband wished to leave his marriage for a monastic life but he remains in a sexual debt to his wife. He, therefore, could only leave for the monastery if his wife consents to his departure.[5]


Ecclesiastical courts were increasingly becoming a venue for couples to resolve marital disputes in the 11th and 12th centuries. It thus became important for the church to further consolidate and solidify canon law, so the courts could resolve the numerous cases. These increasingly strict canon laws made it much more difficult to get divorced or have a marriage annulled. One way to get a marriage annulment was if one spouse was impotent, in other words, if they could not fulfill the marital debt. In these cases, the healthy spouse could remarry while the impotent one could not.[6] There was some disagreement amongst the clergy about cases where a person was capable of fulfilling the conjugal debt, but was sterile and could not procreate. In these cases, some thought that you needed to be able to procreate to maintain the marriage.[7]

Conjugal debt also had implications in terms of gender equality.[8] For example, a woman had just as much right as a man to demand the debt. The conjugal debt "took precedence over most other duties." Even in the case where a lord had called a man to rally. If his wife had insisted on the debt, "the wife's rights took precedence over the lord's."[9] A similar situation applied for crusading. If a man wanted to go on crusade he needed permission from his wife, because "his departure would deprive her of the sexual solace that he owed to her."[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hoeflich, Michael (2008). Hartmann, Wilfried (ed.). The History of Medieval Canon Law in the Classical Period, 1140-1234 From Gratian to the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX. The Establishment of Normative Legal Texts: The Beginnings of the Ius commune. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780813214917.
  2. ^ Schaus, Margaret (2006). Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. Taylor & Francis. p. 164. ISBN 9780415969444.
  3. ^ "Catechism of the Catholic Church - IntraText". Retrieved 2015-10-27.
  4. ^ Bennett, Judith; Karras, Ruth (2013). McDougall, Sara (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe. Women and Gender In Canon Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 163–178, 70. ISBN 978-0-19-958217-4.
  5. ^ Lees, Clare; Fenster, Thelma; McNamara, Jo Ann (1994). Stuard, Susan (ed.). Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages. Burdens of Matrimony: Husbanding and Gender in Medieval Italy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press. pp. 61–72. ISBN 9780816624263.
  6. ^ Brundage, James (1987). Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 202. ISBN 0226077837.
  7. ^ Brundage, James (1987). Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 456. ISBN 0226077837.
  8. ^ Holloway, Julia; Wright, Constance (1990). Makowski, Elizabeth (ed.). Equally in God's Image. The Conjugal Debt and Medieval Canon Law. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. pp. 129–43. ISBN 9780820415178.
  9. ^ Brundage, James (1987). Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 359. ISBN 0226077837.
  10. ^ Brundage, James (1987). Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 283. ISBN 0226077837.