In the medieval west, rules around sexual conduct, marriage and childbearing were largely laid down by the church. Rooted in the pastoral discourse which guided the faithful in everyday life, promising salvation in the next, this moral and legal code gained increasing precision, coherence and dominance from the twelfth century, through the combined efforts of scholastic theologians and canon lawyers, or ‘canonists’, the experts in ecclesiastical law. Meanwhile, medieval schools and universities also incubated a new learned medicine and natural philosophy. Here, based on fresh interpretations of ancient and Arabic texts, translated into Latin from the late eleventh century, systematic theories of generation took shape.
Historians have shown how this medical and philosophical knowledge acquired new forms and meanings as it became available beyond the university and how pastoral discourse was repackaged in penitentials and handbooks for priests and preachers, relayed to the faithful through sermons and confession, and translated into judicial practice. Yet studies focused solely on the theological, legal or medical frameworks obscure the extent to which procreation pervaded multiple discourses and transcended disciplinary divides. Theologians provided the church with moral and legal norms about sex and marriage, but they also participated actively in debates about the workings of procreation. The primary scholastic treatise on human generation was written by an Augustinian canon who was one of the leading theologians of his time. Moreover, debates over doctrines such as the transmission of original sin or the conception of Christ involved detailed discussion about the physiology of procreation. Scholasticism both stimulated and discouraged interdisciplinary cross-fertilization. While every field had its own authorities and commentary traditions, all scholastics shared training in the liberal arts and, from the mid-thirteenth century, Aristotelian natural and moral philosophy. They brought with them a Christian outlook and other common values and beliefs, besides particular, often local, experiences and opinions. This chapter aims to grasp better the extent to which medieval understandings of generation informed legal and religious norms about sex, marriage and childbearing; when and how the different outlooks on procreation converged or conflicted; and how learned debate and explicit rules related to social practices, values and beliefs.
Many medieval discussions of these questions centre on the fetus. Through the Christian doctrine of the immortal soul, the fetus became the focus of intertwining religious, philosophical, legal and social concern.