Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

9. Sense And Sensuality

“NO MAN is an Island“, said Donne. Poets perceive the trend of the times sooner than others (that is their trade) and the reminder was indeed necessary, unheeded though it went. The sense of individual autonomy, had, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, reached such a pitch that, in the cases of an increasing number of men, we are entitled to diagnose failure to form a superego of any kind matrist or patrist. We need not doubt that the processes father and mother identification still occurred, but when fathers and mothers permitted themselves every licence, children in copying them, would learn to do the same. This sense of licence naturally extended itself to sexual matters and the Age of Reason is an age of astonishing sensuality. The arts and trades of an increasingly complex civilization were invoked to create new triumphs of creative endeavour, but they were also exploited to satisfy the wildest vagaries of sexuality.

Such movements seem to start among the leaders of the community and then to filter slowly downwards: it was certainly so in this case. The Court of Charles II displays in microcosm all the major trends which were to appear more widely in the following century. Quite incorrectly, the Restoration has gained the reputation of being a period of general licence. The plays of the Restoration dramatists, written principally by courtiers or noblemen, set a new standard of frankness and have given the age a name for debauchery, but they were seen by only a minute fraction of the population. The plays themselves constituted only two per cent of the sales of booksellers, most of whose trade consisted of scientific and religious works. (150). And while Charles licensed two theatres— as compared with a maximum of six or seven in Elizabeth’s time— they received so little support that the two companies were obliged to merge. A few court rakes, like Rochester or Medley, wenched and cheated themselves into premature graves, but the mass of the population remained unaffected.

However, it is certainly true that the overthrowing of Puritan rule and the restoration of the king caused a great outburst of popular rejoicing, in which the erection of maypoles of unprecedented height played a significant part. It is true that a king is a father figure and normally is seen as authoritarian. But Charles was indulgent. Cromwell had embodied all the severest features of a father figure; Charles profited by receiving he affection due to a loving and permissive parent. It was recalled that the Puritans had been regicides, and it became a mark of loyalty to pull down all they had set up. “To be debauched”, says Krutch, with pardonable exaggeration, “was the easiest way of clearing oneself of the suspicion of disloyalty.” Sons, too, are frequently in reaction from their fathers, and now the times favoured such a reaction. Thus, Philip, Lord Wharton, whose father had been so strict a Calvinist that he forbade not only poems, dancing and playgoing, but even hunting, acquired the reputation of being the greatest rake in England, while still maintaining an influential political position.