Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

2. Mediaeval Sexual Behaviour

RAPE and incest characterise the sexual life of the English in the first millennium of our era; homosexuality and hysteria the years that followed. The Christian missionaries found a people who, especially in the Celtic parts of the country, maintained a free sexual morality. On them, it sought to impose a code of extreme severity, and it steadily increased the strictness of its demands.

The Church never succeeded in obtaining universal acceptance of its sexual regulations, but in time it became able to enforce sexual abstinence on a scale sufficient to produce a rich crop of mental disease. It is hardly too much to say that medieval Europe came to resemble a vast insane asylum. Most people have a notion that the Middle Ages were a period of considerable licence, and are aware that the religious houses were often hotbeds of sexuality, but there seems to be a general impression that this was a degenerate condition which appeared towards the end of the epoch.

If anything, the reverse is the case. In the earlier part of the Middle Ages what we chiefly find is frank sexuality, with which the Church at first battles in vain. Then, as the Church improves its system of control, we find a mounting toll of perversion and neurosis. For whenever society attempts to restrict expression of the sexual drive more severely than the human constitution will stand, one or more of three things must occur. Either men will defy the taboos, or they will turn to perverted forms of sex, or they will develop psycho-neurotic symptoms, such as psychologically-caused illness, delusions, hallucinations and hysterical manifestations of various kinds. The stronger personalities defy the taboos: the weaker ones turn to indirect forms of expression.

The free sexuality of the early Middle Ages can be traced in early court records, which list numerous sexual offences, from fornication and adultery to incest and homosexuality, and also in the complaints of moralists and Church dignitaries. Thus in the eighth century, Boniface exclaims that the English “utterly despise matrimony” and he is filled with shame because they “utterly refuse to have legitimate wives, and continue to live in lechery and adultery after the manner neighing horses and braying asses….” A century later Alcuin declares that

“the land has been absolutely submerged under flood of fornication, adultery and incest, so that the very semblance of modesty is entirely absent”.

Three centuries after this John of Salisbury puts his views in verse:

Thys is now a common synne
For almost hyt is every-whore
A gentyle man hath a wife and a hore;
And wyves have now comunly
Here husbandys and a ludby

The pages of Chaucer reveal that even in the fourteenth century there were still many-such as the Wife of Bath ready to enjoy sexual opportunity without inhibition; and Chaucer Chauntecleer, we are told, served Venus “more for delyte than world to multiplye“.