Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

So far from accepting the Church’s teaching on sex, most people held that continence was unhealthy. Doctors recommended a greater use of sexual intercourse to some of their patients; and it was for this reason that the Church demanded and obtained, the right of passing upon all appointments the medical profession, a right which in Britain it formally retains to this day, though it does not exercise (The issue remains a live one, and Dr. Kinsey, in his report on male sexual behaviour, thought it worth his time to show statistically that persons who practise continence are more likely to have histories of instability than those who do not.)

Aphrodisiacs were much sought after – usually on principles of sympathetic magic. The root of the orchis, which was thought to resemble the testicles, as its popular name “dog-stones” shows, was eaten to induce fertility: though it was important to eat only that one of the stones which was hard, the soft one having a contrary effect. By the complementary arguments nuns used to eat the root of the lily, or the nauseous ‘agnus castus‘ to ensure chastity. The famed restorative powers of the mandrake were similarly derived from its phallic appearance. (69)

In the later period frank sexuality is also betrayed by the clothing. In the fourteenth century, for instance, women wore low-necked dresses, so tight round the hips as to reveal their sex, and laced their breasts so high that, as was said, “a candle could be stood upon them”. (184) Men wore short coats, revealing their private parts, which were clearly outlined by a glove-like container known as a braguette, compared with which the codpiece was a modest object of attire.(95) In the time of Edward IV, the Commons petitioned that

“No knight, under the estate of a Lord . . .nor any other person, use or wear . . . any Gowne, Jaket, or Cloke, but it be of such a length as it, he being upright, shall cover his privy members and buttokkes.”

Persons of the estate of a Lord or higher might naturally do as they pleased. Even the clergy shortened their frocks to their knees, and in the following century made them “so short that they did not cover the middle parts”. (17)

Prostitution was extremely widespread, and at most periods was accepted as a natural accompaniment of society. The Early Church had been tolerant of prostitution, and Aquinas said (precisely as Lecky was to do six hundred years later) that prostitution was a necessary condition of social morality, just as a cesspool is necessary to a palace, if the whole palace is not to smell. The English were especially apt to prostitution, and Boniface commented:

“There is scarcely a town in Italy, or in France, or in Gaul, where English prostitutes are not found.”

The Crusades introduced to Europe the public bath, which became a convenient centre for assignations, though it was not until later that they became brothels as we now understand the term. Henry II issued regulations for the conduct of the “stews” (i.e. baths) of Southwark, which make it clear that they were houses of ill-Fame. (13) These regulations were confirmed by Edward III and Henry IV, and the stews remains until the seventeenth century. (254) Many of these stews belonged to the Bishopric of Winchester, the Bishop’s palace being near by — hence the euphemism “Winchester geese” and at least one English cardinal purchased a brothel as an investment for church funds. Some jurists argued that the Church was entitled to ten per cent of the girls’ earnings, but this view was not officially accepted; however, just as today, the Church did not draw the line at receiving rent from property put to this use. (204)