Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

14. The Minor Themes

THROUGHOUT the Christian period, we find cropping up again and again, like subordinate themes in a symphony, three elements — preoccupation with fertility and a sense that fertility is a divine gift; the belief that health depends upon a periodic discharge or catharsis; and attempts to establish charitic groups, which groups are constantly accused of licentious acts, cathartic festivals or even actual elevation of sex to a sacrament.

The story of how these ideas are interconnected has never been told; this is not for lack of evidence, for there is a great deal available, scattered under different headings, but it has never been systematized. Such a task cannot be attempted here — it would call for a complete book — yet it seems essential to try to convey at least an impression of the singular nature of the material and the many significant links between the various elements. This is the more necessary since Christian distortion and suppression have succeeded in creating the impression that survivals of the sacramental conception of sex were but occasional wrong headed eccentricities. No account of sexual history which failed to convey that this was a substantial and fully developed theme, continuously counter-pointing the sinful conception of sex, could be anything but hopelessly misleading. Since this countermovement, of its nature, could have no central organization and no dogma, its manifestations are naturally scattered and various, and it could never begin to compete, as a political force, with hierarchical power organizastions, such as the Church. This does not make it any the less important as a phenomenon, nor even — since the test of a religion is not political power — as a religion.

The sacramental view of sex persisted in two main forms: as fully fledged manifestations of phallic worship, and as attempts to combine phallicism with Christian teaching. At first the phallic worship survived quite openly. Bede says that King Redwald had two altars, one for Christ, one for “devils“. In the seventh century, Sighere, King of Essex, and his people threw off Christianity openly. The early penitential books and the edicts of Church councils often refer to the persistence of phallic worship. An eighth century ordinance, for instance, prescribes a penance of bread and water for three Lents for addressing prayers to a fascinum, while in the ninth century the council of the Church at Chelmsford issued an edict forbidding such prayers. Burchard’s twelfth century penitentials include many penances for the magical use of sex: thus there was a penalty of forty days on bread and water for covering oneself with honey, placing corn on the ground, rolling in it, making a cake from the corn thus picked up, and giving it to one’s husband to eat, and for other practices of a more unprintable character. In the same century Cnut (or Canute) issued a general edict banning heathen worship.

Such practices persisted until late in the Middle Ages: they became so popular that even ecclesiastics began to be influenced. In the thirteenth century, the minister of the church at Inverkeithing was presented before his bishop for leading a fertility dance round a phallic figure in the churchyard at Easter; in the fourteenth, the Bishop of Coventry was accused before the Pope of “homage to the devil“. The statutes of the church of Le Mans and the church of Tours, two important sources of mediaeval Church documents, include repeated edicts on the matter in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But, as we have seen in Chapter VI, the machinery of the Inquisition was finally brought in, in an attempt to fight this revival, and instances of phallic worship in this period appear chiefly under the heading of witchcraft, where they are confused with other manifestations of a sexual nature in the way already described.