Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The concept of the charitic group, in which shall be possible a loving personal relationship in which sexual desire shall be transcended, has also survived as a persistent complementary theme throughout the Christian era in much the same way as phallicism has survived. We have already seen in an earlier chapter how this idea was preserved by the Cathars, the Beghards and, in a special form, by the troubadours. But the ideal did not die out with the decline of mediaevalism: the four and a half centuries since the Reformation have seen a score of attempts to found groups of this kind. They have varied in character, to be sure, according to the preferences of the founders: some have stressed the pasonal relationship, others the group character of the experience; some have stressed the theoleptic element and have been marked by prophecy and the almost epileptic physical seizures we now call revivalism. But all have stressed love, charity, peaceableness, good works.

The sixteenth century, for instance, saw the foundation in Munster by Niclaes of the Family of Love. Under persecution they fled to England and were active in Cambridgeshire in the following century. (124) The seventeenth century also saw the foundation of the Quakers, the Ranters, the Shakers and other sects who, as their names imply, stressed the theoleptic element in charitism. Sometimes the connection with mediaeval attempts to restore apostolic simplicity is evident. For instance, the first bishop of the Moravian Church was ordained by a bishop of the Waldenses, and the Moravians preserved the three “orders of membership” under the same names as the Waldenses had used .They called themselves not Moravian (this was a name given to them later by others) but Jednota Bratrska, or the Church of the Brotherhood. Similarly the sect founded by Ebel early in the nineteenth century derived many of its ideas from the mediaeval Brethren of the Free Spirit.

These sects were constantly accused by the orthodox of sexual licence, and sometimes of actual phallic worship. For instance a broadsheat was published in 1641 attacking the Family of Love, about a hundred of whose members were living in Bagshot “at the sign of the buck“. (206) The author declares that they have days devoted to various saints, such as Ovid, who taught men to love, and “Priapus, the first bawdy butcher that ever did stick pricks in flesh and make it swell”. A certain Susanna Snow, who joined their company for a time, reported (he says) that the leader gave a powerful address on the theme that Cupid (i.e. Eros) was not dead. The pamphleteer says that Miss Snow was seduced, but similar accusations have often been made by disappointed virgins, and the facts remain obscure. Very similar accusations were made against the Brethren of the Free Spirit, but Hepworth Dixon says:

“They had lodged in the same barn, slept under the same tree. They had been in each others’ society day and night; yet the most searching quest into their ways of life by the spiritual police, who followed them with a deadly zeal and hate, could bring to light no circumstances implying moral blame. With what appears to have been deep regret and wonder, the Inquisitors report that though these heretics had cast themselves away from God, had given themselves up to evil imaginings, and were utterly lost to the sense of shame, they had contrived to preserve their bodies chaste.”