Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

“The pride of the clergy and bigotry of the laity were such that new married couples were made to wait until midnight, after the marriage day, before they would pronounce a benediction, unless handsomely paid for it, and they durst not do without it on pain of excommunication”, the History of Shrewsbury tells us.

In early feudal times, the marriage day might have ended differently, with the feudal lord deflowering the new bride, before releasing her to her husband. The existence of this ‘jus primae noctis, also known in France as “jus cunni“, in England as “marchette“, in Piedmont as “cazzagio“, has been much disputed, but Ducange has provided detailed evidence and the best authorities now accept that it existed; (190) cases are even known where monks, being at the same time feudal lords, held this right — for instance the monks of St. Thiodard enjoyed this right over the inhabitants of Mount Auriol. (71) Analogous practices are found in many other societies: for instance, in the so-called Nasamonian custom all the wedding guests copulate with the bride. (23) The psychological purpose of the custom, derived from fertility-religion, is said to be the diversion from the husband of the resentment which a woman generally feels for the man who deprives her of her virginity. Whether or not this is an adequate explanation, it would certainly be misleading to regard the ‘jus cunni‘ simply as the cruel and wilful exercise of feudal power, even if that is what it finally became. It is chiefly of interest as evidence of the survival of magical beliefs.

The picture of normal sexual behaviour which I have been trying to sketch so far cannot, unfortunately, be left to stand on its own. Against it must be put a very different one, if an accurate impression of medieval sexuality is to be presented — a picture of the perversion and neurosis which emerged wherever the Church succeeded in establishing its moral codes. About the beginning of the twelfth century, soon after the Hildebrandine reforms and the extension of celibacy from the cloister to ministers, a perceptible change comes over the character of the Middle Ages. We begin to find references to sodomy, to flagellation, to sexual fantasies, while false Christs appear and heresy springs up all over Europe as tens of thousands begin to question the doctrine of the Church.

Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon is the development of extensive fantasying about the idea of a really satisfactory sexual congress. These fantasies soon took the specific form of claiming that one was visited in the night by a supernatural being, known as an Incubus (or, in the case of men, a Succubus). In his book “On the Nightmare“, Ernest Jones has traced the relation of these fantasies, and of nightmares generally, to sexual repression. Medieval writers evidently recognised the connection also. Chaucer satirically points out that Incubi have become much less heard of since the ‘limitours‘, or wandering friars, appeared on the scene — for it was notorious that these friars took their pleasure of women while their husbands were absent. (In America, today, an exactly similar reputation is conventionally attached to travelling salesmen.)

For there as wont to walken was an elf
There walketh now the limitour himself
. . . .
Women may now go safely up and down
In every bush and under every tree
There is no other incubus than hee.