Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Writers noted that widows and virgins were more frequently troubled with Incubi than were married women, and nuns most of all: as it was put at the time,”Incubi infest cloisters”. The more enlightened medical men were certainly aware that Incubi were delusions: du Laurens, for instance, recounts how he was able to bring two women who had complained of the attention of Incubi to admit that the whole thing was a wish-fantasy. (257) The Church, of course, accepted their real existence and asserted that they were devils in human shape, and this belief persisted in Catholic countries long after the end of the Middle Ages. Just as today psychologists note that patients often do not wish to give up their neurotic illusions, so also in this case. Thus Goerres describes how he was sent to exorcize a girl of twenty who had-been pursued by an Incubus.

Elle m’avoua sans detour tout ce que l’esprit impur faisait avec elle. Je jugeai, d’apres ce qu’elle me dit, que, malgre ses denegations, elle pretait au demon une consentement indirect. En effet, elle etait toujours avertie de ses approches par une surexcitation violente des organes sexuels; et alors, au lieu d’avoir recourse a la priere, elle courait a sa chambre et se mettait sur son lit. J’essayai d’eveiller en elle des sentiments de confiance envers Dieu; mais je n’y pus reussir, et elle semblait plutot craindre d’etre delivree. (Cited Delassus.)

At the same time, it seems possible that, at least towards the end of the period, people sometimes deliberately made use of the belief in the Incubus as a convenient excuse. The sceptical Scot certainly thought so. In his “Discoverie of Witchraft“, under the heading of

Bishop Sylvanus, his lecherie opened and covered again, how maides having yellow haire are most combred with Incubus, how married men are bewitched to use other men’s wives, and to refuse their own,

he tells how once an Incubus came to a lady’s bedside and made “hot loove unto hir”. The lady, being offended, cried out loudly, and the company came and found the Incubus hiding under her bed in the likeness of Bishop Sylvanus.

Scot, writing in the sixteenth century, sees the psychological origin of these fantasies even more clearly than Chaucer.

“But in truth this Incubus is a bodily disease,” he says, “although it extend unto the trouble of the mind: which of some is called the mare” (i.e. the nightmare). And he adds acutely: “Melancholie abounding in their heads . . . hath deprived or rather depraved their judgments”

— a diagnosis which antedates by three centuries Freud’s teaching that sexual repression causes depression.

Not infrequently these delusions were followed by phantom pregnancies. Thus the Inquisitors, Sprenger and Kramer, write:

“At times women also think they have been made pregnant by an Incubus, and their bellies grow to an enormous size; but when the time of parturition comes, their swelling is relieved by no more than the expulsion of a great quantity of wind.”