Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The strict sexual taboos imposed by the Church created widespread fears of impotence, as we can tell from the countless Church edicts forbidding attempts to restore potency by magical means, from the demand for restoratives, and from the fact that witches were constantly accused of blighting potency, as we shall later see in more detail. Such potency difficulties are precisely what one would expect to find in a period when the sexual act was represented as a mortal sin.

The marked increase in homosexuality which occurred in the twelfth century is commonly attributed to the Norman invasion, but since homosexuality is not, in fact, a contagious disease some further explanation is called for. It certainly affected court circles: for instance it was because of his homosexuality that King Rufus was refused burial in consecrated ground. Bloch has denied that Edward II was a homosexual, despite his love for Piers Gaveston, but it seems likely that he was, since Higden says that he was

“sleyne with a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posteriale”. (245)

But it was above all the failing of the priesthood, as one can tell from the numerous church edicts on the subject: for instance in 1102 we find a Church council specifying that priests shall be “degraded for sodomy, and anathematised for Obstinate sodomy”. This new preoccupation with the subject is also betrayed by the constant accusations of buggery levelled at the heretic sects.

Naturally, persons vowed to total celibacy exhibit the earmarks of sexual repression more vividly than laymen: not only inversion but perversion and hysterical symptoms are found in the monasteries and cloisters in very marked forms, as also among the practising clergy as soon as the rule of celibacy was enforced. Perhaps it is not generally realized how strongly the clergy opposed the imposition of priestly celibacy. It is true that it was an age of violence — an age in which, for instances Archembald, Bishop of Sens, taking a fancy to the abbey of St. Peter, could simply evict the monks and install himself, establishing his harem in the refectory-but, even so, the scale of the clerical revolt against celibacy was remarkable. Monks repeatedly murdered their abbots for preaching better behaviour to them; priests left their benefices to their sons, as if they were private property, openly defying the rule. In 925, for instance, we find the Council of Spalato forbidding priests to marry for a second time, having apparently become resigned to first marriages. In 1061 these protests culminated in an organized rebellion: a number of Lombard bishops and Roman nobles, claiming that it was no sin for a priest to marry, elected Cadalus, Bishop of Parma, as Antipope, under the title Honorius II. Honorius marched on Rome and captured it, but two years later the defection of Hanno of Cologne, for complex political reasons, caused the revolt to fail.

The repeated failure of the Church to impose a life of celibacy on the clergy, and the extent to which the clergy defied its efforts by marriage, fornication and turning to homosexuality, have been recounted in a degree of detail which is unlikely ever to be surpassed by H. C. Lea in his “History of Sacerdotal Celibacy“. He relates how, as priestly marriage was made increasingly difficult, priests were driven to content themselves with simple fornication — to the point where, in Germany, the word Pfaffenkind (parson’s child) was used as a synonym for bastard. It was said that in many towns the number of bastards exceeded the number of those born in wedlock, and the claim does not seem incredible if one judges from such examples as that of Henry III, Bishop of Liege, who was known to have sixty five natural children. So serious did the situation become that in many parishes — at least in Spain and in Switzerland — the parishioners insisted that the priest must have a concubine as a measure of protection for their wives.