Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The influence of the clergy can best be summed up by the comment made by Cardinal Hugo, when Innocent IV left Lyons after a visit of eight years’ duration. In a speech of farewell to the citizens, he said:

“Since we came here we have effected great improvements. When we came, we found but three or four brothels. We leave behind us but one. We must add, however, that it extends without interruption from the eastern to the western gate.” (154)

The bad example set by the clergy, as this story hints, was not confined to those of lower rank; and in point of fact the Vicar of Christ himself descended again and again to the utmost licence. Sergius III contrived, with the aid of his vicious mother, that his bastard should become Pope after him. The notorious John XII (deposed 963) turned St. John Lateran into a brothel: at his trial he was accused of sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery and incest. Leo VIII, while still a layman, replaced him: he died stricken by paralysis in the act of adultery. Benedict IX, elected Pope at the age of ten, grew up

“in unrestrained licence, and shocked the sensibilities even of a dull and barbarous age”.

While the popes were resident in Avignon,

“the vilest issues were the pastime of pontifical ease. Chastity was a reproach and licentiousness a virtue.”

Balthasar Cossa, elected Pope to end the Great Schism, confessed before the Council of Constance to “notorious incest, adultery, defilement, homicide and atheism”. Earlier, when Chamberlain to Boniface IX, he had kept his brother’s wife as mistress: Promoted to Cardinal as a result, he was sent to Bologna

“where two hundred maids, matrons and widows, including a few nuns, fell victims to his brutal lust”. (154)

For those who were enclosed in monastic orders, the opportunities of satisfying sexual appetites were even more limited, and especially, perhaps, for women, who could less easily take the initiative in such matters. Hence, while the records show plenty of cases of nuns, and even abbesses becoming pregnant or being involved in scandal, (43) we also find the sexual impulse emerging in the form of hysterical manifestations — using the term hysteria in the strict medical sense. It has long been recognized that people can (without conscious intention) induce in themselves various forms of illness and defects of function at the behest of an unconscious or repressed need. Thus a man who has seen a particularly terrifying sight may develop blindness, and this blindness will disappear as suddenly as it came, when the underlying anxiety has been dissipated. In a similar way, people sometimes become ill in order to escape from situations which they find intolerable — and the illness is quite genuine. Such hysterical seizures usually bear a close relationship to the unconscious fantasy: in particular, women sometimes exhibit convulsive bodily movements, or become rigid, with the body arched so that the pudenda are thrust forward as in coitus — the so-called ‘arc-en-cercle‘ position.