Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Only ten years after the Loudun incident, while Jeanne was still performing tours of France, the nuns of Louviers accused two priests, one of them already dead, of bewitching them, and we are told that in their convulsions they indulged in “foul languages”, that is, they gave voice to the sexual desires in their unconscious minds, which were indeed the cause of the convulsions. Once again, the priests were burned, the dead one being exhumed for the purpose.

Even a century later, in the comparatively enlightened year of 1731, we find the story repeated almost without change. Catherine Cadiere of Toulon accused her confessor, Fr. Giraud, of seduction and magic. Levi says that she was a stigmatized ascetic and suffered

“lascivious swoons, secret flagellations, lewd sensations”.

Apart from these grossly erotic manifestations, it is difficult to avoid detecting the influence of erotic feeling in the language and behaviour of many Christian mystics. Catholic authorities attempt to explain this eroticism by saying that the language of romantic poetry had become common currency, and was borrowed by the clergy. (52) And certainly the use of erotic images in an attempt to convey a transcendental experience is quite understandable — as understandable, say, as the use of the image of thirst — even if one adds that one can hardly employ the image without having at some time experienced the reality to which it corresponds. But much of this imagery seems to go so far beyond the mere expression of longing, and to dwell so fondly on physical detail, that it is difficult to resist the suspicion that in many cases the writers were projecting on to the deity an earthly love which had been deprived of its natural object, and colouring very human fantasies with a veneer of mysticism.

Mechthild of Magdeburg (1210-88) felt herself sick from passionate love for the Saviour, and advised

“all virgins to follow the most charming of all, the eighteen year old Jesus”,

that He might embrace them. Her “Dialogue between Love and the Soul” is studded with passages such as:

“Tell my Beloved that His chamber is prepared, and that I am sick with love for Him.”

Or again:

“Then He took the soul into His divine arms, and placing His fatherly hand on her bosom, He looked into her face and kissed her well.”

If the writer was describing a mystic experience, there can be little doubt that this experience was created by the damming up of erotic feeling. We can readily see how the blocking of the normal outlet produces the religious erotomania by a case such as that of Margaretha of Ypern (1216-37) who, after the cessation of her mania for men believed herself engaged to Jesus. Similarly, Christine Ebner (1277-1356), after two years of masochistic self torture, was seized by sensual visions in which she felt herself embraced by Jesus and to have conceived a child by Him. (81)