Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor


IT was Edward Glover who suggested that writing on psychological subjects should be scheduled as a dangerous occupation: and not without reason, since people strongly resent the exposure of their unconscious motives, and are apt to relieve their anxiety by attacking the writer who has threatened their peace of mind. How still more dangerous, then, is the position of the writer who ventures to apply the psychological method to historical material: if ever Glover’s suggestion is adopted, it will be necessary not only to insure him against occupational risk, but to pay him “hard-lying money” as well, for he risks the displeasure of the professional historians, who have decided that no such thing as psychological history is possible.

To the psychologist, the historian’s method of explanation looks insufficient. It is not simply that he attributes too great rationality to historical figures when explaining their motives and makes but little allowance for unconscious desires: far more dubious is his fondness for thinking in terms of “influences”. He seems to feel that the development of a trend has been “explained” if it can be shown that the people concerned came under the influence of some similar trend elsewhere. Thus, historians have laboured to show that the appearance of a school of lyric poetry in twelfth century Provence was due to the influence of Arabic poetry of a similar kind. But even if it can be shown that the troubadours knew of this poetry, we still have to ask why there were people in Provence disposed to pay heed to precisely this influence out of all the countless influences bearing upon them.

Sometimes, on the other hand, people are so awkward as to ignore an influence completely, and even to go off in some quite different direction. The historian then explains this as a “reaction” from the prevailing trend, though he does not explain why, on this occasion, the people concerned should have reacted from the trend instead of responding to it, nor does he tell us why they react in the particular way they do. For instance, the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is often explained as a reaction from the growth of industrialism—but what we really want to know is why, at this particular moment, a small group chose to react from a trend which the majority were willing to follow enthusiastically for another century.

Historians themselves seem to fed the need for some alternative method of analysis in which attention may be concentrated on the general character of people’s attitudes during a particular period, since they often resort to something vaguely known as “the spirit of the times” —especially when people are ignoring a powerful “influence”. It is said, for instance, that the Puritans failed to retain power in 1660 because the “spirit of the times” was against such extreme austerity. Presumably, if they had succeeded in their operations, we should be told that this was because people had been “influenced” by Puritan ideas. It is evident that, though couched in the form of explanations, these are no more than descriptions of what occurred, at a quite superficial level.