Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

If a reasonable brevity were no object, this account of medieval sexuality could be greatly extended. I have considered only general trends: a full account would have to consider the differences between different classes and different regions, and would have to study the demoralizing effect of social disorganization such as occurred in the wake of wars and pestilence. It would have to describe the violence and lechery of the Crusades, and the wave of frantic debauchery which followed in the wake of the Black Death, when it was held that to commit incest on the altar was the only certain prophylactic against infection. (184) But for such matters I have no space.

The frank sexuality of the early Celts was associated with the worship of fertility religions; when the Christian missionaries imposed a new morality, many of the old ceremonies survived and provided occasions for outbursts of sexuality in defiance of Church law. Best known of these were the May Games and the Christmas mumming. The May Games, which celebrated the growing of the crops, took place round the maypole, and these we know survived until the Puritans abolished them in the seventeenth century. Chaucer speaks of the “great shaft of Cornhill” from which the church of St. Andrew Undershaft takes its name. Similarly the Christmas mumming coinciding with the middle of the winter solstice, derived from the Roman Saturnalia. Indeed, actual phallic worship continued at first openly, later secretly, throughout the Middle Ages, and Early Church statutes often inveigh against it. A full account of medieval sexuality must also consider certain religious sects and minority groups which developed distinctive attitudes to sex. But all these are subjects of such interest and importance that they deserve chapters to themselves and I shall discuss them at a later point.

I opened the chapter by suggesting that the Middle Ages resembled a vast insane asylum. The phrase was not intended as a hyperbole. John Custance, a manic depressive who has been certified on a number of occasions, has recorded his feelings and sensations: a few extracts will serve to establish the resemblance. In the manic phase, he says, he experience a “heightened sense of reality” which Canon Grensted has compared with the experience of St. Teresa. He felt a sense of love in which there was no repugnance for the loathsome He strives to describe his sense of intenser life, of being at peace; of love with the whole universe. There was a sense of revelation; he saw visions continually and could not distinguish them from dreams. With this went an insensitivity to pain and a release of sexual tension: he had hallucinations of male and female sex organs copulating in mid-air. He felt, also, that he might follow the promptings of the spirit with impunity, however unorthodox; he felt an impulse to throw off all his clothes. He often saw aureoles round people’s heads.

Strangest feature of all, so far from feeling any repugnance at the loathsome, he felt attracted by it. He explains how his sense of the nearness of God was in some way associated in his mind with the idea of dirt, so that dwelling on the idea of dirty and disgusting things, such as spittle or faeces, seemed to emphasize and enhance his nearness to God. This is particularly striking, since many Christian ecstatics have made precisely the same observation. The Alacoque, for instance dwelt on these ideas with an irresistible compulsion. In her diaries she describes how once, when she wished to clean up the vomit of a sick patient, she “could not resist” doing so with her tongue, an action which caused her so much pleasure that she wished she could do the same every day. Mme. Guyon the seventeenth century quietist, describes an almost exact similar experience. (149) St. John of the Cross licked out the sores of lepers, which he described as “pleasurable”. St. Rose, more ambitiously, drank off a bowl of human blood, newly drawn from a diseased patient. (214)