Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But whereas the performers of these hardy acts were canonized, Custance, undergoing exactly similar experiences, in modern times, was certified.

Before the mystic reaches his sense of unity with God, and the release of sexual tension, he passes through two dreadful phases which have been called the “dryness” and the “dark night of the soul“. Custance underwent experiences which seem identical with these in his depressive phase. He felt, he says, that he had sold his soul to the devil. He was hypnotized by an absolutely horrifying vision of ever increasing pain — remarkably similar to the conviction of endless torture in hell described so vividly by Calvinists. Furthermore, this depressive phase developed in two stages. The first was a state of deep depression about ordinary earthly misfortunes, which Custance himself calls “a dark night of the soul”, echoing St. John of the Cross’s phrase. The second stage was a sense of spiritual abandonment and of “vulnerability to demonic attack”, resembling the sensations reported by Bunyan, Luther and others. In this phase, Custance was obsessed by a sense of guilt for his sexual sins and found himself to be impotent; indeed, he says that sin appeared exclusively as sexual sin. And he adds that he suddenly understood why Catholics find it impossible to conceive of Heaven without also believing in a purgatory.

And just as in the manic phase he had felt attracted to the idea of dirt, now he felt repelled from it; and associated with this fear of dirt was a sense of remoteness from God, which could only be combated by getting rid of every speck of it — a feeling which, as we shall see, the Puritans had already experienced. I may add that this very compressed summary does small justice to Custance’s extraordinary book, which should be read.

With this in mind, it hardly seems too much to say, therefore, that the Church’s code of repression produced, throughout Western Europe, over a period of four or five centuries, an outbreak of mass psychosis for which there are few parallels in history. Perhaps only the Aztec passion for blood sacrifice provides a comparable case.

It is an important psychological, as it is also a physical, fact that every action breeds an equal and opposite reaction. While the Church claims that repressive measures were required because of the immorality of the times, it seems more probable that, in reality, the immorality of the times was a result of the pressures applied. As Pascal observed:

“Qui veut faire Lange; fait la bête.”

In the next chapter, therefore, let us see what was the moral teaching which could produce these fearful results. It will be worth examining the medieval ideal in some detail, for it provides the basis from which our present sexual regulation in the U.S. no less than in Britain, have been derived.