Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Here, too, we find the principle of magical contamination creeping in. Not merely the sexual act, but the mere presence of a woman was liable to attract evil, so that during the plague it was inadvisable to sleep with women or even go near their beds, as this would increase the risk of infection – hence the maxim “In peste Venus pestem provocat”.

This degradation of the status of woman was very different from the position which had existed in the earliest days of Christianity. Under Roman law, at the end of the period of the Antonine jurisconsults, women had had a status in law equal to that of men. And in the Early Church they had been allowed to preach, to cure, to exorcize and even to baptize. All these rights had been gradually removed, and by the Middle Ages married women ceased even to have legal existence. Though unmarried women had certain legal rights, and could dispose of their own property on reaching their majority, married women were mere shadows of their husbands. “The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage . . . for this reason a man cannot grant anything to his wife or enter into any covenant with her: for the grant would be to presuppose her separate existence, and to covenant with her would be only to covenant with himself”, says Blackstone. (240)

Furthermore any suit against a woman automatically made the husband a defendant: hence husbands must have power to prevent their wives from doing anything which might seem to involve them. It was upon this proposition that the husband’s right to inflict “moderate chastisement” on his wife was based. Though the canon law enjoined husbands to treat their wives mercifully, the civil law said that he could “beat her violently with whips and sticks”. It was permissible to thrash a woman with a cudgel but not to knock her down with iron bar. (137)

Because the wife was the husband’s property, to seduce her was an offence against property, and even in early Victorian times, the husband’s first recourse was to bring an action for damages against the paramour. But it was for psychological reasons that the chastity belt was invented. It is a common misconception that these were invented for the benefit of husbands leaving on long absences at the Crusades; their invention is almost certainly later in date, as Dingwall has shown. They were generally designed to prevent penetration per anum as well as per vaginam. Cases of their use by jealous husbands are found at many dates, down to the present day, but popular feeling has always been against them. Brantomet describes how a vendor of these articles, who appeared at the fair of St. Germain, was chased away by the angry populace.

The levers by which the Church was enabled to obtain some observance of this unparalleled code of sexual repression was the power which it claimed to remit sins, conjoined with the use of the confessional and the provision of ecclesiastical courts.

The ecclesiastical courts had exclusive rights to try all offences against Church, as opposed to civil law, and sexual offences were almost entirely a matter for the ecclesiastic courts. They attempted to deal with offences against canon law by methods peculiarly their own, and gradually built up system of law completely different from the common law of the land, from the law of Justinian, and from the decretals of Gratian which were supposed to embody the law of the Church. Where the common law was primarily concerned to protect individuals from damage by other individuals, the canon law had a wholly different criterion and frequently regarded as offences actions which harmed none, except possibly the performer. Thus they proceeded against people for “impure thoughts” in a manner exactly analogous to thought-control devised by modern dictatorships. They attempted to prescribe behaviour not only in the major matters of Life, but in many minor matters which could never be made legal offences, such as rejoicing at seeing priests in trouble, refusing to sing in church, sitting in the wrong pew, and even for “passive encouragement” of such crimes. To do this – they had to proceed by methods which inevitably caused numerous injustices.