Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

For in the eyes of the Church, for a priest to marry was a worse crime than to keep a mistress, and to keep a mistress was worse than to engage in random fornication – a judgment which completely reverses secular conceptions of morality, which attach importance to the quality and durability of personal relationships. When accused of being married, it was always a good defence to reply that one was simply engaged in indiscriminate seduction, for this carried only a light penalty, while the former might involve total suspension. (154) The simple clergy found it difficult to accept this scale of values, and frequently settled down to permanent relationships or entered into spousals and claimed to be married. For this they were periodically expelled from their livings and the women driven out or seized by the Church. It is against this background that one has to assess the numerous stories of immorality and licence among those in holy orders. The many children born to nuns, and even abbesses, appal us less than the rumours of bestiality, and the frequent orders of visitants that nuns should get rid of their domestic pets. And as was noted in the last chapter, the Church had to act repeatedly against priestly sodomy. In these circumstances the introduction of a system of “protection”, under the name of ‘cullagium‘, whereby the clergy could obtain licence to live in sin by making a regular payment to the Curia, can only be regarded as a step forward. (154) Indeed, the Church went further in the direction of actually encouraging vice. One feudal lord, finding that so many of his tenants were paying fines to the Church that they could not pay their rents to him, strictly forbade them to break the canon laws of morality, and such was his power that these offences practically ceased among his dependants. The Church authorities, however, alarmed at the effects on their revenue, soon protested against his interfering in a Church matter. (172) By the fourteenth century commercialism had gained such hold that one could not only purchase indulgence for sins but could even hire people to do one’s penitential pilgrimages for one.

While it is true that many of the great Church reformers, men such as Bernard and Damiani, were driven by a horror of sex which was as sincere as it was exaggerated and irrational, yet is also true that beneath a conscious hatred of sex always lies a unconscious fascination with it. As one reads the penitential books, it is impossible to avoid gaining, at the same time another and less worthy impression: that of a neurotic obsession with sexual matters, of a truly pornographic character. For instance, in Egbert’s penitential, supposed to cover all cleric abuses, all but two of the offences discussed are concerned with sex. (176) This was certainly not for lack of other targets: the were plenty of religious abuses to attack, from simony to blasphemy. But these were not of interest to the writers of the penitentials. May says: “Anglo-Saxon church penitentials place upon matters of sex more emphasis, both in quantity of regulation and minuteness of detail, than has, probably, any other general code of conduct.” It is impossible to resist the conclusion that these authors were in love with their subject.

And this, of course, is the inevitable result of repression-as distinct from sublimation. Many Christian ascetics have described how they could never get rid of the thought of sex and tormented themselves in their attempts to get rid of sexual temptations. Some fasted in the hope that this would reduce their desire; others kept a butt of water in their cell to stand in when the temptation became unendurable. In this unenviable state, men are quick to find sexual overtones in every object, every action of others. And it was just these men, restless, unhappy, obsessed, driven by the energies of their bottled up libidos, who were apt to attain positions of power in the Church and stamp it with their character. The Cardinalate might become venal, the Pope involved in political issues, but there was always a Bernard or a Damiani to whip the flagging horse. Such men can be found, of course, in all periods; the crucial fact was the existence, in the form of the Church, of an institution through which they could attempt to impose their ideals on the average sensual man.