Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

4. Jealous And Indulgent Gods

THE two foregoing chapters have given us the broad picture of medieval sexuality, the ideal and the reality. We have observed two strongly contrasted attitudes to sexual matters-one inhibited, ascetic and sex denying, the other spontaneous, indulgent and permissive. We have seen how the advocates of asceticism attempted to impose their notions on a people who had previously had few sexual inhibitions. In the ensuing chapters we shall see that the further history of sexual standards is determined by a continuous conflict between these two attitudes. So, although there is still much to add before even this roughly sketched picture of medieval sexuality can be completed, it is worth pausing for a while to analyse the psychological origins of these attitudes.

The customary explanation of this remarkable revolution in sexual codes is to the effect that persons with high moral standards, derived from Christianity, imposed these standards upon a barbarous people. But, as we have seen, the standards which they proclaimed were not in fact part of early Christian teaching, but were introduced into it some hundreds of years after the death of Christ; and the ecclesiastics who devised these codes were, for the most part, not dispassionate philosophers but rather haggard neurotics tormented by a quite obsessive horror of sex. Nor were the standards they imposed always as admirable ethically as their followers represented.

Today, we know a good deal about the extreme puritanical attitude and the psychological mechanisms which create it, and can recognize it as an unhealthy distortion of personality. Psychologists have made it clear how feelings of guilt, often quite irrational in origin, tend to take on an all pervasive and excessive character once they are repressed from conscious awareness; and how persons obsessed with unconscious guilt seek to relieve it by compulsive actions or by self punishment; and how they intolerantly seek to punish in others what they most fear in themselves. We know how such persons generalize their fear of sexual pleasure until it becomes a jealousy of all forms of pleasure and enjoyment, and are familiar with their readiness to censure and punish. We have already seen, in discussing the medieval sexual ideal, how this pervading fear of pleasure formed the basis of medieval morality .

But it has also been noticed that the “killjoy” is especially perturbed by those forms of enjoyment which call for a spontaneous release of impulse, with a minimum of conscious control, such as music, sport and, above all, dancing. It is as if he could not take the risk of lifting his conscious control of his instinctive impulses even for a moment, in case the dammed up impulses burst out so strongly that he could no longer control them. Teetotal tracts harp continually upon the theme that a single drink may-almost certainly will-lead to complete ruin. It is this fear which drives the puritan to see danger in the most innocent of situations, and to introduce the most extraordinary precautions-for instance, to segregate the sexes even in church.

Were it not for this, it would be difficult to explain the extraordinary persistence with which reformers condemn the age-old activity of dancing. Very recently, the Convocation of the Church of Scotland issued a statement condemning dancing; in doing so they merely echoed the repeated condemnations of the medieval Church. Thus Burchard of Worms, in the eleventh century, instructed all priests, when hearing confession, to ask: “Have you danced and hopped as the Devil taught the pagans to do?” And it seems to be by some extension of this fear of spontaneity that the reformer opposes music and all other arts.