Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Even so, it might be supposed that some eccentric specialist would, probably towards the close of the last century, have prepared a definitive work on the subject in several volumes. When I undertook to write the present book, summarizing the changes in sexual attitudes and offering some psychological elucidations, I certainly supposed that the spade work had already been done. But as far as I have been able to determine (and in this I have had full assistance from the authorities of the British Museum Reading Room, as I acknowledge more fully elsewhere) no such work has been prepared, certainly not in the English language. I also note that when Bloch’s Sexual Life in England was published in this country, in a limited edition, in 1938, the publishers stated that they had been unable to discover that any similar work had ever been published in Britain. Bloch’s book, though extremely useful, is scarcely the definitive work which the situation calls for: it deals preponderantly with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and much of it is anecdotal in character; moreover, it leans rather heavily on a fairly limited number of sources, such as the memoirs of Archenholtz and the “catalogues raisones” of Pisanus Fraxi. There are, of course, certain immensely valuable works which deal with the subject from a particular angle, notably Westermarck’s “Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas” and May’s “Social Control of Sexual Expression“, but these do not attempt to cover the whole field. boost of what remains is either scandalous or moralistic. Indeed, the great defect of much nineteenth century writing on these topics is the double assumption, which anthropologists have shown to be unwarranted, that Victorian standards were “high” and all other standards “low”, and that Victorian sexual biases were “natural”, so that whenever men moved towards them it was a natural step and part of a process of moral evolution. Thus it was taken for granted that men should prefer to marry virgins, or should prefer monogamy, or should resent a wife’s unfaithfulness—all of which, however desirable ethically, we now know to be arbitrary preferences; while recent events have destroyed our belief in a continuous moral evolution which we now see to be a notion based on a false analogy with the evolution of species in the biological sphere.

Still more remarkable is the gullibility and inaccuracy of many writers, even those with the most serious intentions. For instance, one widely-known standard work reports as an example of mediaeval behaviour that Condwiramur (Blancheflor) visited Perceval (Parsifal) in his bedroom at night, to ask his help, and was invited chastely into bed with him, as it was cold standing about. Now this is not, strictly speaking, an historical event at all: it is a Celtic folk-story. More important, it is a late Christian redaction of that story: in the original version there was not the slightest suggestion that the invitation was a chaste one. As such, it is admirable evidence of the Church’s attempt to modify sexual ideals by rewriting popular mythology, comparable with Muscovite practice today; but as evidence of actual sexual behaviour in the mediaeval period it is completely inadmissible. Such errors are not always easy to avoid, and no doubt I have fallen into them myself, for I am not a historian. Less excusable, perhaps, is the credulity with which many writers accept the wildest accusations of the puritanical at or near their face value. “No smoke without fire” is the unreliable principle upon which they work. But in recent times we have seen demonstrated another principle: if you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one. And, just as in the case of the Nazis, the accusations tell us more about the accusers than the accused. The fire which the smoke betrays is within.