Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

5. Pure Desire

MAN is, I suppose, the only living creature which has found reasons for deliberately inhibiting his sexual drive. The bull does not hesitate to mount the cow, or sit moping in the corner of the field. The flower does not primly close its petals against the pollen bearing bee. That man should hedge the sexual drive with rules designed to protect the rights, or fancied rights, of individuals is natural; but that he should claim a special virtue in complete abstinence from sexual activity is a paradox which calls for close examination.

The desperate fear of sex developed by patrists under the stimulus of Christianity has already been briefly examined. We have seen how sexual restrictions, by damming up Eros, lent a special virulence to the destructive drives of Thanatos. But during the Middle Ages Thanatos combined with Eros in other forms, of a matristic type; forms anathematised by the Church, but which contributed to the power of Europe the concepts of honour, gentleness and romantic love. This is a story which is less well understood, for the Christian Church has destroyed much of the data. Nevertheless we must try to trace it.

This counter movement emerged under the hot sun of Provence and Languedoc, when a period of peace and stability had permitted a leisured and civilized life to develop, especially in the castles of the feudal lords, and at the court of Guilhem of Aquitaine, who ruled over a larger proportion of France than did the French king. Here, towards the beginning of the twelfth century, there appeared an heretical movement and a school of poets; the former called themselves the Cathari, or pure ones, the latter called themselves troubadours.

The troubadours did more than simply write poetry and set it to music. Each troubadour chose as the object of his affections the wife of a feudal lord, and devoted to her all his poetry. In it he extolled the virtues of a relationship between a man and a woman in which the woman is placed on a pedestal and the man seeks to win her favour. He addressed the lady of his choice as Mi-dons, My Lord, and sought to win her approval by his probity. In the Heidelberg MS. we can see a picture of his hands being symbolically bound by his mistress: the very word mistress, in its sense of a woman in an enduring, non-marital relationship with a man, derives from the relationship which the troubadours created. This relationship became known as ‘domnei‘ or ‘donnoi‘.