Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

It would seem that the Cathars did more than impose continence upon the married: they also permitted men and women to share the same lodging by day and night, confident that they would live in brotherly amity, without thought of sex. It is almost certainly to this Practice that the accusations of immorality are due, as Bernard made clear when he said to one of them: “If you would not scandalize the Church, send this woman away; if you refuse, the facts which are plain to view will make us suspect what is not plain to view.”(14) One is reminded of the story of the countryman who, having been accused of drinking by an old woman on the grounds that his cart had been seen outside a public house, retaliated by leaving his cart outside her house all night. The parallel is exact: it is the person whose mind is obsessed by sex because he or she is going without sexual satisfaction who invariably reads sexual motives into the behaviour of others. The Cathars also attracted criticism because, when passing through a town, they would often spend the night with a couple who were living together but unmarried.(116) In all probability these were chaste relationships of the type we have been discussing, but the prurient naturally concluded otherwise, and accused the Cathars of associating with sinners, as if this proved that they were sinners too-an unfortunate argument for Christians to employ, since Jesus also associated with sinners. In a world where the Church was bound to celibacy it would be small wonder if there were not many such frustrates very ready to believe evil (as they would term it) of a relationship which may even sometimes have been sexual, but in which sex was not the object nor the principal factor.

The other, slightly less uncharitable, interpretation which might be put upon such behaviour is that it smacks of moral athleticism. Mgr. Knox remarks that “they may have come to think of themselves as superior to all temptations of the flesh, and neglected, with unfortunate results, the conventions by which less hardy souls fortify their modesty”. One wonders if by the term “unfortunate results” he takes it for granted that they did in fact fall into sexual relationships, or whether he refers to the Albigensian crusades, in which case he has achieved a triumph of understatement. The cynic will reflect that there is a certain humour in the sight of a Church founded on the command to love one another, destroying by fire and sword hundreds of thousands of persons who may have been attempting to do just that.

What was said of the Cathars, was said, and in more detail, of other sects, whose relationship with the Cathar movement is uncertain.(149) Thus, according to the Toulouse inquisition, the French Beguins held that “to kiss women and embrace them, provided they did not consummate the carnal sin, was greatly meritorious, and an argument of fortitude and abstinence, and of a strong and acceptable love of God, and the truest proof that each party was resolutely virtuous”. Here the concluding phrases suggest a moral athleticism rather than a deliberate titillation, though one may have been used as a justification for the other. Much the same is reported of the Apostolici and of the Josephists, who “contrahunt matrimonium spirituale et praeter coitum omne delectationes exercent”. Again, the Brethren of the Free Spirit held that no one was perfect in whom nudity excited passion, or shame; man was without sin, and sex was to be forgotten, not fought— if you had to fight it you were not pure. According to Hepworth Dixon, they invented the seraphic kiss, the kiss of love, of innocence, of peace. They did not marry . . . they had entered upon a new being. A seraphic kiss conveys no taint. Their yearning towards each other brought no shame.”

The Waldenses, or Poor Men of Lyons, who attempted to return to Apostolic simplicity while remaining within the bounds of the Catholic Church-but were ejected because they retained the society of women and neglected the tonsure-also sought to re-establish a brotherly group relationship, though they praised marriage and held that priests could, and should, marry.