Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Now, this belief in the possibility of a chaste and fraternal love between men and women was not a new development. In the very earliest days of the Christian Church, men and women would live together in the same house in perfect love and perfect chastity. The Greeks had called chaste love Agape, as against sexual love, Eros: so those who lived in this way were called Agapetae. The early fathers, hag-ridden by fears of sex as they were, could not imagine that any such relationship could be pure.(76) St. Chrysostom wrote a polemic Against Those Who Keep Virgins in their Houses.“Our fathers”, he begins, “only knew two forms of intimacy, marriage and fornication. Now a third form has appeared: men introduce young girls into their houses and keep them there permanently, respecting their virginity.” The pleasure derived from this, he argues, must be “violent and tyrannical” or else the men would not hold their honour so cheap and give rise to such scandal “That there should really be a pleasure in this which produces a love more ardent than conjugal union may surprise you at first,” he naively adds, “but when I give you the proofs you will agree that it is so.”

The many protests of the Fathers show that this “new refinement of tender chastity, which came as a delicious discovery to the early Christians who had resolutely thrust away the licentiousness of the pagan world” (to borrow Havelock Ellis’s phrase) must have been widespread. Jerome, writing to Eustochium, comments on those couples who “share the same room, often the same bed, and call us suspicious if we draw any conclusions.” While Cyprian (Epistola 62) is unable to approve those men of whom he hears-and one a deacon!- who live in familiar intercourse with virgins, even sleeping in the same bed with them— for, he declares, the feminine sex is weak and youth is wanton.

In the hands of the saints, the innovation was twisted into a more athletic and masochistic form, becoming the famous “trial of chastity”, in which one sought to demonstrate one’s self-control by finding the greatest extremes of temptation- perhaps with the unconscious desire that one day one would overstep the mark. It is said that St. Swithin and St. Brendan once engaged in a contest of this kind. Brendan, on hearing that St. Swithin constantly slept in one bed with two beautiful virgins, rebuked him for the risks which he was incurring. Swithin replied by challenging him to emulate his performance (not a very logical rejoinder, but the early fathers were never very strong on logic). This Brendan attempted to do, but found that, though he could resist the temptation, he was unable to get off to sleep, and returned home discomfited.229 Similar practices were still being performed within the Church as late as the eleventh century, when Robert of Arbrissel founded nunneries where he slept chastely with the nuns (“a fruitless form of self mortification”, as a colleague neatly said) and the concept of a chaste relationship among lay persons can be found in several devotional romances, such as the fourteenth century Italian “Life of St. Mary Magdalene” (attributed to Frate D. Cavalca).

It may seem strange that in the twelfth century the Church was roundly condemning the Cathar and troubadour variants upon the theme of unconsummated love, for to do so involved it in numerous contradictions. Thus it objected that Agapetism was too risky, for youth is wanton and the intended chastity might break down. The identical argument might have been urged against the celibacy of priests; in fact, Bernard of Clairvaux actually employed as an argument against the Cathars the fact that the attempt to impose sacerdotal celibacy had produced nothing but abuses. Yet the attempt to impose sacerdotal celibacy continued with renewed fury, and the argument was found that, although chastity was a gift, God would not refuse it to those who (note the qualification) sought it in the bosom of the true Church.