Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

6. Sex And Heresy

TOWARDS the end of the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Bull Summa desiderantes. This is almost invariably described as a Bull against witchcraft, but a glance at the text suggests that this is hardly an adequate description.

It has indeed lately come to Our ears . . . that in some parts of Northern Germany. . . many persons of both sexes . . . have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and by their incantations, spells and conjurations . . . have slain infants yet in their mother’s womb, as also the off-spring of cattle, have blasted the produce of the earth, the grapes of the vine, the fruit of trees, nay, men and women, beasts of burden, herd beasts, as well as animals of all kinds…. These wretches further afflict and torment men and women, beasts of burthen . . . with terrible and piteous pains and sore diseases . . .; they hinder men from performing the sexual act and women from conceiving, whence husbands cannot know their wives, nor wives receive their husbands….

It is evident that Innocent is not here concerned with magical practices in general — he says nothing of the use of magic for travelling great distances, speaking foreign tongues or averting disasters — he is concerned solely with certain pathological sexual phenomena, of just the sort which we have been discussing; namely, fantasies of sexual congress, failures of fertility and, more particularly, psychic impotence and frigidity. He believes that this impotence has been caused by charms and conjurations; he is not attacking the attempt to use charms for this purpose as a crude superstition, although he is writing at the very close of the Middle Ages; on the contrary his objection is that these charms have been only too effective.

Nor need we dismiss his fears as unreal. Placing severe taboos on sexual activity, associating it as strongly as possibly with feelings of guilt, is a course well calculated to produce certain amount of psychic impotence. In view of the fact that psychoanalysts still have to deal with a great deal of this kind of impotence today, when the taboos are much weaker than they were in the Middle Ages, it is just possible that psychic impotence may have been growing so widespread as to become a real threat to human fertility. But Innocent also feels that there is a threat to the fertility of beasts and crops too, so that some further explanation is called for. We can see in it a projection of the unconscious hopes and fears of the principal actors: purely on theoretical grounds one would be inclined to diagnose the existence of unconscious fears of impotence on the part of those who drew up the Bull, but, still more, strong resentments of those who were able to have satisfactory intercourse. No doubt, on the sour grapes principle, they were determined to deny to others what they could not enjoy themselves: their conscious concern with a decline in fertility covers a real unconscious desire to destroy fertility. Only by some such analysis can one explain the apparent paradox of the Church, which had laboured so long to restrict the performance of the sexual act, becoming so agitated by a development which threatened to do its work for it.