Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

7. Fay Ce Que Vouldras (Do As You Will)

MEDIEVAL man regarded the universe as an elaborate system, set up by God, between whose parts a sympathetic relationship existed. The behaviour of men and kings was pre-ordained, as in a dance; and to depart from the pattern of the dance was an anti-social act, because it made it impossible for other dancers to carry out their own parts. But if it was a dance, it was a dance which took place on several planes, cosmic and worldly, human and inanimate, and between the events on these several planes a close sympathetic relationship subsisted. When the medieval man, or even the Elizabethan, said that war was to the body politic as blood-letting was to the individual, this was not intended as a colourful simile, but as a scientific statement: these were two instances of a principle established by God. So also when be said that a virgin was as a garden enclosed. In the same way, the movements of the stars in the sky were the expression on the cosmic plane of the same principles which caused the movements of human beings on the earth—this was why astrology was always a respectable science and was never considered as a form of witchcraft. It was, indeed, divine and there were popes who would not summon a consistory without consulting the stars. But between the several planes there existed not merely a sympathetic but a causal relationship. One could influence human beings by influencing the stars. Conversely if human beings departed from the prescribed behaviours the stars were liable to do the same, and the stability of the whole universe was endangered. To misbehave was therefore not merely antisocial but gross impiety which might have disastrous results. The comet in the sky might be a sign that the stars were departing from their courses; plague or the failure of crops the direct consequence of human misbehaviour. (228)

The far-reaching change which took place in the minds of men from about the fourteenth century consisted in the gradual break-up of this conception, and the discovery that one was free to act as one wished. The discovery once made, there were many who proceeded to extremes of selfishness and did not shrink from any violence or treachery which conduced to their getting what they wanted. It was a process which was to continue, with interruptions, for many centuries. Men had to learn that complete licence is as frustrating as rigid control, and to make many experiments in finding a golden mean between these extremes. This mental revolution naturally exerted a decisive influence on attitudes to sexual matters Whereas in the Middle Ages we see a determined attempt to impose a set of rules, backed supposedly by divine authority, subsequently we find a growing disposition to do whatever was convenient, practicable and desirable.