Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The court of this Pope was the scene of licence which could scarcely be credited, if it were not recorded in the annals of the papal historian Burchard, whose evidence is unimpeachable. He tells how, one evening in October 1501, the Pope ordered fifty prostitutes to be sent to his chambers. After supper, and in the presence of his twenty-five year old son, Cesare, and his twenty-one year old daughter, Lucrezia, they danced with the servitors and others who were present, at first clothed but before long naked. Then lighted candles in candlesticks were placed on the floor and chestnuts were thrown among them, and the women were ordered to crawl between the candlesticks on their hands and knees and to try to pick up the chestnuts. Finally a number of prizes were produced, and it was announced that they would be given to those men who, in the opinion of the spectators,

“should have carnal knowledge of the greatest number of the said prostitutes” — “qui pluries dictos meretrices carnaliter agnoscerent”. (76)

The same was true of the Cardinalate, from whom the popes were normally selected, and the whole Curia. Here, too, the trend is found at least as early as the eleventh century, when Cardinal Pierleone had children by his sister, and regularly took with him a concubine on his journeys – actions which did not debar him from being considered for the Papal throne. By the sixteenth century the higher echelons of the church display all the signs of moral anarchy, epitomized in the carnal assault on the Bishop of Fano by Pierluigi Farnese, son of Paul III. And once anarchy has become general, even those who model themselves upon their parents by so doing merely perpetuate anarchy as an ideal.

The matrist popes, on the other hand, while abstaining from violence, were theologically pagan. John Bale’s story that the Pope once said to Bembo: (34)

“All ages can testifye enough how profitable that fable of Christ hath been to us and our compagnie”

may be apocryphal, but it was certainly Leo X who, after considering the question of an after-life, decided: “Redit in nihilum, quod ante fuit nihil.” (250) In such circumstances the old pagan matrist conceptions of religion, in which fertility was the supreme miracle, rapidly reasserted themselves. Mantovano’s eighth eclogue, addressed to the Virgin—or rather, by a significant modification, to the Madonna—treats her as the protector of agricultural interests. In the time of Leo X, a bull was sacrificed with pagan rites in the Forum itself. (29) The beginning of Lent was marked by a festival resembling the Roman Saturnalia, but more violent. Anthony Munday (206) describes it thus:

During the time of Shrovetide, there is in Rome kepte a verie great coyle, which they use to call the Carne-vale, which endureth the space of three or fowre dayes; all which time the pope keepeth himselfe out of Rome, so great is the noyse and hurlie-burlie. The gentlemen will attyre themselves in diverse formes of apparell, some like women, others like Turkes, and everye one almoste in a contrarie order of disguising. And either they be on horsebacke, or in coaches, none of them on Foote: for the people that stande on the ground to see this pastime are in very great daunger of their lives, by reason of the running of coaches and great horsses as never in all my life did I see the like sturre.

And all this is done where the courtizanes be, to shew them delight and pastime: for they have coverlettes laid out at their windowes, whereon they stands leaning forth, to receive divers devises of rosewater and sweet odours in their faces, which the gentlemen will throw uppe to their windowes.

During this time everye one weareth a disguised visor on his face, so that no one knowes what or whence they be; and if any one beare a secrete malice to an other, he may then kill him, and no body will lay hands on him; for all this time they will obey no lawe. I sawe a brave Romaine, who roade there very plesaunt in his coatch, and suddenly came one who discharged a pistoll upon him; yet no body made any accoumpt, either of the murtherer, or of the slaine gentleman. Beside, there were divers slaine, both by villainy and the horses or the coatches, yet they continued on their pastime, making no regard of them.