Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

However, the “for want of a nail” game is too easy a one to play, and we must return to the more difficult task of unravelling the story of the development of sexual attitudes in England. When the definitive history of sex comes to be written it will be necessary to tell this story in terms of plot and counter-plot, and to analyse the influence of the puritan group on the developing body of matrist attitudes. But in the space at my disposal here the best course will be to consider first the matrist attitudes, and to take the question of puritanism separately in the next chapter. In England, though we see the emergence of a growing sense of individual autonomy and of freedom from the rigidities of the medieval system of order, we do not find any general failure to form a super-ego such as we have remarked in Italy. It is true that there were Englishmen who, having lived in Venice, attempted to introduce Italian terribilita into England: we come across some cases of poisoning, the use of hired bravi, even occasional duels. (73) But the feeling of the time is against these excesses and the Italianate Englishman is pithily condemned in the phrase ‘Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato‘.

Consequently, though Englishmen became able to speak and act more frankly in matters of sex, we do not find them proceeding to violence and defiance of customary law; there are few, if any, instances in English history of this period which can be compared with the appalling cases of rape, incest, murder and other crimes, committed by one and the same individual, which we so often find in Italy.

But before attempting to convey an impression of the sexual attitudes and mores of the times, it is essential to say something of the psychological and practical consequences of Henry VIII’s rejection of the Roman dominion. Henry did not attempt to reform religion, which continued much as before until the new measures introduced by Edward VI: but he did take the vitally important psychological step of declaring himself to be both the spiritual and temporal father of his people, both King and Pope, thus uniting for the first time in Christian history the spiritual and temporal powers. The Catholics had aimed for a spiritual unity throughout Christendom, leaving the aim of a political unity to follow. The only man who came near achieving the imposition of both spiritual and political unique throughout Christendom was the Stauffer Frederick II who declared himself to be the Messiah; but the Curia declared him to be anti-Christ, and the opportunity was never to recur.

Henry now achieved upon the smaller national scale what the Church had vainly attempted on the international scale, a psychological unity. Instead of having as a supreme father-figure a remote Pope, whose features and personality were scarcely known before he was replaced, Englishmen now had a visible and solidly human individual on whom to focus their loyalties: and this individual spoke in a consistent manner both on spiritual and material manners This external unification must have made for greater integration within men’s minds, and it may be that this was an important factor in the achievements of Tudor England, enabling this small country of only four million inhabitants to challenge mighty empires such as those of Spain and Portugal.