Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

The practical consequence of the change was that the civil and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction became united, and it was necessary for them to speak with a consistent voice. Though it took more than a century for this unification to be achieved—and it was only achieved by the virtual abandonment of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over civil offences—Henry VIII started the ball rolling by making sodomy and bestiality into felonies; subsequently bigamy was made a felony by James I. Until this time sexual offences had been the exclusive Province of the Church. Thus was initiated a process which was completed by Charles II, when, in the course of abolishing the Courts of High Commission, he abolished the ex officio oath, the basis of ecclesiastical power, and thus removed criminal jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical courts for ever. (172)

It is inevitably easier to describe the sexual mores of a period of repression or a period of licence, than of a period of balance between the two. In a period of repression there are incredible interdicts to be listed, in a period of licence there are scandalous stories to retail. A period of balance shows neither, nor does it produce an extensive literature, since there are neither inhibited individuals releasing their sexual appetites in writing (like the Malleus or the penitential books), nor are there individuals in revolt striving to shock (like Rochester and Beverland in a later age, or like Aretino, Valla or Beccadelli in Italy.). We have to gain our impressions from such sources as the drama—the scenes between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, for example. Sometimes we find popular short novels or poems which cast a revealing light, like the “Tunning of Elynour of Rummin“, which gives us a picture of Life under Henry VIII. (206) Elynour was an ale-wife whose “visage would asswage a man’s courage” and Skelton, after describing a number of somewhat Rabelaisian incidents, turns to the following picture of connubial felicity when the clients have left the premises:

Ich am not cast away,
That can my husband say:
When we kisse and play,
In lust and liking,
He calls me his whiting,
His mulling and his mittine,
His nobes and his conny,
His sweeting and honny,
With basse, my pretty bonny,
Thou are worth good and mony;
This make I my falyre Fanny,
Till he be dreame and dronny:
For, after all our sport,
Then will he rout and snort;
Then sweetly together we lye
As two pigges in a stye:

But this, it may be said, is still a medieval rather than a Renaissance picture. For something more truly contemporary, we have to turn to France where we find outstanding descriptions of the sexual life of the dominant group in the period in a work like “La Vie des Dames Galantes“. Precisely because the matrist movement went further in France than it did in England, it enables us to see the trend more clearly.