Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Brantome provides many clues to the spontaneous, unashamed way in which sexual activity was regarded: for instance, he frankly stresses the pleasure people found in contemplation of the naked body.

“When Herod’s wife, Mariamne, a fair and honest lady, was desired by her husband to lie with him in broad daylight, that he might see all her charms, she refused outright, so Joseph tells us. Nor did he insist on his rights as a husband, as did a great Lord of my acquaintance with his wife, who was very beautiful, and whom he took in the full light of day, stripping her naked, for all her violent protests. Afterwards, when he sent her women to dress her again, they found her in tears and full of shame. On the other hand, there are many ladies who make no scruple to show their beauty openly, and to display themselves naked, the more to enflame and intoxicate their lovers, and to draw them ever the more ardently to them.”

The suspicion that a somewhat matristic period was developing also receives confirmation from the clothing of the period, which underwent a rapid change from the time of Henry VIII to that of James I. In Henry’s day, men’s masculinity was emphasized by the short coat and tights, which revived the medieval courtepy, the complaints against the indecency of which we have already noted. In this reign it would have been quite impossible to be in doubt about the sex of anyone even if seen only in silhouette. But by the end of the century men were wearing broad-skirted coats in rich materials, with lace collars, remarkably similar to the clothes worn by women; in looking at some of Mytens’ portraits, one is unsure, for a moment, which sex is represented.

But perhaps the most important confirmation comes from the fact that, while we hear little of homosexuality during the period, we find the theme of incest arousing deep anxieties. Even in Henry VIII’s time, when it was necessary to blacken “the whoore, Nan Bullen“, it was not enough to accuse her of betraying the King with various gentlemen of the court, it was also thought necessary to accuse her of incest with her brother. The only “evidence” adduced was that she had once spent some time alone with him in a room, and she died denying this charge, as did he, but the bare suspicion was enough to damn her. In Elizabeth’s time, the theme of incest runs like a scarlet thread through the turgidities of the drama, and finally emerges openly in at least one play, Ford’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore‘, written under James I almost at the close of the period under consideration.