Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

In general, the literature of the period, whether English or French, shows a hearty frankness about sexual matters entirely different from the sly, obsessive character of the eighteenth century. Brantome preserves a tone as cheerfully Rabelaisian as Falstaff’s, even when he is dealing with the one perversion which figures in his pages, flagellation, and much the same is true of other works, such as the “Quinze Joies de Mariage“. We find, furthermore, books of sexual instruction, such as the anonymous “L’Escole des Filles“, addressed specifically to women, and providing advice on subjects as diverse as methods of contraception and the choice of a merkin. (Then, as now, gentlemen preferred blondes.)

We also find the first attempts to treat sexual matters as a subject for scientific observation. The “Geneanthropeia” of Sinibaldus, though only published in a shortened form in English, raises such questions as “What are the physiognomical signs of Lust?” “What are the signs of Virginity?” and “Why do night pollutions afford more pleasure and do more debilitate than a man’s spontaneous copulation with a woman?” The answers are somewhat surprising. For instance, “A little, straight forehead denotes an unbridled appetite in lust.” “Little ears demonstrate aptness to venery” and “It is an infallible sign of this, if a man is bald and not old; but if old and not bald, you may conclude he hath lost one of his stones or both.” Such books contained much misinformation, such as that a sad or weeping woman cannot conceive. “Experience tells us that Virgins ravished are never with child; or, on the other side, if she be possest with too much joy. ” And some dangerous advice (“How to shorten the Yard, being too long“, and “How to enlarge the pudenda“).

Nevertheless, for all his rejection of ecclesiastical regulations the Elizabethan still lived under the shadow of a magic, religious sanction. Observe, for instance, how, in Elizabethan dramas, the woman who has once earned the epithet “adulteress” is doomed to destruction, regardless of any extenuating circumstances, and there is nothing anyone can do to avert this fate. The fact is, Renaissance man had not rejected canon law in favour of some more attractive, coherent ethical code, and, while the actual regulations were ignored, the ideas of magical contamination upon which they had been based continued to form part of his thinking until, in the following century, the more rational spirits began to question them.

It need hardly be added that the status of women rose rapidly during the period. In the Middle Ages, women had received but little formal education. But now, perhaps in emulation of the Valois, women of the dominant class began to receive an education in languages, the classics and the arts. Lady Jane Grey’s remarkable erudition provides us with the milestone; the Duchess of Pembroke likewise. Elizabeth, of course, could read Greek and Latin, talk French and Spanish, play the virginals and try her hand at a sonnet. A reading public began to develop: it was for this feminine audience that Lyly wrote his “Euphues“. The accession to the throne of a queen certainly fostered this development, for it was no longer possible for preachers to denounce women as the source of all evil without risking ‘lèse majesté ‘. Bishop Aylmer clearly felt this difficulty, when preaching before Elizabeth. (191)

“Women are of two sorts,” he cautiously conceded, “some of them are wiser, better learned, discreeter and more constant than a number of men, but another and a worse sort of them are fond, foolish, wanton, flibbergibs, tatlers, triflers, wavering, witless, without council, feeble, careless, rash, proud, dainty, tale-bearers, eavesdroppers, rumour-raisers, evil tongued, worse-minded and in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil’s dung-hill.”