In an attempt to better explicate the sexual revolution currently taking place in society, and Playboy’s own part in this search for a “new morality,” we offered last issue a brief history of sexual suppression since early Christendom through the Middle Ages, and this month we will complete that historical analysis with a consideration of the Renaissance, the Reformation, Puritanism, Victorianism and their relationship to present-day sex prohibitions and taboos.
We have already noted that earlier pagan religions did not suffer from similar suppression and that pre-Christian Roman and Grecian societies were relatively free of symptoms of sexual guilt and shame. Virginity was prized in the female, but not because of any religious or moral convictions: Women were considered property and a virgin female had a greater value, even as a new and unused piece of pottery, furniture or clothing might; similarly, adultery was a crime against property, like stealing another man’s ass or plow. These prohibitions applied only to women and it is directly from this concept of the female as being the property of the male that we evolved our own present moral views of virginity as a virtue and as adultery as a sin.
The coming of Christianity did not increase the status of women in society—indeed, the opposite proved true and the antisexual nature of the new religion produced a far greater antifemale attitude than had existed previously. Women were considered “vessels of sin,” according to one authority of the period, and a source of temptation and lust that could lead men to their downfall. Robert Briffault, the noted English historian and anthropologist, writes that the early Church “pronounced a curse upon sex, stigmatized woman as the instrument of Satan….. Woman was regarded not as ‘impure’ only, but as the obstacle to purity, the temptress, the enemy; she was the 'gate of hell.’”
This Christian view of sex and the female as inherently sinful did not come from Christ. It was derived largely from the teachings of St. Paul, who was influenced by the asceticism of the Asiatic religions then spreading throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a personal aversion to sex and he also believed that the Second Coming and the end of the world were imminent, and that man should put away all things material and prepare himself for that moment. Nathaniel S. Lehrman states, in “Some Origins of Contemporary Sexual Standards,” in the Journal of Religion and Health, “Neither the doctrine of virgin birth nor the as yet unenunciated view of sex as original sin played any part in shaping the thinking of St. Paul, whose exaltation of celibacy was so important in determining Christianity’s entire subsequent attitude and history. His eschatology, with its anticipation of the imminent, cataclysmic end of the world, and his personal preference for the unmarried state, probably an overreaction against the sexual promiscuity of his times, were probably the most important factors underlying his viewpoint.” John Short writes of Paul, in The Interpreter’s Bible, “Obviously the marriage relationship did not appeal to him…[he] seems to have regarded the more intimate sex relationship with some distance. He is of the definite opinion that it is better for Christians to follow his personal example and remain unmarried.” St. Paul had an extremely guilt-ridden and pessimistic view of both man and sex: He wrote, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman”; and further, “For I know that in me dwelleth no good thing…. For the good that I would do, I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do…. Oh wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
But St. Paul’s antisexualism was slight compared to the twisted theological thought that followed him. William Graham Cole, while chairman of the Department of Religion at Williams College, wrote in his book Sex in Christianity and Psychoanalysis, “All unwittingly [St. Paul] marked the transition point between the healthy and positive attitude toward the body which characterized the Old Testament and Jesus, and the negative dualism which increasingly colored the thought of the Church…. Although in most other respects the Church successfully defended the ramparts of naturalism, the citadel of sex fell to the enemy. Increasingly, virginity became a cardinal virtue, marriage a concession to the weak…sex had become an evil necessity for the propagation of the race, to be avoided and denied by the spiritually strong…. Even those who were 'consumed with passion’ were urged not to marry, to discipline themselves, to mortify the flesh, for the flesh was evil….”
Henry C. Lea, author of the classic English studies on the Inquisition, wrote in his History of Sacerdotal Celibacy, “[Jesus’] profound wisdom led him to forbear from enjoining even the asceticism of the Essenes. He allowed a moderate enjoyment for the gifts of the Creator; and when he sternly rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for imposing…burdens upon men not easily to be borne by the weakness of human nature, he was far indeed from seeking to render obligatory, or even to recommend, practices which only the fervor of fanaticism could render endurable.”
Early Judaism accepted sex as a natural part of human existence. Lehrman states that premarital virginity and extramarital fidelity were “not demanded of Hebrew men. Prostitution, both sacred and profane, existed in Israel and the sexual use of captured women was also specifically permitted, although limited.” Morton M. Hunt writes, in The Natural History of Love, “Men in the Old Testament were patriarchal and powerful, and often guiltlessly enjoyed the services of several wives and concubines.” Lehrman states further, “Because the bearing of children was regarded as such a blessing, dying in the virgin state was considered unfortunate rather than desirable…. Sexuality and eating would…seem to have been regarded rather similarly by the Old Testament. It permanently forbade certain types of food and of sexuality, and sometimes temporarily prohibited all eating and sexual activity. Permanent and total sexual abstention seems to have been as foreign to its thinking, however, as permanent and total abstention from food.
"Although sexuality was accepted without question throughout early biblical times, and in the Mosaic code in particular, various aspects of the latter have given rise to the erroneous belief that the Old Testament is antisexual. Such asceticism appears to be altogether foreign to the traditions of Israel.”
David Mace writes, in his Hebrew Marriage, “The entire positive attitude toward sex which the Hebrews adopted was to me an unexpected discovery…. I had not realized that it had its roots in an essentially 'clean’ conception of the essential goodness of the sexual function. This is something very difficult for us to grasp, reared as we have been in a tradition which has produced in many minds the idea that sex is essentially sinful….”
Roman society was sexually liberal and this turned the Christians away from sex toward asceticism; the first Christians were a persecuted people and the religion early developed a masochistic nature which it has never completely shaken. Roman society had also tended to upgrade the status of women, compared to earlier times, and Ira L. Reiss, professor of sociology at Bard College, states in his book, Premarital Sexual Standards in America, “The Christians opposed from the beginning the new changes in the family and in female status….. They fought the emancipation of women and the easier divorce laws. They demanded a return to the older and stricter…ideas, and beyond this, they instituted a very low regard for sexual relations and for marriage…. Ultimately, these early Christians of the first few centuries accorded to marriage, family life, women and sex the lowest status of any known culture in the world.”
Sexual liberalism has often erroneously been cited as the cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. Concerning this, Hunt writes, “By the fifth century, Saint Augustine and other Christian writers would state flatly that sexual sin was directly responsible for the crumbling away of the Empire, the afflictions of which were interpreted as the punishment visited upon mankind by a wrathful God. The evidence of comparative anthropology, however, proves that many societies have permitted extramarital sexual activities and love affairs without major damage to themselves…. Historians differ with the early Christians in assessing the role of love in the overall decline of Rome.”
Hunt then enumerates the reasons most often adduced by historians for Rome’s decline: “…the squandering of resources, the indolence of the proletariat, the corruption and greed of the upper classes, the growing political power of the army…more generally, these are all related to the parasitism, excessive leisure and purposelessness of imperial Roman life.”
As Christianity spread, so did its antisexuality. Following the Babylonian Exile, Judaism developed related repressions and feelings of sexual guilt and shame previously unknown in Hebrew history. Hunt states, “A growing current of asceticism and antifeminism” manifested itself. By the fifth century, “an increasing cynicism and weariness [had] affected the Western Empire as well as the Eastern, maturing into a widespread soul-sickness…. Oriental, Jewish and barbarian ideas were mingled and fused with the Christian contempt for women; the concept of the wife was that of an inferior and sinful creature…. It is true in all monogamous family life that children must repress the sexual impulses they feel toward the parents they love; but it was early Christianity that made a philosophy of the situation and turned it into a lifelong problem, rather than a problem of childhood alone.”
William Graham Cole states, “If Christianity had not in some measure spoken in accents to which the ear of the age was attuned, it would have remained an obscure sect…. Origen castrated himself in order to escape the temptations of lust; John Chrysostom declared that 'virginity is greatly superior to marriage’; and Tertullian regarded sex even with marriage as sinful.”
Hunt comments, “The struggle against lust produced an explosive state of mind; the personality could be held together only by the tenacious cement of irrationality. The desert fathers saw and worked little miracles every day. In themselves, these sound harmless enough, but the same intellectual orientation could lead further, and did; not by mere coincidence, it was a towering figure of asceticism, Tertullian, whose formula for finding the truth of Christianity was Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd), while Pope Gregory—later sainted and called 'the Great'—burned the Palatine library because he considered it a hindrance to Bible study. Asceticism led thus to intolerance, obscurantism and overt aggressiveness. The ascetic was not content to master himself; inevitably his route led him to try to master other men’s flesh, and their minds as well.”
In such a time, it was not illogical for the Church to rewrite religious history to suit its antisexual attitude, including the story of Adam and Eve and their Fall in the Garden of Eden. Cole states, “The preponderance of theological opinion, in both Jewish and Christian circles, has interpreted the Original Sin as pride and rebellion against God. The Church’s negative attitude toward sex has misled many into belief that the Bible portrays man’s Fall as erotic in origin. Neither the Bible itself nor the history of Christian thought substantiates such a belief.”
The twisting of the tale of man’s Fall from Paradise to suit the Church’s obsessive concern over sex helped St. Augustine and others substantiate the ideal of celibacy. Roland H. Bainton comments upon St. Augustine’s attitude toward sex in What Christianity Says About Sex, Love and Marriage: “Since procreation is definitely approved, the sexual act cannot be wrong. Nevertheless, it is never without wrongful accompaniments. There is never an exercise of sex without passion, and passion is wrong. If we could have children any other way, we would refrain entirely from sex. Since we cannot, we indulge regretfully. Augustine almost voices the wish that the Creator had contrived some other device.” Cole states, “Augustine’s prejudices against the passions, particularly the sexual passion, is thoroughly un-biblical….”
The new Church concept of the Fall also suited its antifemale attitude, since it was Eve who tempted Adam into tasting the “forbidden fruit.” Tertullian proclaimed to all of womanhood: “Do you not know that each one of you is an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: The guilt must of necessity live, too. You are the devil’s gateway…you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack….”
Nor were such attitudes held by a few members of the clergy only. Robert Briffault states, “These views were not, as has been sometimes represented, exceptions at the extreme…. [The Fathers of the Church] were one and all agreed…. The principles of the Fathers were confirmed by decrees of synods, and are embodied in the canon of the Council of Trent.”
John Langdon-Davies states, in his Short History of Women, “To read the early Church Fathers is to feel sometimes that they had never heard of the Nazarene, except as a peg on which to hang their own tortured diabolism, and as a blank scroll upon which to indite their furious misogyny.” Havelock Ellis says in Man and Woman, “The ascetics, those very erratic and abnormal examples of the variational tendency, have hated woman with a hatred so bitter and intense that no language could be found strong enough to express their horror.”
Since control over sex constitutes tremendous power, it was perhaps predictable that the Church would eventually modify its position sufficiently to permit a more direct regulation of the sexual behavior of the faithful than was possible when it stood in opposition to sex in any form.
The Church originally refused to perform marriages, since their sexual consummation was considered a sin, but this attitude gave way to one in which the Church eventually included the marriage ceremony as a religious ritual, while continuing to accept civil ceremonies as legitimate also; and not until much later was it decreed that only marriages performed in and by the Church would be considered bona fide—a position still held by the Roman Church today. This placed the Church in the position of being the sole licensor of sex.
As we described in detail last month, the Medieval Church wielded this power mercilessly. The Church Fathers increasingly codified every aspect of sexual behavior to the point where only coitus between man and wife, for the purpose of procreation, in a single approved position, was considered “right” and “natural.” In some of the penitential books, fornication was declared a worse crime than murder. Attempting to fornicate, kissing, even thinking about fornication, were all forbidden and called for penalties; not was intention a necessary requisite for sin, for involuntary nocturnal emissions were considered sinful: The offender had to rise at once and sing seven penitential psalms, with an additional 30 in the morning. Sex was also restricted to certain days of the week and times of the year: G. Rattray Taylor states, in his Sex in History, that at one time in the Middle Ages, “the Church forbade sexual relations—even between man and wife—for the equivalent of five months out of every year.”
Celibacy remained the ideal, though it did not become universally required of the clergy until the 11th century; and this, Lehrman indicates, “was more the result of political than psychological or even theological factors.” Seward Hiltner, in Sex and Religion Today, asserts that this enforcement of sacerdotal celibacy among the secular clergy “was not primarily a sexual matter, but a strategic and political attempt to enhance the power of the Roman Church by relieving priests of the distractions of family life.”
Our modern idealization of asexual romantic love evolved from the concept of “courtly love” developed by a school of poets, called troubadours, during the Middle Ages. In contrast to the Church attitude, which still considered the female the primary source of sin, the troubadours placed woman on a pedestal. This, too, was a primarily antisexual concept, replacing honest sexuality with a complicated ritual in which the emphasis was placed more on the wooing of a woman than on winning her. L'amour courtois was, according to Hunt, “…a compelling relationship which could exist only between a man and a woman not married to each other, and in which the man was the pleading, humble servitor and the woman the disdainful, cruel tyrant. It was compounded of quasi-religious exaltation, much public discussion of aesthetic matters and of etiquette, 'purified’ and often unconsummated sex play, and the queer fusion of chivalric ideals and concepts of good character with the practice of secrecy, deception and illicit relationships….” Hunt concludes, “[Courtly love’s] proto-romantic qualities of sadness, suffering, distance from the beloved, difficulty of attainment of desire, secrecy and the like can all be explained in psychological terms, but they would never have been admired and idealized had love not been forced by…religious asceticism, and the subservient status of the wife, to remain outside and alongside marriage.”
The Church enjoyed increasing influence over all of society throughout the Middle Ages. Without the protections of a separated church and state, Church law became—in many instances—civil law as well; and any opposition to Church doctrine and authority was vigorously prosecuted as heresy.
Mass sexual repression resulted, predictably, in mass perversion, frigidity, impotence and sexual delusions, which finally produced the hysteria necessary for the almost unbelievable atrocities of the witch trials of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Pope Innocent VIII declared witchcraft a Christian heresy in 1484 and the Malleus Malleficarum, the famous book on witchcraft that was authored by the Pope’s two Chief Inquisitors, Sprenger and Kramer, declared: “A belief that there are such things as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion savors of heresy.”
Numerous authorities have pointed out the predominately sexual nature of the Inquisitions and G. Rattray Taylor expresses the opinion that the very term “witch trials” is a misnomer, since the papal bull that began the witch persecutions; the Malleus Malleficarum; and the trials themselves, were all concerned with impotence, sexual delusions and hallucinations, and depended upon the sadomasochistic nature of the times for their savage success.
It was understood that all “witches” had sexual relations with the devil or with one of his demons, who were both male (incubus) and female (succubus), and the clergy who sat as judges at the trials indulged in intensive questioning about the sexual habits of the accused. R.H. Robbins includes a typical list of obligatory questions that was “used by the judges at Colmar, in Alsace, year after year, throughout the three centuries of the witch mania. It was headed: 'Questions to be Asked of a Witch.’” Included therein were, “Who was the one you chose to be your incubus? What was his mane? Where did you consummate your union with your incubus? What did your incubus give you for your intercourse?”
Getting confessions from those accused was a relatively simple matter, since in addition to the sexual fantasies so prevalent among the people of the period, it was the practice to torture alleged witches until they said precisely, and in detail, whatever it was the Inquisitors wanted them to say. A number of the records of these witch trials are still in existence and Robbins quotes from one of a trial in Rhineland in 1637: “After three floggings, she says that the devil, dressed in black, came to her prison cell last night and this morning. Last night he…had intercourse with her, but he caused her so much pain that she could hardly hold him, and she thinks that her back and thighs are falling apart. Furthermore, she promised to surrender her body and soul to him again…and to remain true to him only….”
Hunt states: “…in the opinion of several eminent psychiatrists who have intensively and independently studied the evidence, the descriptions of the witches’ Sabbath bear the unmistakable characteristics of abnormal sexual fantasies, which the celibate Inquisitors eagerly, even hungrily, seized upon and accepted as objectively real.”
A. Guirdham offers a further psychoanalytic consideration of this phase of Christianity in his book, Christ and Freud, in which he states: “Modern psychiatry permits us to see that the Inquisitors were themselves, below the conscious level, afflicted with doubts. Men so doubting, and reacting with guilt toward their uncertainty, could atone and reassure themselves wither by the punishment of themselves or others. The flagellants were recruited from the former, and the Inquisitors from the latter class….
"Why should Christianity be based to the degree that it is, on a sense of guilt? What, if anything, is there in common between a faith which has enriched our culture and the crudities of tribal religion? Do we exaggerate the element of guilt in Christianity? I do not think so. Suppose we reject altogether Freud’s theories as to the unconscious factors…there is still abundant evidence on the conscious level. We have the system of confessions and penances in the Roman [Church]…. In the Dissenting Churches, there is less insistence on the verbal ritual of guilt and penitence, but the Nonconformist psychology reveals itself as riddled with guilt [also] which expresses itself in clinical terms….
"To induce such a sense of guilt was a partly political aim, the maintenance of which became an ecclesiastical tradition. Such a policy…ensured that the priests should be the guardians of the public conscience. Coercion in the spiritual sphere has been practiced in different religions…. The ecclesiastical preoccupation with a sense of guilt is something which, if not entirely characteristic of the Jewish and Christian religions, is especially developed in them.”
Though it was a complex period that defies any simple label, the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries are generally referred to as the Renaissance. A most significant and far-reaching change began taking place in society during this time: Whereas previously man had tended to accept a set of strict rules laid down for him by the Church, as the official spokesman for divine authority, freedom of choice now began to be emphasized. In the Middle Ages, not only sexual expression had been suppressed, but all other freedoms as well. Art, literature, science and education had suffered and overwhelming feelings of guilt and despair had gripped all Europe. Now a new enlightenment and emancipation from medieval barbarism was introduced, accompanied by a renewed interest in the humanities. By making a knowledge of literature and the arts the mark of a gentleman, the Renaissance established an international secular culture that was, as The Columbia Encyclopedia states, “outside of, independent of, and often hostile to, the Church.” An emphasis was placed on the importance of the individual man—autonomous, versatile and creative. Scientific activity centered around philology, ethics, biography, education, psychology, government and history, but the arts, architecture and literature received the major attention. The Renaissance was characterized by a more optimistic view of the world and a belief in the goodness of man; it also evinced a greater interest in societal problems and sympathy for the common man than is generally assumed.
The Church’s control was markedly weakened and there was a considerable increase in sexual freedom. As a part of the lessening of the feeling that pleasure was evil, the festivity accompanying marriage became markedly more uninhibited and there was a general heightening of the status of women. Hunt states, “…between the early and the later phases of the Renaissance, a notable change had begun to show itself. As the power of medieval repressions abated, men began hesitantly to see women as complex creatures who united within themselves both good and bad attributes. If a real woman was somewhat less divine than the Lady, she was also considerably less vile than the Witch. Men could begin to feel the emotions of affectional love where they also felt animal heat, and to envision in the ideal wife the qualities that produced both.”
But for all the rejection of ecclesiastical regulations, Renaissance Man still lived under the shadow of the magical-religious sanction: In Elizabethan dramas, for example, a woman who had earned the title “adulterous” was most often doomed to destruction, regardless of any extenuating circumstances, and there was nothing anyone could do to save her from her fate.
Sex in the Reformation
These years of comparative grace, freedom and enlightenment came to a rather abrupt end with the arrival of the Protestant Reformation. Though on the surface, the birth of Protestantism seems a further rejection of the rigid dogma of the Roman Church, the men who sparked this new religious movement proved more fanatical and totalitarian in their thinking than any then alive in Rome. They objected not only to the corruption that had permeated the Roman hierarchy, but to the more liberal sexual morality that had developed, both inside and outside the Church, and they set about doing something about it—with frightening efficiency. Far from reforming their religion, in the positive sense of the word, the leaders of the Reformation re-established many of the pagan ideas, superstitions and regulations of the medieval Church.
The Protestant movement started on the Continent and though it was Martin Luther who first instituted the religious schism, it was John Calvin who best exemplifies the severe authoritarianism of the movement and who had the greatest influence on Britain and the English Puritanism that, in turn, influenced our own puritanical tradition in America.
Calvin believed in the Bible as an absolute statement of the word of God and rejected the divinity of the Pope; he was convinced of the utter depravity of human nature; under Calvinism, the status of women was once more radically reduced; and he was a firm believer in witchcraft. Extreme Protestants persisted in this pagan superstition long after the rest of Europe had abandoned it: Wesley, a Protestant forefather of considerable note, was a firm believer in witchcraft and many of the Puritans carried the belief with them to the New World.
In 1536 Calvin completed and had published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, a systematizing of Protestant thought, which most religious historians consider to be one of the most important theological works of all time. Britannica states, “From this time forward his influence became supreme, and all who had accepted the reformed doctrines in France turned to him for counsel and instruction. Renan, no prejudiced judge, pronounces him 'the most Christian man of his time,’ and attributes to this his success as a reformer.” Calvin spent considerable time in Geneva, where he became extremely influential, and in 1541, according to The Columbia Encyclopedia, he “set himself to the task of constructing a government based on the subordination of the state to the Church.” Once the Bible is accepted as the sole source of God’s law, he argued, the duty of man is to adhere to it and preserve the orderly world which God has ordained. He set out to achieve this end through the establishment of ecclesiastical discipline, in which the magistrates had the task of enforcing the religious teachings of the Church, as set forth by Calvin.
Calvin’s emphasis on authority is quite striking; he not only stressed divine authority, but all paternal authority was sacrosanct. In Geneva a child was beheaded for striking his father; in Scotland, too—a country most strongly affected by Calvin’s teachings—severe penalties were prescribed for any child who defied his father. If there was anything worse than defying a father’s authority, it was to defy Calvin’s. Special penalties were prescribed for addressing Calvin as Calvin, and not as Mr. Calvin. Citizens who commented unfavorably on his sermons were punished by three days on bread and water.
Gruet, who had criticized Calvin’s doctrine and who had written “nonsense” in the margin of one of his books, was beheaded for blasphemy and treason. Betheleiu, who challenged the right of the Consistory to excommunicate, was beheaded, along with several of his supporters. Calvin’s most formidable opponent within the Protestant movement was the renowned Michael Servetus. Calvin betrayed the more liberal theologian to the Catholic Inquisition in France and then covered his part in the matter by lying about it. Servetus, having escaped the French Inquisitors, went to Geneva hoping to discuss his differences with Calvin, only to be seized, tried without benefit of legal representation, and burned alive—on Calvin’s express instructions. (Before the trial began, “the most Christian man of his time” gave orders that Servetus was not to leave Geneva alive.“) Calvin’s principal differences with Servetus concerned the nature of the Holy Trinity. Of Calvin’s action in having Servetus killed, Castellio commented: "If thou, Christ, dost these things or commandest them to be done, what is left for the devil?”
As with any authoritarian or totalitarian dogma, Calvinism was fanatically opposed to intellectual freedom. Calvin himself stated that he had submitted his mind “bound and fettered” in obedience to God, and he expected a similar subservience from others. Taylor notes, “Not only Servetus and Gruet, but many others who dared to query the official teaching were condemned and imprisoned or killed; and since Church and State were one, to hold the wrong opinion was not only heresy but treason.”
One interesting aspect of Calvinism which differentiated it from the doctrines of the Middle Ages was a tendency to generalize feelings of guilt to cover every conceivable form of pleasure. Whereas the medieval authorities tended to dwell on sex in all of its details and deviations, Calvinists devoted their ingenuity to the regulation of all the minutiae of daily life, just as the Puritans in England and America did after them. The guilt-ridden character of Calvin’s doctrine is evident in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, as when he quotes with approval Christ’s words, “The world shall rejoice, but ye shall weep and lament,” and then asks, “Do not our innumerable and daily transgressions deserve more severe and grievous chastisements than those which His clemency inflicts on us? Is it not highly reasonable that our flesh should be subdued, and as it were accustomed to the yoke, lest it should break our, according to its propensities, into lawless excesses?” And we no longer need a psychiatric footnote to inform us that the forbidden “excesses,” from which men had to be protected, concerned “the licentiousness of the flesh, which unless it be rigidly restrained, transgresses every bound.”
Taylor states, “So terrible were the forces of guilt and destructiveness animating Calvin, that he not only revived Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, but carried it to an even more fearful extreme, and resolutely condemned to eternal torment, not only all babies who died before baptism, but all persons in non-Christian countries—including, of course, all persons living prior to the time of Christ.” As E. Troeltsch points out, in Protestantism and Progress, the doctrine of predestination effectively precludes the possibility of divine intervention, love or mercy—psychologically, it is the reaction of one who, having been treated with cruelty as a child (which Calvin undoubtedly was), reacts by suppressing his own natural instincts of tenderness.
It is therefore quite understandable that John Calvin constructed at Geneva what Taylor terms “probably the strictest theocratic society ever devised, and treated with savage severity all those who held views opposed to his own.” In Calvin’s world, not only were fornication and adultery strictly prohibited, but so were even the mildest forms of spontaneity.
Records reveal that bridesmaids were arrested for decorating a bride too gaily. People were punished for dancing, spending time in taverns, eating fish on Good Friday, having their fortunes told, objecting when a priest christened their child by a different name than the one they had chosen, arranging a marriage between persons of disparate ages, singing songs against Calvin, etc. Pierre Ami, one of those responsible for bringing Calvin to Geneva, was imprisoned for dancing with his wife at a wedding; his wife later had to flee the country. Attendance at church on Sundays and Wednesdays was compulsory, and the police went through the streets, shops and homes to make certain no one was evading his duty.
In order to impose such rigid standards, Calvin had to resort to wholesale violence, torture and execution: 150 of those who disagreed with him were put to death in Geneva.
Calvin seems to have had a special preoccupation with the idea of adultery, and introduced references to it in almost every matter he discussed. Since repression usually stimulates what it sets out to repress, it is not too surprising that his sister-in-law gave herself in adultery in 1557 and his daughter did the same five years later.
The influence of Calvinism spread throughout the entire Western world, realizing its purest forms through the influence of John Knox in Scotland, and through the clergymen and laymen of the Puritan Revolution in England and the Puritan settlers in the New England colonies.
Martin Luther’s influence on Protestantism was far less profound than Calvin’s, but he was only slightly less authoritarian in principle. Luther’s dominating characteristic appears to have been an intense subconscious fear of the father figure. He writes about how fearfully, as a boy, he studied a stained-glass window in his church depicting “Jesus the Judge,” a figure with a fierce countenance holding a flaming sword. When, following his admission to the Roman priesthood, he first had to officiate at Mass, he was frightened almost to incapability. This becomes easily understood when we learn that his father, a miner, used to beat him so severely that he ran away from home; his schoolmaster was equally harsh and his mother was scarcely less severe: She once beat him until blood flowed for eating a nut he found on the table. Despite his rejection of the Catholic hierarchy, his viewpoint was extremely authoritarian. The Cambridge Modern History states that he believed thoroughly in the propriety of using force, placing absolute power in the hands of the church-dominated state, and encouraging its use by saying, “No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be bloody.”
Luther was even more pessimistic about sex than Calvin. He considered it uncontrollable and, according to Hunt, “sought simply to confine its raging within marriage.” For this reason he opposed the Catholic prohibition of sacerdotal marriage and considered it, according to Henry Charles Lea, in The History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, “the origin and cause of excessive vice and scandal [among the clergy]…he stigmatized the rule of celibacy as angelical in appearance but devilish in reality, and invented by Satan as a fertile source of sin and perdition.” Cole states, “Luther departed from Aquinas and followed Augustine in his view of the defects [in man] arising from Original Sin. He insisted that man was 'totally depraved,’ corrupted in mind, body and will, rather than merely deprived of supernatural gifts…. But with regard to the effects of sin on sex and marriage, Luther had in general very little disagreement with Aquinas. The first penalty of Original Sin was the ravages of lust. Once more, sex is regarded as evil because of the 'brutelike’ quality of passion.”
Sex in the Counter Reformation
The Reformation prompted the Counter Revolution—the attempt of the Roman Catholic Church to correct the abuses it felt had caused the defection of much of northern Europe to Protestantism. Taylor states, “For the ordinary historian, this is a movement opposed to the Protestant Reformation and contrasted with it. Psychologically, however, it can be regarded as an exactly similar movement…. There were certain points of difference, naturally. The Catholic Church made no attempt to substitute the infallibility of the Bible for that of the Pope…. While it revived its former attitude of seeing sexual sin as infinitely worse than other sins, it did not make the general attack on lighthearted gaiety which the Calvinists were making. But in broad terms, its reforms were [the same]. In particular, it reverted to sadistic persecution and masochistic self-torture in the medieval manner, and it opposed the growth of research and inquiry even more rigidly than had Calvin. The Council of Trent, summoned by the Pope, reiterated all the medieval regulations and, as Lord Acton, himself a Catholic, has observed, 'impressed on the Church the stamp of an intolerant age and perpetuated by its decrees the spirit of an austere immortality.’ The enactments of this ill-attended body remain the Catholic code to this day.”
Lehrman states that the reaction of the Roman Church to the Reformation was “an increased strengthening of its suppressive, dictatorial and aggressive internal trends. Two outstanding events in this reaction were the founding of the Jesuits in 1538 [described by Harry Elmer Barnes, in The History of Western Civilization, as], 'a belligerent and aggressive order devoted to contraverting Protestantism and preventing its spread,’ and the 1871 Declaration of Papal Infallibility. Since the 'faith and morals’ with which the latter is concerned seem to include areas ranging from public education to communism to sexual attitudes—among them celibacy itself—this declaration would seem to represent a significant tightening of papal control within the Church as well as an increasingly suppressive attitude toward differences within it.”
The principal maxim of the Jesuits was “If the Church preaches that a thing which appears to us as which is black, we must proclaim it black immediately.” Taylor says, “Nothing conveys better than this phrase the contemptible acceptance of authoritarianism, the miserable abandonment of the faculties of judgment and initiative, the blank lack of interest in truth and learning, which characterized the Counter Reformation. Following in the wake of the conquering Spanish armies, the Jesuits re-established the terror of the Inquisition. Paul IV enlarged its powers and instituted the index of prohibited books. Speculative inquiry became mortally dangerous. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burnt for holding, what the Greeks, Romans and Chaldeans had realized ages before, that the universe evolved…. The already dead body of Archbishop Antonio de Dominis, a Dean of Windsor, was formally burnt, together with his writings on the nature of light. Galileo was tortured and imprisoned by the same man who, as a Cardinal, had befriended him. Campanella was tortured seven times for defending Galileo. Descartes, whose Principia had narrowly escaped the charge of being heretical, was so discouraged by the fate of Galileo that he abandoned his plan for a magnum opus, the Treatise of the World. When G.P. Porta, inventor of the camera obscura, founded a society for experimental research, Pius III banned it—probably because he was the first man to write a treatise on meteorology, whereas the Church held that storms were caused by God or by witches. Once Florence had been the seat of learning and enlightenment; but here too the Church intervened, destroying the Accademia del Cimento, which Borelli had founded 'to investigate nature by the pure light of experiment.’
"Papal infallibility had its setbacks, of course. In 1493, for instance, Alexander VI, on the basis of his belief that the earth was flat, drew a line on the map and ruled that all territory east of it belonged to the Portuguese, all territory west to the Spaniards. The Portuguese promptly confounded his intention by reaching South America by the eastward route and claiming Brazil. Shortly after, Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Yet the flatness of the earth was taught for another two centuries in Catholic territories.”
Sex in English Puritanism
The overblown reaction to the Keeler-Protumo affair notwithstanding, England is presently undergoing a sexual revolution that is, if anything, even more pronounced than America’s. It is needed, for England has long suffered from the same Puritan sex suppression as the U.S. In a recent page on the subject, Time editorialized, “There is a widespread feeling that Britain’s moral machinery is not grinding as harshly as it used to. Much in English life today suggests decadence and dissolution. Since the girls were driven off the streets four years ago, they have taken to advertising their services in shop windows as 'masseuses,’ 'models,’ or 'French teachers.’ London’s booming striptease parlors offer some of the crudest live pornography to be seen publicly in Europe. Its parks in summer are pre-empted by couples who aren’t just necking. One third of all teenage brides in Britain are already pregnant. Innumerable scandals preceding the Profumo case suggest considerable promiscuity, along with sexual arrangements infinitely more complex than the old-fashioned triangle. And, as everyone knows, homosexuality is 'the English vice.’ Dr. George Morrison Carstairs [professor of psychological medicine at Edinburgh University] said recently [in a BBC lecture]: 'Popular morality is now a wasteland, littered with the debris of broken conventions. Concepts such as honor, or even honesty, have an old-fashioned sound, but nothing has taken their place.’
"This harsh judgment may overlook the fact that Britain was never the sort of place Victorian morality pretended it was. If London today resembles Babylon-on-the-Thames, it is little more than a deluxe model of the brutal, carnal 18th century city whose brothels, boudoirs and gin shops ('Drunk for a Penny. Dead drunk for Tuppence.’) were pictured by Hogarth, Richardson and Fielding. Says Malcolm Muggeridge: 'There’s always been a lot of high-grade whoring in this country.’” Time’s conclusion: “There is a lot of past evidence to prove him right…. Thus the state of sexual morality in Britain today is probably no worse than it ever was, and there is much evidence that it is better. Britain may not be a moral wasteland but a battleground in which a more realistic, less hypocritical generation is attempting to win legal and social recognition of the facts of everyday life.”
Nor was Dr. Carstairs as “harsh” in his judgment as Time’s editorial may suggest. In an earlier issue, “The Weekly Newsmagazine” reported his BBC lecture more fully: The doctor also said, “A new concept is emerging, of sexual relations as a source of pleasure, but also as a mutual encountering of personalities, in which each explores the other and at the same time discovers new depths in himself or herself.”
England has had her sexual ups and downs over the centuries—paying the price of sexual repression and hypocrisy that came with the Puritan Revolution. English Puritanism was derived largely, as we have noted, from the teachings of Calvin and in Scotland, John Knox was quite successful in imposing the Calvinist dogma, with the same suppressive and authoritarian results as Calvin had achieved in Geneva.
The doctrine of Calvin and the Puritans, making work a virtue and emphasizing frugality rather than ostentatious expenditure, had considerable appeal to the emerging middle class of England. A civil war resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy and the execution of King Charles I in 1649; for more than a decade England was kingless and was under the rule of the Puritan Commonwealth and the Protectorate. Oliver Cromwell was virtual ruler of the country until his death in 1658. Puritan rule proved far more oppressive and restrictive than the people had expected, however, and popular feeling swept it out of power shortly after Cromwell’s death and restored the monarchy.
Even before the Puritans gained control of the government, they attempted to regulate behavior in various less obvious ways, as with the establishment of “Puritan Sunday,” from which we derive our own Blue Laws. (Puritan Sunday was an especially effective means of controlling activity at the time, since Sunday was the only day the working classes had to themselves.) Jeremy Collier, an English clergyman, wrote, “The Puritans having miscarried in their operations upon the Church, endeavored to carry on their designs more under covert. Their magnifying the Sabbath Day, as they called Sunday, was a serviceable expedient for the purpose.”
Henry VII had been responsible for introducing the Reformation into England, but during his reign Sunday was a day of sports, fairs, drinking, archery and dancing. Frith, a pre-Puritan Reformer, said, “Having been to church, one may return and do one’s business as well as any other day.”
Elizabeth, who completed the work of the Reformation begun by Henry, regularly transacted State business on Sundays, and so quite naturally refused to pass a Sunday-observance act in 1586; instead, she licensed others to organize Sunday games for her subjects. The Stuarts continued this tradition—Charles reissuing an official Book of Sports in 1633 that James I had originally prepared for Sunday pleasure.
But between 1645 and 1650 there were a series of acts, ordinances and proclamations prohibiting Maypoles; abolishing Christmas, Whitsun and Easter as pagan festivals; ordering the Book of Sports to be burned; and even banning “idle sitting at doors and walking in churchyards.” As one non-Puritan member of the House of Commons observed, “Let a man be in what posture he will, your penalty finds him.”
The Puritans opposed dancing, drinking, sports, games, carnivals, masquerades, mumming and all other pleasurable pursuits and pastimes, as well as idleness, since the wasting of time was as serious as the wasting of money. Theirs was an austere, severe, strict and restrictive theology—and a pattern of prohibitions emerges that Taylor sees as the product of two subconscious fears: a fear of pleasure and a fear of spontaneity—rooted in the Puritan belief that only through control could they hope to keep man’s baser nature in check—that if left unchecked and to itself, anything might happen. “And it was primarily this fear of spontaneity and feeling,” Taylor suggests, “which caused the Puritans to object to color and richness of decoration, and hence to insist on sober clothing and bleak churches….”
All theaters were permanently closed and when a company of actors attempted to ignore this law, they were arrested and the theaters were ordered torn down. In place of festivals, Days of Publique Humiliation were established, on which all shops were shut and all travel—except to church—forbidden, as was “any unnecessary walking in the fields or upon the Exchange or other places.”
For some, two sermons on Sunday became “a necessity of salvation.” Labor of any kind was prohibited on the Lord’s Day and some objected to the preparing of roast meat for Sunday dinner—a lead which kitchen maids quickly followed by declaring that it was sinful to wash dishes on that day, also.
Cromwell was hostile to art, learning and, most of all, the democratic process. The general disapproval of free inquiry is also illustrated by the Puritan condemnation, a few years later, of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science as “impious.”
In Mrs. Grundy, Leo Markun wrote, “The Scottish ministers identified the natural with the sinful…. The ministers called on their parishioners to live in such a way as to please a jealous divinity who could not approve of frolicsome conduct, who would surely send a dreadful plague if wedding guests danced and joked and enjoyed themselves in the good old Scottish way. The Reverend Mr. Abernathy said, 'Pleasures are most carefully to be avoided, because they both harm and deceive…. Beat down thy body and bring it into subjection by abstaining, not only from unlawful pleasures, but also from lawful pleasures and indifferent delights….’”
When they were in power in England, the Puritans attempted to make “immorality” impossible by imposing the harshest of penalties. For adultery and for incest (the latter being any degree of relatedness in which marriage was prohibited), the death penalty was instituted. In Puritan, Rake and Squire, J. Lane reports that a man of 89 was executed for adultery in 1653 (which, age considered, may seem more a compliment than an injustice) and another for incest (with his brother-in-law’s daughter) in 1656. But juries generally responded to such trials by refusing to convict. Whereupon the Puritans introduced specials to control the court and enforce the law—and when a jury failed to bring in a verdict to their liking, it was dismissed.The Puritans made great and extensive use of public humiliation as a means of chastisement and control, with the pillory, the stocks and the scarlet letter – techniques they carried with them to the colonies in the New World. In Scotland, even more feared than the pillory was the punishment of having to appear in Church every Sunday for a given number of weeks (the number varied, but not infrequently it was 26 or 52) to be harangued for half-an-hour in front of the congregation by the minister; in some churches, when the sin committed was considered serious enough, the offenders (both men and women) were fastened to the wall of the church by an iron collar, or joug.
The main body of public opinion was opposed to the extremes of Puritanism and was especially against the Puritan control of Parliament. The members of Parliament discovered to their dismay that they had allied themselves with authoritarians far more ruthless than the Stuart kings. Rebellious crowds filled the streets, crying, “Give us a free Parliament,” and the sarcastic dismissal of the crowd by General George Monk, head of Cromwell’s armed forces: “You shall have a free Parliament,” was taken as a promise, causing a chain of beacons to be lighted which carried the supposed good news throughout England, and prompting such a widespread reaction that the Puritan fathers were forced to accede to the demand. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II returned from exile to accept the throne.
Some indication of the sadistic cruelty that was still natural to an age that had tortured and burned so many witches, and produced the severe authoritarianism of the Reformation and Puritanism can be perceived from a reading of the sentence of the court, pronounced on the five judges who had condemned Charles I to death: “You shall go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from that place shall be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and there shall hang by the neck till you are half dead, and shall be cut down alive and your privy members cut off before your face and thrown into the fire, your belly ripped up and your bowels burnt, your head to be severed from your body, your body shall be divided into four quarters, and disposed as His Majesty shall think fit.”
The Restoration and Romantic Love
England was freed for a time from the yoke of Puritanism and the Restoration that followed the return of the monarchy was primarily a reaction against the Puritan influence and an era of reawakening prosperity and vigorous political activity. The arts and trades of an increasingly complex civilization led to new triumphs of creative endeavor; the people rejoiced over the curtailing of Puritan power, strong opposition developed to undue authoritarianism of any kind and the new freedom produced a considerable relaxing of sexual morality and a greater status for women in society. The theaters were reopened and, The Columbia Encyclopedia says, “The drama of the period was marked by brilliance and wit, and by a moral laxity which reflected the looseness of court manners.”
A new romanticism emerged, partly as a reaction against the dehumanizing materialism of a growing industrialization, and sought to establish aesthetic values in place of utilitarian ones. The Romantic Movement in England was more sexual than the earlier conception of “courtly love” held by the troubadours and the Romantics introduced a new concept of marriage, based upon mutual love and respect on the part of both man and wife. Taylor states, “Not only did the Romantics reject the Christian assumption of feminine inferiority which has ruled for more than a millennium, but they went further and put forward the claim that romantic love should be the raison d'tre of the marriage relationship…. [They held] that the lover should enjoy with his beloved both sensual passion and platonic companionship…. Furthermore, they held that sexual experiment was necessary if one was to find the ideal mate – which is to say that they abandoned the Christian doctrine of strict prenuptial chastity. Moreover, they revived Plato’s theory that every individual is but one half of a complete entity, so that somewhere there is to be found the twin-soul, the missing half, the only person in the world who provides the full complement for one’s own personality…. Here was born the sentimental notion, to be enshrined in popular song when [these] ideas finally triumphed in the 20th century, of 'the only girl in the world’ – an idea in complete contrast with the view previously [held] that any two people, not previously antipathetic, could probably make an effective marriage.”
When the ideal partner has been found, in keeping with this new Romantic view, “no mere mundane obstacle – such as one of the parties being married already – must be allowed to stand in the way of fulfillment.”
Such an extreme conception of romantic love, while not without considerable virtue – when contrasted with the strict, antifeminine, antisexual views of medieval Christianity and Puritanism – obviously has its impractical, naive and inhuman side. Yet it is upon just such a doctrine – interlaced with even more impractical, naive and inhuman Puritanism – that our own present-day conception of romantic love and of marriage are based.
At about the same time as this Romantic quest, England began to swing back in the direction of puritanism. The new trend was officially endorsed by George III, who issued a Proclamation Against Vice, and this led to the restrictive period we refer to as the Victorian Era – though it actually reached its peak before Victoria’s reign and began to decline during her rule.
The prudery and puritanism of the 17th century were less drastic than that which flourished from the middle of the 18th and well into the 19th centuries. A new Evangelical campaign, undoubtedly based upon sexual anxieties, inveighed not only against sexual indulgence and all forms of pleasure, but also all spontaneity in emotion and behavior. And to a marked extent, people accepted these stricter values. Woman’s status was again reduced to the medieval level of submission, modesty and hard work, but whereas medieval man had regarded woman as a source of sin, the Victorians considered her pure and sexless.
The publication of “Mary Wollstonecraft’s Right of Women, at the height of this trend, created a scandal. Even the worldly Horace Walpole referred to her as a 'hyena in skirts.’ The Ladies Magazine published a case history of four girls who had, it asserted, been perverted by reading this work: One of them not only rode to hounds, but even groomed her own horse, while another committed the unpardonable sin of quoting from the classics in social conversation.”
Hunt asserts, “In the Victorian scheme, woman was denied every form of status and achievement except one, but in an industrial urban world that one was no longer as meaningful as it once had been. She yearned, instead, for the achievements reserved for men, and her feminist spokeswomen argued that she was the natural equal of man and deserved the same opportunities as he. But the very nature of the argument created in her mind a confusion as to what part she could, or should, play in life: The choice seemed to be between that of the unwed, childless, career woman, and the subjugated, dependent, housewife-mother. If there were some other answer, some other personality she could assume, Victorian women had no idea what it might be….
"The role in which Victorian man had cast woman had its inevitable effects on man himself. Patriarchal he might be, stern to his children, frock-coated, mightily bewhiskered, and not to be trifled with, but he played this part at the expense of his own sexual expressiveness and his own peace of mind. If he were a libidinous man, he was driven to resort secretly to brothels. If he were weakly sexed, the emphasis on the purity of woman might actually unman him. If he were an average man with an average drive, he might live his entire life galled by the need for self-denial and self-restraint.” Victorian man, if without much foundation in fact, considered himself far more civilized than the men of the preceding century – more rational, refined and virtuous. The Puritans considered sex a sin; the Victorians regarded it as undignified, irrational, bestial and disgusting.
While Victorian man urged women to purity, he distrusted them also. He wanted them to be virgins, but suspected secretly that they were whores. He was therefore compelled to divide the female sex into two categories: “good” women, who had no taste for sex; and “bad” women, who had. It is tellingly symptomatic of the times that W. Acton asserted, as a supposed statement of fact in a scientific work, The Functions and Disorders of the Re-productive Organs, that it was a “vile aspersion” to say that women were capable of sexual feeling. In A History of Courting, E.S. Turner states, “Sexual instincts became something no nice girl would admit to possessing; her job was to make man ashamed of his.”
In To Deprave and Corrupt, published by Association Press, an affiliate of the Young Men’s Christian Association, John Chandos writes, “…the industrial revolution and the expansion of opportunities which it created brought into existence a new and growing commercial middle class. The members of this class were very naturally insecure, ambitious and snobbish…. In their anxiety to be respectable, to be 'ladies and gentlemen,’ they struck exaggerated postures of propriety, flattered their superiors, bullied their inferiors and set great store on following a strict code of conduct. In the course of their advancement they brought with them, usually from humbler origins, an assertive prudishness – part of the paraphernalia of respectability – a worship of industry for its own sake, a suspicion of pleasure as being a trap of the devil and a complete lack of aesthetic taste or tradition…. The spontaneity of the English personality was attacked by a paralyzing disease from which it has never since fully recovered. Standards no longer evolved from or through the aristocracy…. They developed a veritable obsession with sin, especially sexual sin, and since the only way they could with propriety maintain constant contact with the forbidden pleasure was by censoring it presence in others, they nosed out sex with an industry as indefatigable as it was ingenious….”
The reformers did not, as a rule, succeed in getting Parliament to provide legal sanctions against the activities they criticized, frequently because their requests were so extreme. Thus in 1800 and again in 1856 and 1857, attempts were made to have Parliament impose the death penalty for adultery, but the motions were defeated. On the other hand, private societies for the suppression of vice multiplied and were responsible for a great number of prosecutions. As early as 1757, a Society for the Reformation of Manners was founded, but five years later it was disbanded, after being convicted of employing false testimony (in that five-year period it had instituted more than 10,000 prosecutions).
In 1789 the Proclamation Society Against Vice was formed to implement the royal Proclamation Against Vice; the announced purpose of the Proclamation Society was to suppress “licentious publications,” but as usual, the attempt was made to suppress all free speech on matters which the Puritans found objectionable. Its offspring, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, was used to prosecute The Republican, a paper defending free speech and a free press. Tom Paine was forced to flee the country following the publication of his Rights of Man, and subsequently had to flee from France to America, where his Age of Reason was no better received. In 1820 a so-called Constitutional Association was formed to prosecute “seditious works.” Among the works it thought seditious, and against which it successfully brought prosecutions, were Palmer’s Principles of Nature and Shelley’s Oedipus Tyrannus and Queen Mab. Byron’s publisher was so fearful of the Association’s activities that he hesitated to print the first two cantos of Don Juan.
In 1793 the Evangelical Magazine declared that “All novels, generally speaking, are instruments of abomination and ruin.” Joshua Collins said that parents would be wise to establish “an immutable law” forbidding their offspring from reading novels. “It is much to be questioned,” he said, “whether my sort of fictional representation ought to be put into the hands of youth.” In any case, it was pointed out, to compose fiction was to assert what was not true and was, therefore, a form of lying.
The theater had long been a target of Puritan hatred and the attacks upon it were, of course, resumed in the Victorian Era: It was declared that to visit a theater was not merely unsuitable, but absolutely unlawful for a Christian. John Styles, a Methodist minister, earned himself a certain kind of fame by declaring that it was a “luckless hour” when Shakespeare became a writer for the stage.
The Victorian period was marked by a quite incredible preoccupation with symbolic
representations of sex, especially verbal ones. In the Middle Ages, the Church had preached against sex
in the strongest terms, but it never hesitated to use sexual words and phrases in referring to it: Nor had it
objected to representations in art of the sex organs and of the sexual act in all its variations. No such
sexual frankness was permitted in Victorian times, however. Thus not only words used repeatedly in the
Bible, such as “whore” and “fornication,” became taboo, but the prohibitions were increasingly extended
until words and objects only remotely connected with sex could not be named, but had to be referred to
euphemistically. In time even the euphemisms became objectionable and had to be replaced by
expressions even more indirect: The more colloquial “with child” was replaced by “pregnant” – which in
those days had a half-metaphorical connotation which is almost entirely lost today; but then “pregnant”
also became offensive and was replaced by the more ambiguous phrase, “in an interesting condition.”
Undergarments, and eventually even men’s trousers, became “unmentionables”; it became indelicate to
offer a lady the leg of a chicken – hence the still existent custom that it is more proper to offer her the
breast, though this was properly referred to as the “bosom” in the 19th century. Such taboos led to the
desire to ignore all animallike aspects of existence, so that the lower creatures might “sweat,” but proper
men and ladies would “perspire” – and this was finally refined to “glow.” References to the lower
extremities were generally avoided and a “leg” was called a “limb” – even on a chair or table. Proper women also took to covering the legs of furniture with crinoline skirts and Captain Marryat tells of visiting a ladies’ seminary where the piano had each of its legs clothed in “modest little trousers, with frills at the bottom of them.”
Any physical complaint between the neck and the knees was referred to as “liver.” And when it was necessary for a doctor to treat a female patient, he was sometimes handed a doll upon which the location of the affected part might be pointed out. This extreme Victorianism was carried over to America and it is recorded that a preacher in Athens, Georgia, bowdlerized the Bible, reading “stomach” for “belly” and “a certain fowl” for “cock.” The improper parts of nude paintings and statutes were covered over; old maids became reluctant to go to bed in rooms containing men’s portraits; and some private libraries violated alphabetical order, separating books by sex, to prevent volumes by men and women from resting against one another on the shelves. Far from de-emphasizing sex, such actions had the opposite effect, and so instead of remaining aloof from it, the Victorian Era must be seen as sexually obsessed – as all such periods of repression must be.
Modern American Morality
We have already commented, in earlier issues, upon the similarly suppressive sexual traditions that were carried over to Puritan America and that form a part our own history and heritage. Modern American morality is an amalgamation of the superstitious paganism and masochistic asceticism of early Christianity; the sexual anxieties, feelings of guilt and shame, witch-hunting sadism and sex repression of the medieval Church; the desexualized courtly love of the troubadours; England’s Romantic Age, wherein love was presumed to conquer all; and the prohibitively strict, severe, joyless, authoritarian, unresponsive, book-banning, pleasure-baiting dogma of Calvinist Protestantism, Puritanism and Victorianism.
This is a morality that virtually assures us our high incidence of unhappy marriages, frequent divorces, impotence, masochism, frigidity, frustration and perversion. Perhaps this review of the origins of many of the unreasoned and unreasonable traditions and prohibitions of our present society may afford some additional insights as we next consider contemporary religions’ changing views on sex, the unchanging U.S. sex laws, and modern man’s need for a new, more realistic, rational, human and humane sexual morality.