One of the major controversies in contemporary society concerns sex. The gap between our supposed sexual morality and our actual behavior is extreme and when an entire nation practices such hypocrisy, the results can be calamitous. Since the behavior is based upon a natural sex drive that, when repressed, results in perversion, impotence, frigidity and unnatural feelings of guilt and shame, society is searching for a new morality more in keeping with the newly recognized “facts of life.”
To better understand this Sexual Revolution, it is worthwhile to explore the origins of our present-day traditions and taboos regarding sex. As we have seen, our sexual mores are based primarily on religious teachings. But where did our religions acquire their strong antisexual nature? Man hasn’t always equated sex with sin and his concepts of sexual morality have varied greatly through the centuries. Where did the ideal of chastity come from? And the notion that virginity is a virtue? Who devised the idea of chaste “romantic love” to replace natural sexuality? Has organized religion always been antisexual in concept?
Historically, religion and sex always have been intimately interwoven. Sex played an important role in early religious beliefs and rites, and vestiges of its celebration are apparent in many of our contemporary religious rituals. The first religions of primitive man deified sex and fertility. In the quite complex, sophisticated and intellectual societies of pre-Christian Rome and Greece, the gods were patterned after men and they were as sexually potent as one might expect a god to be: Roman and Grecian mythology are filled with tales of their sexual prowess. But the Jewish and Christian faiths perceived a less human God, and in this more ethereal state, He had no need of sex. The psychoanalytic might also point out that the Christian God has all the attributes of a father figure, with whom sex would be considered incestuous; and it is certainly true that incest and Oedipal fears played a major role in the early history in Christendom.
Though it is not generally recognized today, the concept of virginity as a virtue in women is actually antifemale in origin, derived from a period when women were thought of as property, owned first by their fathers and later their husbands. And as Dr. Roger W. Wescott wryly observed: “…it is far from flattering to ‘the fair sex’ to treat its members as salable commodities with only two possible labels—'used’ or 'unused.’”
The term “virgin” did not mean to the Classical world what it means to us. The early Romans distinguished between virgo—an unmarried woman, and virgo intacta—a woman who had never known a man; the same distinction was made by the Greeks. To them a virgin was a woman who had retained her personal autonomy by not submitting herself to the restrictions of marriage. Virginity was more a social and psychological state than a physical one. It was the married woman, who had lost her independence through matrimony, who was no longer considered virgin. Indeed, it was believed that sexual relations with a god magically restored virginity.
In early Rome and Greece, sexual behavior was largely a matter of personal taste, though there were civil laws protecting individuals from abuse, such as rape. R. Rattray Taylor states, in his book Sex in History: “Husbands had property rights in their wives; a wife’s adultery was severely punished by the husband, because it made the paternity of the children doubtful. A husband, on the other hand, could have what sexual experience outside of marriage he liked, subject only to the fact that that he would incur the wrath of another husband if he seduced a married woman, and might be killed for so doing. An unmarried man was equally free…. There was no admiration of virginity as a good in itself [however] and among the populace an [unmarried] woman was free to sleep with a man at her own discretion.”
Sex in Early Judaism
The early Jews, according to Taylor, “believed strongly that one should enjoy the pleasures of life, including those of sex (see Deuteronomy 21:10-14) and some teachers held that at the last day one would have to account to God for every pleasure that one had failed to enjoy.” Jewish law was derived from the Babylonian code of Hammurabi and the only sexual injunctions in the Ten Commandments are against adultery and coveting of a neighbor’s wife. On this, Taylor states: “It must be understood that in this period, just as in Rome and Greece, adultery was a property offense and meant infringing the rights of another man. It did not mean that a man should restrict his attentions to his wife; indeed, when a wife proved barren, she would often give one of her handmaidens to her husband that she might bear children for him. Moreover, as the Bible often reminds us, men were free to maintain mistresses, in addition to their wives; on the number of wives a man might have there was no restriction.
"Nor was there any ban on premarital sex; it is seldom appreciated that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any prohibition of noncommercial, unpremeditated fornication—apart from rape, and subject to a father’s right to claim a cash interest in a virgin. Once a girl had reached the age of 12½ years, she was free to engage in sexual activity, unless her father specifically forbade it. Prostitution, though frowned on, was common, and in Jerusalem the whores were so numerous that they had their own marketplace. Nor in pre-Exilic days was sodomy a crime, except when committed as part of religious worship of non-Jewish gods.”
But in the post-Exilic period there was a remarkable change in the Jewish attitude toward sex. There developed a feeling that all pleasure, but especially sexual pleasure, was wicked. Reubeni speaks of “the power of procreation and sexual intercourse with which, through love of pleasure, sin enters in.” In Ecclesiastes, we find the blame for sin being laid on women: “Women are overcome with the spirit of fornication more than men and in their heart they plot against men.”
As with early Christianity, it is probable that the persecution of the Jews had a great deal to do with this increase in sexual suppression and feelings of guilt. Coupled also with this change in attitude, as seems always to be the case, went a tightening of restrictions and a loss of personal liberty. Whereas previously the sexes had mingled quite freely, it now became a sin for a man to speak to, or even look at, a woman unless it was unavoidable.
L.M. Epstein states, in Sex Laws and Customs of Judaism: Virginity now began to be praised—"Happy is the barren that is undefiled…and happy is the eunuch"—whereas, previously, rabbinical tradition had regarded celibacy as a crime. Josephus reports of the Essenes: “They reject pleasure as an evil, but esteem continence and conquest of the passions to be a virtue. They neglect wedlock.” This period was marked with a new concern over afterlife and intensely increased feelings of guilt, shame and suspicion. According to one teacher, boys should not be allowed to play with girls, and a mother-in-law should not live with her married daughter for fear she might seduce the husband. Rabbi Samuel Glasner writes, in his chapter on Judaism and sex, in The Encyclopedia of Sexual Behavior: “…The Talmud prohibits a widow’s keeping a pet dog, for fear of the suspicion of sexual abuse (Abodah Zarah 22b; Baba Betziah 71a), and in later times both Maimonides and Karo advised against unchaperoned association between young males (Yad I.B. 22, 2; Eben Ha-Ezer 24, 1). Ideas of contamination became widespread—with women considered the source of infection; a man was not permitted to pass within four ells of the house of a prostitute for fear of disease.
The attitude toward homosexuality changed markedly, as the warning against young men being allowed together unchaperoned suggests, and not only was it made a capital crime, punishable by death, but the law was applied to non-Jews as well. The intensity of these new homosexual anxieties is perhaps best illustrated by the special ban placed upon a father appearing naked in front of his sons, although no such specific prohibition was thought necessary in the case of his daughters. Ham, one of Noah’s sons, was condemned to slavery, and his children after him, and his children’s children—hence the rationalization for the subjugation of the Negro race, for Ham was black. His crime was that he entered the tent of his father and found him lying there dead drunk and naked. In general, Taylor reports, exposure of the sexual parts of the body was regarded as a crime, and within a family, a form of incest. Complete nudity was considered even more obscene and sinful. Homosexual fears seem to also be suggested by the rule that a mother might kiss her sons, but not her daughters, and conversely for a father.
Taboos against masturbation are certain to produce feelings of guilt in any society, since masturbation is a nearly universal sexual activity, especially among young males, and the post-Exilic Jews laid tremendous stress on such prohibitions. The Zohar called it the most reprehensible sin of all and Rabbi Glasner reports that one Talmudic authority declared it to be a crime warranting death. Clerical regulations on the subject display an obsession with detail: for example, a Jew was forbidden to sleep on his back, wear tight trousers or touch his sexual parts while urinating, for fear of sexual arousal. Even an involuntary seminal emission rendered the individual ritually unclean and required a ritual bath for purification (Leviticus 15:16-17; Deuteronomy 23:10-12).
Sex in Early Christianity
In such a time, Christianity had great appeal, as Taylor views it in his authoritative and comprehensive Sex in History, for "it affirmed the sense of guilt [so prevalent among the people of that time] and authorized self-punishment to relieve it.”
The officially favored religion in Rome at the end of the second century A.D. was Mithraism, which came from Asia and spread throughout much of Europe, including portions of England. It was an aggressive, outgoing religion. Taylor writes, “Mithraism specifically preached that good lay in action, in conquest, in grappling with the world….” As such, it had a considerable attraction to the Roman emperors, to soldiers, administrators and extroverts, but offered no place for women. In contrast, Christianity, in its early stages, was primarily a passive religion and it thus appealed to women, introverts, slaves and many of the common people of a lesser station. If a psychoanalytic interpretation of Mithraism reveals its sadistic nature, early Christianity may similarly be characterized as primarily masochistic. Taylor notes, “Mithraism adopted as its symbol the Cross, an instrument of torture and death…. The choice of Christianity in preference to Mithraism therefore not only represents a choice of masochism as against sadism, and a turning in of the death instinct against the self, but also a victory for death instincts as against life instincts.”
A flood of Iranian and Semitic concepts was sweeping the Mediterranean world, threatening to submerge the elaborate cultures erected by Greece and Rome, and early Christianity adopted many of these beliefs into its own religion. In Social Control of Sex Expression, Geoffrey May states that Christian asceticism comes not so much from the teachings of Jesus as from the element of Oriental dualism, implying the antithesis of the spiritual and the physical, found in the teachings of St. Paul. Moreover, under the persecutions of the Roman Empire, Christians came to desire suffering and revolted against the sexual excesses of the Romans.
As with the Jews, persecution of the Christians produced a masochism that made deprivation, suffering and pain a virtue. In Love and the Sex Emotions, W.J. Fielding notes that adherents of the new religion soon developed an obsessional horror of sex and multiple methods of self-torture quite different from the asceticism of earlier religions. Fanatical monks retired to the burning deserts of North Africa to mortify their flesh: fasting, flagellating themselves, going without sleep and refusing to wash. Ammonius tortured his body with hot irons until he was entirely covered with burns; Macarius went naked in a mosquito-ridden swamp and let himself be stung until nearly unrecognizable; St. Simeon ulcerated his flesh with an iron belt; Evagrius Ponticus spent a winter’s night in a fountain so that his flesh froze.
The association between these masochistic practices and sexual desire is indicated by the confessions of the fathers themselves. Thus Jerome says: “How often when I was living in the desert, which affords to hermits a savage dwelling place, parched by a burning sun, did I fancy myself amid the pleasures of Rome. I sought solitude, because I was filled with bitterness…. I, who from the fear of hell had consigned myself to that prison where scorpions and wild beasts were my companions, fancied myself among bevies of young girls. My face was pale and my frame chilled from fasting, yet my mind was burning with the cravings of desire, and the fires of lust flared up from my flesh that was as a corpse. I do not blush to avow my abject misery.”
How closely the whole psychological process depended upon the suppression of sexual desire is further indicated by the preoccupation of these early Christians with the subject of castration. Taylor reports, “The tonsure of the priest is a recognized symbol of castration, and his adoption of a skirted cassock perpetuates the adoption of female clothes, in just the same way as the priests of Astarte, after castration, assumed female attire. The Jews had adopted circumcision—another symbolic castration—as part of a religious convention that made every man a priest, and thus able to read the sacred books. But symbolic castrations were not enough for some early Christians. Thousands hastened to castrate themselves in truth…and a sect sprang up so enthusiastically addicted to the practice that its members castrated not only themselves, but also any guest rash enough to stay under their roofs.” Since the continuance of any religion depends upon the fact that children usually follow in the faith of their parents, a sect which fails to reproduce itself is in danger of dying out. The Church recognized this simple truth and soon forbade the practice.
The earliest Christians had sought to transcend sex—to be above temptation; but that didn’t prove very successful, so the Church abandoned this technique in favor of repression. The relative merits of the two methods were not entirely resolved, however, and debate over the alternative techniques was to arise numerous times in the centuries that followed.
The medieval Church was obsessed with sex to an extreme degree, according to Taylor. “Sexual issues dominated its thinking in a manner which we should regard as entirely pathological.” The Christian code was based, quite simply, “upon the conviction that the sexual act was to be avoided like the plague, except for the bare minimum necessary to keep the race in existence. Even when performed for this purpose, it remained a regrettable necessity. Those who could were exhorted to avoid it entirely, even if married. For those incapable of such heroic self-denial, there was a great spider’s web of regulations whose overriding purpose was to make the sexual act as joyless as possible and to restrict it to the minimum.” Taylor points out that it was not the sex act itself which was damnable, “but any pleasure derived from it—and this pleasure remained damnable even when the act was performed for the purpose of procreation….” This idea reached its crudest expression with the invention of the chemise cagoule, a sort of heavy nightshirt with a suitably placed hole, through which a husband could impregnate his wife while avoiding any other contact with her. The belief that, even with marriage, the sexual act should not be performed for pleasure still persists in some Christian sects to this day.
Not only was the pleasure of the sexual act held to be sinful, but also the mere desire for a person of the opposite sex, even when unconsummated. Since the love of a man for a woman conceived of as, at least partially, sexual desire, this led to the concept that a man should not love his wife too much. In fact, Peter Lombard maintained, in his apologetic De excusatione coitus, that for a man to love his wife too ardently is a sin worse than adultery.
By the eighth century, the Church had begun to develop the strict system of laws which ruled the Middle Ages. A series of “penitential books” appeared that explored the subject of sinful sex in minute and intimate detail; every misdeed was described at length and penalties were prescribed for each. Celibacy was the ideal and for those with priestly functions, it became obligatory. Since chastity was a virtue, it was virtuous for wives to deny sex to their husbands, which many apparently did. It is doubtful if this actually increased the sum total of chastity, however, since many husbands were driven to extramarital relations as a consequence, to such a degree that the Church felt obliged to intervene.
Shame of the body and a near-pathological modesty came with this increasing emphasis on chastity and soon extended beyond the areas of sexual activity, as with a virgin named Gorgonia, who “with all her body and members thereof…bruised and broken most grievouslie” refused the attentions of a doctor because her modesty would not permit her to be seen or touched by a man; it was reported that she was rewarded by God with a miraculous cure.
In some penitentials, fornication was declared a worse crime than murder. Attempting to fornicate, kissing, even thinking of fornication, were all forbidden and called for penalties: in the last case, the penance was 40 days. Nor 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.
The penitentials also devoted a disproportionately large amount of space to penalties for homosexuality and bestiality, but the sin upon which the greatest stress of all was placed was masturbation. In Social Control of Sex Expression, Geoffrey May observes that in the five comparatively short medieval penitential codes, there are 22 paragraphs dealing with various degrees of sodomy and bestiality, and no fewer than 25 dealing with masturbation on the part of laymen, plus a number of others dealing separately with masturbation by members of the clergy. According to Aquinas, it was a greater sin than fornication. And as we previously observed, taboos surrounding masturbation are particularly significant, since this activity is so common, they are certain to produce feelings of guilt. Taylor observes that modern psychiatric insights indicate the belief that sexual pleasure is wicked springs primarily from parental taboos on infantile masturbation. Since the child is punished when he is too young to understand its significance, and when masturbation is his primary means of pleasure without outside assistance, a fear of this specific pleasure becomes imbedded in the unconscious, which later becomes generalized until it turns into a fear of pleasure in all of its forms. It is easy to understand why the early Church seized upon this willingness of parents to frown on infantile masturbation as a means of maintaining its system of sexual repression and, therefore, concentrated a considerable amount of attention on the matter.
The more general discouragement of pleasure, of even a nonsexual nature, was a part of earliest Christendom. In the third century, Porphyry set the tone by condemning pleasure in all its forms. May comments, “Horse racing, the theater, dancing, marriage and mutton chops were equally accursed; those who indulged in them were servants, not of God, but of the devil.” Augustine called Porphyry the most learned of all the philosophers and established this doctrine on a formal basis.
Most of us have at least a vague awareness of the existence of the sexual prohibitions of the medieval Church, since many of them are still maintained, if in diminished strength, today. What is less generally recognized is the extent to which the Church attempted to limit and control not only sex outside of marriage, but within it, too. The sexual act could be performed in only one prescribed position, with the male above, and penalties were prescribed for any variance. This concept was described from the notion that other positions were more sexually enjoyable, and was consistent with the idea that sex should be kept as pleasureless as possible.
Not content with this, the Church proceeded to reduce the number of days per year during which even man and wife might legitimately perform the sex act. First, sex was made illegal on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which effectively removed the equivalent of five months out of every 12. Then it was made illegal for 40 days before Easter and 40 days before Christmas, and for three days before attending communion (and there were regulations requiring frequent attendance at communion). Marital sex was also forbidden from the time of conception to 40 days after birth. It was, of course, also forbidden during penance.
These are the principles from which our modern Western sexual ideals have been principally derived. Taylor points out that the Christian attitude of antisexuality, even within wedlock, was in marked contrast to that of Mohammedans, who held that there were grounds for divorce if the sexual act was not performed at least once a week.
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the early Christian Church prepared these codes of sexual conduct with the brutal single-mindedness of the Nazis preparing to pop another batch of humans into the ovens. Rather, it was a case of these dicta being promulgated in a passion of despairing guilt by a group of individual men like Augustine, Aquinas, Damiani and Bernard, who knew nothing of the true sexual nature of man, and who were tormented by the virtual certainty of eternal damnation for all who so much as thought about sexual pleasure. All about them, they witnessed sensuality and in a frantic attempt to save the people from themselves, they instituted and perpetuated ever more rigid rules of abstinence. Never mind the cruelty, never mind the injustice, if only this frightful and damning disaster could be somehow prevented.
That these ideas were pathological, there can be no doubt. But the motives were pure, even if the end results were grotesque in the extreme. “Only real desperation is enough to explain the ruthlessness with which the Church repeatedly distorted and even falsified the biblical record in order to produce justification for its laws,” says Taylor. For such extreme antisexual sentiment is not to be found in the Bible and certainly not in the New Testament. As W.H. Lecky states, in The History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, “The fathers laid down a distinct proposition that pious frauds were justifiable and even laudable…[and] immediately, all ecclesiastical literature became tainted with a spirit of the most unblushing mendacity.”
The Church claimed that its stringent taboos on sex had been proclaimed by St. Paul, but in actual fact, although Paul had gone much further than anyone before him in disallowing sexual activity, he had never suggested anything as radical as the sexual code of the medieval Church. Paul also made it clear he was not propounding the official teachings of Christ, but was simply giving his personal opinion, in reply to a number of questions put to him at the Church of Corinth.
Attaching, as they did, so much importance to preventing masturbation, the medieval churchmen sought biblical justification and finding none, evidenced no great reluctance in twisting the Scriptures to suit their purpose. Genesis 38 refers to Onan’s seed falling upon the ground and his subsequently being put to death. The idea was established—and is still widely believed—that this passage refers to masturbation, from which is derived the word onanism as a synonym for the practice. Actually, the biblical passage refers to coitus interruptus and it had a property interest as its raison d'etre rather than a sexual one; N.E. Himes, in A Medical History of Contraception, confirms that the reason that Onan was put to death was that he had violated the law of the levirate, by which a man must provide his deceased brother’s wife with offspring, so that the family’s possessions could be handed down to direct descendants. The Catholic writer Canon E. de Smet, in his book Betrothment and Marriage, also comments upon this: “From the text and context, however, it would seem that the blame of the sacred writer applies directly to the wrongful frustration of the law of the levirate, intended by Onan, rather than the spilling of the seed.”
“It was part of its comprehensive attempt to make the sexual act as difficult as possible,” observes Taylor, “that the Church devised laws against the practice of abortion.” The Romans, Jews and Greeks had not opposed abortion, but Tertullian, following an inaccurate translation of Exodus 21:22, which refers to punishing a man who injures a pregnant woman, popularized the notion that the Bible held abortion to be a crime. Rabbi Glasner states, “The Bible itself does not mention it at all…. One might argue that the therapeutic abortion, at least, would not be considered objectionable, since the embryo was considered a part of the mother (like a limb), and not a separate entity.” Taylor states that though the error in translation has long since been recognized, the Church still maintains its position opposing all abortion, and this opposition has become incorporated into secular law. Which nicely demonstrates that moral laws may not as often be derived from biblical authority, as biblical authority is sought to justify the particular prejudices and predilections of the time.
The Church’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden provides an even more striking example of construing Scripture in ways not inherent in the text. To support its general position on sex, the story was changed to suggest that the “forbidden fruit” Adam tasted in the Garden was sex, with Eve cast in the role of the temptress. Thus the Original Sin that Adam handed down to all of us was sexual in nature. But the Bible makes no such statement; the Book of Genesis indicates that Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and it is for acquiring this knowledge, which made him godlike, that he was expelled from Eden. No reference is made to sex in connection with Adam’s fall from Divine favor. (It should be noted that in the story of the Garden of Eden, the female is again viewed in an unfavorable light—not only is she created from one of Adam’s ribs, placing her in a position of being his possession, but Eve is also the one who tempts Adam into breaking God’s commandment, thus causing his downfall. In a variation of the story, menstruation was explained as a “curse” imposed upon women for Eve’s treachery in seducing Adam.)
Sexual Contamination in Women
The sexual obsessions of the Church were especially hard on women. Pre-Christian societies had treated women as property; the medieval Church perpetuated this belief and considered them the source of all sexual evil as well. One philosopher of the period stated, “A Good Woman is but like one Ele put in a bagge amongst 500 Snakes, and if a man should have the luck to grope out that one Ele from all the Snakes, yet he hath at best but a wet Ele by the Taile.”
Taylor points out that the Church’s concern over sex was derived from earlier pagan superstitions. It preserved the primitive belief in the power of sex to contaminate. It was for this reason that married couples were required to abstain from intercourse for three nights after marriage—the so-called Tobias nights—and once having performed the sexual act, they were not allowed to enter a church for 30 days, and then only on condition of doing 40 days of penance and bringing an offering. Theodore further extended the belief in sexual contamination when he ruled that it was a sin for a menstruating woman to enter a church and imposed a penance for any infraction of this dictum.
We remarked earlier on the incest fears that pervaded early Christianity, and these further emphasize the superstitious nature of the Church’s attitude toward sex. Many cultures, though by no means all, have regarded it as incestuous to marry a parent or sibling. But in the 11th century, the Church became increasingly obsessed with incest fears and extended the ban to first, then to second, and finally to third cousins. But this was not all. So strongly was the notion of sympathetic contagion embedded in the collective psyche, so intense were the anxieties concerning incest, that godfathers and godmothers were included in the ban; next, even the relatives of the priests who had baptized or confirmed an individual were included; finally, even the two adults who had been the sponsors to the same child in baptism or confirmation were restrained from ever marrying one another. In some small villages, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these regulations sometimes eliminated every available candidate and condemned individuals to a lifetime of celibacy in the same way, as Taylor points out, as the complicated exogamic regulations of the Australian blackfellow.
As a further restriction on marriage, Christians were forbidden to marry Jews, or followers of any other religion. In fact, copulation with a Jew was regarded as a form of bestiality and carried the same penalties. And in this there is a certain irony, since it was from the Jews that the Christians derived their laws against bestiality.
It might be assumed that such a lengthy list of prohibitions would have exhausted the ways which zealots found to complicate and hinder the performance of the sexual act, but there is yet one more: the Church proclaimed that no one could marry for a second time, even if the first partner had died—a doctrine which was allegedly supported by the Pauline text stating that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery; even though St. Paul had made it clear that in this he referred to putting away a living wife. It was part of this same program that the medieval Church opposed polygamy, though the Jews had been polygamous, and the early Christian fathers did not object to multiple marriage either. Even the strict St. Augustine considered it permissible to take a second wife if the first was barren.
Because it considered marriage a contaminating process, the Church at first refused to perform the marriage ceremony, but later—as a part of its comprehensive attempt to control all sexual matters—it urged couples to take their marriage vows in the church; because of its negative position regarding the married state, however, it did not assert that a civil marriage was invalid, for to do so might have indirectly implied a greater approval of the marital state than they were then willing to accord. It was the Tudor monarchs, untroubled by such questions of theology, who first proclaimed church marriage compulsory. The Church then refused to perform marriage ceremonies at certain times of the year; Taylor reports that at one point “there were only 25 weeks in the year when marriages were legal….” The Church also restricted the hours during which the marriage vows could be taken; first declaring that such an occurrence should be done openly, “it established that marriages must take place in daylight, but later defined daylight as eight A.M. to noon.”
Since it was the intent of the Church to reduce sexual opportunity to the minimum, it recognized divorce for a limited number of reasons, including barrenness and religious incompatibility, and the penitential books allowed divorce in cases of prolonged absence, or capture by the enemy in wartime, but the fully developed medieval code conceded only especially granted Church annulments and separations (the latter allowing for no possibility of marriage to another).
It is from the Church’s superstitious or near-magical view of the sex act that we get our idea that a marriage has not been truly consummated until coitus has been performed. By “logical” extension of this premise, it was considered bigamous for a woman to marry if she had previously committed fornication with someone else; it was also considered bigamous for a husband to continue to sleep with his wife after she had slept with another. The performance of the sex act was thus believed capable of creating some new relationship between individuals and could even retroactively destroy a previously licit relationship.
It was felt that sexual evil really dwelt within woman, since she tempted man, who would otherwise remain pure. Thus, not only sexual intercourse, but the very presence of a woman was thought to attract evil and contamination. During the plague it was considered inadvisable to sleep with women or even go near their beds, as this increased the risk of infection implying that the spread of disease is a uniquely heterosexual phenomenon.
This degradation of the female and the lowering of her status was very different from the position she held in earliest Christian times. In Christian Rome, women had enjoyed a status nearly equal to that of men; they had been allowed to preach, to cure, to exorcise and even to baptize. All these rights had been gradually taken away, and by the Middle Ages married women ceased even to have legal existence. Blackstone commented: “The very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage…for this reason a man cannot grant anything to his wife or enter into any covenant with her; for the grant would be to presuppose her separate existence, and to covenant with her would be only to covenant with himself.”
Because a wife was her husband’s property, to seduce her remained an offense against property (even as in early pagan times), and as late as the Victorian era, the husband’s first recourse was to bring civil action for damages against a wife’s lover. A husband had the right to inflict “moderate chastisement” upon a wife who did not obey him and civil law allowed him to “beat her violently with whips and sticks.” J.C. Jeafferson, in Brides and Bridals, notes that it was permissible to thrash a woman with a cudgel, but not to knock her down with an iron bar.
A quite different attitude toward women also began to develop during the Middle Ages, and from it we derive many of our own traditions regarding romantic love. A school of poets sprang up, who called themselves troubadours, and who extolled the virtues of a relationship between a man and a woman, in which the woman was placed on a pedestal and the man sought to win her favor. The rules governing “courtly love,” as it was called, were elaborately worked out and were written down about 1186 by Andrew the Chaplain, of the Court of Queen Alienor; this Treatise of Love was soon translated into the principal foreign languages and became a standard work throughout Europe.
The Church opposed the troubadours because they elevated the position of women, but the concept of courtly love was not a sexual one; it was the preliminary wooing that was the important thing, and the underlying antisexual nature of these romantic relationships (which is responsible for some of today’s most persistent notions about chaste romance) indicates that this was simply one more attempt to sublimate the tremendous feelings of guilt, about any male-female association, that Church-perpetuated repressions had produced. Andrew’s Treatise listed a number of reasons for not bringing a romantic affair to any physical conclusion and listed as the “worst” of crimes, “engaging in the work of Venus.” A majority of the troubadours’ poems were actually rife with religious references and they did much to glorify the Virgin Mary.
Each troubadour extolled the virtues of a particular woman whom he both loved and obeyed—whom he wooed, but hoped never to win, whom he considered superior in every way. Taylor comments that it would probably be a good psychiatric guess that the troubadours were, or would have been, troubled with impotence if finally faced with their mistresses; this is consistent with the observation of Rilke to the effect that the troubadours feared nothing so much as the success of their wooing. Many were probably passive homosexuals. Thus the troubadour Rambout of Orange says that if you wish to win women, you should “punch them in the nose” and force them, as this is what they like. “I behave differently,” he adds, “because I do not care about loving. I do not want to be put to trouble for the sake of women, any more than if they were my sisters; and so with a woman I am humble, obliging, frank and gentle, fond, respectful and faithful….” In Dante’s Purgatorio, two troubadours are found in the sodomites’ circle of Hell.
L'amour courtois of the Middle Ages was, according to Morton H. Hunt, author of The Natural History of Love, in his chapter in Julian Huxley’s The Humanist Frame, “…a compelling relationship which could exist only between a man and 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 says in addition: “[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.
”…Courtly love, during its early centuries, was ideally functional for both the individual courtier and the courtly class. But for the bourgeois of the Reformation, it was dysfunctional in that, among other things, it required more time, money and cultivation of taste than the middle class possessed; moreover, it was in conflict with their general sense of morality. When, however, it was modified enough to be amalgamated with marriage, these dysfunctions disappeared. Thereafter, romantic love leading to romantic marriage ideally suited the commercial and business classes….“ It is in this modified form that romantic love found its way down to the present time, reaching its apex in the 19th century. Of this period, Hunt says: ”…The 19th century—that high-water mark of romantic and sentimental feeling—was a time when many men were made impotent or masochistic by the prevailing love mores and many women were warped by frigidity and frustration.“
In The Medieval Manichee, S. Runciman reports that the very same area which gave birth to Courtly Love (Provence and the Languedoc) developed a related religious movement known as Catharism. Though soon declared by the Church to be heresy, it became so popular that it was openly preached, was supported by many nobles and seems to have replaced, to a large extent, the orthodox Church until the savage persecutions of Simon de Monfort wiped it out, and wiped out most of the troubadours, too. Catharism stressed sexual abstinence: fully initiated members were required not to sleep with their wives. They felt it was desirable to forgo all fleshly pleasure, not because it was "wicked,” but because they believed it slowed up the attainment of enlightenment. A number of similar sects sprang up, which were related to the chaste romanticism of the period. In these, women were accorded a higher status than they enjoyed within the orthodox Church, but chastity was stressed, even between man and wife.
The notion that man should, and could, rise above sexual temptation was not a new one, by any means, and we have mentioned that the earliest Christians first sought to transcend sex and, failing in that, turned to repression, which the Church found worked far better. The orthodox Church vigorously attacked all of these sects as heresy, but it was, in time, itself affected by the ideals of this romanticism.
Taylor observes that in the hands of the saints, the notion of transcending sex “was twisted into a more athletic and masochistic form, becoming the famous 'trial by chastity,’ in which one sought to demonstrate one’s self-control by finding the greatest extremes of temptation….” It is said that St. Swithin constantly slept in one bed with two beautiful virgins, which led fellow clergymen to rebuke him for the risk he was incurring. St. Brendan attempted a similar feat, but found that, though he could resist the temptation, he was unable to get off to sleep, and returned to his monastery discomfited.
Sex and the Church Courts
The ecclesiastical courts had the exclusive right to try all offenses against the Church, which included not only matters of religion, but questions of morality and sex, as well. The system and content of canon law which gradually developed was completely different from the common law, which was used by the civil courts. Whereas the common law was primarily concerned with the protection of the rights, person and property of the individual, canon law frequently regarded as offenses actions which harmed no one. Thus they proceeded against individuals for “impure thoughts,” in exactly the same manner as modern dictatorships practice “thought control.” The Church attempted to prescribe behavior in not only the major matters of life, but in many minor matters also, such as enjoying the sight of a priest in trouble, refusing to sing in church, sitting in the wrong pew and even for passively encouraging or favoring such “crimes.”
One of the most remarkable laws evolved by the Church court used marriage as a punishment for fornication. In 1308 the Archbishop Winchelsey developed a procedure whereby a contract was drawn up at the time of the first offense stating that, in the event of a third offense, the parties were to be considered as having been man and wife from the time of the first offense.
Nor can it be argued that such laws were established for any logical or ethical reason, or to foster lasting personal relationships, for the Church also held that it was a worse crime for a priest to marry than to keep a mistress, and to keep a mistress was worse than to engage in random fornication. In A History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church, H.C. Lea writes that when a priest was accused of being married, it was a good defense to reply that he was simply engaged in indiscriminate seduction, since this carried only a light penalty, whereas the former might involve total suspension.
The Church courts had at their disposal the ultimate penalty of excommunication which, in more serious cases, could include the loss of civil rights, and imprisonment, if the offender persisted in his sin. In time the Church so influenced public opinion that the secular courts began to support and reinforce the ecclesiastical courts and, without the protection of a separate church and state, many of the Church’s extraordinary prohibitions eventually became embodied in the civil law (where some of them still persist today).
Nonetheless, it was apparent that no mere physical system of supervision could hope to regulate the most private behavior of men and even their very thoughts—only a more subtle psychological control, based upon terror, could do that. The Church had continually emphasized afterlife—the advantages of heaven and the disadvantages of hell. But now an additional emphasis was placed upon the horrors of eternal damnation and what it would mean to spend an eternity roasting in hellfire. It must be recognized also that the continually increasing repression of sex by the Church might be expected to have produced a greater interest in fantasies of sadistic horror in both the clergy and the general public, since modern psychiatric preception has revealed the intimate link that exists between sex and pain and how a repression of the sex urge tends to produce sadomasochistic and other abnormal inclinations. It is not surprising, therefore, that Taylor reports: “By the beginning of the 12th century, some of the predictable results of sexual repression had begun to appear: references to perversion, flagellation, sexual fantasies and heresy abounded….”
A great number of Christian ascetics have described how they were unable to escape all feeling of sexual desire, and how they tormented themselves and subjected their bodies to excruciating tortures in the vain attempt. Taylor writes, “In this unenviable state, men are quick to find sexual overtones in every object, every action of others. And it was just these men—restless, unhappy, obsessed, driven by the energies of their bottled-up libidos—who were apt to attain positions of power in the Church and stamp it with their character.”
The more these men of God attempted to deny their inborn sexual nature, the more perverse they became; the more perverse, the more concerned they were with sexual sin; greater concern led to greater repression; perversity became perversion and still more repression was thought necessary. The Church’s obsession with sex created a self-perpetuating chain reaction that continued to increase through the centuries until it finally burst in the holocaust of the inquisitions, leaving mangled, bloody corpses spread all across the face of Europe.
Sex and Witchcraft
Near the end of the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent VIII issued the Bull Summa desiderantes, most often referred to as a bull against witchcraft, but the sexual nature of its content indicates that it was something more than that. Innocent was actually prodded into issuing the declaration by two of his subordinates, Sprenger and Kramer, who returned from Germany with wild tales of sexual excesses and witchery; the churchmen and people of the community violently denied the charges, but the declaration was issued just the same, and Sprenger and Kramer were appointed Chief Inquisitors. Soon after, they prepared and had published a famous handbook on the subject, Malleus Malleficarum, which stated: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable.” With perfect logic, it then adds that the primary source of witchcraft is the quarreling of young women and their lovers. This small volume might be considered today a near-classic casebook of sexual psychopathy. The popularity of Malleus, which rapidly went through 10 editions, gives some indication of the perverted preoccupation the general public had in such matters at the time. The three main subjects of the book were impotence, conversion hysterias and sexual fantasies; all of these were said to be caused by witchcraft. And since the incidence of impotence, hysteria and sexual fantasy in such a sexually repressed society must have been staggering, it is not surprising that the witch hunters had no difficulty in finding an ample number of “victims” as evidence of witch magic.
Once they had found a “victim,” finding the witch was a relatively simple matter. The techniques used by the Inquisitors guaranteed results: The victim was first asked to name whomever he though might have cast the spell upon him; failing in this, neighbors were interrogated and asked to name the witch; the Interrogators might select a likely prospect themselves; or the general public was sometimes asked to pick a candidate. The suspect was then arrested; tortured until he “confessed,” and then burned at the stake, or otherwise disposed of.
Persons of both sexes and all ages—from small children to the most elderly—were accused, though the biggest group consisted of young girls in their teens. Both the accused and the accusers came from every stratum of society and many prominent persons were involved. To cite a single example from C. Williams’ book, Witchcraft: In the mass persecutions in Bamberg between 1609 and 1633, when 900 persons were burned to death, one of those executed was Johannes Junius, a burgomaster of the city. Under torture, he confessed to witchcraft; asked to name his accomplices, he denied having any, but, tortured again, named some. Shortly before his execution, he was permitted to write to his daughter. He told her not to believe what he had confessed—"It is all falsehood and invention…. They never cease the torture until one says something.“ In his article, The Sabbats of Satan, in last month’s Playboy, E.V. Griffith described some of the rituals purportedly practiced by witches of the time and it is undoubtedly true that in a period of such extreme sexual repression some devil worship really did exist. It was during the 14th century that the Black Mass was born, in which the holy sacrament of the Church was turned into a ritual honoring Lucifer, and the nude body of a young woman was used as an altar, from which were read the Devil’s Commandments, with the "Thou shalts nots” of the Ten Commandments changed to “Thou shalts.” But it is doubtful that these practices were as common as it is generally assumed. The actual number of devil worshipers will never be known, but it is certain that only a small percentage of those executed for witchcraft were actually guilty of any crime whatever.
Torture was not always required to elicit confessions, however. Many came forward of their own free will and admitted such sins, even though they knew that such admissions virtually assured their deaths. If this seems strange, one need only be reminded that even today any major murder brings forth a number of “false confessors,” who admit to having perpetuated the crime (see The False Confessors, Playboy, January 1958). Psychiatry would explain this as an overwhelming need for punishment that some deranged individuals experience because of inner feelings of guilt that is completely unrelated to the act that they confess. In a time when an entire society was so thoroughly guilt-ridden, it is easy to understand why so many willingly came forward with confessions that were pure fantasy.
Though the inquisitions spread to include other forms of heresy, the predominantly sexual nature of the trials continued to the end. In fact, the very term “witchcraft trials” is a misleading misnomer, since it was sex that the Church wished to suppress and the inquisitions were a means of suppressing it.
It was a basic assumption, during the trials, that all witches (of both sexes) had had sexual relations with the devil. All inquisitors worked with an established manual of questions, and since these were almost wholly sexual, they were usually successful (with the help of a little torture) in producing sexual guilt.
In early Christianity, the devil had played a relatively minor role. But early in the 14th century, Satan became a very definite and prominent figure in religious dogma, with detailed appearance, habits and intentions. He was viewed as the immortal enemy of God, exclusively occupied in trying to mislead men into denying or perverting Christian morals and practices. Various lesser demons were described as the members of the devil’s staff of subordinates, all organized in a hierarchy very similar to that of the Church. Not only were Satan’s chief lieutenants given names, the exact number of his army of demons was calculated: 7,405,926. The devil frequently engaged in those forbidden sexual acts that were prohibited to man and in some accounts he is described as having a forked penis, so that he could commit fornication and sodomy at the same time. The Devil was both insatiable and sadistic, sometimes demanding intercourse 50 and 60 times a night. Though he lives in the bowels of the earth, mid fire and brimstone, he was often described as icy cold to the touch – especially his sexual parts. The clergy had an explanation for this iciness that was, if nothing else, ingenious: “Having no semen of his own, he gathers up that of mortal men wasted in their night dreams or masturbations, storing it up in his own abhorred body for later usage.” The devil’s demons were either male (incubus) or female (succubus), and could change from one to the other at will. Griffith writes, “Practicing this quick-change artistry was, in fact, a favorite trick of the hellish visitors: Often a man would be locked in amorous embrace with a succubus…when the devil would transform [herself] to a male incubus, with attendant complications which the demon found hilarious. The reverse also took place, when the female witch, at the height of her abominable ravishment, found her hellish gallant had gone aglimmering, leaving her in the arms of a succubus.” The subconscious fears of homosexuality in such imaginings is obvious. The devil, who was “Prince of the Air” as well as of the Darkness, could also make himself invisible and thus have intercourse with his converts in the very presence of the godly.
In order for the Church to undertake these “witch hunts,” it was necessary to reverse a position held for several centuries: The Church had previously declared that witchcraft was a baseless superstition. In 785 the Synod of Paderborn had ordered death to anyone who killed another for being a witch; Charlemagne confirmed this ruling and the Canon of Episcopi ordered bishops to combat the belief in witchcraft and to excommunicate anyone who persisted in such beliefs. An Irish council had ruled, “Whoever, deceived by the devil, believes in the fashion of the heathen that anyone can be a witch and burns her on this account is to undergo punishment of death.” John of Salisbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, displayed remarkable psychiatric perception for his time when, in the 12th century, he stated that “some falsely believed that what they suffered in imagination…was real and eternal. We must not forget that those to whom this happens are poor women or simple and credulous people.”
The change from this enlightened view started with John XXII, who – gathering together all the wildest fragments of superstition – issued the Bull Super illius specula, which formulated the new attitude. His quite maniacal campaigns against the new sin helped to develop in the people a paralyzing sense of dread and danger. A papal bull issued by Pope Lucius III instructed the bishops to investigate heretics, forcing persons “found marked by suspicion alone” to prove their innocence or be punished. Officers of the law who did not cooperate were excommunicated. Further enactments followed in 1374, 1409, 1418, 1437, 1445 and 1451, and the witch-hunting craze became a dominant reality throughout Europe. Prominent theologians wrote fervent appeals to the public (Sprenger and Kramer actually coerced the Senate of the University of Cologne into endorsing their Malleus Malleficarum).
It was finally asserted that to deny the reality of witchcraft was heresy. The ecclesiastical courts elicited the cooperation of the civil courts, for the Church did not wish the responsibility of shedding blood itself; the religious court turned the hapless person accused over to the civil authorities with the sanctimonious recommendation to avoid the shedding of blood, and the state then usually hanged or burned the victims, since this did not involve bloodletting, in the strictly legal sense. It was during this period that the civil courts consented to recognize copulation with the devil as a capital crime. The proposition that witches engaged in night flights became dogma in 1450: This made it possible to argue that accused persons committed sinful witchcraft many miles away without being seen en route or having to rely on customary means of transportation.
The frenzied state into which many of those who made the accusations and attacks managed to work themselves can only be understood by recognizing the subconscious sexual pleasure that was undoubtedly linked to much of the sadism of the inquisitions. Only a society as sexually repressed, and consequently perverted, as the one we have described could have produced such an appalling spectacle. The accused of both sexes and all ages, from 5 to 75, were often stripped naked during the questioning. Their bodies were poked and prodded, especially the genitals, for it was believed that witches could be identified by the existence of insensitive spots on their anatomy. A long needle was sometimes used for this purpose – the inquisitors pricking every inch of skin to the bone; this was considered a form of examination, incidentally, and not torture. If a spider, louse or fly was found in the victim’s cell, while he was being held prisoner before or during the trial, this was recognized to be a demon in disguise, come to visit the accused, and provided additional evidence of guilt.
“Trial by Water” was another technique for determining guilt. The accused was trussed and tossed into a river. If he floated, he was believed to be a witch and was put to death; if he sank and drowned, his innocence was established.
In The Sabbats of Satan, E.V. Griffith describes the trial and execution of a comely young woman of 24, a Hildur Loher of Wurzburg, who was typical of the many who were put to death in that period. She was a bride of a few months; her husband had been the chief witness against her and the court record is still intact; her crime was having had sexual relations with the devil.
The owner of a brothel in Bologna was condemned in 1468 for keeping a house staffed exclusively with succubi. He was sentenced to have his flesh “torn from his bones by red-hot pincers,” after which he was burned and his ashes “spat upon.”
In the German community of Lindheim, which in 1664 had a population of 600, 30 persons were executed. In 1589 at Quedlinburg in Saxony, a town of some 12,000 inhabitants, 133 were burned in a single day. In Toulouse the number burned in one day was 400. It was claimed that in some towns there were more witches than houses. According to H.C. Lea, “a Bishop of Geneva is said to have burned 500 persons within three months, a Bishop of Bamberg 600, a Bishop of Wurzburg 900.” Eight hundred were condemned, apparently in one body, by the Senate of Savoy. Paramo, in his History of the Inquisition, boasts that in a century-and-a-half, from 1404, the Holy Office had burned at least 30,000 witches.
Nicolas Remy (1530-1612), an inquisitor from Lorraine with 800 executions to his “credit,” stated, “So good is my justice that last year there were no less than 16 killed themselves rather than pass through my hands.” H. Williams, in The Superstitions of Witchcraft, writes that in Spain, Torquemada personally sent 10,220 persons to the stake and 97,371 to prison.
No one knows the total number of human beings exterminated in this manner and estimates range from a conservative few hundred thousand to several million. It may be safely assumed, however, that more persons were put to death for religious reasons by our Christian ancestors than were killed in all of the European wars fought up to 1914.
The blame, of course, does not attach itself only to the Catholic Church. The Protestant reformers were, if anything, even more fanatical and they persecuted “witches” with even greater ferocity. In Scotland, the church porches were equipped with a box built there especially to receive anonymous denunciations. Taylor reports that “Calvin, in Geneva, with crocodile tears of compunction, burned heretics of all kinds. Luther attributed all insanity to the devil.”
The records include numerous confessions that were denied after the torture ceased, but this did not save the accused from death. In Spain and England, investigations into some of the trials were instituted and some real attempts were made to arrive at the truth. James I was so distressed by much of the typical “evidence” that he completely altered his previous attitude in favor of witch hunting, insisted on fair trials for the accused, exposed false confessions and accusations, and saved the lives of five women charged by a hysterical boy. In Spain, when Salazar was sent to investigate a wave of accusations in 1611, he reported that among 1300 persons accused, there was not a single genuine case. After he made this report, the preaching of sermons on witchcraft was prohibited and from that time forward, little more was heard of the subject in Spain.
But the overall impression one is left with is not that of a gradual emergence from honest error to enlightenment, so much as a sudden awareness of the mass madness that had dominated European life for so long and that stands as a horrifying monument to the effect extreme sexual repression can have upon a society and the form that it can take when church and state are one.
Because of the considerable response to this editorial series, Playboy has introduced a new feature, “The Playboy Forum,” in which readers can offer their comments – pro and con – on subjects and issues raised here. No previous feature published by this magazine has prompted so much reaction and debate – both in and outside the pages of Playboy – and since many of the subjects discussed are, we feel, among the most important facing our free society, we will continue the “Forum” just as long as the letters from readers warrant.
Click here for The Playboy Philosophy Part X In the tenth installment of “The Playboy Philosophy,” Hugh M. Hefner completes his analysis of the history of religious sexual suppression and begins a consideration of the effect this tradition of guilt and shame has had upon contemporary society.