IT was Edward Glover who suggested that writing on psychological subjects should be scheduled as a dangerous occupation: and not without reason, since people strongly resent the exposure of their unconscious motives, and are apt to relieve their anxiety by attacking the writer who has threatened their peace of mind. How still more dangerous, then, is the position of the writer who ventures to apply the psychological method to historical material: if ever Glover's suggestion is adopted, it will be necessary not only to insure him against occupational risk, but to pay him "hard-lying money" as well, for he risks the displeasure of the professional historians, who have decided that no such thing as psychological history is possible.
To the psychologist, the historian's method of explanation looks insufficient. It is not simply that he attributes too great rationality to historical figures when explaining their motives and makes but little allowance for unconscious desires: far more dubious is his fondness for thinking in terms of "influences". He seems to feel that the development of a trend has been "explained" if it can be shown that the people concerned came under the influence of some similar trend elsewhere. Thus, historians have laboured to show that the appearance of a school of lyric poetry in twelfth century Provence was due to the influence of Arabic poetry of a similar kind. But even if it can be shown that the troubadours knew of this poetry, we still have to ask why there were people in Provence disposed to pay heed to precisely this influence out of all the countless influences bearing upon them.
Sometimes, on the other hand, people are so awkward as to ignore an influence completely, and even to go off in some quite different direction. The historian then explains this as a "reaction" from the prevailing trend, though he does not explain why, on this occasion, the people concerned should have reacted from the trend instead of responding to it, nor does he tell us why they react in the particular way they do. For instance, the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is often explained as a reaction from the growth of industrialism—but what we really want to know is why, at this particular moment, a small group chose to react from a trend which the majority were willing to follow enthusiastically for another century.
Historians themselves seem to fed the need for some alternative method of analysis in which attention may be concentrated on the general character of people's attitudes during a particular period, since they often resort to something vaguely known as "the spirit of the times" —especially when people are ignoring a powerful "influence". It is said, for instance, that the Puritans failed to retain power in 1660 because the "spirit of the times" was against such extreme austerity. Presumably, if they had succeeded in their operations, we should be told that this was because people had been "influenced" by Puritan ideas. It is evident that, though couched in the form of explanations, these are no more than descriptions of what occurred, at a quite superficial level.
The problem is therefore whether the notion of "the spirit of the times" can be reduced to a more precise form. Presumably this spirit represents the highest common factor in the attitudes of every individual member of the society, when due allowance is made for the fact that some people are more influential than others. Now psychology has, in recent years, cast a flood of light on how the attitudes of individuals are built up and has shown that certain early experiences—the extent and quality of maternal care and teaching, especially—tend to set the personality in a particular mould, which later experiences elaborate but do not radically modify. At the same time, the cultural anthropologists have shown that the attitude systems of the individuals who make up a society are not randomly assorted, but tend to cluster round a particular position (or positions) at any given time; this is because the formative experiences of childhood tend to similarity at any given period. At one period severity may be in vogue; at another, children may be taken from their mothers at an early age, and so on. Hence it is not an undue simplification to speak of there being a "Typical Personality" (if we define Personality, for present purposes, as the sum total of attitudes) in a given period. Thus it becomes possible to classify the "spirit of the times" in terms of the prevalence of certain elements in Personality, and to draw on the very considerable fund of existing knowledge about the formation of personality.
Furthermore, personality is, in principle, internally consistent: people do not, in general, display one attitude to, say, political matters and a contrary one to religious matters: if they are authoritarian in one they will be authoritarian in the other, and so on. But no type of attitude is more fundamental and more indicative of the trend of Personality than are attitudes to sexual matters —for, as Freud has so elaborately demonstrated, our earliest attitudes are those formed in the microcosm of the family, and these are largely sexual in character. Hence the study of the changes in sexual attitudes is the very first step, the 'sine qua non', of all coherent historical research.
It is therefore very strange and most lamentable that historians have almost entirely avoided such study, and have maintained something like a conspiracy of silence about such facts as they do know. Look at the most erudite of social histories and you find that they make no mention of sexual matters—apart, perhaps, from a summary of the marriage and divorce laws—and this remains true even when suppression of the facts creates a wholly false impression of the period and makes many events quite mysterious. The most obvious example of this is probably the paederastic practices of the Greeks: even a basic work of reference such as Holm-Decke-Soltau's "Kulturgeschichte des Klassischen Altertums" omits all reference to it. Pauly-Wissowa's "Realenzyklopaedie der Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft", which gives twenty pages to the hetairae, gives but three to it. Plato's observations on love are frequently quoted without disclosing that he was referring to homosexual love and the difficulties which Xenophon had with his army are left mysteriously vague. School histories are naturally bowdlerized even more thoroughly, and many students leave school without discovering that Henry VIII was a syphilitic—with the result that his marital affairs remain quite incomprehensible—and even without being told of such a major historical event as the arrival of syphilis in Europe, as a result of which (according to some estimates) one third of the population of Europe died within a few years.
The assumption of historians seems to be that sexual manners are something which exists in a watertight compartment, almost independently of historical trends as a whole, and that it would no more throw light on the general problem of interpreting history to open this compartment than it would to study the development of, say, cooking.
Even so, it might be supposed that some eccentric specialist would, probably towards the close of the last century, have prepared a definitive work on the subject in several volumes. When I undertook to write the present book, summarizing the changes in sexual attitudes and offering some psychological elucidations, I certainly supposed that the spade work had already been done. But as far as I have been able to determine (and in this I have had full assistance from the authorities of the British Museum Reading Room, as I acknowledge more fully elsewhere) no such work has been prepared, certainly not in the English language. I also note that when Bloch's Sexual Life in England was published in this country, in a limited edition, in 1938, the publishers stated that they had been unable to discover that any similar work had ever been published in Britain. Bloch's book, though extremely useful, is scarcely the definitive work which the situation calls for: it deals preponderantly with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and much of it is anecdotal in character; moreover, it leans rather heavily on a fairly limited number of sources, such as the memoirs of Archenholtz and the "catalogues raisones" of Pisanus Fraxi. There are, of course, certain immensely valuable works which deal with the subject from a particular angle, notably Westermarck's "Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas" and May's "Social Control of Sexual Expression", but these do not attempt to cover the whole field. boost of what remains is either scandalous or moralistic. Indeed, the great defect of much nineteenth century writing on these topics is the double assumption, which anthropologists have shown to be unwarranted, that Victorian standards were "high" and all other standards "low", and that Victorian sexual biases were "natural", so that whenever men moved towards them it was a natural step and part of a process of moral evolution. Thus it was taken for granted that men should prefer to marry virgins, or should prefer monogamy, or should resent a wife's unfaithfulness—all of which, however desirable ethically, we now know to be arbitrary preferences; while recent events have destroyed our belief in a continuous moral evolution which we now see to be a notion based on a false analogy with the evolution of species in the biological sphere.
Still more remarkable is the gullibility and inaccuracy of many writers, even those with the most serious intentions. For instance, one widely-known standard work reports as an example of mediaeval behaviour that Condwiramur (Blancheflor) visited Perceval (Parsifal) in his bedroom at night, to ask his help, and was invited chastely into bed with him, as it was cold standing about. Now this is not, strictly speaking, an historical event at all: it is a Celtic folk-story. More important, it is a late Christian redaction of that story: in the original version there was not the slightest suggestion that the invitation was a chaste one. As such, it is admirable evidence of the Church's attempt to modify sexual ideals by rewriting popular mythology, comparable with Muscovite practice today; but as evidence of actual sexual behaviour in the mediaeval period it is completely inadmissible. Such errors are not always easy to avoid, and no doubt I have fallen into them myself, for I am not a historian. Less excusable, perhaps, is the credulity with which many writers accept the wildest accusations of the puritanical at or near their face value. "No smoke without fire" is the unreliable principle upon which they work. But in recent times we have seen demonstrated another principle: if you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one. And, just as in the case of the Nazis, the accusations tell us more about the accusers than the accused. The fire which the smoke betrays is within.
As soon as the necessity for thorough first hand research is faced, the volume of material lying waiting for attention is found to be enormous. In addition to the treasure houses of judicial and ecclesiastical records, and the rich mines of biographical material, there is an enormous bibliography of printed matter which is crying for systematic examination and analysis. Gay's "Bibliographie Des Ouvrages relatifs a l'Amour", etc., runs to 2,500 pages in double column and is devoted primarily to works in the French language. Hayn's "Bibliotheca germanorum erotica et curiosa" runs to eight volumes, not counting the supplements. Many of the works listed are rare or unobtainable, of course, and others are irrelevant; but even if one confined one's attention to the 4,000 odd volumes contained in the private cases of the main British libraries, and listed in Reade's "Registrum Librorum Eroticorum", a useful start could be made. As a first step, it would be exceedingly helpful to arrange the titles in order of publication, and to note the frequency with which different themes appear at different periods, and whether interest in certain themes waxes and wanes simultaneously, or whether, in other cases; an inverse relationship exists. Work of this sort would help to verify, or disprove, the suggestion put forward in the present work that interest in homosexuality and in incest vary in a significant manner which can be correlated with religious and political trends, and might disclose other unsuspected variations and relationships.
Unfortunately, the practical difficulties of such research are all but insuperable. Very special backing would be required before the authorities would permit direct access to the erotica; in Britain, at least, even fully accredited enquirers are normally allowed only single volumes upon specific application, which must be countersigned by the chief librarian. One reason for these extraordinary precautions is that where books have been the subject of convictions for obscene libel, the library authorities lay themselves open to legal action if they permit them to be consulted—for, as is seldom realized, it has been ruled that the showing of a book, or even an unpublished manuscript, by one individual to another, constitutes an offence. (In 1923, Sir Archibald Bodkin told the International Conference for the Suppression of Obscene Publications at Geneva,
"I have got two people in prison now for having exchanged and lent and dealt with each other in indecencies, photographs, pictures, books, etc."
In 1932, a sentence of six months' imprisonment was imposed on a man who submitted translations of poems by Rabelais and Vedaine to a printer, asking him to print them.)
A further great difficulty is the extreme confusion of terminology, which often makes it difficult to know to what a writer is referring. For instance, in an otherwise admirable book on Jewish sexual law, the writer states at one point that prostitution was forbidden, and a few lines later that harlotry was permitted—whereas the Oxford Dictionary defines a harlot as a prostitute. This confusion becomes inextricable when we come to more delicate subjects, especially homosexuality. One writer speaks of homosexuality being forbidden but sodomy permitted, and one begins to wonder what the sin of Sodom really was. The term buggery is usually defined as meaning unnatural intercourse" between men, or between a man and an animal (things which, psychologically, are rather different), while in British law the term appears to cover anal intercourse between a man and his wife, which is Psychologically different again. When, therefore, the Manichaean sects in the Middle Ages were accused of buggery, what were they actually being accused of? As I attempt to show, the point is quite an important one. In the same way, the term bestiality, which on the face of it should mean intercourse with an animal, seems frequently to be used to mean intercourse between men — though I have not come across it being applied to a similar offence between women.
For these and other reasons the research necessary to produce the definitive history of sexual mores, without which no adequate interpretive history can be written, must take many years to prepare and is unlikely to be carried out in the near future. It need hardly be said that the present book makes no pretensions to constitute such a definitive work: its brevity alone makes that clear. As will be seen from the bibliography, about 250 works were consulted in preparing it; even this limited enquiry yielded material for a volume two or three times the size of this one. Within the time available, and in the circumstances I have described, all that was possible was a broad survey, in which the principal features of the landscape should be described and selected points explored. Not only is much condensed or omitted, but the story has been told almost wholly from the man's point of view. I have not attempted to consider how far women were able to develop their distinctive attitude to sex, how far they accepted male standards, and what the consequences were for them.
Nor have I had room to draw comparisons between Western (chiefly English) attitudes and those of other cultures, neither those which have vanished nor those which anthropologists have studied in our own day.
The work is, however, more than just a history. It offers a working theory to account for the changes in sexual attitudes which it records, and attempts to show that the analysis of these changes can be used to cast new light on certain historical problems which have long been held controversial, such as the nature of the relationship between the troubadours and their "Mistresses" and the nature of Catharist heresy. It attempts also to bring into one coherent picture a number of topics which have hitherto been treated in isolation, and to establish connections between phenomena so apparently diverse as heresy and homosexuality, Christianity and dancing, phallic worship and the Abode of Love. Above all, it seeks to show the remarkable continuity of the sex attitudes which form part of Western culture: the proportions in which the elements are mixed vary widely, but the ingredients remain amazingly constant.
It has not been possible to write of sex without touching at many points on matters of religion; it is far from my wish to wound any susceptibilities, but I recognize that the barest statement of established fact is liable to prove wounding to those who have been brought up to cherish certain illusions. I should therefore like to stress that I have been careful to avoid making value judgments on moral or theological grounds. The standards on which my judgments have been based are as follows: I have regarded health — physical or mental—as better than disease; and I have regarded love and kindness as better than cruelty and hate.
It is unhappily the case that a good many outstanding figures in the history of the Church showed signs of what too day would be regarded as psychological disturbance. And it is often precisely these persons who have influenced the Church's policy on sexual matters. It has therefore been necessary to analyse a number of such cases in the course of the book; some readers may feel, in consequence, that the picture of clerical behaviour that emerges is not a balanced one. Let me therefore emphasise here that, at all periods, there were, of course, within the Church numerous persons of more balanced characters living more normal lives and preaching less extreme views than those I describe. Numerically, I have little doubt, they outnumbered the extremists; unfortunately, their influence on history was usually less. So it should be borne in mind that when I refer to "the Church" I mean those who set the tone or determined the policies of the Church and not the entire body of persons in holy orders.
I should like to take this opportunity to thank Columbia University Press for permission to quote the passages from "The Art of Courtly Love" which appear in the chapter "Pure Desire" , and to express my gratitude to the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum and to the Reading Room staff for generous advice and help in obtaining material. I also wish to thank the various persons who have read the book in manuscript or in proof, and have enabled me to eliminate various errors.
Fifteen Years after the foregoing was written, the analysis still holds water: the pendulum has swung still further towards matrism, in the U.S. and other western countries. As predicted, the clothes of the two sexes have become still more closely assimilated: the wearing of jewellery, longer hair, etc., by men in the younger age groups exactly fits the analysis.
More importantly, there has been a marked extension of sexual permissiveness. Lack of superego restraint also manifests as violence, the rejection of the father as a revolt against authority (cf: the student revolt). But it is a balanced integration of the Matrist and Patrist elements that marks a healthy and constructive society. Soon we shall be as far from that happy mean on the Matrist side as we formerly were on the Patrist side. Eventually, I imagine, a violent reaction towards austerity and control will occur. How can we halt the pendulum in the middle—that is the burning question.
May, 1969 —G.R.T.
|« NEXT »||« Sex In History »||« General Works »||« Library »||« Home »|