MEDIEVAL man regarded the universe as an elaborate system, set up by God, between whose parts a sympathetic relationship existed. The behaviour of men and kings was pre-ordained, as in a dance; and to depart from the pattern of the dance was an anti-social act, because it made it impossible for other dancers to carry out their own parts. But if it was a dance, it was a dance which took place on several planes, cosmic and worldly, human and inanimate, and between the events on these several planes a close sympathetic relationship subsisted. When the medieval man, or even the Elizabethan, said that war was to the body politic as blood-letting was to the individual, this was not intended as a colourful simile, but as a scientific statement: these were two instances of a principle established by God. So also when be said that a virgin was as a garden enclosed. In the same way, the movements of the stars in the sky were the expression on the cosmic plane of the same principles which caused the movements of human beings on the earth—this was why astrology was always a respectable science and was never considered as a form of witchcraft. It was, indeed, divine and there were popes who would not summon a consistory without consulting the stars. But between the several planes there existed not merely a sympathetic but a causal relationship. One could influence human beings by influencing the stars. Conversely if human beings departed from the prescribed behaviours the stars were liable to do the same, and the stability of the whole universe was endangered. To misbehave was therefore not merely antisocial but gross impiety which might have disastrous results. The comet in the sky might be a sign that the stars were departing from their courses; plague or the failure of crops the direct consequence of human misbehaviour. (228)
The far-reaching change which took place in the minds of men from about the fourteenth century consisted in the gradual break-up of this conception, and the discovery that one was free to act as one wished. The discovery once made, there were many who proceeded to extremes of selfishness and did not shrink from any violence or treachery which conduced to their getting what they wanted. It was a process which was to continue, with interruptions, for many centuries. Men had to learn that complete licence is as frustrating as rigid control, and to make many experiments in finding a golden mean between these extremes. This mental revolution naturally exerted a decisive influence on attitudes to sexual matters Whereas in the Middle Ages we see a determined attempt to impose a set of rules, backed supposedly by divine authority, subsequently we find a growing disposition to do whatever was convenient, practicable and desirable.
This change in outlook we refer to, rather inadequately, as the Renaissance. But the rediscovery of classical civilisation and its ideas was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the change. Since respect for authority is a patrist characteristic, it would not be difficult to argue that the Renaissance is simply a name for the gradual reversion to matrist standards which was taking place, and against which the Church was desperately fighting. We should have to qualify this theory by pointing out that an increasing number of people were failing to introject parental standards of any kind, so that in addition to a mere absence of a sense of guilt there was also a readiness brutally to ignore the rights and feelings of others.
But I am inclined to think that some other, still more far reaching process was occurring at the same time: something in the nature of a sharper division between the conscious and the unconscious. The thirteenth-century man was, as we have seen, much preoccupied by the contents of his unconscious. Much of his time was spent in devising and employing techniques for dealing with the powerful destructive and erotic demands which emanated from it, while the fantasies of a Bosch, a Grunewald or a de Canistris, like the humbler gargoyles and misereres of a local craftsman, gave free expression to the unconscious in artistic form. In contrast with all this, the eighteenth-century rationalist attempted to deny the claims of the unconscious or, when forced to admit to the existence of strange impulses, attempted to devise a philosophy which would make them appear rational, as in the case of de Sade.
By denying the existence of the common elements in behaviour, and by concentrating his attention only on that part of the personality which was unique to himself, his specific attitudes and acquired knowledge, man was the more able to think of himself as an independent unit, free to act as he wished without reference to others. When the definitive history of sex attitudes comes to be written it will be necessary to attempt to assess how far the changes which took place are to be attributed to a recrudescence of matrism, and how far to some general change in the psyche of this more speculative sort. This matrist, individualist trend is generally conceived as starting in Italy about the thirteenth century, though its continuity with still earlier patterns, such as that of the troubadours, can be shown; and it developed its full flower at a time when northern Europe was still largely in the grip of medieval notions. So, although my purpose is to confine this account as far as possible to what happened in England, it seems necessary to start by paying some attention to events in Italy, where the new developments can be seen in a particularly clear-cut form.
With the persecutions in France, some of the troubadours fled to Italy, and already in the thirteenth century there was a flourishing school of Italian poets engaged in propagating the romantic conception of love. Petrarca was living in Avignon when he first saw the divine Laura and conceived his passionate attachment. Humble reverence for women was exalted to a new pitch by Dante, whose reverence for Beatrice was such that his poems in her honour can scarcely be distinguished from his poems in praise of the Virgin. In the 'Paradiso', Beatrice appears in an increasingly abstract form, and becomes assimilated to Wisdom or Divine Knowledge. This is a typical matrist symbol, in contrast with the patrist symbol of a mere deity representing authority. A thousand years earlier, the Gnostics had worshipped divine wisdom under the name Sophia (from the Greek word for wise) and the Cathars similarly worshipped the Virgin as Our Lady of Thought.
The period soon became one of enhanced status for women. They were given an education similar to that of men, and were regarded as their equals, even if it was held to be proper for them to work by influencing men rather than to engage directly in politics. In other fields, such as the management of vast estates, they might take full responsibility and often did: a "virago" was a woman who was as good as a man — it was a term of praise. Clearly, a period in which women are praised for resembling men is not yet fully matrist: yet it is far removed from the patrist conception of woman as a source of contamination and one whose duty was to be submissive to men.
As is general in matrist periods, women were free to enhance their attractiveness with rich and colourful clothes, with cosmetics and false hair. The patrist taboos on nudity were forgotten, and the famous "espoitrinement a la falcon de Venise" was developed, rouge being applied to the naked breasts as well as to the cheeks. Perfume was used extensively — so extensively that even money, pack-mules and domestic articles were drenched with it: some of these retain their odour to this day. (178) Firenzuola wrote a book on the care of appearance, "Della bellezza delle donne" (he preferred blondes) and gave useful rules: for instance, finger nails should be trimmed so as to show as much white as the thickness of the back of a knife-blade.
It is part of this trend that we find emerging, for the first time since the days of the Greeks and the Romans, the courtesan — the lady of charm and intelligence, education and manners, living in her own house, holding court, the friend of men of influence both in politics and art. Such was Veronica Franco, hostess by inclination, courtesan by profession, the friend of Tintoretto, a lady whom Henri III went out of his way to visit, honoured by men of distinction such as Domenico Veniero and the Veronese prelate Marc' Antonio della Torre. Tom Coryate made a point of visiting Margherita Emiliani and records his astonishment at the respect with which she and other courtesans were regarded. There were many others—Cornelia Griffo, Bianca Saraton and the Roman Tullia d'Aragona, for example. (178)
Further evidence can be found in the increasing popularity of the worship of the Virgin Mary.
"It may be questioned", says Burckhardt, "whether, in the north, a greater devotion was possible."
To her many northern cathedrals were dedicated. The popes themselves paid tribute. Sixtus II founded a new feast in her honour, the feast of the Presentation, and another in honour of her parents. Dante wrote the Paradiso in her praise. She appears widely in art, and the populace, when a great artist produced a new picture of her, would greet it with public rejoicings and attribute to it magical powers.
The sense of guilt in sexual matters having faded, men no longer required to employ psychic energy in repressing their desires and such energy was therefore available for the creation of works of art. As Freud has argued, for the intellectual engaged in purely cerebral labours, sexual abstinence may be advantageous; for the creative artist it is always disastrous. Thanks also to the existence of munificent patrons — that is, persons who, although unable to create art, yet felt sympathy for it — the Renaissance produced a creative efflorescence unparalleled since the days of the Greeks.
I need not extend the catalogue to prove the point that in the Italian Renaissance are to be found many of the earmarks of a permissive matrist period. Let us turn therefore to the second theme in the movement, that of conscienceless violence. The violence of the Renaissance seems appreciably different from the violence of the Middle Ages. About medieval violence there was always an air of obsession and sadism, of pleasure in cruelty itself: and, at the same time, a need to find the highest moral reasons for justifying the infliction of cruelty. In the Renaissance, on the other hand, acts of violence were usually incidental to the attainment of some personal end, and no justification was offered or thought necessary. Nor was it quite like the violence of the matrist Celts: this was violence performed within a framework of set rules and performed by almost every member of society. Renaissance violence was the product of a number of men who had rejected the laws of God and man, and whom we should today call delinquents or criminals of a type who had failed to form any superego at all.
Take, for instance, the priest Niccolo de' Pelegati, who was finally brought to justice in 1495.
"He had twice celebrated his first mass; the first time he had the same day committed murder, but afterwards received absolution at Rome; he then killed four people and married two wives, with whom he travelled about. He afterwards took part in many assassinations, violated women, carried others away by force, plundered far and wide, and infested the territory of Ferrara with a band of followers in uniform, extorting food and shelter by every sort of violence." (29)
But it was not only lesser men whom this trend affected. Heads of leading families, men upon whom the conduct of the state depended, were often without conscience or mercy. Such a one was Sigismondo Malatesta, of whom Burckhardt said:
"It is not only the Court of Rome but the verdict of history which convicts him of murder, rape, adultery, incest, sacrilege, perjury and treason, committed not once but often."
To this catalogue of crimes he was only prevented from adding that of indecent assault on his own son, Roberto, because the latter defended himself with his dagger.
As we examine the record of the Renaissance, we seem to see something more than mere individualism: we see a quite conscious rejection of authority in all its forms, a rejection which reached its apogee in the Condottiere. (29) How consciously and deliberately they rejected the laws of God and man is epitomized by Werner von Urslingen, who inscribed on his hauberk the words: "The enemy of God, of pity and of mercy." Only a man determined to revenge himself on the world for some frightful victimization could seriously adopt such a device. It seems fair to conclude that, perhaps in childhood, many were being thus wounded.
While men of this sort unhesitatingly broke every rule of sex conduct, a tradition of ruthless seduction was gradually established to be followed by young nobles generally. In a characteristic incident, Molmenti tells how a number of them broke into a nunnery to rape some of the nuns. To achieve a seduction without incurring the penalty — death at the hands of the husband — became a social ambition, and to achieve it every trick or deceit, however ridiculous, was justifiable. Correspondingly, the husband was entitled to go to any lengths to secure a revenge which should be both humiliating and lethal.
In circumstances such as these, where any man might put a slight upon another just for the satisfaction of boasting about it, it became necessary for every man to resent any slight immediately, for fear of being marked down as a coward who could be insulted, and even killed, without fear of retaliation. Thus emerged the wholly Renaissance conceptions of "honestà" and "terribilità" the sense of honour which no one must infringe, and the ruthless violence which will deter all from attempting any slight. (A similar code appears to exist among the major gangsters and mobsters of the United States today.) Hence, if a man's wife were seduced, though sympathy would generally be with the seducer, the husband's revenge was regarded as natural and justifiable.
These are the circumstances which give rise to the duel, the most direct way of proving one's readiness to resent injury, and in a world of hired bravi probably the safest.
Historians dismiss the contradictions of Renaissance character by saying that Renaissance man was a microcosm and could display contradictory attitudes at one and the same time but I find it is impossible to reconcile the conscienceless seduction of unwilling girls, with the maintenance of romantic love and honoured friendship: these are separate trends. In a society which displayed both, there might even be individuals who would at one time, or with one lot of companions, attempt one course, and later attempt the other; and no doubt some, like Sordello, would preach one and practise the other. This does not disprove the assertion. What is not clear is how far these two trends coexisted: on the face of it, the conscienceless behaviour should come later than the matrist, although, since such trends start at the top of society and filter down, men of one social rank might be in one phase, while those below them were still in the previous one.
Such behaviour was favoured, and perhaps partly caused, by the inability of the rulers of the Italian states to maintain, for any length of time, social order. Anarchy probably reached its zenith following the death of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in 1480. In Parma, the governor, terrified by threats of murder, threw open the gaols.
"Burglary, the demolition of houses, public assassinations and murders, were events of everyday occurrence. At first the authors of these deeds prowled about singly and masked; soon large gangs of armed men went to work every night without disguise. Threatening letters, satires, and scandalous jests circulated freely; and a sonnet in ridicule of the government seems to have aroused its indignation far more than the frightful condition of the city. In many churches the sacred vessels with the Host were stolen and this fact is characteristic of the temper which prompted these outrages." (29)
Only one farther point need be made: The Curia was not above and beyond these trends, but was fully involved in them. Popes such as Nicholas V, Julius II and Leo X display the matrist trend. They were humanists, collectors and patrons of art, kindly and far-sighted men, fond of pleasure, permissive in morality (Leo X, for instance, attended the wedding of a man with his concubine of many years' standing), but not ruthless and conscienceless. Very different were men such as John XXIII, accused of a catalogue of crimes as diverse as the Malatesta's, or Alexander VI, who, with his son, Cesare Borgias carried perfidy further than it had ever been carried before.
The court of this Pope was the scene of licence which could scarcely be credited, if it were not recorded in the annals of the papal historian Burchard, whose evidence is unimpeachable. He tells how, one evening in October 1501, the Pope ordered fifty prostitutes to be sent to his chambers. After supper, and in the presence of his twenty-five year old son, Cesare, and his twenty-one year old daughter, Lucrezia, they danced with the servitors and others who were present, at first clothed but before long naked. Then lighted candles in candlesticks were placed on the floor and chestnuts were thrown among them, and the women were ordered to crawl between the candlesticks on their hands and knees and to try to pick up the chestnuts. Finally a number of prizes were produced, and it was announced that they would be given to those men who, in the opinion of the spectators,
"should have carnal knowledge of the greatest number of the said prostitutes" — "qui pluries dictos meretrices carnaliter agnoscerent". (76)
The same was true of the Cardinalate, from whom the popes were normally selected, and the whole Curia. Here, too, the trend is found at least as early as the eleventh century, when Cardinal Pierleone had children by his sister, and regularly took with him a concubine on his journeys - actions which did not debar him from being considered for the Papal throne. By the sixteenth century the higher echelons of the church display all the signs of moral anarchy, epitomized in the carnal assault on the Bishop of Fano by Pierluigi Farnese, son of Paul III. And once anarchy has become general, even those who model themselves upon their parents by so doing merely perpetuate anarchy as an ideal.
The matrist popes, on the other hand, while abstaining from violence, were theologically pagan. John Bale's story that the Pope once said to Bembo: (34)
"All ages can testifye enough how profitable that fable of Christ hath been to us and our compagnie"
may be apocryphal, but it was certainly Leo X who, after considering the question of an after-life, decided: "Redit in nihilum, quod ante fuit nihil." (250) In such circumstances the old pagan matrist conceptions of religion, in which fertility was the supreme miracle, rapidly reasserted themselves. Mantovano's eighth eclogue, addressed to the Virgin—or rather, by a significant modification, to the Madonna—treats her as the protector of agricultural interests. In the time of Leo X, a bull was sacrificed with pagan rites in the Forum itself. (29) The beginning of Lent was marked by a festival resembling the Roman Saturnalia, but more violent. Anthony Munday (206) describes it thus:
During the time of Shrovetide, there is in Rome kepte a verie great coyle, which they use to call the Carne-vale, which endureth the space of three or fowre dayes; all which time the pope keepeth himselfe out of Rome, so great is the noyse and hurlie-burlie. The gentlemen will attyre themselves in diverse formes of apparell, some like women, others like Turkes, and everye one almoste in a contrarie order of disguising. And either they be on horsebacke, or in coaches, none of them on Foote: for the people that stande on the ground to see this pastime are in very great daunger of their lives, by reason of the running of coaches and great horsses as never in all my life did I see the like sturre.
And all this is done where the courtizanes be, to shew them delight and pastime: for they have coverlettes laid out at their windowes, whereon they stands leaning forth, to receive divers devises of rosewater and sweet odours in their faces, which the gentlemen will throw uppe to their windowes.
During this time everye one weareth a disguised visor on his face, so that no one knowes what or whence they be; and if any one beare a secrete malice to an other, he may then kill him, and no body will lay hands on him; for all this time they will obey no lawe. I sawe a brave Romaine, who roade there very plesaunt in his coatch, and suddenly came one who discharged a pistoll upon him; yet no body made any accoumpt, either of the murtherer, or of the slaine gentleman. Beside, there were divers slaine, both by villainy and the horses or the coatches, yet they continued on their pastime, making no regard of them.
These are facts which we must remember when we come to consider the Reformation, which, as far as this book is concerned, must be seen as a desperate attempt by patrists to restore patrist ideals by other means, after abandoning all hope of the Church itself doing so. Luther tells us quite explicitly that it was his horror at what he found in Rome that first turned his thoughts towards an heretical secession.
Moreover, some part of the general rejection of authority which was occurring must be seen as a rejection of the Church's authority in particular. Indeed, there were many who hated the Church with a deep and bitter hatred. While von Urslingen declared himself the enemy of God, Malvezzi consciously befriended heretics and prided himself upon violating nuns. Braccio so detested the Church that he had monks thrown down from their own church tower. But whether people hated the Church because they hated all authority, or hated all authority because they rejected the Church, is difficult to determine. The psychological evidence points to the first alternative. Burckhardt, like most historians, tends to the latter interpretation. At the peak of the Renaissance, the upper and middle classes, he says, felt for the Church "a deep and contemptuous aversion", even though they still revered the Holy Sacraments and performed the ceremonies.
"History does not record a heavier responsibility than that which rests upon the decaying church. She set up as absolute Truth, and by the most violent means, a doctrine which she had distorted to serve her own aggrandisement. Safe in the sense of her inviolability, she abandoned herself to the most scandalous profligacy and in order to maintain herself in this state, she levelled mortal blows against the conscience and the intellect of nations, and drove multitudes of the noblest spirits, whom she had inwardly estranged, into the arms of unbelief and despair."
In Italy, the Renaissance had passed its peak of achievement before ever the patrist reaction known as the Reformation developed. But in England, by a freak of history, the Reformation took place, at least technically, almost simultaneously with the Renaissance to which it was, properly speaking, a reaction. Renaissance influences only began to affect England in the time of Henry Tudor, who was a friend of the Duke of Urbino. Despite the Lollards, it did not seem likely that any extensive movement of religious revolt was likely to occur, and when the break came it was made for political and personal reasons, rather than from a desire for religious reform. Henry VIII had been peacefully married for twenty-four years when the syphilis which he had contracted as a young man began to affect his brain and led to the satyriasis which drove him to change his wife five times in ten years, to keep (it is said) in his palace a room for the King's Prostitutes, and to decline into premature senility. (118) Thus to a single, invisible spirochaete we owe the fact that England departed from the Catholic communion without bloodshed or civil strife. We also owe to it the fact that in England the Renaissance and the Reformation — two contrary movements, one patrist and restrictive, the other matrist and productive — were developing at the same time. Because of this curious contradiction, the reformers, or Puritans as they came to be called, always had the status of a minority opposition, and in their despair of reimposing a restrictive regime, many of them went off to Amsterdam and thence to America, thus endowing New England with the stern and puritan morality for which it has become renowned. If a further result of this was the establishment of North America as an English-speaking, rather than a French or Dutch-speaking, territory, then we might also attribute to this spirochaete some of the difficulties of lingual misunderstanding that beset Anglo-American relations today.
However, the "for want of a nail" game is too easy a one to play, and we must return to the more difficult task of unravelling the story of the development of sexual attitudes in England. When the definitive history of sex comes to be written it will be necessary to tell this story in terms of plot and counter-plot, and to analyse the influence of the puritan group on the developing body of matrist attitudes. But in the space at my disposal here the best course will be to consider first the matrist attitudes, and to take the question of puritanism separately in the next chapter. In England, though we see the emergence of a growing sense of individual autonomy and of freedom from the rigidities of the medieval system of order, we do not find any general failure to form a super-ego such as we have remarked in Italy. It is true that there were Englishmen who, having lived in Venice, attempted to introduce Italian terribilita into England: we come across some cases of poisoning, the use of hired bravi, even occasional duels. (73) But the feeling of the time is against these excesses and the Italianate Englishman is pithily condemned in the phrase 'Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato'.
Consequently, though Englishmen became able to speak and act more frankly in matters of sex, we do not find them proceeding to violence and defiance of customary law; there are few, if any, instances in English history of this period which can be compared with the appalling cases of rape, incest, murder and other crimes, committed by one and the same individual, which we so often find in Italy.
But before attempting to convey an impression of the sexual attitudes and mores of the times, it is essential to say something of the psychological and practical consequences of Henry VIII's rejection of the Roman dominion. Henry did not attempt to reform religion, which continued much as before until the new measures introduced by Edward VI: but he did take the vitally important psychological step of declaring himself to be both the spiritual and temporal father of his people, both King and Pope, thus uniting for the first time in Christian history the spiritual and temporal powers. The Catholics had aimed for a spiritual unity throughout Christendom, leaving the aim of a political unity to follow. The only man who came near achieving the imposition of both spiritual and political unique throughout Christendom was the Stauffer Frederick II who declared himself to be the Messiah; but the Curia declared him to be anti-Christ, and the opportunity was never to recur.
Henry now achieved upon the smaller national scale what the Church had vainly attempted on the international scale, a psychological unity. Instead of having as a supreme father-figure a remote Pope, whose features and personality were scarcely known before he was replaced, Englishmen now had a visible and solidly human individual on whom to focus their loyalties: and this individual spoke in a consistent manner both on spiritual and material manners This external unification must have made for greater integration within men's minds, and it may be that this was an important factor in the achievements of Tudor England, enabling this small country of only four million inhabitants to challenge mighty empires such as those of Spain and Portugal.
The practical consequence of the change was that the civil and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction became united, and it was necessary for them to speak with a consistent voice. Though it took more than a century for this unification to be achieved—and it was only achieved by the virtual abandonment of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over civil offences—Henry VIII started the ball rolling by making sodomy and bestiality into felonies; subsequently bigamy was made a felony by James I. Until this time sexual offences had been the exclusive Province of the Church. Thus was initiated a process which was completed by Charles II, when, in the course of abolishing the Courts of High Commission, he abolished the ex officio oath, the basis of ecclesiastical power, and thus removed criminal jurisdiction from the ecclesiastical courts for ever. (172)
It is inevitably easier to describe the sexual mores of a period of repression or a period of licence, than of a period of balance between the two. In a period of repression there are incredible interdicts to be listed, in a period of licence there are scandalous stories to retail. A period of balance shows neither, nor does it produce an extensive literature, since there are neither inhibited individuals releasing their sexual appetites in writing (like the Malleus or the penitential books), nor are there individuals in revolt striving to shock (like Rochester and Beverland in a later age, or like Aretino, Valla or Beccadelli in Italy.). We have to gain our impressions from such sources as the drama—the scenes between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, for example. Sometimes we find popular short novels or poems which cast a revealing light, like the "Tunning of Elynour of Rummin", which gives us a picture of Life under Henry VIII. (206) Elynour was an ale-wife whose "visage would asswage a man's courage" and Skelton, after describing a number of somewhat Rabelaisian incidents, turns to the following picture of connubial felicity when the clients have left the premises:
Ich am not cast away,
That can my husband say:
When we kisse and play,
In lust and liking,
He calls me his whiting,
His mulling and his mittine,
His nobes and his conny,
His sweeting and honny,
With basse, my pretty bonny,
Thou are worth good and mony;
This make I my falyre Fanny,
Till he be dreame and dronny:
For, after all our sport,
Then will he rout and snort;
Then sweetly together we lye
As two pigges in a stye:
But this, it may be said, is still a medieval rather than a Renaissance picture. For something more truly contemporary, we have to turn to France where we find outstanding descriptions of the sexual life of the dominant group in the period in a work like "La Vie des Dames Galantes". Precisely because the matrist movement went further in France than it did in England, it enables us to see the trend more clearly.
What strikes us most about this work is that the leading role is played not by the men but by the women, as the title is careful to emphasize. It is women who take the initiative in matters of sex, and it is for the gallant to live up to the challenge with which they present him. When the woman is tired of the man, or if she thinks he does not look like measuring up to her standards, she has no compunction about dismissing him instantly, and he does not contest his dismissal. The parallel with the pre-Christian Celtic period is so striking that we are entitled to infer the development of a matristic trend, and there is plenty of other evidence to confirm our suspicion. Nothing could be more revealing than the story of the courtly Spaniard who, passing a secluded arbour with the lady he admires, observes:
"That would be a good spot, if I were with anyone else but you."
The lady, incensed that he should not have seized the opportunity without putting the matter up to her, makes her displeasure clear by replying:
"Yes, it would, if I were with anyone else but you."
Brantome provides many clues to the spontaneous, unashamed way in which sexual activity was regarded: for instance, he frankly stresses the pleasure people found in contemplation of the naked body.
"When Herod's wife, Mariamne, a fair and honest lady, was desired by her husband to lie with him in broad daylight, that he might see all her charms, she refused outright, so Joseph tells us. Nor did he insist on his rights as a husband, as did a great Lord of my acquaintance with his wife, who was very beautiful, and whom he took in the full light of day, stripping her naked, for all her violent protests. Afterwards, when he sent her women to dress her again, they found her in tears and full of shame. On the other hand, there are many ladies who make no scruple to show their beauty openly, and to display themselves naked, the more to enflame and intoxicate their lovers, and to draw them ever the more ardently to them."
The suspicion that a somewhat matristic period was developing also receives confirmation from the clothing of the period, which underwent a rapid change from the time of Henry VIII to that of James I. In Henry's day, men's masculinity was emphasized by the short coat and tights, which revived the medieval courtepy, the complaints against the indecency of which we have already noted. In this reign it would have been quite impossible to be in doubt about the sex of anyone even if seen only in silhouette. But by the end of the century men were wearing broad-skirted coats in rich materials, with lace collars, remarkably similar to the clothes worn by women; in looking at some of Mytens' portraits, one is unsure, for a moment, which sex is represented.
But perhaps the most important confirmation comes from the fact that, while we hear little of homosexuality during the period, we find the theme of incest arousing deep anxieties. Even in Henry VIII's time, when it was necessary to blacken "the whoore, Nan Bullen", it was not enough to accuse her of betraying the King with various gentlemen of the court, it was also thought necessary to accuse her of incest with her brother. The only "evidence" adduced was that she had once spent some time alone with him in a room, and she died denying this charge, as did he, but the bare suspicion was enough to damn her. In Elizabeth's time, the theme of incest runs like a scarlet thread through the turgidities of the drama, and finally emerges openly in at least one play, Ford's 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore', written under James I almost at the close of the period under consideration.
To say that we hear little of homosexuality does not mean that it did not exist, but rather that it was not a source of neurotic anxiety. Dramatists would occasionally laugh at it, as at other humours, such as pride or hypocrisy. When James VI of Scotland ascended the English throne, already notorious for his relationships with Lennox, Daubigny and others, and soon to be still more notorious for his favours to Robert Carr, the popular joke was: "Rex Elizabeth fuit, nunc Jacobus regina est." Incest, on the other hand, being related to deeply repressed elements of the personality, most generally found during this period, could never receive a jocular treatment, but was, on the contrary, broached in an atmosphere of tension and horror.
On the Continent, where the matrist movement had started earlier, and had now proceeded to the extreme of general licence, to the point where Alfonso d'Este could be called "the virtuous" because he confined himself to buying girls from their mothers for seduction instead of just seducing them, homosexuality was being erected into a virtue, as we may judge from the appearance of a work entitled "De laudibus, sodomiae seu pederastiae", written by the Archbishop della Casa. Lithgow, in his travels throughout Europe, is careful to report the occurrence of homosexuality whenever he finds it. Thus of Padua, which he calls the most melancholy city in Europe, on account of the narrow streets, overhung with long galleries supported by dark ranges of pillars, he writes:
The Schollers here in the night commit many murthers against their privat adversaries, and too often executed upon the stranger and innocent, and all with gun-shot or else stilettoes: for beastly Sodomy, it is rife here as in Rome. Naples, Florence, Bullogna, Venice, Ferrara, Genoa. Parma not being exempted, nor yet the smallest Village of, Italy: A monstrous filthinesse, and yet to them a pleasant pastime, making songs and singing Sonets of the beauty and; pleasure of their Bardassi, or buggerd boyes.
The interest of this passage for us lies in the fact that Lithgow, a shrewd Scot, thought such matters worth reporting; this argues both that homosexuality was still sufficiently rare in England for the continental behaviour to be worth remarking on, and also that the subject was felt to possess a certain interests and was not felt to be almost too shocking to mention, as would have been the case in strongly patrist periods. Lithgow's book, among the most enchanting of all travel books, appeared in 1632, in the reign of Charles I, himself a homosexual, and this only thirty years before the great flowering of homosexuality in the time of the Restoration. It may, I think, be regarded as a pointer to it.
In general, the literature of the period, whether English or French, shows a hearty frankness about sexual matters entirely different from the sly, obsessive character of the eighteenth century. Brantome preserves a tone as cheerfully Rabelaisian as Falstaff's, even when he is dealing with the one perversion which figures in his pages, flagellation, and much the same is true of other works, such as the "Quinze Joies de Mariage". We find, furthermore, books of sexual instruction, such as the anonymous "L'Escole des Filles", addressed specifically to women, and providing advice on subjects as diverse as methods of contraception and the choice of a merkin. (Then, as now, gentlemen preferred blondes.)
We also find the first attempts to treat sexual matters as a subject for scientific observation. The "Geneanthropeia" of Sinibaldus, though only published in a shortened form in English, raises such questions as "What are the physiognomical signs of Lust?" "What are the signs of Virginity?" and "Why do night pollutions afford more pleasure and do more debilitate than a man's spontaneous copulation with a woman?" The answers are somewhat surprising. For instance, "A little, straight forehead denotes an unbridled appetite in lust." "Little ears demonstrate aptness to venery" and "It is an infallible sign of this, if a man is bald and not old; but if old and not bald, you may conclude he hath lost one of his stones or both." Such books contained much misinformation, such as that a sad or weeping woman cannot conceive. "Experience tells us that Virgins ravished are never with child; or, on the other side, if she be possest with too much joy. " And some dangerous advice ("How to shorten the Yard, being too long", and "How to enlarge the pudenda").
Nevertheless, for all his rejection of ecclesiastical regulations the Elizabethan still lived under the shadow of a magic, religious sanction. Observe, for instance, how, in Elizabethan dramas, the woman who has once earned the epithet "adulteress" is doomed to destruction, regardless of any extenuating circumstances, and there is nothing anyone can do to avert this fate. The fact is, Renaissance man had not rejected canon law in favour of some more attractive, coherent ethical code, and, while the actual regulations were ignored, the ideas of magical contamination upon which they had been based continued to form part of his thinking until, in the following century, the more rational spirits began to question them.
It need hardly be added that the status of women rose rapidly during the period. In the Middle Ages, women had received but little formal education. But now, perhaps in emulation of the Valois, women of the dominant class began to receive an education in languages, the classics and the arts. Lady Jane Grey's remarkable erudition provides us with the milestone; the Duchess of Pembroke likewise. Elizabeth, of course, could read Greek and Latin, talk French and Spanish, play the virginals and try her hand at a sonnet. A reading public began to develop: it was for this feminine audience that Lyly wrote his "Euphues". The accession to the throne of a queen certainly fostered this development, for it was no longer possible for preachers to denounce women as the source of all evil without risking 'lèse majesté '. Bishop Aylmer clearly felt this difficulty, when preaching before Elizabeth. (191)
"Women are of two sorts," he cautiously conceded, "some of them are wiser, better learned, discreeter and more constant than a number of men, but another and a worse sort of them are fond, foolish, wanton, flibbergibs, tatlers, triflers, wavering, witless, without council, feeble, careless, rash, proud, dainty, tale-bearers, eavesdroppers, rumour-raisers, evil tongued, worse-minded and in every way doltified with the dregs of the devil's dung-hill."
The drumfire of pejoratives is impressive, but with the admission that it is actually possible for some women to excel men the pass has been sold.
How fully women of the dominant group escaped from the limitations of the Middle Ages is revealed not only by Brantome, but by such incidents as that of the ladies from the conservative Spanish court, who visited England. One of heir number, having been presented, fled in embarrassment at the frankness of the conversation of the ladies-in-waiting, and, such was the tale she told, that her compatriots decided hey could not come to court, and returned to Spain in haste.
But it was not simply that women were franker, better educated, more self-possessed; it was equally the case that men hemselves were changing, in as much as they were beginning to think of women in different terms, so that we begin to find books being written in defence and even praise of women. The first important work of this sort was Agrippa's and appeared in 1542; More's followed in 1560; and by 1613 we even find a book entitled "The Excellence of Women", so far has the pendulum swung from medievalism. As part of this process we find emerging the idea that a man should not beat a woman. Thus, in "The Taming of the Shrew", Katharina retorts: "An you hit me, you are no gentleman." The concept of men as gentle towards women derives straight from chivalry though the age of chivalry had been closed for at least a century — and Katharina's appeal to this standard shows vividly the new disposition to revive matrist standards. (We also find he Venetians betraying new interest in "il Zhentiluomo" in the early sixteenth century.) The point is of a certain historical interest, for the principal authorities assert that the idea that a man could beat his wife only came to be questioned in Charles II's time.
As part of this general weakening of the feeling that pleasure was evil, we find the festivity accompanying marriage becoming more uninhibited. For the most colourful descriptions I have turned to reformers like Erasmus and Bacon, who wish to hold this merrymaking up as scandalous, and we must make an appropriate allowance for their puritanism. Though their intention is to castigate, the picture they draw breathes an ait of spontaneous enjoyment which enables us to understand the origin of the phrase, today so inapposite, Merry England, Erasmus complains of the "ridiculous ceremonies" in which people indulge at marriage as if it were "a light and laughable matter" for a couple to be wedded. But worse, from dinner-time to supper there are wanton dances, wherein the tender maiden may not refuse any man, and is forced to clasp hands (and in Britain even to exchange kisses) with drunken men, with others infected with loathsome diseases, and with ruffians who have come uninvited.
"Then comes a tumultuous supper, then dancing again, then the night cup. Even after midnight, scarce can the outworn bride and bridegroom seek their couch."
Bullenger, in a passage which shows some signs of being a rewrite of the same material for a more popular audience, is worth quoting verbatim: In "The Christen State of Matrimonye" (translated by Coverdale in 1541) he starts by complaining that sometimes the devil manages to blemish even the marriage service,
insomuch that early in the morning the wedded people begynne to exceade in superfluous eating and drinking whereof they spytte until the halfe sermon be done. And when they come to the preaching they are halfe dronke, some alltogether. Therefore regard they nether the preaching ner prayer but stonde ther only because of the custom.
He then describes the merrymaking after the banquet, when the bride is brought to an open dancing place.
Then there is such a renninge, leapinge and flynging amonge them, then there is such a lyftinge up and discovering of damesels clothes and of other wemens apparell that a man might thinke all these dauncers had cast all shame behinde them and were become starke madde and out of their wyttes and that they were sworne to the deuels daunce.... And that noyse and rombling endureth euen till supper.
Finally, after supper, when the couple at last retire,
unmanerly & restless people . . . will first go to theyr chambre dore and there sang vicious and naughtie balates that the deuell may haue his tryumphe now to the vttermost.
Edward VI's revised prayer-book had made this much difference to the ceremony that now it is carried out entirely within the church. And it remains in this form today, except only that the promise to be bonere and buxum is now omitted, while the American reformed churches also omit the whole section concerning the use and abuse of marriage.
During the period, also, ceremonies directly derived from the worship of mother deities, which had lingered on in popular tradition, and had no doubt often been performed secretly, now came into the open, as we know from the scandalized protests of the Puritans. Chief of these were the Easter fertility festivals, the corresponding festivals at harvest time, and the solar festivals at Christmas, to which I have referred in an earlier place. We get a vivid picture of the scope and attraction of the May Games from Stubbes, and it is clear that they were very much more than an amusing survival from the past, as they would be considered in modern times.
Against Maie, Whitsondaie, or other time, every parishe, towne and village assemble themselves together, both men women and children, olde and yonge . . . they run gadding to the woods and groues, hils and mountaines, where they spende all the night in pleasaunt pastymes, and in the morning they return, bringing home birch bowes and braunches of trees.... Their cheapest jewell they bring home from thence is their Maiepoole, which they bring home with greate veneration. They haue twentie, or fortie, yoke of Oxen, every Oxe hauyng a sweete Nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this Mai pool [this stinckyng Idoll rather] which is covered all over with Flowers and Hearbes . . . and some time painted with variable colours, with twoo or three hundred Men and women, and children followyng it, vith great deuotion. And thus being reared up, with handkercheifs and flagges; streamyng on the toppe, they . . . sett up Sommer Haules, Bowers and Arbours hard by it. Then fall they to banquet and feaste, to leape and daunce about it, as ye Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idolles, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thyng it self.
What the "pleasaunt pastymes" were is made clear by the observation that, when they return about two-thirds of the "maides" have been "defiled". Brand's Observations on Popular Antiquities lists a number of local variations on this theme. In some places, for instance, there was a "sportful war" between two parties representing winter and spring.
As seems to be usual in periods when sexual restraints are neither excessively severe nor unusually weak, prostitution declined. Henry VIII closed the last twelve London brothels, which had reopened after the closure effected by his father, and from this time we hear little of the brothel, properly so-called, until the Restoration — though we do hear of public baths being used as houses of assignation in the early seventeenth century. Some of the credit for the decline in the use of brothels must be given, however, to the arrival in Europe of syphilis, brought back from Haiti to Portugal by Columbus's sailors in 1494. The new disease spread over Europe with immense rapidity, reaching France, Germany and Switzerland in 1495, Scotland in 1497, Hungary and Russia in 1499 — carried by the dispersing armies of Charles VIII. Vasco da Gama's vessels took it to India in 1498 and it reached China in 1505. In 1506 we find the Archbishop of Crete dying of it. (118)
However, by 1560 Fallopius had invented a counter-measure, and had described it in his treatise "De Morbo Gallico". This was the condom, a linen sheath worn under the prepuce. (128) Though now thought of as a contraceptive device, it is undoubtedly the case that the condom first attained general popularity as a measure against infection, which explains Madame de Sevigne's oft-quoted but generally misunderstood remark that it was gossamer against infection, steel against love; although by her time it was being made not of linen but of gold-beater's skin.
In general, the age displays all the signs which we have earlier deduced as characteristic of a period of reaction from father-identification. There is a new love of free learning, finding expression in scholarship and the founding of colleges or students. Clothes become gayer and more elaborate. Social reforms are pressed forward. There is an awakening conscience of responsibility to others, expressed, for instance, in the institution of the poor law. The relaxation of sexual repression releases a flood of creative energy, especially in poetry and the drama, England's preferred forms of art, but also in painting, architecture and music. By a careless abbreviation we tend to speak of the reign of Elizabeth as a golden age of artistic achievement, but in fact the creative period continued in full flood until at least 1630, when the rising Puritan influence began, for a time, to stem it. To that countervailing force, the dark side of the Elizabethan moon, we must now turn our attention.