The Word is God
According to Reay Tannahill’s book Sex in History the years between 400AD and 1000AD saw Christian morality gain a grip on Western thought “so paralyzing that it is only now beginning to relax”. Many of its rules regarding sex originate in the Hebrew law of the Old Testament and were fixed firm for over 1,500 years, with threats of hellfire proving one of the most successful deterrents ever invented. Lust and sex became associated with the original sin of Adam and Eve and the celibate life was promoted for those with the most godly minds. An indication of how poorly early Christians viewed sex is the fact that they declared Jesus to have been conceived without carnal contact.
Incest, masturbation, oral sex, anal sex and homosexuality were all deemed sinful and punishable by the Christian church with increasing severity. Sex within marriage was tolerated for reproductive purposes only and contraception banned because of its associations with pleasure. We know little of how these rules affected the lives of ordinary people, but the threat of damnation almost certainly transformed sex into activity loaded with fear and danger.
The spread of syphilis to epidemic proportions across Europe in the 16th century reveals that many men and women were not as chaste as the Church would have liked. Prostitution was large-scale across the continent (there were 7,000 public women in Rome in 1490) and the brothels of Southwark in London were notorious. The Church accepted the situation as a necessary evil, arguing that at least sin was contained. But times were definitely changing. Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture reveals the rediscovery of the art of antiquity, when the naked flesh of men and women were worshipped and enjoyed rather than regarded as sinful. Homosexuality was tolerated in certain areas and classes, among artists such as Leonardo and Michelangelo for example, and even in the court of James I in London where the king paraded his lover, the Duke of Buckingham, in public.
Although a Buggery Act was introduced for the first time in 1533, making sodomy between men punishable by death, it was rarely acted upon. Indeed, the homosexual Duke of Sutherland was able to rise to the position of Prime Minister in the early 18th century and only forced to resign when satirical stories were published about the gay sex club he had established. Enlightenment literature, in novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and, most strongly, in the novels of the Marquis de Sade, outlined the dangers and excitements of sexual perversion and reveal the extent to which sex had moved away from the guilt-laden act of the Middle Ages to become an intoxicating if risky source of pleasure.