In studying the Elizabethan period a few things have come clear that were not before, among them the peculiar nature of the Reformation focus on Sin, or to be more precise, on sins related to sex. In fact, in Reformation tracts the word sin alone may be taken as a synonym for sex, for none of the other cardinal sins. Greed, for example, which expanded exponentially at that time, while labelled sinful, while deplored by writers of government policy and lashed from the pulpit, was not, as was sex, the inevitable route to the fiery furnace. And not just illicit sex, but all sex. According to Calvin, any pleasure from sex, even between husband and wife, was considered Lust, making those who found pleasure in it, even in just thinking about it, ripe for damnation.
This is truly bizarre. How on earth did these reformers expect to persuade humans that desire, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” is something that humans, or any earthly creatures, can do without? Not only is sexual climax one of the greatest (and easiest) pleasures offered by nature––one that, because it alone brings life into existence, should be considered sacred, and was considered sacred from the Stone Age well into the medieval period––how did the religious reformers of the 16th century manage to persuade so many that it was something to be feared and hated?
More to the point, what led them to this bizarre, even dangerous, position––dangerous considering that without sex, or more particularly, without desire, there would eventually be no more Protestants? The Catholic Church was less enthusiastic about sex than its pagan forbears, but did agree that procreation at least was sacred, though only when it took place within the bonds of holy matrimony. Perhaps because the Church understood that “no sex meant no little Catholics,” what it regarded as sin were chiefly sexual practices that prevent procreation: masturbation, homosexuality, coitus interruptus, and most forms of birth control.
Though it reached its peak during the Reformation, the seeds of this anti-sex campaign had been sown long before by the Hebrew bible in which Adam and Eve “fall” into sin when, having eaten the apple, they realize that they have genitals and then figure out what to do with them. Throughout the centuries dominated by the Church, unmarried men and women were segregated into communities of monks and nuns. This did not prevent desire, but at least it made consummation more difficult. The Church was also largely willing to care for the unwanted children that were the result of illicit sex, bringing them up in convents as loyal servants of the Faith. But once Luther and Calvin got hold of the Church, all forgiveness was impossible; even infants who died shortly after birth went straight to hell unless they had been baptized first. As Calvin put it (1536)––
Original sin, therefore, seems to be a hereditary depravity and corruption of our nature, diffused into all parts of the soul, which first makes us liable to God’s wrath, then also brings forth in us those works which Scripture calls “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). And that is properly what Paul often calls sin. The works that come forth from it–such as adulteries, fornications, thefts, hatreds, murders, carousings–he accordingly calls “fruits of sin” (Gal 5:19-21).
Apparently murder was less distressing to Calvin’s God than either theft or sex.
Nor was the Reformation the source of this pan-European anti-sex campaign, for at about the same time that the Reformation took up the fight, the Catholic Inquisition, instituted to weed out religious heresy, erupted in an hysterical pogrom directed against women, burning them at the stake as often for witchcraft or “misleading their children” as for practising pagan or Jewish rituals. “Over the 160 years from 1500 to 1660, Europe saw between 50,000 and 80,000 suspected witches executed. About 80% of those killed were women. Execution rates varied greatly by country, from a high of about 26,000 in Germany to about 10,000 in France [and] 1,000 in England . . . .”
Why women? The only plausible answer is that because they arouse desire in men they were seen as tempting them to engage in sinful acts and thus leading them to damnation. We may see this as a perverse belief system and something that our culture has (largely) outgrown, but just because we don’t follow this line of thinking today, doesn’t mean we can ignore its long terms effects.
That back around the dawn of history the Patriarchy managed to eliminate women from the hierarchy of all the modern religions, and gradually from all positions of authority, can be attributed to simple male animal territoriality. However sweet and reasonable they can be as individuals, as a group men are competitive beasts, so relegating women to the kitchen and laundry was a simple matter of eliminating one big chunk of the competition. What happened in the 16th century was different. This was hacking at the roots of the tree of life while rendering desolate millions of addle-headed believers. (Those interested in the realities of this terrible belief system, still very much alive and functioning today in evangelical churches throughout the mid-west, will get an insight by viewing videos of current evangelical preaching on You Tube.)
The question is not just why did Luther and Calvin believe such terrible things, it’s even more perplexing why on earth so many people accepted them. However radical, the answer is simple enough: one word: syphilis.
Disease a factor in history
Understanding the diseases rampant at a particular time is necessary if we’re to see it clearly, particularly when certain aspects remain hidden as is true with the authorship question. The diseases rampant in 16th century England were, in no particular order: the bubonic plague, the ague (malaria), the small pox (smallpox), and the great pox (syphilis). Though there were certainly others, these seem to have had the most consistent influence on the culture, though, the plague excepted, their effect on history is generally ignored.
Although the plague was no less terrible than when it first struck Europe in the 14th century, by Elizabethan times it hardly affected the lives of those prepared to avoid it, for its habit, if not its cause, was understood so well that those who could would simply pack up and head for the country, where they would remain until it died out.
It tended to strike every ten years or so, first appearing with warm weather in the funky areas around the docks where ships brought it from abroad (exactly how was still a mystery), and from whence it spread, again by unknown means, to the poorest and most crowded areas of the city. It was most virulent in the heat of mid-to-late summer, dying away with the coming of cold weather. Plague years were sometimes preceded by an outbreak in the summer of the preceding year, to return more destructively the following year, after which it died out. Or it could return the year following a particularly harsh outbreak for a lesser outbreak.
Property was particularly vulnerable during a plague year since it was difficult to adequately protect unguarded manors. It was hard to get workers to dig graves and otherwise help get rid of the bodies, so the air stank of rotting corpses, which was blamed for spreading the contagion. Bodies buried in churchyards were put into common graves as soon as they came in each day, five or six at a time, covered with a sprinkling of lime and dirt to prevent contagion. The Court spent the worst part of plague years holed up at Windsor Palace.
The English were also used to malaria, as is seen by how often their letters mention the ague. It’s worth suggesting that only those who lived far from wetlands, sluggish streams or stagnant ponds were entirely free from the periodic attacks of joint pain, chills and fever, which as yet had no cure. Once bitten by the anopheles mosquito, rife in England at that time, he or she would be subject to attacks off and on for the rest of their lives. A severe attack could mean death to a child or someone already ailing from another disease.
This highly contagious disease was also well known to the English of the 16th century. It occured sometimes occasionally and sometimes in epidemics, always by direct or airborne infection through contact within 6 feet or so of someone who was sick. The progress was rapid, over a period of three days or so, and and often fatal. Pox, an alternate spelling of pocks, identifies a disease most notable for a rash or pimples, which, with smallpox, covered the face and other parts of the body, often leaving them disfigured, “pockmarked,” for life. The Queen had a bout with smallpox in 1562 which caused her ministers to fear for her life, but she recovered, apparently without scars. The one who did get scarred was her faithful lady-in-waiting, Lady Mary Sidney, mother of Philip and Mary, who was infected while attending her mistress. It’s said that her face was so badly scarred that she never again appeared in public without a veil over her face.
While these were all familiar to the English and had been for centuries, a new and virulent strain of what later came to be called syphilis appeared in Naples in 1495, from whence it spread fairly rapidly throughout western Europe. Concentrated in the port towns where sailors from Italy and the Far and Middle East indiscriminently exchanged bodily fluids with English prostitutes (first noted in England in 1497) who then spread it to clients who took it to their wives and mistresses throughout the nation. By this means, within a generation it had arrived at the doors and the beds of the great as well as the humble.
Unlike smallpox or the plague, which struck suddenly, death occuring within days, syphilis was slow; slow to appear; slow to develop. Understanding of its deadly nature must also have been slow. Even today arguments continue regarding its symptoms, which are often hard to diagnose. Where smallpox appears openly on the face and hands, the great pox first appeared in those areas most hidden from view, on the genitals. Following an early outbreak, these lesions would appear to heal, so the patient would consider himself or herself cured of one of the lesser STDs, and so continue to have sex, not realizing what they were doing to their partners, or what it could do to their families, since a man could infect his wife, who would then bear children with the inherited version of the disease.
Due to its varying symptomology, the Pox, as it was most commonly termed, could well have masqueraded for years as one of several other venereal diseases for which there were folk remedies, so its devastating nature would have become apparent only gradually over time. For while smallpox and the plague come fairly quickly to a crisis after which the patient is either dead or gets well, the bacilli that cause syphilis continue to spread deep within the cells of various parts of the body where they proliferate, gradually over the years bringing about the more obvious symptoms, the stinking, suppurating sores that won’t heal, or the deterioration of the bones of the face, most notably the nose. The only cure that was at all effective, ingesting mercury, was almost as devastating as the disease.
Because the symptoms could vary so widely depending on what organs had been compromised, because the disease could appear to have healed, going dormant sometimes for years, and because the effect it had on childbirth (the miscarriages, the stillbirths, the sickly infants, the children who only got sick later in life) were slow to be understood, it would have taken time for the pox to have shown itself in all its horror to the religious leaders who could only explain it in terms of original sin, that sex itself was the curse, God’s punishment on Adam and Eve for aspiring to forbidden knowledge. It also explains why their congregations, shocked and terrified, were so willing to follow Calvin and his fellow reformers down the path of stringent self-denial.
It was also why Queen Elizabeth had not only a dislike of sex, but genuine horror, fearing as she certainly must have what was the true cause of her father’s, her sister’s, and her brother’s terrible illnesses and what the results might be should she become pregnant. Much as the English historians continue to deny it, seeking ever more arcane explanations for Henry’s insane behavior towards the end of his life, no one who researches the matter can fail to agree that the disgusting nature of his illness, the troubles all his wives had conceiving and if they conceived, giving birth to healthy infants, were all due to the disease that all the Court either knew for a fact or guessed, was due to syphilis contracted during one of the many sexual peccadilloes with which he entertained himself in his youth. And even as the delicate sensibilities of the historians continue to prevail, there can be no argument that most of the Court under Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth would have believed the cause of the king’s insanity and his wives failures to produce a healthy heir to have been syphilis. This then, was the true cause why Elizabeth not only never married, but also why, despite her obvious delight in surrounding herself with handsome men, she would never have allowed herself to have sex (that is exchange bodily fluids) with any of them, taking refuge in the Greek myths of virginal goddesses like Diana and Phoebe.
This is the primary reason why sex was forbidden at Elizabeth’s Court; why the word “filthy” was inevitably used whenever reformers referred to sex; why books of sexy stories like Painter’s Palace of Pleasure were condemned as dangerous filth by Reformation pedagogues like Roger Ascham, Elizabeth’s tutor; and why those who transgressed her anti-sex edicts were punished so severely. This is also largely why the men (and women) who translated these works and had them published invariably hid their identities and why printers and publishers used ambiguous language on the title pages and in the front material of these and , so that the reform censors would pass them without reading further.
It also explains how the sexuality of young, vital Court poets, repressed by the dangers of yielding to impulse and intensified by the frustration of repression, burst forth in long sequences of sexually-charged poetry, long narrative poems about love and sex like Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, and why during the decade of sonnet cycles addressed to cold disdainful dames, some, like Astrophil and Stella and Shake-speare’s Sonnets, exceeded 100 verses! Repressed by the sex hatred of the reformers and the fears of the Queen, desires that could not be allowed expression in any other way found release in reams of verse, some of it glorious––the lotus flowering from the heap of dung that was the terror inspired by this horrible disease.