The Renaissance was a great cultural movement that began in Italy during the 1300’s, spread through Europe and ended around 1600. In the history of sexuality
it played a very important role in ways of changing the pre-conceived ideas that permeated people’s mind - and consequently their behavior
Renaissance was a remarkable period of time, known for its flourishing of new ideas that struggled with the established ones – established mainly by the Church, which sometimes was the State itself. That’s why it is important, in order to get in touch with the Renaissance sexuality
, to realize the role that the Church played in those days, since its rules, particularly about sex
, affected the way people thought and acted during those days.
The Church used to preach that sex was a necessary evil (for the purpose of reproduction), introduced to humanity by the Devil. It’s not difficult to measure, then, the confrontation between these two conceptions of life: in one side, the Renaissance and its generation of artists, writers and philosophers breaking the rules and creating new cultural parameters expressed in their art, thought, writing and behavior, while in the other hand there was the Church with its secular rules and dogmas, against any changes related to social conduct and punishing every sexual thought, not to mention sexual practice. Those were times of struggle between repression and free will.
Along the history of sexuality the Church only allowed people to have sex after marriage. It was no different in Renaissance Days, when people used to marry for physical attraction or financial reasons. Love had very little to do with marriage. Conversely to this practice, new ways of joining love in or outside marriage began to develop. Renaissance’s ideas of romantic love started to persuade middle class’s minds and behavior.
In the Church’s point of view, women were the temptation and corruption of men, the reason of all damnation on Earth. So, the logical consequence was that women should be devoted to their marriage and husbands, as a secondary class of person. Damned as they were only for exist, more damned they would be if caught in adultery (even then, some of them took the risk). Young women were usually betrothed between twelve and eighteen years old to ensure that they would still be virgins by the time of their marriage. It seems perfectly clear that female destiny was almost entirely in the hands of men. Property belonged to the husband and wife beating was legal. In the history of sexuality, Renaissance came to reestablish woman’s condition as a person to respect and love.
Renaissance enlightenment also came to redefine the way people – according to the Church’s view – used to think of sex. The middle class began to associate sex with love. From a sinful and disgusting practice - not to mention the guilt it could provide - sex became a form of pleasure and a beautiful (even good) thing.
The history of sexuality shows that men almost always joined a far better condition than women. Renaissance is no exception. Men could have (homo)sexual experiences from early age as part of their cultural apprentices. In the late 15th Century, for example, one in two Florentine men had experienced sodomy by the time they were thirty, according to authorities. In the 70 years from 1432 to 1502, about 17,000 men in a city of 40,000 were investigated for this practice, 3,000 of whom convicted. The male behavior seemed to follow a scale defined by the age: boys under 18 used to be passive partner; youths in their 20's, dominant participant; and men about 30 began to settle and marry. These sexual experiences were no longer seen by Florence society as a transgression of a minority, but as the construction of sexual identity, working also as a form of sociability.
Despite of the great improvements Renaissance brought concerning sexual behavior, it was in its days that a battle between darkness and light took place. By 1450, the official Catholic dogma established that witches existed. Inquisitors, armed with their influential book Malleus Maleficarum ("The Witches' Hammer") and with Pope Innocent VII's infamous Papal Bull of 1484, extracted from women "confessions" under horrible tortures. They burned to death over 30,000 "witches" (generally physically desirable women) charged of having sex with the Devil, as well as alleged homosexuals.
As the history of sexuality reports, many cruel things took place in the name of religious beliefs. Unfortunately, contemporary events (religious terrorism and wars) tell us we’re not really learning from history.