All sects and violenceDavid McKie -- The Guardian --
Thursday September 2, 2004
According to yet another of the surveys that now punctuate our lives, 39% of Americans say their sexual behaviour is influenced by religion, compared with 16% in Britain and a paltry 3% in France. I am not quite sure what this means. Most people would assume that religious people are rather more chaste than the world as a whole, and that may well be true. And yet - like the things that you're "li'ble to read in the Bible", as listed in Porgy and Bess - it ain't necessarily so. So much is clear from the scandals reported from time to time from the US featuring charismatic preachers who, when female followers under their spell throw themselves at them, can't always resist the temptation to catch. Leaders of mystical movements emanating from the east are not always impervious either.
The histories of heretical sects suggest that this has a long provenance. Those given to promiscuity tend to fall into one of two categories. There are those where free love, as it used to be called, is advocated as something which all should embrace; and those who enjoin restraint but don't feel their teachings apply to themselves.
The patron saint of the former group is probably Pierre Clergue, priest of Montaillou, whose exploits are chronicled in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's classic account of events in a village in Languedoc where the Cathar heresy still flourished in the 14th century. This ram of a rector helped himself to a large proportion of the women of Montaillou, not excluding his sisters and sisters-in-law, sometimes even in church. Most appear to have succumbed quite happily, but where he encountered resistance, he sometimes found it useful to mention the Inquisition.
Some feared that giving into him might be sinful, but Pierre had arguments ready to dispose of such qualms. Yes, such behaviour might be sinful, he told one married woman, but it was a greater sin for women to have intercourse with their husbands, since then they would not be conscious that they were sinning. One woman whom Pierre had seduced when she was only 15 defended her conduct in terms he had no doubt taught her: a woman who slept with a true lover was purified of all sins, she maintained, since the joy of love made the act innocent, proceeding as it did from a pure heart.
There is more, much more, of the same in a wonderful book by Norman Cohn, first published almost 50 years ago, called The Pursuit of the Millennium. Some Free Spirit heretics of the 13th century argued that since they were full of the holy spirit, this made them free from sin, and therefore nothing they wanted to do could be sinful. Others who belonged to this tendency liked to claim that since repentance was one of the highest goods, one ought to do things one could then repent of. But Cohn's book is full of figures who belong to the other category, too: those whose watchword seems to have been: don't do as I do, just do as I say.
Tanchelm of Antwerp was said to have taught that since he was God incarnate, intercourse with him became a spiritual act. (Court reports suggest that similar doctrines were still being peddled by some naughty priests in 20th-century Britain.)
The most spectacular of such practitioners was the 16th-century Anabaptist John of Leyden, born Jan Bockelson, "a man of extraordinary good looks and an irresistible eloquence" who became the movement's leader in Münster. Having taken 15 wives himself, almost all of them under 20, he annulled the rule that a man must cleave to one woman on pain of death and announced that the men who followed him might marry as many wives as they wished. This licence was not extended to women. Such adherents as dared to question his ruling were executed. But in other respects it was one law for John and his entourage and another for everyone else. Where his court (he had made himself king) dressed in high ostentation, the rule for everyone else was austerity. This, he explained, was because he was dead to the world, so what in anyone else would be sinful vanity could not harm him. When his kingdom was later blockaded by the bishop, his followers were kept on rations so that all the available food could go to his court.
It's too easy to write off such prophets as spectacular hypocrites. "Like many other propheta from Tanchelm onwards," says Cohn, "Bockelson seems to have been a megalomaniac, whose behaviour cannot be adequately interpreted as sincere fanaticism or simply as calculating hypocrisy".
As reading of modern newspapers shows, the conviction that "if I do it, it must be right" is still very much with us today.