I was sitting on the patio of Nippon on Montrose, enjoying the slightly cool weather, reading lawyer Eric Berkowitz’s new book, and laughing. It was a soft spring day, as Houston saw so often in March and April.
A woman passed my table and said, “Must be a good book. You seem to be really enjoying it. What is it?” I lifted the book with its cover showing intertwined nudes covered with type reading Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire. She gave me an odd look, shook her head, and walked on.
Surprisingly, I found Berkowitz’s book to be very funny in spots. The reader learns, in the midst of all of today’s caterwauling about American decadence, about the actions that people snuck by the authorities with little punishment throughout human history. Berkowitz spent years looking for laws, restrictions, curtailments, tortures, and other punishments for various sexual acts.
By now, most people realize that in the gathering period of history, humans constructed their religious beliefs around Gaia, or Earth—fertility, growth, natural seasons, doing what came naturally. Life was peaceful, the goddesses were pleasant, and people spent their time planting and harvesting, including sexually.
As society became more complex, the emphasis shifted to male gods and war. The goal became winning at all costs, killing those who disagreed, controlling the population, and devising ever-bigger weapons. The planet is still cursed with attitudes emphasizing power, wealth, and possession, including the fierce debate over how many guns, and which ones, some people think they need for self-defense.
One of Berkowitz’s best qualities as a researcher and writer is that the density of his facts makes them easily linked to American society today.
Concerning gay marriage, Berkowtiz reminds the reader that up until the thirteenth century, male-bonding ceremonies were held in churches all over the Mediterranean. “Such same-sex unions—sometimes called spiritual brotherhoods—forged irrevocable bonds between the men involved. . . . Other than the gender of the participants, it was difficult to distinguish the ceremonies from typical marriages. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions, for example, involved the pair joining their right hands at the altar, the recital of marriage prayers, and a ceremonial kiss.”
One version of the liturgy the priest recited included this blessing: “O Almighty Lord, you have given to man to be made from the first in Your Image and Likeness by the gift of immortal life. You have willed to bind as brothers not only by nature but by bonds of the spirit. . . . Bless your servants united also that, not bound by nature, [they be] joined with bonds of love.”
In England and many Mediterranean societies (especially southern France), a new institution for same-sex unions was the affrerement (“brotherment”) contract, to permit couples to live together in peace.
But elsewhere in Europe, homosexual offenses brought burning at the stake and hanging by the “virile member.” By 1300, laws were in place punishing homosexual behavior harshly in virtually every jurisdiction. Many of these same laws were used to punish and limit Jews as well. With such a patchwork application of laws about sexual acts, it’s no wonder that people were confused.
A few other facts among so many discovered by Berkowitz:
• Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church ran the brothels.
• Protestants “accepted that sex was as essential for life as sleeping, eating, and drinking,” at least within marriage, and “attacked Catholic morals as being too rigid in theory and too loose in practice.”
• For the rest of society, it was not until 1563 that a formal ceremony with a priest was required for a marriage to be valid. Before then, “marriage began when the couple consented to wed each other and sealed the union with sex. The medieval marriage chapel could thus be a bed or a patch of soft ground.”
Scattered through the book’s 389 pages, with an additional 45 pages of notes and sources, are tucked stories of real people whose cases came up before the courts. Some are tragic, others hilarious. But they all provide a pattern of how the elites in society attempted to control the lower classes. In one of the sadder eras, English aristocrats continually refused to raise the age of consent for young girls, so for years it remained at age ten.
For anyone interested in the back-story of gay life and lives, this finely detailed and highly readable book is a great companion to Victory, Lisa Hirshman’s history of the gay civil rights movement. Berkowitz has given us quite a worthwhile timeline of the history of sex legislation.
For an interview with Eric Berkowitz, click here.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.