Book review: History’s Naughty Bits by Karen Dolby

There is a tendency for every generation to consider its predecessors as old-fashioned, prim and even downright boring.

Monday, 28th October 2013, 9:00 am
Historys Naughty Bits by Karen Dolby
Historys Naughty Bits by Karen Dolby

Many still consider that sexual liberation began in the 1960s with the introduction of the contraceptive Pill and the potent mix of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll but the reality is that the human proclivity for sexual misbehaviour goes back much, much further.

Forty thousand years ago, when prehistoric man was struggling to survive the Ice Age, living in a cave and waging a constant battle against lack of food and wild animals, he still found time to sculpt voluptuous figurines for no other purpose than his own pleasure.

Millennia later, 18th century archaeologists excavating the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum could barely move for overtly sexual art and erotic frescoes which covered the walls of everything from bawdy houses to opulent villas.

From the legendary London stews of Southwark, which were effectively established as a red-light city district by King Henry II in 1161 and then placed under church authority for the next 400 years, to the awarding of the title maîtresse-en-titre, official royal mistress, at the French court, sex has been an integral part of life at all levels of society.

In History’s Naughty Bits, Karen Dolby takes us on a hair-curling and wickedly entertaining tour through some of the shadiest and naughtiest tales of true-life shenanigans from those misbehaving ancients right through to the 20th century’s era of ‘free love.’

And it’s a tumultuous and often surprising journey with the usual infamous suspects like the debauched medieval Italian Borgia family and the Marquis of Sade jostling with lesser known offenders like the simple 14th century French country priest who bedded almost every woman in the area until he was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition.

And it wasn’t only men whose sexual antics made history. Messalina, wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, ran a brothel where she worked as a prostitute under a false name, organising orgies for wealthy Roman women and competing in all-night sex competitions with other prostitutes.

Attitudes to sex changed radically after St Augustine converted to Christianity in AD 387 and developed the concept of ‘original sin.’ His new set of strict rules, including making sex acceptable only within marriage, set the tone for Western Europe and in the process opened the door to the discovery of ‘guilt’… and how to revel in it.

With prostitution now ranked as less of a sin than adultery, it was tolerated as a necessary evil and brothels in England were treated like any other place of public entertainment with the London ‘stews’ subject to inspections by bailiffs four times a year.

Pimping, however, was still frowned upon and any man convicted of the offence in the 14th century would have his beard and head shaved apart from a two-inch fringe and then be escorted to the stocks ‘by a merry band of minstrels.’

And plague proved no passion killer when the Black Death ravaged Europe from 1348. A wild spirit of hedonism gripped the population and despite the fact that crowding into taverns and brothels was likely to spread the disease, they poured in through the doors buoyed by a belief that sex with a prostitute ensured immunity from infection.

In the 17th century, King Charles II happily spent most of his life bedding actresses and aristocrats, and an air of louche celebration descended on the country after the repeal of Cromwell’s Puritan laws.

Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, those famous upholders of morality, had a healthy dose of lust mixed in with their love and affection. Indeed, there are persistent rumours that the monarch had a small tattoo ‘intimately’ placed on her body and Albert is reputed to have had an unusual piercing!

Kings, queens, popes, priests, presidents, prime ministers, doctors, lawyers, saints and philosophers all make an appearance in this fascinating, revealing and startling account of sexual history at its most horrid, hedonistic and hilarious.

And as the famous English actress Mrs Patrick Campbell once observed, ‘Does it really matter what these affectionate people do – so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?’

(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £12.99)