But then consider the case of the conseiller de Pleurre, which Penny Roberts and Luc Racaut have uncovered for us. He was a city councillor in the French city of Troyes, arrested for heresy in 1562 after he had been reported for attending a secret Protestant meeting. He admitted the offence before the court, but added that
he had attended a Protestant assembly and sermon to fulfill his carnal desire and have sex with the woman of his choice, thinking that the rumour was true, that women gave themselves freely at those assemblies. But having seen and understood that this was false, and not having found what he was looking for, he had resolved not to go there again.1The court, 'trying hard not to laugh', let him go. And clearly this proves that real sects are usually duller than people imagine them to be. But it also proves that there was a real constituency for religious or quasi-religious orgies out there?
So what are we to make of marginally more circumstancial or well-evidenced cases like the Thuringian sect known as the 'Bloodfriends', who gathered outdoors for clandestine nocturnal meetings, which ended with the command 'be fruitful and multiply’ – whereupon they would pair off discreetly? Or indeed the English 'spiritualls' known to the morally panicky as the 'Ranters'? One ex-Ranter claimed to have once believed that 'till you can lie with all women as one woman, and not judge it sin, you can do nothing but sin'. Another claimed that 'I can if it will be my will, kisse and hug Ladies, and love my neighbours wife as my selfe, without sin'.
Now of course the first quote fits a sensationalising agenda, and the second was not a call to licentiousness but part of a wild, profound attack on the hypocrisy of structured religious life. No doubt formal mass orgies were only ever imagined. But de Pleurre reminds us that they were imagined, and not only with horror. It does seem pretty clear that there were some eyebrow-raising practices in and around some of these groups.
As various professedly radical and alternative groups discovered in the 1960s: if you boldly throw off the shackles of convention, but you still leave the men in charge ... well, is it any surprise?
1. Luc Racaut, Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity during the French Wars of Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 62.