The most corrosive idea of all was that unchastity was not always harmful or wrong. As we have seen, this was an age-old challenge to the enforcement of sexual discipline. Yet throughout the middle ages and the Renaissance, sexual freedom had been only weakly and implicitly defended. Most of the time it had been advanced light­heartedly or privately: as a fictional trope, or in justification of particular offenders, rather than as a public doctrine derived from general principles. Furthermore, the weight of social, intellectual, and institutional authority was always heavily against it. There was cer­tainly continued controversy about how, and to what extent, to enforce sexual discipline; but the idea that it should be wholly aban­doned was never seriously mooted. From the later seventeenth century onwards, by contrast, the notion that unchastity might be harmless came to be expressed with much greater cogency and influence.

The main reason for this was that the question of how moral laws were to be defined was caught up in the greatest theological and philosophical controversies of the early Enlightenment – about the nature of truth and how to ascertain it, about the status of the Bible, and about the proper foundations of civil and ethical authority. Out of these debates there emerged, from various directions, new ideas which cast doubt upon the blanket prohibition of unchastity. Their contribution was often implicit or unintentional: neither conservative nor radical theorists of ethics and religion necessarily wished to pro­mote sexual licence. Nevertheless, the overall effect was to place moral norms on a much more liberal and pluralist footing.

Within orthodox divinity itself there had always been plenty of potential for the rethinking of sexual rules. Though the general thrust of biblical injunctions was clear enough, the detail of their interpret­ation had never been straightforward. The very concept of chastity depended upon the definition of valid wedlock. It was therefore important to determine the scriptural basis for such matters as per­missible degrees of consanguinity, the possibility of divorce and remarriage, and the institution of monogamy itself. Furthermore, although the official line was that the seventh commandment covered all unchaste actions, it was debatable exactly how the various biblical prohibitions of adultery, fornication, incest, whoredom, uncleanness, and lasciviousness were to be interpreted; how consistent they were with one another; and how far they conformed to the norms implied elsewhere in scripture. In addition, there was the vexed question of appropriate punishments. Many Tudor and early Stuart observers had thought that adulterers ought to be executed, as the Old Testament commanded (Leviticus 20, Deuteronomy 22), and in 1650 this policy was enshrined in the Adultery Act. Nonetheless, the more conven­tional view had always been that this aspect of the Mosaic law, although instructive, was no longer necessarily binding: so that ‘it is free for every state to punish it either by death, or by some other grievous censure’.1 A further complication was Christ’s apparent ambivalence in confirming and even strengthening the moral law against unchastity (for example in Matthew 5 and Mark 10),* yet showing mercy towards the woman taken in adultery (John 8): did the latter imply a more lenient view of the crime, or merely his refusal to ‘meddle with magistratical matters’?2

As had been the case before, during the Reformation and the Inter­regnum, the fracturing of religious uniformity towards the end of the seventeenth century gave fresh impetus to these longstanding ques­tions. It was denied that the biblical condemnations of adultery and whoredom covered simple fornication, ‘a very trivial crime in those days’. Pre-marital sex, it was argued, was ‘innocent and harmless’; the Old Testament showed it ‘was anciently tolerated and allowed’; it did ‘no wrong to any third person, where both the parties are single’. It likewise became fashionable to invoke biblical precedents in defence of divorce, concubinage, or polygamy. Some even sought on scriptural grounds to excuse ‘half-adultery’ between a married and a single per­son.3 In the 1690s the clergyman John Butler caused outrage by asserting at length in the church courts and in print that, in certain circumstances, it was neither adultery nor fornication to live unmar­ried with a woman, as he did, and to have children with her, as he also did, despite having a previous wife and children elsewhere.4 The ques­tioning of traditional norms was given still greater publicity by the scale and openness of debates about sexual morality in the new peri­odical press of the period. Arguments ‘in favour of free love, even

* Matthew 5: ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. . . Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Mark 10: ‘Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery. . . Thou knowest the commandments: Do not com­mit adultery.’ without the formality of divorce’, lamented Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, were nowadays openly propounded, ‘propagated among the crowd, and almost universally discussed’.5

Yet the most direct challenge to traditional ethics came not through the reinterpretation of God’s word, but from the growing controversy around 1700 about its very truth and authority. The biblical basis of morality came under fire from two directions. It was argued that nothing in scripture that was contrary to reason could be accepted as true; and it was asserted that the moral laws of Christianity were not God-given but, like those of other cultures, merely human customs and inventions.

The latter idea was fuelled by the increasing awareness amongst seventeenth-century writers of the sheer scope and variety of ancient and modern societies across the world. It was particularly striking how radically diverse the sexual mores of other peoples appeared to be. There were nations ‘where virgins show their secret parts openly’, which permitted fornication and infanticide, or which celebrated the prostitution of brides. In other societies, ‘public brothel-houses of men are kept’, or beds were shared by ‘ten or twelve’ couples at a time. There were places where women were bought and sold, or divorced at will; peoples whose king deflowered all virgins before their marriage; still others which promoted incest, held all women in common, or valued female promiscuity. Amongst the ancient Britons, so Julius Caesar had reported, ‘ten or a dozen men’ had a single wife in common, and parents often lay with their own children. Among modern Muslims, it was said, a man could be revered as a ‘saint. . . of very great piety and unblemish’d virtue, because he had never defiled himself with women or boys, but only with asses and mules’. The Greeks and Romans seemed to have thought nothing of sodomy: indeed, ‘the divine Plato recommended it’.6 The Bible itself illustrated that polygamy and concubinage had been perfectly acceptable to other civilizations favoured by God. Did all this not prove that sexual ethics were mutable? Why should only monogamous intercourse be permitted?

The conventional answer was that Christian morality, particularly that of the Church of England, was superior. It was ‘preposterous, and vain’, warned a clergyman in 1698, ‘for us to shelter ourselves under the examples and customs of any ages, or persons that have been before us. We are under a better, and nobler dispensation of grace, and therefore we are tied up to stricter rules, and nobler degrees of vir – tue’.7 The moral codes of heathens and savages by contrast were but ‘incoherent apophthegms’. They varied so much because they had no solid foundation. ‘What sort of men’ after all, asked Locke contemp­tuously, ‘were Socrates and Cato, the wisest of the Greeks and Romans? They admitted others to their bridal bed, they lent their wives to friends and made themselves abettors of another man’s lust’. To send a person to the ancient philosophers for ethical guidance was to direct them ‘into a wild wood of uncertainty, to an endless maze; from which they should never get out: if to the religions of the world, yet worse’. The truth was ‘that ’tis too hard a thing for unassisted rea­son, to establish morality’ effectively and comprehensively.8 Only the ‘plain commands’ of divine revelation could do that, argued Locke:

To one who is once persuaded that Jesus Christ was sent by God to be a king, and a saviour of those who do believe in him; All his commands become prin­ciples: There needs no other proof for the truth of what he says, but that he said it. And then there needs no more but to read the inspired books to be instructed: All the duties of morality lie there clear, and plain, and easy to be understood.9

As the jurist John Selden put it, more bluntly,

I cannot fancy to my self what the Law of Nature means, but the Law of God. How should I know I ought not to steal, I ought not to commit adultery, unless some body had told me so? Surely ’tis because I have been told so? ’Tis not because I think I ought not to do them, nor because you think I ought not; if so, our minds might change. Whence then comes the restraint? From a higher power, nothing else can bind.10

Yet by 1700 the presumption that in ethical matters faith and obe­dience should trump rational understanding seemed to many people deeply questionable. It had been undermined by the spread of reli­gious plurality: and it was also beginning to seem old-fashioned in the light of contemporary advances in natural science and metaphysics, which seemed to hold out the promise of new, scientific proofs of God’s workings. The more modern view was that spiritual and moral

truths ought to be established primarily on a logical, verifiable foun­dation. From this perspective, true belief could follow only from real understanding: nothing that was above reason could be believed. Only the laws of nature could properly oblige and explain rules of morality, a Cambridge theologian noted in 1682. Otherwise some­thing was merely ‘good or bad for a woman’s reason, because it is; and this reason will serve as well to prove, that murder or adultery are good things, as that they are bad ones’.11

The arguments for rational judgement often overlapped with those for liberty of conscience. Both were characterized by doubts about the possibility of proof in religious matters, scepticism about the reliabil­ity of biblical texts, suspicion of clerical pretensions, trust in the essential simplicity of true religion, and confidence in the inherent capacity of ordinary men and women to interpret it. ‘If the people would but take boldness to themselves and not distrust their own understandings’, Walwyn had urged, they would soon reject all the spurious and self-interested complications introduced by priests, and find ‘that all necessary knowledge is easy to be had, and by themselves acquirable’. Nothing that was said to follow from scripture should be believed if it went against natural reason, advised Bayle: even God’s moral commands could not contradict our ‘common notions of rea­son’. As Hume summed up this attitude in 1755, ‘all the law of Moses is abolished, except so far as it is established by the law of nature’.12

Towards the end of the seventeenth century the terms of debate about sexual morality thus began to shift, as part of the general con­troversy over the compatibility of revealed and ‘rational’ religion. Up to this point, serious attempts to reformulate sexual norms had always been confined to re-translations and interpretations of scripture and patristic writings. As Christopher Hill once memorably described the limits of mid-seventeenth-century radicalism, ‘however radical the conclusions, however heretical their theology, their escape-route from theology was theological’.13 Yet as it gradually became intellectually unfashionable for moral prescriptions to rest primarily on revelation, greater support had to be found in what seemed intrinsically ‘reason­able’ or ‘natural’. This opened up a much wider field of inquiry. Did the law of nature support God’s commandments against fornication and adultery? Or did it permit a greater degree of sexual freedom?