Chastity is one of those words which wreaks of the Middle Ages. Perhaps no other Heavenly Virtue is so unpopular in the modern world. Considering its opposing Deadly Sin of Lust seems much more enjoyable for most people this comes as no surprise! But the medieval Catholic Church thought there was no higher personal virtue than Chastity. And with Lust being associated with the colour blue it was also associated with Chastity in medieval folklore. So let’s put Chastity onto the blue strip of our Heavenly Gay Virtues flag.
But just as Lust means
more than an overwhelming desire for sex, so the same can be said of Chastity –
it isn’t necessarily all about sex. The original qualities given to this virtue
included purity, honesty and wisdom, in thought, word and deed. It was about
looking after yourself and not giving in to what was considered at the time to
be unhealthy pursuits. Yet it will always be equated with sex in the minds of
In my article a few days
ago I mentioned how the Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola
proclaimed his chastity with regards to his relationship with Girolamo
Benivieni. This same-sex relationship was acceptable to the church, as it was
for a number of priests, cardinals and popes who are known or suspected of
loving men. It became unacceptable if sex was involved. A lot of religions
require their clergy to be celibate, but that’s not the same as chastity.
Celibacy is the act of refraining from all sexual activity, even with if they
are married. Chastity is the act of refraining from sexual activity with anyone
other than your married partner.
Whatever you thought of Chastity
in the past, this reveals that even a sex maniac can be virtuous – as long as
it’s only with a married partner!
The medieval Catholic
Church, and many Christian churches today, preached that sex outside marriage
was immoral. It didn’t matter who or what you had sex with – another man,
another woman, or even an animal, the Church didn’t discriminate on gender or
sexuality. There are many married atheists who disapprove of sex outside
marriage as well. The medieval world wasn’t ready to accept gay sex as being
normal (some governments still don’t). It was usually the punishment you
received for sex outside marriage that was discriminatory towards gay men, and
it was the governments not the church who decided what that punishment was. The
Tudor government in England put the death penalty onto it. In far too many
countries today it still is politicians and governments who decide whether
homosexuality is legal or not, and what punishment to give.
But I don’t want to drift
into theology too far. There are other blogs that do that. So let’s lighten the
tone and talk about chastity in a totally different context.
The medieval chastity belt
has been a staple of British humour for centuries. One of my favourite comedy
films is “Up the Chastity Belt”. This film is set in the Middle Ages, and it may
not be one of the best films ever made but it’s a good piece of fun. It was
made in 1971 and starred Frankie Howerd and has a very gay feel to it in more
ways than one.
The film was part of a
series of spin-offs from Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii”, a highly successful BBC
comedy series. “Up the Chastity Belt” was the first non-Pompeii spin-off. Its
producer was Ned Sherrin, a gay broadcaster and writer who made his name in the
1960s on satirical programmes. He had produced the film version of “Up Pompeii”
the previous year and saw the potential for a series of similar films. However,
there was tension on the set between himself and Howerd over elements of the
script and on Howerd’s off-set behaviour. Nevertheless, “Up the Chastity Belt”
did well in British cinemas, outselling the “Up Pompeii” film.
One particular part of the
plot dealt with a famous character and his entourage, Robin Hood and his Merry
Men. Here the film produced some of the best comedy in the film, which was
already packed with many seasoned comedy character actors. As an added bonus
the film also starred Eartha Kitt.
The characters of Robin
Hood and his Merry Men was written deliberately as gay. That was very much in
the “Up Pompeii” style. The idea that the Merry Men were gay was not new. In
1977 when the International Robin Hood Conference was held in Nottingham one
noted scholar said that the stories of Robin Hood were very homosocial. The
media of the day took that to mean homosexual and caused a bit of a stir in
those very anti-gay days of the press.
Robin Hood in the film was
played by Hugh Paddick. He was well known to radio listeners as one half of the
camp duo Julian and Sandy on the classic comedy series “Round the Horne”. Hugh
played Robin Hood in very much the same manner. At one point in the film Robin
is introducing Howerd’s character to his Merry Men. Hugh is clearly seen trying
to stop himself from laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Playing Little John was
the popular blues singer Long John Baldry. He had been part of the blues band
Bluesology with a young Elton John, and was widely known as gay among music
circles. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to sing in “Up the Chastity
Belt”. Also denied the chance to sing was musical theatre expert and regular
pantomime dame Alan Rebbeck who played Friar Tuck. Will Scarlett was played
(shirtless) by the young Bernard Sharpe in a most tight-fitting pair of
leggings. Despite all being very camp and covered in make-up these Merry Men
managed to outwit and defeat the villain’s guards in combat and save the day.