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A History of Celibacy

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3.77 of 5 stars 3.77  ·  rating details  ·  183 ratings  ·  28 reviews
From the divine to the double standard, from Vestal Virgins to the new Power Virgins, a fascinating, wide-ranging historical exploration of celibacy and celibates. Florence Nightingale was one. So was Sir Isaac Newton. A monk vows to be one. A prisoner is forced to become one. History is full of people who were avowed celibates; contemporary society reflects a renewed int ...more
Paperback, 576 pages
Published March 13th 2000 by Harper Perennial (first published 1999)
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Tony
A HISTORY OF CELIBACY. (2000). Elizabeth Abbott. ****.
The last chapter in Ms. Abbott’s book reads as follows: “’A History of Celibacy’ is a descriptive and analytic narrative and neither advocates nor opposes celibacy. When brought from obscurity into light, celibacy is historically defined by the same core elements of human existence sexuality, gender, rank and role in society, and collective and individual responses to these realities. Countless people have chosen celibacy and found it empower
...more
Korri
This book has an interesting topic but the chronological, superficial treatment makes me think of it more as an encyclopedia of celibacy. It's a useful starting point but lacks a driving argument or deep analysis.
Denise
Highly disappointing. Before having read this book I might have thought calling a book “deeply shallow” was silly, but that’s the only way to describe this book. The author has a lot to say about celibacy, and yet, she also has *nothing* to say about celibacy. This book has no thesis, it is about 400 odd pages of anecdotes and generalities about celibacy in different times and places, heavy emphasis on the Christian varieties, but just observation without argument. The most the author is willing ...more
Tracy
Original review from July 2001, basically cut and pasted from my Everything2 writeup from back in the day:

This is a really interesting book. The author, a journalist, historian, and Dean of Women at Trinity College, University of Toronto, presents a historical survey of celibacy, chastity, and sexual abstinence which suggests that these practices have been and continue to be part of every human culture. She provides examples from mythology and literature as well as discussion of beliefs and atti
...more
Jane
This book was totally fascinating and I recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about human sexuality from a very different approach, that of abstinence. The author researched the stories of people from all over the world and in different cultures and eras, who, for whatever reason, have chosen or been forced into a life of celibacy.

In many instances the choice of celibacy makes perfect sense - for example the women who chose convent life over the drudgery of being a wife and mother
...more
Avril
A History of Celibacy is well worth reading by anyone interested not only in celibacy, but also in the way that women, in particular, have dealt with a world that has various unhealthy attitudes to sexuality. As Abbot writes in her conclusion, a lot of the Christian understandings of celibacy have been based on misogyny - and yet many women have found chosen celibacy freeing and empowering.

Abbot covers continents and centuries in her history, everything from Rome's vestal virgins to Kellogg's co
...more
Laurie
There was another book by this author that I wanted to read instead of this one, but my library system only had A History of Celibacy, so I thought I'd check it out. I wish that I could give this book 3.5 stars instead of 3. I liked it, but not enough to give it 4 stars. However, 3 stars really doesn't do it justice. It's definitely a 3.5.

At times, the book, which is heavily researched, can be a little "textbooky". I liked the chapters that dealt with real people from history (Joan of Arc, Flor
...more
YoSafBridg
In her book, A History of Celibacy: from Athena to Elizabeth I, Leonardo da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, & Cher, Canadian, Elizabeth Abbott purports to trace the groups and individuals who are part of a timeless phenomenon that transcends culture and religion; but it seemed from her introduction that she had a tendency to accept common wisdom as fact which i found just a bit tedious, and it seemed to throw much of the otherwise highly interesting subject matter into debate. I learned ...more
Lea
Disappointing. Instead of weaving a narrative out of the interesting and rich subject, the author wrote a sort of encyclopedia of celibacy, with more or less dry anecdotes about different ways people have been celibate throughout history. Gets kind of old after a while, especially when I knew so many of the stories before. I did like a few of the anecdotes (like the one about Catarina de Siena) but it wasn't quite enough to make this 500-page book worthwhile.

I rather liked the introduction and t
...more
Emma Sea
Abbott's blog is written in a much more engaging style than this book.

As other reviewers have noted, the shallowness makes this more of an encyclopedia of celibacy, and I would have liked references throughout.

Out of the whole thing, though, you know what utterly captivated me? Re virginity testing: "a virgin's cervix might have been dilated if, for example, she had inserted her finger into it to soothe an internal itch" (p. 356)

O_O

Um, do not want.

I've never heard of inserting one's finger int
...more
Marsha
Celibacy is not a theme much touched on in modern times. While some scholastic institutions advocate teaching teenagers abstinence, it is not necessarily synonymous as virginity. Celibacy can be for someone who has had tons of sex or none at all and the reasons are as varied as the people who make them. Celibacy—not merely a matter for the people in the clergy—is explored in this book throughout history and between the sexes. As a matter of sexual, moral, political interest, the author of this b ...more
Emily
Utterly FASCINATING! I purchased this, completely by accident, the day before Valentine's Day a couple years ago, and didn't even realize the charming irony until I found myself completely lost in it on the day itself. It looks at a subject that's frequently dismissed as dry, dull, and non-erotic and shows how complex, interesting, and actually quite sexy it really is! There are disappointingly few books on the subject, even though the conscientious decision not to cultivate a typically sexual i ...more
Gail
Thoughtful, exhaustive but never exhausing hisory of celibacy both forced and chosen.

"Sainthood was that era's ( 1350-1500) great challenge, akin to aspiring to the Olympics or a Nobel Prize today. For women severly limed in vocations other than drudging laboror motherhood, the stretch to being the very best practicioner of religion was appealing, expecialy to highly intelligent perfectionists..."
6655321
Parts of this book are amazingly well researched and put together (specifically, Abbott seems much more comfortable talking about the history of celibacy in the Catholic Church than in any other religion [the brief synoptic pages on Islam, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. are sort of a disappointment). However, at least there is an attempt to provide a comprehensive history of celibacy.
Aimee
Because this is such a broad survey, ranging across many cultures and many centuries, it is understandably shallow in places. Still, I doubt there are many detailed studies on this seldom-discussed subject, and this is a good place to start. I was particularly interested in learning more about Boston marriages--adds a whole new layer of significance to Henry James' The Bostonians.
Stephanie
I bought this book *years* ago and skimmed it but never READ it. Now I am reading it!

November 2009: Finished! This might not have been a good choice to read cover to cover, as it did get a bit repetitive, but it was very interesting!

Parts I found the most interesting:
-Vestal Virgins
-unconsummated marriages (especially that of John Ruskin and Effie Gray)
Kat
this is an interesting book. it is not a work of genius scholarship. abbott aims to catalogue the various motivations for celibacy throughout time and space, and to make it accessible. as far as i can tell, she does all right in this. i'd have preferred to read a book with more research citations and analytical arguments.
Sarah
I read this book more than a decade ago, and I still think it’s one of the best cultural histories I’ve ever read. The factoids are relevant and the anecdotes are short and to the point. An expansive book, Abbott covers a huge amount of time (two millennia) but the writing is swift and engaging. Highly recommended!
Tiko
Only got to read a little before gifting away. It was fascinating! It covers abstenence and celebacy from many different cultures, the why and the how of it. I hope I can borrow it when my friend is done with it.
Orin
I liked it best when she got a little out of control, usually with the nutsy religious types, and the tone got impassioned. A long ramble on an intricate subject.
Josh
This book is bursting with information about celibacy, and that should also serve as a warning: this is a very dense book, so expect it to take a while to get through.
Colin
This was OK. I really liked her book on sugar much better. This was just not an intriguing read for me.
Natalie
Fascinating book, and doesn't just stick to the religious aspect of celibacy either (i.e. abstinence-only wingnuts and Catholic priests).
Carie
Entertaining. Abbott is witty, but the book did get somewhat tedious at times.
Charles
Interesting look at the subject, though I did not come away converted.
Amhc
excellent informative book. Highly recommended
Jennifer
Dec 21, 2012 Jennifer marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Pretty good so far...
Becca
this pop read sucks my dick and just offers some dumb funfacts about celibacy, no deeper analysis.
Laura Peña
Laura Peña marked it as to-read
Aug 01, 2015
Madeleine
Madeleine marked it as to-read
Jul 31, 2015
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