Focusing on European attitudes to sex for the period c.1100-1800, the authors: Kim M. Phillips (a Medieval Historian) and Barry Rea (a specialist in t...moreFocusing on European attitudes to sex for the period c.1100-1800, the authors: Kim M. Phillips (a Medieval Historian) and Barry Rea (a specialist in the history of sexuality) – argue that too many historians attempt to describe premodern sex in terms of contemporary categories and conceptions of sex which are just not applicable, and that “there are many strands to premodern sexual cultures” than modern terminology and concepts allow for.
In contrast to contemporary notions of sexuality in terms of identities which constitute, as Foucault put it “the truth of our self”, the authors argue that premodern Europeans did not have a notion of sexual identity in the same way that moderns do. In advancing their argument, they draw on a wide range of contemporary scholarship, highlighting key texts and arguments, and drawing some thought-provoking conclusions along the way.
The first chapter – Sin – examines the development of Christian theologies of sex and sin in the Catholic Church within Germanic and Mediterranean cultures from their roots in late Rome to the disputes of the Reformation, demonstrating both continuities and discontinuities in Christian attitudes to sex, and highlighting that there was a highly diverse range of opinions. The authors ponder to what extent that these disputes actually impacted on the laity and clerics, and explores the ways in which they were continually disrupted and contested.
Chapter two – Before Heterosexuality – begins with a review of the way that historians have tended to assume that heterosexuality is normative when examining the past. Phillips & Reay argue (pace Jonathan Katz) rather, that modern concepts of heterosexual desire should not be applied uncritically to the past: “One of the great problems with the history of heterosexuality is that we all think we know what it is. Whole generations of historians, art historians and literary critics have just assumed that the desires and actions of those in the past are expressions of the same sexual impulses and frameworks that we have today.” This chapter alone makes Sex before sexuality worth a close reading.
The authors point out that sex was licit between married partners (or those in a pre-marital condition) but desire could be found in a wide range of other conditions. They argue that that sex between married partners was not the private affair we consider it to be today, but that sexual acts both within and external to marriage were subject to public scrutiny and policed. That oral sex was held to be a greater sin than rape, and as they point out: “in Italy a rapist might be forced to marry his unmarried victim is an indication that we are talking about different sexual worlds.” They consider courtly love, marriage patterns across Europe, and John Donne’s understanding of sex as humoral – – driven by the body’s particular constitution, and by its heat and abundance of blood that physically produced lust and desire for the act of sex rather than the desire for a particular other.
In the third chapter – Between Men - Phillips & Reay review a wide range of sources and argue that in premodern Europe, male/male interactions were both extensive and routine, and that in the 12th century, for example, the accusation of Sodomy referred primarily to notions of (sexual) excess and loss of self-control, rather than a particularised object choice. Drawing on studies of Renaissance Florence (Micheal Rocke) and parts of Early Modern Spain (Cristian Berco) the authors discuss how sex between men was structured around hierarchies of age/power – hence older men penetrated younger ones, masters penetrated servants, and in general, more powerful men penetrated less powerful ones in part as a display of masculine prowess.
In Chapter four – Between Women – the authors, whilst acknowledging the premodern usage of the term “lesbian” – propose replacing it as an analytic category with Elizabeth Wahl’s phrasing – “female intimacy”. Bearing in mind the problems of interpreting female same-sex relations, they adopt the methodology suggested by Valerie Traub – examining the tropes and images of female same-sex desire; and examine cases such as male impersonation, female sodomites, manly women, tribades, and female husbands. They discuss how, in both the medieval and early modern periods, women were punished less than men for same-sex acts, and few were prosecuted (none at all in England).
Chapter five -Before Pornography – begins with a discussion of pornography as a modern category, arising in the 17th century, with texts and images designed specifically to provoke arousal. Medieval material (and material from the 15-16th centuries) – such as phallic carvings, sheela-na-gigs, early modern ballads and plays, although it may have provoked arousal in some viewers or readers, is, according to the authors, not part of the continuum of pornography. The Medieval period, for example, allowed “useful obscenity” with the aim of inculcating moral or social values. Nor, they argue, was erotic art necessarily transgressive, and they also discuss how pornography in the 17-18th centuries was frequently written as a form of political and social critique.
The epilogue -Sex at Sea? – deals with early European encounters with peoples of the Pacific in the first wave of colonial expansion, and although the authors accept that the majority of these sexual encounters were between Europeans and native women, they also touch upon accounts of female-female and male-male desire, such as Bligh’s accounts of the Tahitian mahu.
Overall, this is a fascinating and engaging book, demonstrating not only how limited contemporary notions of sexual identity are when attempting to interpret the past, but also the recency of these same formations. (less)