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Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice.

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice

London and New York: Routledge, 2000. ix + 277 pp. $22.95. ISBN: 0-415-14434-5.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks's most recent historical study of early modernity, Christianity and Sexuality, examines how Christianity, as a doctrine and as an institution, shaped sexual attitudes and practices in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America between approximately 1500 and 1750. The study begins in the sixteenth-century to mark both the doctrinal split within European Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism and the early, often religiously justified, period of European colonial expansion. The end of the period under study, Wiesner-Hanks argues, marks the beginning of the rise of secular states as the primary institutional and juridical regulators of sexuality, a new, presumably modern capitalist era of colonization, and what historians of sexuality, following Foucault, have designated as the beginning of "modern" sexuality. The book is divided into short, manageable chapters, each followed by bibliographical essays that suggest further reading. As such, the book is an ideal undergr aduate textbook: it is comprehensive but short, clear and simple but well-researched and cognizant of current debates in the scholarship. In addition, it does what few European-centered studies of the Renaissance and of Christianity do, namely provide a more global context within which to examine a European phenomenon.

It is certainly possible to quarrel with some of the particulars of Wiesner-Hanks's argument; no study that condenses such a vast temporal and geographic range of materials and analytical instruments for dealing with them could hope to be immune from such criticism. Conservative historians will likely find her orientation to social and cultural history too much informed by post-structuralist and post-colonial theory and displaying a liberal multicultural bias vis vis the identities and cultures under study. My own quibble involves her simultaneous embrace and refusal of what she identifies as the linguistic turn in history. While she seems to agree with the notion that "historical documents are 'constructed,"' and accurately characterizes the critique of the search for historical "reality" as naively positivist with respect to this notion of construction, she nevertheless calls this critique "radical," and concludes that "most historians do not take such an extreme approach" (5). The impression this sort of liberal argument conveys to students -- wrongly, I would assert -- is that it is possible to steer a middle course between the notion that what historians do is analyze a discourse (in all its verbal, visual and artifactual forms) according to a set of disciplinary conventions, and the position that historians uncover the truths of the past. While normally sympathetic to the liberal "politically correct" impulse not to offend, I find this to be a moment of analytically unsustainable compromise. Yet another (and related) theoretical quarrel I have with the introduction is its attempt to salvage the work's Eurocentric approach on the grounds of 1) availability of evidence, and 2) early modern European global hegemony (12), rather than on the grounds of the historical and linguistic training and inclinations of the scholar conducting the study. It would be a shame if another generation of students in the United States and Britain were to understand that the interested perspective from which a nation or continent examines world history is a function of the objective state of world relations rather than the bias of the nation and its historians and scholars.

That said, the work is nevertheless, at this stage, one of a kind, and, as such, cannot hope to meet all the challenges of world history and still be a clear, useful overview of its multifarious topics, Christianity and sexuality. The information and coverage in this book reveal the learnedness of its author and provide both teachers and students with an indispensable introductory perspective on early modern European Christian colonial relations and their effects in the domain of sexuality. This text thus prove enormously valuable in the classroom. Even those scholars specializing in the history of sexuality of early modern Europe will find useful information and an enlargement of perspective in this compact, yet wide-ranging, study. Finally, it has the particular virtue of opening up, rather than shutting down, discussion and debate about its subject matter.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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