European Sexualities, 1400-1800.
This book is part of the Cambridge New Approaches to European History series, which aims to survey the scholarship on various topics and themes in the region's history, and to contextualize them in relation to wider international debates. The intended audience is both undergraduates and newcomers to the field at higher levels (for example, myself, as an Africanist, who often has to rely upon second or third hand accounts of aspects of European history for the background for my research on the colonial encounter in Africa). This book offers a succinct, clearly written short-cut directly into the wealth of research and the wide array of debates around sexuality in a period of great transformations.
The book will also be of value to those trained in traditional approaches to historical research and who may not appreciate the ways that sexuality (and gender relations) affected, and were affected by, other big social constructions like class, politics, and religion. The introductory chapter provides a compelling justification of the need to incorporate questions about sexuality into historical research of all kinds, with due cautions about the methodological difficulties that such questioning entails. Each chapter ends with a bibliographic essay that not only recommends key texts but reveals the great range of sources needed to tease out meaning from very subtle and often hidden discourses about specific sexual practices and sexualized spaces.
The pioneers in the field, notably Michel Foucault, are acknowledged with both praise and criticism of their contributions mostly in the 1970s and 80s. Author Katherine Crawford (an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in early modern France) then quickly moves on to discuss the more rigorous and sophisticated scholarship that has arisen since the 1990s. Chapters are organized thematically: marriage and family, religion, science, crime, and deviancy. This does create for considerable overlap, if not repetition. It is also immediately apparent to me as an Africanist that there is an entire chapter (theme) missing. Not unlike Foucault, Crawford has neglected to consider scholarship that explores the ways that sexuality is implicated in the construction of racial and ethnic difference.
The geographic scope of the book tends to be limited to the major countries of Western Europe, reflecting the predominance of that part of the region in the production of knowledge and in the density of surviving, accessible sources. Time-wise, the material is presented more or less chronologically in each chapter with a tendency to devote greater focus on the 18th century, the period when the written archive is richest, the debates most complex, and change most discernible.
What factors contributed to change (for example, the emergence of new ideas and practices around prostitution, sodomy, adultery, female orgasm, masturbation, rape, abortion, birth control, and so forth)? Decreasing anxiety about reproduction, due in part to increasing prosperity, explains part of this history. In equalities in the distribution of the benefits of increased economic production also factor in as control and contestation of sexuality were so closely bound up with the ways that political power was expressed. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation thus involved not only titanic military confrontations but also struggles in the intellectual realm to define appropriate sexuality. Complicating those struggles was the re-discovery of classical writings about sexuality during the Renaissance, which contributed to the rise of the notion of sex for pleasure, divorced from both reproduction and moralism. The latter theme is developed in the final chapter on "deviancy" which traces the emergence of same-sex subcultures, and of erotica in literature and art.
Given the richness of the historiography and the breadth of time and space under consideration, it is not surprising that important authors are only briefly discussed. The Marquis de Sade, for example, warrants a single paragraph, while John Boswell, the pioneering historian of "gay" people in early modern Europe, gets but a single footnote. Specialists in a number of areas may feel slighted, but, for the purposes of the series, this helps to manage the cacophony and to produce a readable and coherent narrative.
Finally, some of the underlying assumptions, and the political prescriptions that flow from them and that are explicitly laid out toward the end of the book, are open to debate. Crawford states at the onset that sexuality in the modern era is the "pre-eminent personal reference frame" (page 4). Understanding how it came to be so may, Crawford posits, allow us to construct a society where "sexuality is given space to be as protean, gratifying and expressive as possible" (10). No mention of health? And the conclusion to the deviancy chapter argues that, since attempts to repress transgressions from the dominant sexual norms have failed in every era, liberalism and tolerance of diversity "should perhaps apply to sexual choice" (227). Mention is made of the importance of consent and the principle of do no harm to guide this future culture of tolerance, which is presumably the basis upon which Crawford states that some sexual behaviours "should be policed."
Given the terrible history of repression, exploitation, and hypocrisy just reviewed, who exactly does this policing will be an important issue. European Sexualities, 1400-1800 will equip readers for an informed debate.
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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