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Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay, Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History (Polity, 2011)

Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay, Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity: Cambridge and Malden, MA, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5. 200 pp. Hbk £50. Pbk. £16.99.

Reviewed by Ruth Evans

[1]  This admirably compact volume is the first study, excluding essay collections, of European sexuality for the period c.1100-1800. It is rare to find a cultural history that crosses the boundary between the medieval and early modern, gives equal weight to both periods (an important exception is Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s edited collection Premodern Sexualities) and discusses changes across the boundary. In addition, what this study offers over its competitor multi-authored anthologies is a single methodological focus. The authors – one a medievalist historian, the other a specialist in the history of sexuality – argue that too many historians describe premodern sex using categories and concepts of sexuality that are simply not applicable to that past. Heterosexuality, homosexuality, pornography: all are late nineteenth-century terms that describe modern phenomena in which sexuality is mainly organized around identity politics – one’s sexual identity constituting, as Michel Foucault has it, the ‘truth’ of the self. But in the premodern period, as the authors repeatedly emphasize, sexual identity is not a valid category.So how do Phillips and Reay understand ‘sex before sexuality’? Their approach is historicist and broadly constructionist, but they do not seek to trace long genealogies as Foucault does. They do not use psychoanalysis, and they openly distance themselves from non-discontinuist approaches, such as Madhavi Menon’s queer historiography. They do not advance new theorisations of sexuality, such as Annamarie Jagose’s elaboration of ‘sexual sequence’ (2002), nor do they present fresh evidence from the archives. Instead, they perform the impressive feat of synthesizing a vast amount of historical scholarship on premodern Western sex, a synthesis that goes far beyond being merely a survey of the field because of their consistent emphasis on the inadequacy of modern terminology and their sensitive, lucid analyses of key texts and complex issues, analyses that often present new interpretations (for example, of the relationship between Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis, or of the famous case of Benedetta Carlini, the ‘lesbian nun’).

[2]  Central to their methodology is the problematization of heterosexuality found in the groundbreaking work of Jonathan Ned Katz (1995), Karma Lochrie (2005, 2011) and James Schultz (2006a and b). This work is well known to literary and cultural critics, although not perhaps to historians, to whom this book is largely addressed. Although Phillips and Reay tend to press their case too hard in places, privileging differences over continuities and figuring historians as irredeemably recalcitrant, this emphasis on historical difference is valuable in prising apart a range of categories and evaluating the past in its own terms. They argue, for example, that ‘the history of effeminacy belongs as much in the prehistory of heterosexuality as it does in that of pre-homosexuality’ (79). Sometimes homosex ‘before homosexuality’ was on a heterosexual continuum, as with the Earl of Rochester’s allusions to ‘using’ boys, best understood not as homosexual or homoerotic but as the discourse of libertinism; sometimes homosex concerned explicit preference: what Richard Godbeer calls ‘erotic predilection’, although this is not to be confused, the authors contend, with modern sexual identity.

[3]  The book begins with a discussion of early Christian culture’s focus on sexual acts and desires as species of sin, but it argues for a narrative of discontinuity in Christian thinking about Eros, by contrast with dominant view that once the connection had been made it was entrenched. The chapter on ‘heterosexuality before heterosexuality’ (Schultz’s useful phrase) considers the ‘fluid nature’ (43) of male-female attraction and arousal in the period. Courtly love (where courtly appearance trumps biological dimorphism), marriage as an institution with different European patterns, and John Donne’s understanding of sex as humoral are, they argue, radically different from heterosexuality as we know it today. The chapter on male-male relations focuses on three sites for ‘pre-homosexual’ meaning in medieval and early modern culture: sodomy, friendship and effeminacy. The analysis deals with a range of nuances: gender difference, age, power, geography, class, and male friendship’s potential for slippage between bonds of deep affectivity and what Robert Mills has termed ‘the spectre of Sodom’ (75).

[4]  Although ‘lesbian’, unlike ‘homosexual,’ is a premodern word, Phillips and Reay propose renouncing it altogether, preferring Elizabeth Wahl’s term ‘female intimacy’ (88). Given the problems of interpretation of female same-sex relations (for example, contemporaries did not describe the marriage of Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt in London in 1680 as lesbian), the authors opt for Valerie Traub’s methodology: considering how to render intelligible female same-sex desire by examining its tropes and images. Male impersonation is one such trope: thus, female sodomites, early modern manly women, the ‘tribade,’ and ‘female husbands’. While early modern female homoeroticism was ubiquitous, evidence from the Middle Ages is more fragmentary, but in both periods women were punished less than men for same-sex acts and few were prosecuted – and none in England.

[5]  As for pornography, the authors note that it is a modern category that emerges during the seventeenth century with the explicit aim of arousal (Giulio Romano, Pietro Aretino, and later libertine literature). Medieval and fifteenth/sixteenth-century material (sexual badges, phallic carvings, sheela-na-gigs, the torture and death of virgin martyr saints, Gwerful Mechain’s eulogization of the vulva, pastourelles, fabliaux, early modern ballads and plays), even though it might have aroused some viewers and readers, is not therefore part of a continuum of pornography. Some of it was designed to inculcate moral and social values, as well as entertain: in the authors’ felicitous words, ‘medieval culture could incorporate a kind of useful obscenity’ (119). Nor was deliberately erotic art necessarily transgressive: the authors cite Michael Camille’s observation that bawdy images in the margins of medieval manuscripts serve to confirm the hegemony of the dominant culture. And pornography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not always an end in itself, as today: its purpose was often satirical and political, or used to attack the crown.

[6]  An intriguing if all too brief Epilogue, ‘Sex at Sea?’, considers the European sexual encounter with Pacific Oceanic peoples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Voyagers frequently saw the Pacific islands as a paradise of licentiousness where women willingly exchanged sex for material goods: nails, shirts. But such encounters were not, the authors argue, always straightforwardly heterosexual, or straightforwardly about European control: contemporary images linger on the aesthetic attractions of male bodies; some Pacific peoples may have sought through sex to acquire the sacred power of their visitors.

[7]  This is a well executed and reliably informative book, with few weaknesses. Despite their caution about terminology, Phillips and Reay do not problematise all their categories, notably, ‘the erotic’, and ‘normal/normative/norms’: as Lochrie has argued (2011), these last terms are from the late nineteenth-century science of statistics; the closest category in the Middle Ages would be the natural. Except in the chapter ‘Between Women,’ legal aspects of sex are not sufficiently foregrounded. With notable exceptions (the history of sodomy; pornography), historical narratives are not always easy to follow. The ‘severance of pleasure from reproduction’ (129) indeed antedates Fanny Hill, but the authors should specify its appearance in courtly fictions of the twelfth-century. Not all medievalists will agree with their insistence that premodern people had no sense of sexual identity (to be fair, the authors do argue that eighteenth-century mollies are a possible exception). Boys played women not only on the early modern English stage (5-6, 72) but in performances of the English mystery plays of the late fourteenth to late sixteenth centuries. In the phrase ‘Cleopatra boy’ (5), from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, ‘boy’ is a verb, not a noun: the full quotation reads: ‘I shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness [i.e. play me as a boy actor] / I’ th’ posture of a whore’. Foucault does not equate medieval anxieties about ‘spiritual readiness for eternity’ (18) with modern psychological preoccupations with the truth of the self; rather, the practice of confession is the precursor of modern techniques for implanting the truth of the self. The authors confuse a technique and a sensibility. Phillips and Reay persuasively demonstrate how blinkered our current terms and concepts are when it comes to understanding sex in this earlier period, but they could be explicit about why this matters for sexuality today: it cautions us against seeing our own sexual categories as transparent and universal. There is, regrettably, no Bibliography.

[8]  This is an indispensable book for historians and literary scholars alike: a succinct introduction to the field that breaks new ground in its embrace of both the medieval and the early modern. Its focus is on post-1100 Christian European subjects, but there are tantalizing references to sex in Anglo-Saxon England and in premodern Jewish, Arab-Islamic and American cultures, references that will usefully prompt further research.

Saint Louis University, June 2012



Works Cited

Fradenburg, Louise, and Carla Freccero, (eds). 1996. Premodern Sexualities (New York and London: Routledge)

Jagose, Annamarie. 2002. Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press)

Katz, Jonathan Ned. 1995. The Invention of Heterosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Lochrie, Karma. 2011. ‘Heterosexualities,’ in A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages, A Cultural History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, ed. by Ruth Evans (Oxford: Berg), 37-56

Lochrie, Karma. 2005. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)

Menon, Madhavi. 2008. Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film (New York: Palgrave MacMillan)

Schultz, James A. 2006a. ‘Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1: 14-29

Schultz, James A. 2006b. Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England (Continuum International, 2011)

Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Trials of Margaret Clitherow: Persecution, Martyrdom and the Politics of Sanctity in Elizabethan England. Continuum International: London/ New York, 2011. ISBN: 9781441104366. XIX+244 pp. Pbk. £19.99.

Reviewed by Adam Morton

[1]  In this superb display of historical imagination Peter Lake and Michael Questier demonstrate how one horrendous event — the pressing to death of a Catholic woman, Margaret Clitherow, at York in March 1586 — can be suggestive of a great deal about the community and state in which it occurred. Clitherow — a devout butcher’s wife — was executed after refusing to plead to the charge of harbouring seminary priests in her home. Having converted to Catholicism two or three years after her marriage in 1571 to a husband who remained Protestant, Clitherow balanced her role as wife, mother and manager of a butcher’s shop with her devotional life, opening her home to Catholic priests and services. In the face of a resurgent European Catholicism and, from 1568, the presence in England of a potential heir to Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots, such activities were understood to be dangerous. At the instigation of her father in law — Henry May, Lord Mayor of York — and a vocal part of the community Clitherow was consequently brought before the Council of the North, led by the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon. Here then, the expression of personal faith had caused conflict in families, communities and politics both local and national. It is the interaction of these elements in the life of Clitherow which Lake and Questier strive to unpick as means of peering into the evolution of post-Reformation inter-confessional politics in late sixteenth century England.

[2]  In traditional historiography her execution was seen to encapsulate the cruelty of the Protestant regime. For Lake and Questier, however, Clitherow tells us much more. Building on the previous generation of scholarship which has qualified the quiescent nature of the post-Reformation Catholic Community they suggest that Clitherow — and the Catholics who recorded her fate — were far from ‘victims’ passive in the face of a monolithic state. Rather Clitherow is indicative of the potential radicalism inherent within the Catholic community’s attitude towards that state. The issue here was not solely one of heresy, but order. Recusant women challenged traditional bonds of both patriarchy and gender relations (encapsulated in Clitherow’s refusal to submit to the authority of her Protestant husband) and society and politics (the law understood refusal to attend Church as an affront to monarchical authority). To read Clitherow’s confrontation with the state is therefore — Lake and Questier suggest — to learn much about the politics of religious change in Reformation England. Indeed, Clitherow’s example is suggestive on a range of issues — the relationship of national and local politics, the status of ‘others’ within the community, the role of those communities within larger political and confessional networks, and female agency in early modern England — all of which are detailed with aplomb.

[3]  Indeed in truth, this book is as much about the Catholic Community as it is Clitherow. The second half details how Clitherow’s memory was used in various intra-Catholic disputes. Clitherow became a prism through which conflicts concerning the ways in which Catholics should navigate the challenges of ecclesiastical dissent: could one reconcile the practice of an heretical faith with loyalty to the Queen and her state? Significant here was her treatment by Thomas Bell — who suggested that Catholics should attend Church of England services as an expression of loyalty to their Queen and posited strategies for alleviating the consciences of those who did so — and seminary priests like John Mush — who argued that to do so was to accept heresy, and consequently advocated separation (whatever the consequences). In Mush’s account of her martyrdom, Clitherow is not only an embodiment of a triumphant victim cruelly condemned for her ardent spiritual convictions, but an encapsulation of the ideal English Catholic (as the seminary priests saw it) — one whose life and devotion discredited those believers who expressed timidity in the face of persecution. Reading Clitherow’s life thus is perhaps in tension with the earlier aspects of this book — Clitherow is an abstraction through which Catholics debated the status of their faith, and yet historians are able to read ‘against the grain’ of those abstractions to uncover the truth of her role within the community and the circumstances leading to her prosecution — but the inventiveness with which Lake and Questier approach their sources yields rich rewards, particularly in demonstrating the role of a nascent ‘public sphere’ in contesting meaning within post-Reformation England.

[4]  We will continue to argue about Clitherow. What Lake and Questier have done is to show how fruitful doing so can be for historians, and what the life of one woman can reveal about the workings of the communities in which she lived — both local and national — more broadly. Indeed, this account of Clitherow has much to tell us about how a nation evolving its collective identity processed and understood those who were ideologically ‘other’. However, in light of recent scholarship unpicking what Willem Frijhoff terms the ‘ecumenicity of the everyday’ — how people of different confessional affiliations rubbed along in the face of official and legal intolerance — it is worth suggesting that studies of Clitherow’s antithesis, those Catholics who were open in their faith yet strove to co-exist with Protestants within the bonds of community, would be equally revealing of the processes of the state, the workings of communities and the status of Catholicism in post-Reformation England. Clitherow was no ordinary Catholic — whilst begrudging toleration and the vicissitudes of neighbourliness might not leave such extensive traces upon the historical record or be as overtly captivating objects of study, they remain an important and vital corollary to Clitherow’s tale in need of substantial historical contextualisation in order to demonstrate how truly exceptional that tale was.

University of York, June 2012

Chris Stamatakis, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Rhetoric of Rewriting: ‘Turning the Word’ (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Chris Stamatakis, Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Rhetoric of Rewriting: ‘Turning the Word’. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-19964440-7. XI+263 pp. Hbk. £60.

Reviewed by Will Rossiter

[1]  It may come as a surprise but there have been relatively few monographs dedicated to the study of Wyatt, and the majority of those few were published thirty or more years ago — namely those by Kenneth Muir (1963), Patricia Thomson (1964), Raymond Southall (1964), H.A. Mason (1972) and Richard Harrier (1975). There has of course been a number of important article-length studies, such as those by Joost Daalder, Thomas Greene, Stephen Greenblatt, and more recently Jason Powell and Susan Brigden, but it remains remarkable that Wyatt has not received more lengthy studies. It is not as if his life and work are short of incident. Given this paucity, Chris Stamatakis’s monograph is a welcome addition, and not only welcome but timely, given the forthcoming collected poetry and prose by Powell and Brigden’s soon to be published biography. Indeed, Stamatakis acknowledges the input of both Powell and Brigden, which is no bad thing.

[2]  Stamatakis’s study also illustrates a shift in Wyatt studies away from Greenblatt’s seminal new historicist analysis (in Renaissance Self-Fashioning), which, understandably, led to a spate of less-convincing essays providing a quasi-Foucauldian discussion of Wyatt’s poetry (but not his prose) in relation to inwardness, discourse and panoptic power. The approach of Stamatakis is noticeably more new philological than new historicist, and his study of Wyatt’s textuality — the importance of the material conditions and processes of Wyatt’s poetry and prose relative to our reading and understanding of them — marks a clear return to the archive. As Stamatakis writes in his Prologue, ‘Wyatt’s texts often suggest a self-conscious interest in the vagaries of both written and spoken discourse and in various practices of verbal turning. Indeed, his poetry’s continual interrogation of linguistic meaning, its designed elusiveness of reference, and the manifold transformations and recontextualizations that it undergoes, mean that stable, biographic identifications between the Wyatt who writes and the ‘I’ who speaks become all the more doubtful or fragile’ (3). Wyatt’s output is thus seen to turn (from) its sources, to turn its own meaning over the course of a single text, or between dyadic texts, and be turned by the courtly readership who engaged with it and gave it its afterlife (a form of translation akin to Walter Benjamin’s Überleben).

[3]  However, the archival turn does not entail that more modern theory has no place in this study, far from it. Stamatakis draws directly and indirectly on Saussurean semiotics, Derridean différance, Baudrillard’s (and Iser’s) indeterminacy and a variety of reception theories, all of which are brought into relation with early modern hermeneutics as a means of exploring ‘Wyatt’s paradigm of instant inconstancy and perpetual turning’ (196), and his use of ‘metatextual wordplay’ (194) in order ‘to comment self-referentially on the game of social converse’ (189). Indeed, Stamatakis provides his own hermeneutic framework in his Prologue: ‘Each chapter will align a theme with a particular trope (or verbal ‘turn’) and also with a type of reading, and will substantiate these practices with reference to material textuality’ (35).

[4]  Chapter 1, which explores ‘the idiosyncratic textuality and ‘grammar’ of Wyatt’s prose translation and apologias’ (35) also situates that textuality relative to early sixteenth-century literary practice, drawing on Erasmian humanism and Lutheran theology in order to illustrate the context to Wyatt’s conception of semantic ‘turning’ in his 1541 Defence and The Quyete of Mynde (1528). The superlative discussion of collatio, commentary and hermeneutics in this chapter might have said a little more about the late medieval critical apparatus which the sixteenth century inherited, as has been discussed by Rita Copeland and A.J. Minnis, just as Stamatakis later acknowledges the medieval influence upon Tudor lyrics or balets (as he rightly terms them). Chapter 2 — in accordance with the schema outlined earlier — examines how in ‘Wyatt’s ‘paraphrases’ of the penitential psalms, fallen words demand a paraphrasing rewriting (theme), as witnessed by restorative rescriptions within Wyatt’s text (trope); his paraphrases seem to have been read not simply as confessional records but as sites of lexical redemption (type of reading), as encoded in Egerton’s interlineations (bibliographic code)’ (35). Stamatakis provides a fascinating account of Wyatt’s substitutions, amendments and turning of his sources, which entail that his version of the psalms ‘transforms what is a narrative progression in his models into an explicitly linguistic progression, whereby a fallen lexis is redeemed through the material agency of the written Word’ (76), via ‘interlineation and redemptive echo’ (81). Stamatakis also rightly points out that ‘Much ink has been spilt on the penitential or ‘inward’ aspect of Wyatt’s psalm paraphrases and comparatively little on what is paraphrastic about them’ (72); as such, one would more expect more discussion of what Wyatt does with Aretino’s Italian, but this is not really addressed in detail. Ultimately, Wyatt’s paraphrases are seen to ‘locate the interrelated redemptions of both penitent sinner and of language in a chirographic sphere […] a recognition that the speaker’s redeemed discourse depends in part on a graphocentric space, the Word turned into material words on material pages’ (92).

[5]  The emphasis upon rescription relative to an anterior model continues in Chapter 3, which is perhaps the most ambitious chapter of the study, taking as its focus Wyatt’s letters to his son, his diplomatic correspondence and his verse epistles (satires). According to Stamatakis’s hermeneutic model, ‘Wyatt’s epistolary output responds to previous letters or models (theme), and foregrounds avenues for future rescription or performance (trope); Wyatt’s verse epistles and prose letters can be read as performative prompts to readerly action (type of reading), as suggested variously by item-placement, hand-type, and divergent witnesses (bibliographic code)’ (35). This might be as much as one would expect of the epistolary mode — letters respond to previous letters suggesting material for future correspondence or action. The contextualization of Wyatt’s letters to his son relative to   sixteenth-century epistolary guidance, such as that dispensed by Erasmus, Elyot and Ascham, and in particular Richard Pace’s De fructu (1516-17), works very well, although the metaphor whereby people are reduced to texts perhaps is made to bear too much weight, interesting though it is: ‘Sir Henry-as-text is to be faithfully reproduced by and as the descendant script that follows in the patrilineal stemma […] biographical relations are recast as typographic, copy-textual ones’ (112, 116). This chapter is much more convincing in its discussion of the verse epistles than in its discussion of the diplomatic correspondence. Arguing that the latter are ‘more than historico-political documents recording ambassadorial activities’ (128), that they also affirm ‘social ties between sender and receiver’ (117), or that Wyatt’s letters ‘continually strive for a performative bridge between words and enactment’ (130), does not tell us a great deal about the specificity of Wyatt’s diplomatic missives, although Stamatakis does acknowledge the pre-established conventions of such correspondence. Wyatt’s verse epistles also respond to established conventions, namely the dichotomies of classical satire, yet, as Stamatakis argues, ‘Wyatt’s rewriting of his source-texts dismantles these staple dichotomies — these topographic binaries of here and there, country and court, ridiculing satirist and ridiculed adversarius, a stoic ideal and its debased antitypes’ (133). Chapter 4, akin to its predecessor, considers Wyatt’s reception and rescription of established forms and conventions, in this case the poetics of post-Chaucerian courtly verse, with a view to reforming that poetics via ‘artful unconventionality’ (35). Moreover, Wyatt’s balets ‘seek to engender a knowing “company” of readers (theme), from whom dialogic answer-poems are often sought (trope)’ (35).

[6]  The Epilogue reinforces the ‘continuell chaunge’ of Wyatt’s output not only at the verbal or thematic level but also ‘in the external handling of the material text’ (196–7). Stamatakis illustrates this change by comparing four different redactions of the rondeau ‘Behold love’ as they are situated in the Egerton MS (both in Egerton’s Hand A and relative to Nicholas Grimald’s emendations), in the circulatory Devonshire MS, and in Tottel’s Songes and Sonettes (1557). Tellingly, whilst discussing the wordplay that is lost in translation in modern editions of Wyatt, Stamatakis cites J. V. Crewe’s statement that ‘to print Wyatt modernized is to censor his work’ (194). Indeed, the emphasis throughout is manifestly on the original documents and their particularity (modern editions of early modern texts very rarely get a look in), which is of course consonant with Stamatakis’s project and argument.

[7]  One might cavil at the argument that the majority, if not all, of Wyatt’s output constituted a self-reflexive, performative commentary upon its own material production, ontology and projected reception. There are indeed varying degrees of such autoreflexivity in Wyatt’s work — which Stamatakis is right to identify and which it would be folly to deny — but its universality is open to question. Nevertheless, Stamatakis’s examinations of the Wyatt manuscripts and his sophisticated close readings of his verbal turning are persuasive. Indeed, this is a necessary, engaging, scholarly study which deserves to be read, and with care. Wyatt’s manuscripts and textual afterlives are no less fascinating than the content of his poetry and prose, and Stamatakis does an admirable job reminding us of that.

 Liverpool Hope University, June 2012