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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)