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LHMP #304 Crawford 2007 European Sexualities 1400-1800

Full citation: 

Crawford, Katherine. 2007. European Sexualities, 1400-1800. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521548403

One of the problems with trying to summarize this sort of encyclopedic work is that either you take far too many notes or you simply sketch out an outline. I started out doing the former and ended up with the latter. But in typing up my notes, I’ve pared it all down to more of an outline. This isn’t a commentary on the quality of the book, only on the genre.

Overall, my assessment is that the book does what it sets out to do: provide an overview and context for understanding sexuality topics in the 15-18th centuries. As part of that context, it includes a fair amount of earlier history, and here I think it is slightly flawed in sometimes not clearly distinguishing time era being discussed at any given point. It also doesn’t necessarily to a clear job of explaining how the book’s focus period differed from what came before and after (or noting specifically when it didn’t).

That sometimes makes it hard to understand why the specific period “1400-1800” was called out. The knowledgeable reader could make their own guesses and interpretations, but for the intended audience it feels like a bit more guidance might have been helpful.

* * *


This is intended as a survey book aimed at the college undergraduate level. It opens by discussing a specific painting and talking about the complex and subtle sexual symbolism in it that would not have the same meaning in other eras. Sexual identities are not stable--the question is how and why they change. How do they relate to marital, social, and legal status? The nature and object of one’s desire was not considered to define one’s sexual identity until the late 19th century. This book looks at how that change happened. [Note: as mentioned in my introduction, I’m not actually sure that the book does a good job of that.]

The book tries to negotiate between the concepts of social construction versus essentialism. Both individual experience and how identity is represented are taken into account. The book discusses how changes in the practice of history have made topics relating to sexuality more accessible. Foucault’s role in the field is noted but also critiqued. There are examples of categories of early modern sexuality and a discussion of how vocabulary will be used in the book, for example the definition of what constitutes “sex” (as an act).

Chapter 1: Marriage and Family

In Western culture the attitude that sex was only truly licit within marriage means that changing conceptions and practices around marriage affect sexuality in general. The understanding of marriage was built from widely differing sources: ideas about health and reproduction, legal status, and moral principles. Looking from another angle, changes in attitudes about the function of pleasure, desire, and affection drove changes in attitudes toward marriage.

Marriage as a social institution was never simple or “natural” but needed to constantly shaped and controlled. One shift during the 1400-1800 era was from a view of marriage shaped by Christian antipathy toward physical pleasure to an emphasis on spousal complementarity, i.e., the “companionate” marriage. There was also a shift from marriage as an economic contract between lineages to an affective bond between individuals. The home became privileged as a site of sensual pleasure.

The book discusses and challenges theories that pre-modern families were not “affectionate” and were sites of autocratic authority and violent conflict. Individual texts can both support and contradict this view. Further, the companionate marriage, as conceived at the time, was still highly patriarchal and did not replace earlier forms in any consistent way.

Some economic theories of marriage focus instead on the shift from land as wealth (with marriage used to control transmission) to a market economy based on moveable wealth. The market economy involved more individual risk, but this could be balanced by the mutual commitment brought to it in a companionate marriage.

Demographic studies have contributed to the analysis showing that the image of the large extended family doesn’t hold. The average household size in many parts of Europe in the 16-19th centuries was 3-5, more aligned with the idea of the “nuclear family”. (It’s unclear if this average includes household servants in the calculation.)

Europe saw two general family patterns. In one, a man and woman of roughly equal age set up an independent household, with marriage occurring in the late 20s due to the need to accumulate resources for that goal. For non-elite couples, this might mean delaying marriage until the death of a parent passed on wealth.

In the second model, an older man (typically in his 30s) who was economically established married a younger woman (often in her later teens), with the marriage often arranged by the parents. Dowry (a monetary payment by the woman’s family) was often part of this system, putting economic limits on a woman’s marriage options.

Based on the premise that most people have sexual desires, these models create  different social strains. In the first marriage pattern, the delay in marriage age risked sexual frustration and illicit sex for both parties. In the second marriage pattern, unmarried men were expected to seek sexual outlets outside of the marriage pool (either with prostitutes or with other men) while the sexual “purity” of unmarried women was controlled by physical seclusion. In the case of never-married women, convents were one means of seclusion.

Thus we wee that the overall pattern of marriage affected sexuality well beyond the specific couple in question.

Demographics point to other sexual practices such as family planning. But demographics can’t provide data on emotions, so this approach leads to seeking out purely functional causes rather than emotional ones. Some demographic patterns are confounding, such as an association of lower illegitimacy rates when marriage is later. Family planning techniques and lore were widespread, which might lend some explanation. Among elite populations, shifts in marriage age were more drastic and harder to explain by simple economic factors.

As noted above, late marriage meant a person could spend much of their live living without a licit sexual outlet. A certain percentage (depending on class and locale) never married. Up to 25% of the English elite in the 18th century never married, in part due to the tension between the need to ensure an heir and the desire to funnel wealth to a single heir. This tended to produce “surplus” offspring who did not have the resources to establish an independent household.

In Catholic lands, convents functioned to house “surplus” women to ensure chastity, regardless of vocation. As men were not held to the same standard of chastity, unmarried men were allowed more options. And in Protestant lands after the Reformation, religious institutions weren’t an option.

By 1800, though marriage was still the only licit context for sex, it was unavailable to many adults for extended periods of time, creating a crisis due to the Christian position that procreation was the only legitimate purpose of sex. Protestant sects sometimes held that sexual pleasure could be a benefit in creating a stronger marriage bond, but Protestant positions on sex and marriage only gradually began to diverge and allow more flexibility, e.g., with regard to divorce, and generally this was accessible only to the elite.

Protestant positions of marriage could be extremely varied, but a general consensus began to emerge that considered religious celibacy undesirable, and mutual, companionate marriage a preferred for as a guard against adultery. Within this context, control over marriage began to shift from the church to the state.

When family-arranged marriages were the default, love was separated from marriage as a concept. Not until the shift to companionate marriage did passionate love within marriage become promoted as the ideal. As women were considered to be even more sexually driven than men, the image of the “uncontrolled wife” emerged--a woman whose husband was not satisfying her and therefore sought other outlets. Entire genres of humor and satire operated on this premise. But despite this motif, in practice, men were more sexually disruptive and the tacit allowance for prostitution was intended to “protect” the chastity of respectable women as much as to allow for the satisfaction of men’s desires.

Forms of marriage contract and various rituals around the creation of a marriage are discussed. The conclusion is that gradually, between 1400-1800 , there was a shift to an expectation that marriage would be based on the mutual love and desire between the prospective spouses.

Chapter 2: Religion and Sexuality

Note: I originally took a lotof notes on this chapter, but really it’s just a recapitulation Christian attitudes toward sex and pleasure. There is significant discussion of how the rise of Protestantism shifted some of these attitudes. The chapter includes an extended history of classical attitudes toward sex and the evolution of Christian thought through the medieval period.

I don’t think the reader is served by my attempts to summarize. This is detailed stuff and any attempt to summarize boils down to: Sex bad; non-procreative sex worse; all pleasure suspect; confess and do penance unless you’re a Protestant then just hope for the grace of God. But that oversimplification isn’t really useful, so I’m tossing most of the notes I made and will simply point out that if you want to understand social attitudes toward sexuality in Western culture, you need to understand both Christianity’s official attitudes and the varied ways in which those attitudes were expressed and adopted in everyday culture.

As with the control of marriage, the control of sexuality began to shift from the church to the state during the target era of this book.

Chapter 3: The Science of Sex

This chapter recapitulates the historical understandings of the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as the medical and philosophical concepts that shaped those understandings. The text covers humoral theory, theories of anatomical difference, medical theories around sex and procreation, and treatments based on those theories. It looks at the consequences of the “one sex” model and the place of sexual pleasure in theories of health. Medical text of the 16-17th century discuss the importance of female pleasure in procreation and how to enhance it.

The impact of venereal diseases on sexual attitudes starts around 1500. From being the subject of bawdy humor in the 17th century it began to reshape sexual practice in the 18th.

Chapter 4: Sex and Crime

This is another chapter where I took entirely too many notes and am going to trim my summary way down.

In the texts quoted in the introduction to this chapter, it’s strike to what extent sexual crimes are consistently defined as crimes of women. Adultery? The woman is “stealing” her husband’s property for another man’s child. Rape? The victim has failed to be virtuous. Infanticide? Always assumed to be the mother’s act.

This book classifies sexual crimes according to what social structure they disrupt. While there was concern about sexual crimes in the abstract, especially given the community’s role in identifying and pursuing offenders, it is this disruptive potential that was often key.

Crimes against the family structure were a major focus: adultery, rape, bastardy, bigamy. In the medieval period these were treated more as property crimes, but opinions shifted to considering them more personal offenses. But crimes against the family could be viewed as responses to the failure of society to address structural problems within that family. For example, bigamy was most often a response to the inability to dissolve a marriage in the case of desertion or extended absence.

Crimes against nature was an ambiguous category, but the term generally attracted the harshest disapproval. Sodomy was the central example, but it was variously defined. Official penalties were often harsh, including death, but studies show they were rarely and unevenly enforced. By 1400-1800 “sodomy” had primarily come to mean male-male anal sex, but it was still used occasionally in other senses. Sex between women, though technically a “crime against nature,” rarely came to the attention and concern of the law unless there was also a gender offense, such as cross-dressing or the use of a penetrative instrument. Other crimes in this group include bestiality and infanticide. [Note: although the text doesn’t seem to address this specifically, the “against nature” label was because it was felt that human beings naturallydesired heterosexual relations with human beings, and that a parent naturallywould protect rather than harm a child.]

Crimes against the community covered things like incest (though the consanguinity rules meant this label could be applied broadly, not only to immediate family members), sexual slander, and prostitution.

The final category is crimes against God, where religious offences intersected with sex. This could include sex with a non-Christian or sex with those in holy orders.

Chapter 5: Deviancy and the Cultures of Sex

This chapter discusses sex as situated within culture frameworks that add meaning to particular practices.  Examples include the rise of “molly houses” (subcultures catering to sex between men), and the culture of pornography and “deviant” sexual acts. The chapter looks at sexual aspects of the revival of classical literature in the Renaissance, and from a slightly different angle, the evolution of the neo-platonic ideal of love. These inputs fueled a culture of sex for the sake of pleasure, rather than purely for procreation.

There is a brief acknowledgement of the tendency of historians to overlook the idea of cultures of female homoeroticism, followed by a discussion of parallel cultures of women’s romantic friendships and the evidence of a lively vocabulary describing sex between women. Also noted is the 17-18th century obsession with the image of macro-clitoral women. Other f/f sexual cultures include the phenomenon of “female husbands” and imagined all-female societies in literature.

The rise of pornography is also noted as a sexual culture.


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