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LHMP #161 Traub 2016 Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2016. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812223897

Publication summary: 

Theoretical considerations of studying sexuality in the early modern period.

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Chapter 1 - Thinking Sex: Knowledge, Opacity, History

This book is historiography rather than history, that is, it takes a strongly theory-intensive look at the ways in which sex and sexuality are studied and raises questions about the current process of doing history around the topic of sex. Sexuality is used as a lens to examine how people in history (and today) think. In particular, it’s concerned with the concept of knowledge and what it means for a person to “know” something sexual, whether as an individual in history or as a historian studying the topic. Different approaches to the identification and understanding of knowing make sex a difficult topic to study as well as a site of conflict.

One example of these approaches is the question of how we divide the world between passionate friendship and eroticism. When is a kiss (or an embrace, or the sharing of a bed) just a kiss and when is it erotic? The book has a strong focus on women’s experience and the ways it has been excluded from study. Because of this, Traub is very inclusive of female same-sex experience, and often focuses specifically on the ways in which female same-sex eroticism has been excluded or erased from larger theoretical movements in historical study.

Chapter 2 - Friendship’s Loss: Alan Bray’s Making of History

This chapter examines how historians have understood the interface between friendship and eroticism, focused through the lens of Alan Bray’s study of friendship and homosexuality among men in Renaissance England. He’s concerned with the contradictory position of intimate relations between men in the Renaissance which treated friendship and sodomy as clear contrasts, despite massive overlap in practice.

Although the chapter is mostly concerned with male relations, it also touches on the phenomenon of marriage between women. Traub emphasizes the different social receptions of the ideal of male versus female homoerotic relationships. One historiographical problem is that of researchers who impose moral judgments on asexual versus sexual friendships. There is a brief consideration of the intersection of documented cases of erotic desire with rituals associated with sworn friendship, as we find in the diaries of Anne Lister. Also noted are friendship rituals that partake of the forms of marriage, such as the co-burial of Ann Chitting and Mary Barber.

Chapter 3 - The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies

This chapter examines historicism and teleology, that is, the question of whether history “moves” in a meaningful direction. Do historical phenomena have systematicity and coherence or are they discontinuous? In particular, is there a connected “history of homosexuality” across the ages? What are the hazards of studying sexuality from a point of view that assumes a present enlightened truth.

Chapter 4 - The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography

Traub critiques the usefulness of an assumption of a “sameness/difference” polarity in framing women’s same-sex relationships. She notes previous major works that take a “continuist” approach to history (i.e., looking for a single continuous narrative of lesbianism) including Faderman, Castle, and Brooten.  These historians are critical of Foucault’s periodization model that splits the history of sexuality into a focus on “acts” versus a focus on “identity”. Traub notes the conceptual simlarity across time of lesbian concepts, e.g., female intimate friendship as examined by Vicinus and others. She urges that the “present future of lesbian history” should look at these recurring patterns across time. Thus circumstances and behaviors in other times may look like the modern definition of “lesbian” because they emerge from similar sets of continuing preoccupations about women’s bodies and behaviors. She considers studies of various historic types of representations or relationships that contributed to or have been retroactively connected with the modern lesbian. She presents a recapitulation of various images and interpretations of female same-sex relations from the 17th century to today and then draws up a list of themes relevant to these recurring patterns. (A very long list, or I would include it here.)

Chapter 5 - The Joys of Martha Joyless: Queer Pedagogy and the (Early Modern) Production of Sexual Knowledge

This chapter looks at sexual knowledge and ignorance, riffing off an example of dialogue in the 1638 play “The Antipodes” by Richard Brome, in which a still-virgin wife of three years is speculating on heterosexual knowledge (complaining to a friend about not knowing how to get her husband to perform), while recalling a same-sex erotic encounter. The woman’s request for her female friend to instruct her about sex is portrayed as naïveté. In contexts like this, there is no concept that a male versus female sexual partner indicates a particular orientation or identity, although “spouse” versus “non-spouse” is a relevant category. Similarly there is no hint in this dialogue of a concept of “the closet” or an expectation of negative reactions from others to her relation of the same-sex encounter. The only aspect of the scenario that is considered problematic is her husband’s sexual indifference.

The chapter then considers various other examples of sexual dysfunction in drama, and how the situations are addressed by non-marital sexual activity, regardless of gender. What do we, as moderns, “know” about early modern sex and how do we know it? Among the motifs available from literature are the older woman who sexually initiates a younger one--a cross-over motif from pornography. These texts question the “natural, innate” nature of sexual knowledge. Rather, it is a type of cultural knowledge and practice.

Chapter 6 - Sex in the Interdisciplines

Traub examines the overlapping contexts of history, literary criticism, and queer theory for studying the history of sexuality. There is an extensive description of the state of the field as the author experiences it. This includes a comprehensive catalog of the understanding of English sexual culture in 1550-1680 and a discussion of sexual vocabulary in use by 1650.

Chapter 7 - Talking Sex

This chapter examines descriptive, metaphoric, and humorous language around sex. How were people represented in historic records and literature as speaking of erotic and sexual acts? What language was used for sex workers? And what shades of meaning did the various terms carry? There is an extensive catalog of sexual vocabulary (which would be extremely useful to a writer setting bawdy scenes in this era). In the discussion of sexual humor, Traub discusses how to edit, translate, and annotate texts containing early modern sexual language in order to convey all the layers and nuances of meaning it held. There is a special discussion of language around dildos.

Chapter 8 - Shakespeare’s Sex

This chapter looks at interpretations of Shakespeare’s personal sexuality as embodied in his sonnets (as opposed to the sexual themes in his plays or the evidence of his biography). The study is less concerned with Shakespeare’s actual life than the shifting “knowledge” of that life. That is, how people have come to conclude the things they think they know about him.

Chapter 9 - The Sign of the Lesbian

Traub addresses the question, “Why do we need a history of lesbianism?” That is, why would we need one that focuses on “lesbian” as a specific and defined field of study, as contrasted with the need or usefulness of lesbian history to lesbians in particular. Traub notes a conjunction of “queer history” doubts about history itself along with disinterest in lesbian identity in the context of queer studies. This seems to require identifying a general benefit from the field if a continued interest in “lesbian history” is to survive. To this end, she suggests destabilizing the meanings of both “lesbian” and “history” to ask, “What does it mean to identify ‘lesbian’ in the context of ‘history’?” Why and how does the concept of “the lesbian” become pivotal in history?

Traub’s answer begins, “My purpose is to supplement these revisionist accounts of queer theory by suggesting that it is precisely the history of lesbianism, when reconceived as a problem of representation and epistemology, that offers a valuable heuristic for crafting an analysis that is simultaneously feminist and queer. Reasoning that one impediment to recognizing these interventions as queer theory is that many of these innovations have been produced by means of analysis that is explicitly historical, I argue that ‘the lesbian’ presents not only a limit case for queer theory, but a methodological release point for anyone interested in sexual knowledge--past, present, and future.”

Traub discusses different approaches and concerns of lesbian and gay historical studies versus queer studies. The field currently privileges the queer studies approach. She looks at works in which the figure of “the lesbian” is foregrounded but is concerned that they dismiss the contributions of historicity. Must history be discarded to include the lesbian in queer theory? The lack of interest in lesbian history outside the field producing it means that it rarely influences the construction and debate of larger theories. There is a conflict between the tendency to see lesbian history as rooted in identity, with queer theory associated with post-identitarianism.

Traub suggests that dismissal of the lesbian from theoretical consideration on the basis of rejecting identitarianism assumes the narrowly modern identity associated with the label, and ignores the varied and discontinuous histories of lesbianism. That is, queer theory narrows lesbian identity to a concept easy to dismiss and to consider historically irrelevant. If “the lesbian” can be confined to a 20th century identity, then all pre- and early modern evidence of female homoeroticism becomes “not queer enough” to contribute to queer theory.

The denigration and marginalization of lesbian studies, even by some of those engaged in it, comes from multiple sources: the marginalization of sexuality studies, the tendency of those engaged in lesbian studies to have a broader focus to their work, and shifting popular attitudes that consider the label “lesbian” as retrograde and associated with the white middle class. There is a false belief that the recency of the label “lesbian” represents a lack of a historic subject for study. This attitude persists in the face of awareness of the term’s long history.

A more historic approach would be to examine women’s understandings of their own experience, rather than viewing lesbian history as a “search and rescue” project. Traub notes the valuable data in Anne Lister’s self-examinations and self-reporting of her sexuality. Traub draws attention to how, of all “queer” identity labels and categories, only “lesbian” seems to be deemed retro and essentializing--in the face of no logical difference from similar uses of “gay” or “trans”. She suggests (without quite using that term) that systemic misogyny can’t be ruled out as an explanation for the marginalization of lesbian history within queer studies.

Chapter 10 - Sex Ed: or, Teach Me Tonight

This chapter focuses on the process of learning, especially with regard to sexual knowledge. Literary examples are given of a character learning or teaching sexual techniques. Sexual knowledge in particular is often communicated in allusions and slang, or in meaningful omissions. The chapter mostly contains discussions of theory and modern pedagogy and provides a summary of the book’s main points.


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