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9-08-2015, 14:56

The life cycle: sexuality

Like the body and childhood, sexuality has become an increasingly common topic for historical investigation. The assertion of the women’s movement that the “personal is political,” combined with the growth of social history, led historians fi rst to the sexual lives of women in the past, and then to those of men. Historical investigations have been an important part of gay and lesbian studies – which grew out of the gay liberation movement – as scholars have detailed changes in the ways in which same-sex relationships have been understood and practiced. Just as studies of women’s sexuality led to studies of men’s, studies of same-sex relationships led a few scholars to frame changes in male/female relationships as part of a history of heterosexuality, not simply the history of marriage or the family. All of this scholarship has made clear that sexual categories and meanings change dramatically over time and across cultures. For example, though there were homosexual subcultures in a few cities and courts in earlier centuries, the idea that everyone has a “sexual identity” as a heterosexual or homosexual fi rst developed in the nineteenth century. Ancient Greek and medieval Latin did not even have words for “sex” or “sexual,” and the word “sexuality” only appeared in English and most other western languages about 1800. Because of this, some historians choose to avoid the word “sexuality” when discussing any era before the modern, but others point out that using modern categories to explore the past is not an unacceptable practice, because investigations of the past are always informed by present understandings and concerns; they note that earlier cultures were clearly concerned by the issues we view as part of sexuality, but contextualized them differently. Medical and scientifi c texts provided one framework for sexual issues in early modern Europe. In medical terms, male sexuality was the baseline for any perception of human sexuality, and the female sex organs were viewed as the male turned inside out or simply not pushed out. Vesalius depicted the vagina looking exactly like an inverted penis, and his student Baldasar Heseler commented: “The organs of procreation are the same in the male and the female … For if you turn the scrotum, the testicles and the penis inside out you will have all the genital organs of the female.” 2 This view of the correspondence between male and female sexual organs survived the Renaissance discovery of the clitoris, with scientists simply deciding that women had two structures that were like a penis. This idea meant that there was no precise nomenclature for many female anatomical parts until the eighteenth century because they were always thought to be congruent with some male part, and so were simply called by the same name. The parallels between the two could lead to unusual sex changes, for many medical doctors throughout Europe, including Ambrose Paré, solemnly reported cases of young women whose sex organs suddenly emerged during vigorous physical activity, transforming them into men; there are no reports of the opposite, however. Because female sex organs were hidden, they seemed more mysterious than male organs to early modern physicians and anatomists, and anatomical guidebooks use illustrations of autopsies on women’s lower bodies as symbols of modern science uncovering the unknown. Early modern sex manuals spread this idea to a wider public. The best-seller among these was the anonymous Aristotle’s Masterpiece , fi rst published in 1684 and reprinted in many different versions, often with a subtitle such as “The Secrets of Generation Displayed.” Attributing the work to Aristotle gave it a claim to respectability, authority, and ancient pedigree; the real Aristotle, though he had nothing to do with it, would probably have agreed with many of its assumptions. One of these was the notion that both men and women needed to experience orgasm for procreation; only through orgasm would the female “seed” be released, an idea that was yet another example of female experience being simply extrapolated from male. This supposed connection between female orgasm and procreation allowed the manuals to go into great detail about ways to heighten sexual pleasure, while still claiming moralistically to be guides for happy marital life. Sexuality was also a key issue in religious texts. Those written by Orthodox Slavic writers in eastern Europe saw all sexuality as an evil inclination originating with the devil and not part of God’s original creation. Even marital sex was regarded as a sin, with the best marriage an unconsummated one; this led to a large number of miraculous virgin births among Russian saints, and to the popular idea that Jesus was born out of Mary’s ear, not polluting himself with passage through the birth canal. Western Catholic opinion did not go this far, but displayed an ambivalent attitude toward sexuality. Sex was seen as polluting and defi ling, with virginity regarded as the most desirable state; members of the clergy and religious orders were expected to remain chaste, a policy that was enforced much more rigorously as part of the Catholic Reformation, as we will see in chapter 5 . Their chastity and celibacy made them different from, and superior to, lay Christians who married. On the other hand, the body and its sexual urges could not be completely evil, because they were created by God; to claim otherwise was heresy. Writers vacillated between these two opinions or held both at once, and the laws that were developed in the Middle Ages regulating sexual behavior were based on both of them. In general, early modern Catholic doctrine held that sexual relations were acceptable as long as they were within marriage, not done on Sundays or other church holidays, done in a way which would allow procreation, and did not upset the proper sexual order, which meant the man had to be on top (what has since been termed the “missionary position”). Spouses were held to enjoy a mutual right to sexual intercourse (the “marital debt”), which would even excuse intercourse when procreation was not possible. It was better, for example, for a pregnant or menstruating woman to allow her husband to have intercourse with her if refusing this would cause him to turn to a prostitute. Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic authors adopted a more positive view of marital sex than their medieval predecessors, regarding sexual pleasure, even fantasies and variant positions, as acceptable as a prelude to procreative intercourse. The Protestant reformers broke clearly with Catholicism in their view that marriage was a spiritually preferable state to celibacy, and saw the most important function of marital sex not as procreation, but as increasing spousal affection. Based on his own experience, Martin Luther stressed the power of sexual feelings for both men and women, and thought women in particular needed intercourse in order to stay healthy. Western Christian authors and offi cials thus generally agreed that sexual relations were permissable as long as they were marital and “natural,” though interpretations of the latter varied. Jewish authorities agreed, seeing procreation as a commandment of God, though marital sex still made one ritually impure. Islam regarded sex within marriage or other approved relationships as a positive good. Sexual relations did not have to be justifi ed by reproduction, so that contraception was acceptable, though having children, and particularly having sons, was also seen as essential to a good life for Muslims. Sexuality was also an important theme in popular literature. Many historians have viewed traditional popular culture in Europe as unrestrained, celebrating male sexuality with bawdy stories, obscene songs, and, after the development of the printing press, a range of pornographic literature. These songs and stories express a fear of rampant female sexuality, and often advocate beating as the proper way to treat women who showed too much independence: “Now will I sing so gaily, Hit thy wife on the head, With cudgels smear her daily” went the fi rst of many verses of a sixteenth-century German song titled “Song of how one should beat bad women.” Medical, religious, and popular texts all discuss sexuality in theory, as do law codes and ordinances issued by religious and secular offi cials that regulated a range of sexual issues: premarital intercourse, adultery, rape, incest, sodomy. Court records providing information about actual cases also survive for many parts of Europe beginning in the fourteenth century; these can give us an idea about what types of sexual activities communities felt it most important to control in reality. While a certain amount of wild behavior was tolerated in young men, it was not in young women, and punishments for sexual misconduct by unmarried women, particularly premarital intercourse and pregnancy out of wedlock, could be quite sharp. It was often very diffi cult for unmarried women to avoid sexual contacts. Many of them worked as domestic servants, where their employers or employers’ sons or male relatives could easily coerce them, or in close proximity to men. Female servants were sent on errands alone or with men, or worked by themselves in fi elds far from other people; notions of female honor kept upper-class women secluded in their homes, particularly in southern and eastern Europe, but there was little attempt anywhere to keep female servants or day laborers from the risk of seduction or rape. Rape was a capital crime in many parts of Europe, but the actual sentences handed out were more likely to be fi nes and brief imprisonments, with the severity of sentence dependent on the social status of the victim and perpetrator. The victim had to prove that she had cried out and made attempts to repel the attacker, and had to bring the charge within a short period of time after the attack had happened. Women bringing rape charges were often more interested in getting their own honorable reputations back than in punishing the perpetrator, and for this reason sometimes requested that the judge force their rapists to marry them. The consequences of unwed motherhood varied throughout Europe, with rural areas that needed many workers being the most tolerant. Once an unmarried woman suspected she was pregnant, she had several options. In some parts of Europe, if she was a minor her father could go to court and sue the man involved for “trespass and damages” to his property. The woman herself could go to her local court and attempt to prove there had been a promise of marriage in order to coerce the man to marry her. Marriage was the favored offi cial solution, and was agreed upon in a surprising number of cases, indicating that perhaps there had been an informal agreement, or at least that the man was now willing to take responsibility for his actions. Marriage was impossible in many cases, however, and young women often attempted to deny the pregnancy as long as possible, hoping for a miscarriage. If no other avenues were open to her, a pregnant woman might try to induce an abortion, either by physical means such as tying her waist very tight or carrying heavy objects, or by herbal concoctions that she brewed herself or purchased from a local person reputed to know how to “bring on the monthlies,” that is, to start a woman’s period again. Penalties for attempting or performing an abortion grew increasingly harsh during the early modern period, but it was hard to detect. (Contraception was even harder to detect, and though religious and secular authorities all opposed it, there were almost no cases in which it was an issue.) Abortion was legally defi ned as killing in the womb a child who had gained a soul, which most authorities thought happened at the point in pregnancy termed “quickening,” when the mother feels movement, usually about the fourth or fi fth month. (The word “quick” is an old word for alive, as in the phrase “the quick and the dead.”) A woman taking medicine to start her period before quickening was generally not regarded as attempting an abortion. Abortifacients of all types were never very effective, however, so women gave birth in out-houses, cowstalls, hay mounds, and dung heaps, hoping that they would be able to avoid public notice, and took the infant to one of the new foundling homes that had opened during the fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries in many cities. A few did kill their children, a crime that carried the death penalty, often specifi ed as death by drowning. Along with extramarital pregnancy, other sexual activities were also regulated and punished during this period. During the Middle Ages, most European cities had allowed prostitution in licensed city brothels; the city leaders justifi ed this by saying

SOURCE 5 Lawsuit regarding a pregnancy out of wedlock

Despite the best efforts of political and religious authorities, women did get pregnant out of wedlock, and formal legal arrangements were sometimes made to support the child. These arrangements were recorded by notaries. In this document from Paris in 1547, a single woman and a man go on record to settle a lawsuit in progress regarding the woman’s pregnancy and the subsequent birth of a child by the man. The woman’s economic circumstances and means of earning a living are not specifi ed. The man, as a legal practitioner given the title “master,” was probably comfortably well off, though not rich. He promises to support the child for only two years; similar contracts often include a much longer period of support, but rarely beyond age seven or eight, at which point it was expected the child would be earning his or her own keep as a servant or day laborer. Were present in person master Jherosme Honys, legal practitioner at the Palais in Paris, on the one hand, and Mathurine de Marville, living in Paris, rue Alexandre Langloiz, on the other hand, who have made and now make the agreements, compromises, and arrangements which follow. That is to say that the said de Marville has promised and here promises to raise and support, well and duly, from this point on, a young girl named Claude, to whom she previously gave birth, child of the said Honys; in return for which the said Honys will be obliged and obliges himself to give and pay her, each month for the next two full years, one écu soleil, the fi rst term of payment falling due the last day of February coming up. And in addition to this, [Honys] has given four écus d’or in cash, and has promised and promises to pay her six écus soleil by the day and feast of Easter coming up, for maintenance and clothing of the said child; without Honys being in any way obliged to give anything else for the support of the said child, from this point on, if not of his own goodwill. In consideration of the things above, the said Marville has released and here releases the said Honys of all things whatsoever, equally for what she is able or might be able to ask in original amount as for expenses in the legal process pending before whatever judges there might be, and of all other things whatsoever for which she could make demands and take legal action in whatever cause or way that might be, from the past up to now. Thus etc., promising, etc., obligating, etc., each in his own right, etc., renouncing, etc. Done and passed in duplicate in the year 1547, Wednesday, the 25th day of January. (Paris, Archives Nationales, Minutier central, Etude XI/27, Jan. 25, 1547. Trans. Carol Loats in Monica Chojnacka and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, eds., Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: European Social History, 1400–1750 [London: Longman 2002], p. 56. Reprinted by permission.) that it protected honorable women and girls from attacks by young men. In a few cities, such as Florence, authorities also noted that brothels might keep young men from homosexual relations, another far worse alternative in their eyes. During the fi fteenth century, many cities began to feel increasingly uneasy about permitting the selling of sex for money, and, as noted above, began to require the women to wear distinctive clothing or not appear in public at all. After the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, moralizing authorities intent on social control and discipline called for the suppression of prostitution. Cities and states in central and northern Europe began to close their brothels and made soliciting a crime; southern European cities, especially those in Italy, licensed prostitutes and restricted their movements. Church and state authorities also attempted to suppress same-sex sexual activity. After about 1250 they increasingly defi ned such actions as “crimes against nature,” seeing them as particularly reprehensible because they thought they did not occur anywhere else in creation. Same-sex relations, usually termed “sodomy,” became a capital crime in most of Europe, with adult offenders threatened with execution by fi re. The Italian cities of Venice, Florence, and Lucca created special courts to deal with sodomy, which saw thousands of investigations, as did various courts in the Iberian peninsula, including the Inquisition. Almost all of the cases involved an adult man and an adolescent boy, and ranged from sex exchanged for money to long-term affectionate relationships. Actual executions were rare in Italy, and more common in the Iberian peninsula, where those charged with sodomy were sometimes tortured to reveal other names, so that sodomy accusations often occurred in waves. Many of those executed were from all-male environments such as monasteries or the military, or they were Italians or Muslim slaves, both groups that Spaniards regarded as particularly likely to be sodomites. Executions were generally carried out at public autos da fé , where bigamists, heretics, and relapsed Jewish or Muslim converts were also either executed or displayed for public ridicule. Executions for sodomy slowly tapered off in Spain in the early seventeenth century, at the same time that attempts to suppress both prostitution and same-sex relations increased in northern Europe, which we will trace in more detail in chapter 8 . Young people did not have to actually engage in illicit sexual behavior to be viewed with suspicion, for political and religious authorities often regarded unmarried young people as sources of disorder, and passed laws requiring them to live with older adults or otherwise restricting their behavior. (Such laws were also passed, and enforced, in colonial New England.) In Malmø, for example, the second largest city of the kingdom of Denmark, a city council ordinance issued in 1549 required all unmarried young men and servants to register annually at the city hall, and all unmarried young women to go into domestic service rather than living on their own. In Strasbourg, young women were even prohibited from living with their own widowed mothers, for this allowed them “to have more freedom to walk around, to saunter back and forth whenever they want to … [which] causes nothing but shame, immodesty, wantonnness and immorality.”

 

 

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