A Novel Approach to the Sexy, Sexy Past
April 26, 2011 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Eloisa James weighs in on historical sex scenes. After attending Penn State's conference on Historicizing Sex, NY Times Bestselling romance author/ Shakespearean scholar Eloisa James writes about how we view our sexual history through a contemporary prism.

The poems of Richard Crashaw. Romance novels without sex scenes. Silly romance novel sex scenes. Excerpt from The Invention of Heterosexuality.
posted by jenlovesponies (47 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I mean...historicity and hermeneutics are important. And there are things we don't know. News at 11.

No matter how historically accurate the details and language in our novels might be (and mine, in case you're wondering, are pretty accurate), we write sex from the point of view of our own contemporary attitudes and mores.

How modest of you. And I highly doubt, in fact I can almost assure you, that, unless you have some sort of retro cognition, sex is not the only thing you're writing from the point of view of your own contemporary attitudes and mores. From a philosophical perspective, you don't even have a choice in the matter.

Sex would be hard to be historically precise about anyway: Who really knows what sex was like in 1600? Shagging (popular British slang as early as 1770) surely involved the same acts -- but who can say with certainty what emotions were involved?

Well, judging by the whole...uh...population growth thing I can probably make a pretty good guess at what it was like. Who can say with certainty what emotions were involved? Uh, no one. Hell, I barely have a handle on what emotions are involved when I myself am having sex.

posted by Lutoslawski at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I had seen Pal Joey a few times and enjoyed the funny lyrics to the song Zip, a take off on Gypsy Rose Lee. We are told that this proclaimed the emergence of heterosexuality, but since Ms Rose was a burlesque queen, actress, I have a feeling heterosexuality existed prior to that show and did not emerge at that moment.
posted by Postroad at 2:46 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lutoslawski - as a historian/shakespeare scholar, she's probably pretty steeped in things like contemporary class relations, politics, religion, etc. The ideas people held on these things were expressed in many sources. Problem is that people didn't write that much about their personal feelings about sex - we only have a few sources. Most interesting I've ever read was the account of an affair in c1650 in a cheese-room - and most of the discussion there was about the size of the chink the servants claimed to have looked through to see their mistress having sex with some man - and also how his hat fell off and his hair smelled bad. Doesn't exactly tell you what her emotional relationship was, though she was willing to have sex in a cheese-room (where they stored cheese).
posted by jb at 2:50 PM on April 26, 2011 [11 favorites]

"The sexy, sexy past" sounds like something Doc Venture or Zapp Brannigan might say.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:59 PM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

I've read many Eloisa James books and enjoy them greatly (well, except for the epilogues, because I almost invariably hate romance epilogues), but I'm not getting anything out of that article.
posted by asperity at 3:00 PM on April 26, 2011

This seems relevant.
posted by rusty at 3:01 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

(ctrl-f "machine" for the best naughty bits, although it's almost all naughty bits.)
posted by rusty at 3:02 PM on April 26, 2011

posted by everichon at 3:08 PM on April 26, 2011 [8 favorites]

She's Robert Bly's daughter.
posted by brujita at 3:16 PM on April 26, 2011

This is a subject close to what passes for my heart, as I write historical fiction, if not romances, and am very chary about sex scenes. Sure, the Boomers didn't invent free love, and some Victorians did a good deal that would frighten the horses, but that doesn't mean that any Girl with Spirit could lead a 21st century sex life with sweet costumes if she chose. Sex was a lived experience, vivid, strange, dangerous, and probably pretty horrible for a lot of women. The change in standards of hygiene alone -- well, to paraphrase Florence King, very little of what we enjoy would be enjoyed without the availability of twentieth-century bathrooms.

It's almost too sad to contemplate how little of a nineteenth-century Western woman's sex life could involve our concept of "consent," even if she lived a comfortable life around men who were genuinely fond of her. This is something I've been examining in my fiction lately, although I don't know if something publishable will come of it, but who ever does.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:18 PM on April 26, 2011 [21 favorites]

following on Countess Elena - having read some history articles about sex between masters and servants - in most cases rape, and I doubt Samuel Pepys ever asked his wife's maid if she wanted his hand in her "cunny" - I really don't want to read fiction about realistic seventeenth century sex. If I'm reading fiction, I want that bit to be unrealistic - I want it cleaner and skilled and most of all, happily consensual. I'm okay with divorcing that from my knowledge about pre-modern gender relations, just like my astro-physicist friend can separate out her love of sci-fi from the impossibility of faster than light travel - or so she told me it's impossible.
posted by jb at 3:36 PM on April 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Here's some Elizabethan slang for those moments when you really need a prostitute -
apple-squire : pimp
bawdy-basket : itinerant female pedlar and whore
crossbiting : blackmail or swindling relating to prostitution
dell : sexually uninitiated female vagrant
doxy : the other sort of female vagrant
occupy : have sexual relations with
stew : brothel, specifically Bankside at Southwark
traffic : whore
trugging-house : brothel

and my favourite term - Winchester Geese : prostitutes who worked for the Bishop of Winchester in the Southwark stews. Apparently before the reformation it was fairly common for the Church to run the bawdy houses and the Bishop of Winchester held sole licence to run the brothels in the area.

I'd recommend "A Notable Discovery of Cozenage" (Robert Greene, 1592) for more on "that sort of thing" from the era.

On preview - "cunny" descends from "coney" (meaning rabbit) and was also a term used in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period from "coney-catching" or trickery.
posted by longbaugh at 3:55 PM on April 26, 2011 [20 favorites]

Sure sex would have smelled different (badly!) in much of the past, but I don't buy this business of it being experienced that much differently. Major themes of kink seem to occur across history and cultures and while gay people may not have identified as such in many places and times, clearly a spectrum of same sex desire existed. Sex is a biological act and there are only so many orifices and appendages. We haven't changed much biologically over the course of civilization. Why would sex be that different?

Sure, there are changes in the way women feel free to act on their desires with contraception and it was impossible to have a rubber fetish before rubber existed. But nonconsensual sex sucked both now and then and the sexual desires and acts in the Bible are far from alien to us. Even when women were supposed to have no desire, it was always clear that it was more complicated.

So where's the evidence that there were different emotions or experiences?
posted by Maias at 4:12 PM on April 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

Her stories don't actually sound all that sexy.
posted by delmoi at 4:20 PM on April 26, 2011

I thought My Secret Life by Walter was fascinating precisely because I could examine the author's attitudes toward sex, gender relations, privilege through my own contemporary prism. It made me very grateful to not have been born in the Victorian period, I'll say that much at least.

(I also think it's neat that nobody knows exactly what underwear people in the Medieval period wore, because nobody back then drew or wrote about it. We knew they wore undies Just Like We Do! -- but what did it look like?)
posted by lhall at 4:26 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Maias: Different sorts of acts are considered "sexual" in different cultures and time periods. People "did" many of the same things we do, but they also did things we didn't, and we do things they didn't. Different body parts are eroticized in different time periods, or eroticized in different ways. Acts and body parts are associated with different people, have different connotations, etc etc. In other words, if you think sex just comes down to "this thing goes in that hole," then you aren't being very imaginative or open-minded about historical difference.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:32 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

After attending Penn State's conference

Penn (aka University of Pennsylvania), actually, not Penn State (aka The Pennsylvania State University).
posted by asterix at 4:38 PM on April 26, 2011

This thread is reminding me, for some reason, of the Turin Erotic Papyrus, one of the world's oldest unquestionably pornographic artworks. Check it out -- I find it frankly charming. The sexuality exhibited is, to our jaded eyes, as plain and wholesome as a glass of milk. Heterosexual, consensual, cheerful, female orgasm with a total absence of porn face. Yet, when it was exhibited in the early nineteenth century, Jean-Francois Champollion (the first successful decoder of hieroglyphs) called it "an image of monstrous obscenity," which brings to mind, say, Robert Crumb. The point being, we bear what we were taught to bear.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:47 PM on April 26, 2011 [12 favorites]

I learned about sex from reading historical novels, particularly Jean Plaidy's Charles II Trilogy which I read at age twelve, with the Merry Monarch's wonderfully cheesy chat-up lines. 'By day, I am King of England and you are but a humble orange-seller. But tonight, Nelly, I am a man, and you are .. a woman ..'

'Who really knows what sex was like in 1600?' asks Eloisa James. Actually we know, or can plausibly reconstruct, quite a lot about sex in 1600. What I suspect she means is that we don't have much evidence of overwhelming romantic or sexual passion. (What early modern writers called 'erotomania' or lovesickness bears very little relation to anything we would recognise today.) This is perhaps not so surprising, considering how closely the origins of the modern concept of romantic love seem to be tied up with the origins of the modern novel in the eighteenth century; as Thackeray says somewhere, people wouldn't fall in love if they weren't taught that falling in love is what people do. But obviously it cramps your style if you're a romantic novelist writing historical fiction set in the early modern period.
posted by verstegan at 4:47 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Again, don't buy this bit about romantic love being a recent invention. Look at the Bible: it's in there. People fall in love in India and Asia without ever having known Western culture. Pair bonding is part of human biology; it's Western arrogance to think we invented it. Do you honestly believe that non-Western people or people before the 18th century don't fall in love?

Some cultures may have expressed these ideas differently but the idea of two people going crazy with desire for each other and wanting to be together forever is pretty universal, despite varying marriage traditions and numerous attempts to control or forbid it.

And sure, there are trends in eroticizing of body parts—Chinese foot bonding comes to mind as a terrible example— but that's basically fashion.

What stays the same is the fact that we *do* love and we are erotically interested and there are universal themes that play out underneath the various cultural and historical ornamentation.

If there weren't, we couldn't translate languages or understand history at all because it would be too alien.
posted by Maias at 4:57 PM on April 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

verstegan - I'm very skeptical about the novel inventing the modern concept of "falling-in-love" - partly because I find it hard to believe that people didn't have infatuations all through human history (aka "crushes"), and also partly because people now don't seem to have learned to fall in love like novels anyways (in love after a few days? Not a chance - that's just a crush, and you're lucky if it leads anywhere, let alone happily ever after). In my own experience, and that of people I've talked to, love is sometimes crushes and sometimes affection and comfortableness - and the casual courting of today doesn't seem that far from the walking out that young men and women did in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - at least, the poorer sorts who didn't have to worry about families and formal courting, etc.
posted by jb at 5:01 PM on April 26, 2011

Also, I'm pretty sure that love in early modern plays - like Romeo & Juliet - is pretty much like love in later romantic novels, and just as much unlike love in real life.

Funny enough, Jane Austen's marriage novels are decidedly not romance novels, and the characters get married for all sorts of reasons that a good early modern cleric would approve of like compatibility of character and intellect, such that the wife would be a good helpmete to her husband. Not much infatuation or passion, but careful weighing of the union of two people and two families. (And a bit of affection and attraction).
posted by jb at 5:05 PM on April 26, 2011


I didn't say the West invented "pair bonding," and neither did Mary Bly.

But, since you are insistent upon the universality of these things,
1) Please define "love" in a way that applies to all humans across all time periods and cultures.
2) Do the same for "sex"
3) Please explain the relationship between "love" and "sex," again in universally applicable terms.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:06 PM on April 26, 2011

Love (romantic): a deep emotional connection between one person and another involving a desire for an ongoing sexual relationship.

Sex: an act that is typically aimed at achieving orgasm or relief from sexual desire for at least one partner.

Sex is what people in love want to experience with each other.
posted by Maias at 5:22 PM on April 26, 2011

You can't have a romantic relationship without sex involved?

Oh, wow, I can just smell the derail, but I really don't know how else to break this...

Roughly one in a hundred people are asexual. If you allow people who go for years without experiencing sexual desire as "asexual," the proportion rises quite a lot.

Asexual people consider themselves as capable as anyone else of having romantic relationships.

So I think defining romance around sex is a mistake. A lot of relationships would fall apart because one party lost the urge for a year.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:32 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't read any Eloisa James, so I headed over to the last link in the post to familiarize myself with her work, and I am sorry to say I was disappointed.

In just a few hundred words from her latest work, A Kiss of Midnight, I found anachronisms (which I think is important as far as the "historical" aspect goes), a couple verb tense shifts, and some really hackneyed, cliche-ridden passages. Since I would expect the author to showcase passages she felt were most representative of her writing style, I don't imagine the rest of the book is much better.

Which is a shame, because I would have enjoyed discovering another Georgette Heyer or Patricia Veryan to follow.

But then I visited the first link in the post, and what leapt out of the page at me was the fact that James is a professor of Shakespearean studies (I couldn't miss that point even if I wanted to, really, as it is mentioned twice in that link!).

And that does sound really impressive, doesn't it? I considered, on the basis of this, that maybe I had misjudged her. I don't know why she has chosen to write Regency romances rather than Elizabethan ones, if she is a Shakespearean scholar, but she did, and she's a NY Times bestselling author! Maybe I was hasty in my judgment.

So I read the essay.

And I still just find her writing stilted and awkward.

Take this sentence, "When I'm not being a university professor of Shakespeare studies, I write historical romance novels as Eloisa James."

'Being a university professor' is an odd turn of phrase, isn't it? It sounds pretty darned passive. How about, "When I am not teaching Shakespearean studies at the university"?

In fact, why even put that qualifier in there! The introduction already told us that about her. It just seems like she is really eager to slip her accolades in there, and not quite as concerned with the actual, you know, writing an insightful essay bit.

Oh, and I don't even have a clue what she means by this: "My heroines apparently all saw an early modern version of "Tootsie," and know where their responsibilities lie."

Is "Tootsie" really the movie James wants to reference there? Because isn't that movie all about Dustin Hoffman, and how he's difficult to work with and needs to learn some diplomacy? And if James is talking about Jessica Lange, and her part in the movie, it might be nice to know just what responsibilities she is talking about.

Does she mean that her heroines know that they need to be assertive? That's a good message, but what does that have to do with "their responsibilities"?!


So, tl;dr version: I am really not taking much away from this essay.

It seems pretty obvious to me that we are viewing the sexuality of the past through the lens of our own sexual awareness in the present, anyway--how could we not?

But I would have at least enjoyed reading a thoughtful examination of the issue, instead of this piece of fluff.
posted by misha at 5:50 PM on April 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah sex scenes in the Past, even the recent part, are really hard to do well.

The dynamics are totally different and the culture is alien and everyone smells. Take the aforementioned "My Secret Life" was a wonderful primary source resource and totally fucking creepy. For every well-paid independent mistress there were a hundred random women on the street, any lone woman on the street was considered fair game and as a member of the ruling class, he could offer them more money then they made in a year for a quick toss off in the alley. Occasionally you get a glimpse of thier lives, and it's all bread crusts and not enough coal and just submitting. To everything. All the time.

It's just so sad. He's a nice enough guy about it, for his time and position, but the power imbalance was INSANE and the mass culture completely at odds with that was actually happening between people. No wonder the Vickys were so fucked up. It's why I really liked The Crimson Petal And The White, taking the form of a bodice-ripping Victorian romance and using it to deliver long screeds on how disgusting and vile the human body was and how powerless and removed the women are.

So like jb, when I had to write my own sexy sex romp, I chose fantasy. The unsaid assumption in porn is the same as the assumption in comedy, that everyone is game and there are no hard feelings. I wanted to do a burlesque, a marriage of comedy and sex, where you can have the fantasy of a world where the mighty are mocked, the steadfast rewarded, and everyone goes to watch fireworks at the end.
posted by The Whelk at 6:33 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did not need to be reminded of that scene from the John Adams miniseries right before bed. No, sir.
posted by usonian at 6:36 PM on April 26, 2011

In fact, why even put that qualifier in there! The introduction already told us that about her.

Well, that's like asking why Nabokov even bothers telling us about the "gooseberry fuzz of [Lolita's] shin" or whatever when her legs are already featured on every other edition of the novel. Writers write; they don't control everything about the context in which their work is presented. James may have provided the information in the editor's note, but it's an editor's note. She didn't write it and she didn't put it there. (I don't have a problem with her phrasing, anyway. It's sort of cute, but it reads normally enough to me.)
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 6:46 PM on April 26, 2011

Oh, yes, fetishes are a completely modern phenomena. There was no kink before FetLife and regional NLA munches, sometime in late 1997.

(I wish I could find an online link, but one of the crimes Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for was wearing clothes after a man's fashion - specifically cavalier boots.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:47 PM on April 26, 2011

LogicalDash has already pointed out one of the many flaws in your definitions, so here's another:

There are many, many sexual acts that do not achieve, or even aim at, orgasm.


You define "romantic love" as being between one person and another. It can't exist between 3 people? 4? 5?


In addition to people who identify as asexual, there are forms of romantic love in which sexual consummation is not the goal, nor is the "relief of sexual desire" (which makes it sound like a fungal infection, by the way). The ideal of medieval courtly love, for example, was usually non-sexual, outside of marriage, and by definition unconsummatable.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:49 PM on April 26, 2011

misha (and others):

The article is fluff, which is unfortunate. But, then again, it's on CNN.com. It is intended for a general readership for whom the concept of historical difference is mostly alien. Mary Bly's critical work is quite good, but wouldn't really be accessible to someone not at least somewhat versed in early modern culture and queer theory. The article is also not really representative of cutting edge academic work on the history of sexuality, either. It's a simplified version of some basic premises that have been central to work on the history of sexuality for at least 30 years or so.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:52 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've read quite a bit of Eloisa James, though got bored after a while (bloody duchesses and their children-seeking). It's definitely not just sex that emerges as something that was different then. In one of her books she has a chap identify as an alcoholic and go through a detox programme (lots of vomiting). She has an afterword about how deep she is in doing this. Not believable. There is a good - though again, completely unbelievable - scene where one of her heroines sings bawdy songs standing on a barrel in a pub.
posted by paduasoy at 12:34 AM on April 27, 2011

I'm glad we're finally going to define love so that we can figure out how universal it is. I think a lot of awkward teen-age conversations can be avoided. Plus, Foreigner wants to know. They keep bugging me about it.
posted by nathan v at 12:43 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

There is a good - though again, completely unbelievable - scene where one of her heroines sings bawdy songs standing on a barrel in a pub.

Not sure why you think this is unbelievable. In 1610/1611, the notorious cross-dressing woman Mary Frith (aka Moll Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, one of the inspirations for Defoe's Moll Flanders) appeared on a London stage, drank, played the lute, sang bawdy songs, and "told the company there present that she thought many of them were of opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should find that she is a woman” -- nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. Just because it was a patriarchal society doesn't mean that all women were locked away at home. Hell, just look at Chaucer's Wife of Bath.

Regarding the alcoholic thing: no, no one would identify as an "alcoholic" or "detox" themselves. But, someone who drank in excess would certainly be labeled "intemperate." And according to the still prevalent medical theory of the humors, purging oneself -- via vomiting, bleeding, defecation, etc -- was an accepted way to treat the imbalances of the body and mind. So, yes, someone could have gone through a program of purgation in order cure some ill, such as intemperance of appetite.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:08 AM on April 27, 2011

jb: no, I didn't mean to suggest that romantic love didn't exist before the eighteenth century, which would plainly be absurd (Romeo and Juliet, anybody?), but merely that the all-consuming passion that forms the staple of romantic fiction ('Theirs was a love .. that set the world on fire!') is difficult to find in early modern sources. And since romantic fiction, as a genre, doesn't really get going till the eighteenth century, I don't think this is so surprising.

Barbara Rosenwein, in 'Worrying about Emotions in History', argues that it's anachronistic to apply the concept of depth psychology (pent-up emotions churning underneath the surface) to the pre-modern period. This is not to suggest that our forebears never knew what it was to experience intense erotic passion; plainly they did, but the language they used to express it was very different from ours, and more inclined to physiological than psychological explanations.
posted by verstegan at 5:09 AM on April 27, 2011

On the subject of sexual fetishes, historical accuracy and just generally awesome stuff I have no hesitation in recommending Mary Gentle's 1610 : A Sundial in a Grave. Give it a shot if you get the chance :)
posted by longbaugh at 5:46 AM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thanks, longbaugh. I'm a very big fan of her "Ash: A Secret History."
posted by taz at 6:28 AM on April 27, 2011

Oooooh - is this the thread where we talk about how awesome that book was now? :D

1610 has Giordano Bruno, Robert Fludd, a half-drowned samurai, rapier & dagger fighting and is teh awesome. If you liked Ash you should definitely give 1610 a go. It's a slow start but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
posted by longbaugh at 6:35 AM on April 27, 2011

(I also think it's neat that nobody knows exactly what underwear people in the Medieval period wore, because nobody back then drew or wrote about it. We knew they wore undies Just Like We Do! -- but what did it look like?)

Actually, we do know a lot about what Medieval underwear looked like, and it wasn't necessarily look "just like we do." A lot of Medieval paintings depicted laborers, and often laborers would strip to their "underwear" if it was hot enough, so that's what the paintings showed. (Although, titillatingly, some paintings implied that some lower-class women didn't wear underpants; that may have been true of all women, it's just that you wouldn't dare imply that about Lady Bracknell -- but Nellie the barmaid, sure.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK, time to reread 1610. (I reread Ash more often.) This thread was totally worthwhile.
posted by asperity at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2011

I'm hip deep in reading all sorts of cool stuff at the moment - my mind was blown when I found out that "Ye" is pronounced "The" because the "Y" is actually a poorly transcribed letter "Þ" or "Thorn" that we no longer use. I've been telling everyone I know because I love ruining their visits to olde-worlde sweetshoppes.

History is amazing!

*runs away holding coat out like a cape*
posted by longbaugh at 9:32 AM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Btw, for those who were claiming I said romantic love required sex, RTFP more carefully! I used qualifiers very specifically.

But this is very silly nonetheless: I think the bottom line is that we have biological defaults and culture and genes and historical factors in interaction turn the metaphorical knobs up or down.

Saying we don't share those basic things makes for very sexy arguments but they easily become absurd and ironically, like the idea that the West invented romantic love, also devolve into a bizarre inversion of the idea of multiculturalism (ie, it was supposed to be about not imposing our ideas on other cultures; instead it turns out to again say "we're better").
posted by Maias at 12:56 PM on April 27, 2011

Here are a couple of propositions that I don't think anybody is going to argue with:

a) There are things associated with caring and sex that are universal to all humans.
b) There are things associated with caring and sex that aren't universal to all humans.

Trying to figure out how our ideas of love and sex have changed (and haven't changed) sounds like it would be very interesting, and I'd love to see people talk about it (I consider myself unqualified to do so).

But I wouldn't find it interesting to watch people argue this stuff on too big of a scale. Saying love is unchanging, or is completely different from how it's been, just comes down to a difference of opinion in what counts as love or what is important about love. Which is interesting in itself, maybe: ideas of romantic love are broad enough that even in our culture, in our time, we have room for both endless adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and t-shirt slogans like, "Of course I love you, my dick is hard." (Ideas that align somewhat along lines of gender identity, but not very well.)

So how about monogamy? How is it common, and how has it changed? In serial form or eternal form? Those are questions with potentially interesting answers (again, sorry, don't have the expertise to comment on them).
posted by nathan v at 2:03 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been searching on Google Books this evening trying to track down a reference I remembered from a Renaissance-era Italian Courtesan recommending anal sex as a way to retain one's virginity and stay pure for a wedding (which is eerily reminiscent of "Texas Virgins" nowadays...) but haven't had any luck. It was certainly a method used by many women who wished to avoid pregnancy at least until the adoption of more reliable birth control methods.

Here's a Google Book preview of Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe which has excellent coverage of laws relating to sexual proclivities (and therefore is an excellent guide as to who was doing what to who) from the late 12th C to the mid 16th C.

The creation of Florence's 1432 "Office of the Night" (a role that basically involved running around stopping students from sodomising one another into distraction) or introduction of laws like Henry VIII's Buggery Act of 1534 (which was more than likely created solely to steal more land from the Church) had little effect on people having sex with one another in various combinations. Both Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony were both avowedly homosexual and yet both were accepted in the circles in which they moved, despite the Buggery law being in place until the mid 19th C. One rule for the rich and useful and one for the poor or enemies of the state...

Christopher Marlowe's famously reported line "All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools" did less to get him in trouble than his alleged atheism (and here I have to recommend Charles Nicholl's "The Reckoning" about Marlowe's death as a great example of historical detective work even if it is a little unlikely in it's conclusions). Whilst Marlowe translated Ovid's "Amores", the popularity of Pietro Aretino's pornographic sonnets "I Modi" shows that plenty was going on in the way of pornographic illustration and writing.

Funnily enough "The Reckoning" makes reference to the Durham House Set which revolved around Sir Walter Raleigh and the "Wizard Earl" of Northumberland; Henry Percy who is referenced in Gentle's "1610". Percy's friend and colleague Thomas Harriot appears ever so briefly as well and he is one of the most interesting guys of that whole period. And since I've now veered totally off track and am rambling totally off topic I will shut the hell up.
posted by longbaugh at 5:47 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Earl of Rochester FTW!!!
In English history/literature, the reign of Charles II has lots of enthusiastic and kinky sex. And Johhny Depp in a silver nose (movie Libertine about Rochester).

When women are empowered to extend or withhold consent, sex can focus on pleasure and relationships. Very tied up with social class. But even middle class widows could select their lovers in the 18th century-- read Benjamin Franklin's advice on Older Women as mistresses.
posted by ohshenandoah at 6:22 PM on April 27, 2011

Maias, you keep switching back and forth between terms. You talk about "biological defaults" and then you talk about "romantic love" -- those two things are not identical. So, which are you talking about?

And actually, although you didn't say that romantic love REQUIRED sex, you said it required a DESIRE for sex:

Love (romantic): a deep emotional connection between one person and another involving a desire for an ongoing sexual relationship.

And when people talk about some culture having a unique version of "romantic love," they are not talking about putting things into holes. Again, you're shifting goalposts. They are talking about a very specific ideology about the way individuals (usually of opposit genders) relate to one another, the way their pairing is viewed in society, the purpose of their pairing, etc.

There are same-sex and opposite sex pairings (and more-ings) in every culture throughout history. No one said that's not the case. What those relationships mean, how they are thought about, how they are experienced, that changes. To assume that they don't, that you can just reduce them all to some single definition, is profoundly arrogant and blinkered.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:43 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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