Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History by Kim M. Phillips & Barry Reay

(Cambridge; Polity Press, 2011)

Yeah, I should be reading Orthodox Theological Method for my current research project – but this IS relevant I swear!  (And beside, I confined myself to the Introduction and the first chapter on Sin.)  Remember Sarah Coakley’s paper about Sexuality and Spirituality (click here for the reddress post), she introduces some arguments that are ‘new’ to Western ears by referencing the Greek Fathers.  Researching the history of sex is actually a great way to map the history of theological hermeneutics!

Essentially, this book is looking at material from medieval and early modern times in order to offer a comparison.   The author’s thesis is that “premodern sexual cultures were significantly different from modern or indeed postmodern ones and we misrepresent them if we emphasize historical continuities and enduring patterns of sexual identity” (p.10).  To do that it looks at:

ch 1 – the processes by which erotic desire and arousal became labelled as ‘sin’;

ch 2 – an argument that romantic love was celebrated, but thought only possible within a social elite;

ch 3 – sex between men;

ch 4 – sex between women;

ch 5 – sexually explicit art and literature.

I think this is a really important thesis, but one which really needs an historian’s expertise to  review the extensive evidence from primary sources, which I just don’t have.  Two things stand out for me.

Phillips and Reay push back on Foucault’s dominating assessment that the medieval Christian connection of sex and sin was “a crucial stage in the formation of modern subjectivities” (p.17).  But he assumes too much: Phillips and Reay argue that the evidence is far to multi-form to justify Foucault’s blaming of the Church for the repression of all sex and sexuality in the modern era.  “The relationship between sin and desire continued to be quarrelled over, flouted and even ignored down through the centuries of the premodern era” (p.25).

Secondly, a multiformity of Christian theology and practice should indicate to contemporary sexual ethicists that a singular, simplistic and materialistic morality of sex, love and marriage cannot be supported by historical theology.  Both the theology and the ‘experience’ of sex has always been contextual to some extent, and like God, is a great mystery – one that human constructs will necessarily fail to completely contain.   There is a lot of cultural movement happening around Christendom during these years and the Greko-Roman philosophical idealism is contrasted with the more pragmatic approach of the Germanic societies.

On the other hand, lest you here me protest too much about multiformity, Phillips & Reay do state that there was a lot that is consistent in the literature of the pre-modern period, and that is interesting in and of itself:

“For all that did change between the high medieval period and end of the early modern era, much remained constant. On relations between men and women, we find continuities in, for instance, the centrality of marriage and the ‘reproductive matrix’ to sexual presumptions and practice; view of premarital erotic activity as tolerable when constituting a part of courtship leading to marriage; and conceptions of the body which frequently elided anatomical differences of male and female yet which reiterated the belief in women’s stronger desire. In respect to relations between men, ‘sodomy’ retained a flexibility of definition from early Christian times to the eighteenth century, potentially referring to a wide range of acts which could make one ‘an enemy of God’, even while gradually becoming more associated with acts between men; erotic encounters between men were often a product of opportunity as much as preference, not always an alternative to the sexual pursuit of women so much as continuous with it; and age-structured relationships and affective or passionate friendships were recurring forms of male homoaffectivity across our period. At times the main difference between medieval and early modern contexts seems to be the abundance of sources for the latter relative to the former” (p.19).