Sex Changes Over Time

High-minded allegations of prurience should not stop historians from examining the intimate lives of people in the past.

Behind the curtain: an illustration from Barthelemy l'Anglais' Le Livre des Proprietes des choses, c.1410.I recently introduced my undergraduates to Montaillou, the classic 1975 study by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, which provides insight into the lives of 14th-century peasants in the tiny Pyrenean village of that name. Studying depositions collected during inquisitorial investigations into the Cathar heresy by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (and future Pope Benedict XII, meaning the records were preserved in the Vatican Library), Ladurie was able to reconstruct the villagers' beliefs about God, love, sex, death, time, space, marriage and magic. It is an outstanding example of microhistory, exposing the most intimate secrets and daily experiences of these remote medieval people. 

An academic review of Montaillou, responding to its appearance in English translation, critiqued its methodology and prurient focus. The reviewer, David Herlihy, censured it on the grounds of 'sloppy and manipulative' mistranslations (although, in turn, I find fault with some of Herlihy's Latin) and for including what he thought were lengthy, explicit and atypical examples of sexual behaviour and treatment. Herlihy suggests that 'one chief reason for the commercial success of the book was its frank, extended treatment of sex' and asks: 'Is it the historian's chief duty to titillate?'

Clearly an ethical approach to the past is one that does not reduce people to their sexual activity or proclivities, any more than it is one that employs a sort of moral parochialism in judging its subjects. In both cases, E.P. Thompson's injunction against the 'enormous condescension of posterity' is apt. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott thought that history was 'obscene necromancy': the raising of the dead. An historian who writes to titillate runs the risk of obscene necrophilia as well. 

The reasons why sex might sell history books and why the consideration of sexual attitudes and behaviour might be thought mere titillation are one and the same: it is easy to assume that sex is a kind of activity outside history, a constant through time. We imagine that we experience and think about bodily pleasures in similar ways, no matter whether a 21st-century professional or a 14th-century peasant. 

Yet, since Keith Thomas' article on 'the double standard' in 1959, sexual behaviour and attitudes to sexuality have been topics that scholars have historicised. How sexuality was manifested, how sexual desire has been understood and how sexual behaviour has been governed have been deemed fit subjects for historical inquiry. 

Such studies not only tell us much about changing social mores, but also about notions of identity, community and power relations. Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality (1976), coined the term 'biopower' to describe the emergent nation state's attempt to regulate its early modern subjects by subjugating their bodies. Faramerz Dabhoiwala's book, The Origins of Sex (2012), examines the culture of sexual policing in 16th- and 17th-century Europe and America that predated what he describes as the 'first sexual revolution': the intellectual shift in attitudes to the regulation and prosecution of the body. In one chilling story, he relates the voluntary confession of Massachusetts settler James Britton in 1644 to having tried to have sexual intercourse with an 18-year-old bride, Mary Lathan, without success. The couple were convicted of adultery and hanged. Crucially, such severity towards sexual rebels was not just an imposition by church and state; people internalised ideals of chastity, believing that passion was dangerous and shameful and illicit sexuality criminal, policing themselves with vigour. In Nîmes in 1588, a group of women demanded to be let into Vidal Raymond's house, crying out that they knew he kept a woman inside. When he would not open the door, they forced an entry and found a woman trying to hide herself under the straw; the women called her a whore and chased her out of town.

Historians do not want to be the equivalent of those women: chasing down our subjects, demanding they give up their secrets and passing judgement on them. Nor should we write merely for prurient amusement. But neither should we assume that sex and the panoply of ideas surrounding it have always been the same. Even on this most familiar of territories, when we look into the past, we see through a glass darkly.

Suzannah Lipscomb is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History and Head of the Faculty of History at the New College of the Humanities, London.