- The Sciences of Homosexuality in Early Modern Europe
Those interested in the history of sexuality, theories about this history, early modern European scientific discourses, and perhaps the politics of identity as related to sexuality, will value this volume of well-focused and erudite essays. Those well versed in recent historiographical and theoretical debates about, specifically, the history of homosexuality in the West will find here a collection of well-researched and carefully argued essays that engage often overlooked scientific literatures in a fruitful attempt to render the complexity and range of early modern cultural perspectives and attitudes about same-sexual relations. For others, perhaps more generally curious, Kenneth Borris's introduction is alone well worth the price of admission.
Borris situates the essays in the context of historiographical debates about the history of homosexuality even as he provides a lucid introduction to those debates that argue "about whether perceived same-sexual identities existed before so-called homosexuality's late nineteenth century advent" (3). The collection's general purpose is to begin to chart the early modern history of homosexuality and to involve the early modern sciences in this history. More specifically, the goal is to [End Page 1353] demonstrate the validity of moving beyond the "acts paradigm" for understanding the premodern history of homosexuality. In so doing, these essays represent a recent paradigmatic shift that devalues the idea that "a useful distinction between same-sexual acts and identities . . . defines an absolute chronological dichotomy in Western sexual history . . . [and provides evidence] that same-sexual characters, dispositions, subjectivities, and modes of identity existed in the sixteenth and much earlier centuries" (4).
The power of the "acts paradigm" to prescribe interpretive perspectives rests methodologically, Borris argues, on the tendency of Anglo-American historical studies "to over-emphasize law and theology" and to discount the sciences (6). And while the scientific discourses were certainly influenced by law and theology's engagement with same-sexual relations as a topic of condemnation, they provided "alternate modes of thought, inquiry and explanation that promoted curiosity about the causes, purposes, analysis, and classification of natural phenomena and any apparent anomalies" (6). In attempting to explain the existence of sexual acts that didn' t fit with the divinely-ordained procreative function of sex as highlighted and enforced in theology and law, the premodern sciences amply indicated that "such acts could appear expressions of distinctive constitutional factors that characterized certain sexually defined types of individual" (5). They complicated "the nature of 'nature'" and challenged Christian moral orthodoxy because they interrogated the concept of free will that was basic to theological assumptions about human behavior and further problematized claims "that certain kinds of sex are against nature" (27). Borris notes, however, that often scientific texts that intimated such challenges to orthodoxy articulated "studied silence on the possibly subversive implications, or awkward attempts to reconcile those views with moral orthodoxy" (30). Such texts, then, "introduce us not only to a history of repression . . . but also to . . . a history of deviant awareness, agency and advocacy" (30).
The premodern sciences explored in this historiographical enterprise include complexional physiology, physiognomics (physiognomy, chiromancy, metoposcopy), astrology, and, to a lesser degree, alchemy. The essays are divided under three headings: medicine; divinitory, speculative, and other sciences; and science and sapphisms. Derek Neal's excellent essay examines the fifteenth-century French physician Jacques Despars's commentary on Avicenna's eleventh-century Arabic Cannon of Medicine. Neal highlights Despars's comments on the sexual pattern that he Latinized as alubuati. Here Despars engages what Avicenna explores as a medical condition, but that would have been rendered in the Christian Middle Ages as a category of sin, as sodomy. Despars retains Avicenna's conception of alubuati as a disease even as he indicates its moral implications. To feature the historical value of this study, Neal uses alubuati to indicate both the disease and the subject, and adds that Despars emphasizes its psychological causes. He understands it as a disorder "not amenable to medical treatment" (49...