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  • Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe
  • Kaara L. Peterson
Kevin Siena , ed. Sins of the Flesh: Responding to Sexual Disease in Early Modern Europe. Essays and Studies 7. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2005. 294 pp. index. bibl. $28. ISBN: 0772720290.

Kevin Siena takes as the impetus for the collected essays in this volume that "the rise of the pox needs to be registered as a more significant development in the [End Page 936] course of early modern European history than has largely been allowed" (8). Situating the essays within a still-developing tradition of post-Foucauldian criticism focused on early modern sexuality studies — as distinct, Siena explains, from territory covered by critics of the nineteenth and twentieth century — historicist-minded scholars, and shifting fronts in the history of medicine, the introduction provides an overview of some of the methodological difficulties inherent in discussing previous historical periods' constructs of venereal disease: the terminology of "the pox" vs. "syphilis." In commenting on the pitfalls of "retrospective diagnosis" (12), Siena stresses how these essays instead employ multiple strategies for shedding light upon early modern constructions of the pox, as well as textual (re)constructions of the disease, as Jonathan Gil Harris points out: "early modern syphilis, even in its most 'scientific' accounts, is a persistent effect of textuality" (110). Representing a different line of inquiry, Domenico Zanrè explores the "durable theme" (206) of satirical treatments of the pox in the fifteenth-century Italian literature he surveys.

The essays' methodologies are diverse, which is reflected in the book's tripartite division: Scientific and Medical Responses, Literary and Metaphoric Responses, and Institutional and Policing Responses. The scholars here explore variously an array of early modern Italian and English representations of the French pox, or mal franchese, in different literary genres and in language itself, the responses to the pox by religious, legal, and medical authorities (licensed physicians and lay-healers as well as astrologers), and the nascent discourses of nationalism developing alongside increasing reifications of the foreign, all traceable to the perception that a new disease was running rampant in Renaissance Europe "in the closing decade of the fifteenth century" (8) and linked to the moral abjectness of its sufferers. The medicalizing of sodomy is a particularly compelling effect of the growing awareness of the pox. Mary Hewlett explores "the connection made by the government of the Italian city-state of Lucca between the mal francese and the practice of sodomy" (239). Medical authorities, Hewlett asserts, used the diagnosis of pox to diagnose sodomy; accordingly, "sodomites became one of the government's prime targets for moral reform" (240).

As readers might expect, there is particular focus on the French as the most commonly cited origin for the disease, bringing Diane Cady to ask, "Why is this disease so inextricably tied to the nation in the early modern period, as if nationality itself is a sign of infection?" (159). Like many of the authors here, she concludes that displacing responsibility for the pox is tied to economic, political, social, and nationalist agendas; specifically, Cady focuses on how foreign loanwords infiltrating the English language are linked to "feminizing infection": "The image of foreign language as disease and women as conduits through which this disease enters the body politic, reminds the nation that it must keep an eye on its women as well as its borders" (161). Roze Hentschell is also interested in how "textual discourse about disease relocates the French pox from body to nation" (134) and the role of fabric generally in healthcare. Sartorial indulgence in "French luxury goods" serves as a conduit for "the vice of pride associated with this disease [End Page 937] [that] penetrates England" (134), an image frequently discovered in period English literature: "The trope of the Frenchified English person, who has lost his or her own national identity in his obsession with French fashion, is common" (146). Disease, Hentschell explains, is expressed through the comportment of foreign clothing; Harris is equally interested in the relationship between commodity and disease.

While the introduction works to situate the volume within broader contexts, individual essays do not always engage fully with scrutinizing the...


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pp. 936-938
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Archived 2009
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