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  • Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England
  • Colleen M. Seguin
Laura Gowing . Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003. x + 260 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $38. ISBN: 0–300–10096–5.

Gowing's insightful and significant study draws from church court, quarter sessions, assize, and Bridewell records as well as letters and popular literature in order to examine ordinary people's discourses about women's bodies in seventeenth-century England. Rather than privileging elite voices, the wide array of sources enables thorough analysis of the relationship between the cultural construction of female bodies and plebeian women's lived experiences of those bodies. Proposing "a wider definition of 'the body,' one that encompasses not just medical discourses, but popular beliefs and common practices" (204), Gowing addresses early modern understandings of reproduction, pregnancy, childbirth, wet-nursing, illegitimacy, infanticide, rape, and witchcraft. In so doing, she highlights the profound influence that women's marital and social status had on their perceptions of their bodies and on families', churches', and the state's approaches to controlling them. [End Page 281]

In response to a "history of disciplinary regulation [which] has taken little account of gender" (7), Gowing powerfully demonstrates the centrality of female bodies to that history, as objects of "official regulation, informal surveillance, and regular, intimate touch by women and men" (16). The body most likely to bear the brunt of such intrusive attention was that "of the single woman (and especially the single woman in service) [whose body] was barely her own" (73). Gowing poignantly documents the acute vulnerability of female servants to sexual abuse and rape. Likewise, she details the hostility with which neighbors, clerics, and magistrates — offended by what they saw as female moral missteps with undesirable economic consequences — greeted single women's pregnancies.

Persistent social anxiety over the disorderliness wrought by unruly bodies — in particular clandestine births that resulted in infanticide and illegitimacy's financial implications — rendered early modern bodies "irredeemably public" (34). The "ultimately uncertain" (33) nature of virginity and the "always debatable" (147) nature of pregnancy necessitated the existence of experts to interpret the female body, to "read" its most private areas in a search for various kinds of evidence, in order to ascertain rape, to find witches' marks, or to detect pregnancy. Gowing compellingly demonstrates how vital married women's expertise was to this enterprise. Although early modern Englishwomen resisted elements of the patriarchal system, they also actively buttressed its power in their capacities as midwives, "as matrons in bridewells, [and] as members of juries of matrons" through which "married women had the authority and knowledge to examine other women's bodies" (71).

Moving beyond the well-documented operations of patriarchy within marriages, Gowing explores how patriarchal power functioned in relationships between women — married and single, old and young, and mistresses and servants. She eschews idealization of bonds among women and instead depicts "a world in which the collectivity of women was not always nurturing, but divisive and fearful" (150). Where scholars such as Adrian Wilson have found evidence of female solidarity in the rituals of childbirth and lying in, Gowing sees a myriad of conflicts, especially between married and single women. Since midwives might use a variety of harsh tactics to force single mothers to attribute paternity, the "rituals of reproduction represented regulation and punishment, not protection or reassurance" (176) for unmarried, pregnant women, "pitting midwives, families, parishes and legal personnel against them" (192). The birthing chamber was not insulated from social tensions; rather, that ostensibly private space was a central arena for the reinforcement of hierarchies and the maintenance of public order.

While more sustained analysis of religion, as a factor in both the cultural construction of bodies and women's lived experiences of them would have enhanced the book, Gowing's work provides an important examination of the history of the body beyond the world of the propertied elites. Deepening our understanding of the centrality of marital status as a crucial variable in women's lives, Gowing [End Page 282] powerfully conveys the complexities of Englishwomen's roles as both victims and agents of the early...


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pp. 281-283
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