Journal of World History 24.2 (2003) 248-250
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A History of Celibacy. By Elizabeth Abbott. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2001. 496 pp. $17.50 (paper).
The author of this entertaining and virtually exhaustive treatment of celibacy in world history is, appropriately, both a journalist and a historian.
The scope of the book is vast, perhaps far too vast, for a single volume. She covers celibacy and its counterpart, sexuality, in such widely disparate areas and times as ancient Greece, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American religions, and Jainism. She focuses most of her attention on early, medieval, and contemporary Christianity. Individuals such as Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Leonardo da Vinci, and Isaac Newton, to name only a few, are given at least a few paragraphs each. The appearance of celibacy in world literature is taken up (though here she tends to restrict herself to European works). And she does a good job of delineating the underlying philosophies of celibacy both in the past as well as today. Her final chapter is on the new celibacy and contains a sustained attack on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on sexuality in general. [End Page 248]
Certainly, the book will become a reference for persons seeking examples of and rationales for celibacy throughout the world and in its many religious traditions. Abbott has read widely and demonstrates an impressive knowledge of a subject that few have dealt with in so expansive a way. The breadth is awesome, but it necessarily sacrifices at times depth of analysis and sensitivity to historical context.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the journalistic style in which she reports her findings trumps more fine-grained historical investigation and leaves the scholarly reader wanting to know more about the sources and eager for more critical analysis and evaluation. On the other hand, the narrative, even breezy, style is sure to capture a lot more readers than a book written solely for other scholars in the dry language so common to contemporary scholarship. One can only surmise that she was fully aware of the trade-offs between journalism and scholar-talk and opted for what she thought was the best balance. Sometimes this works, but at other times it doesn't.
Abbott clearly can write well and engagingly. She can tell stories with verve and flair, even humor. The subtitles are often quite witty, for example, "A Five Pound Virgin Tips the Scales of Justice." Scholars could certainly learn from her example how to spice up parts of their scholarly tomes (though I think she goes too far in this direction on a number of occasions).
She also invests a great deal of herself in the text, even confessing that celibacy has given her respite from household burdens that she had borne in a previous relationship. This degree of intimate knowledge of an author is rarely found in strictly scholarly texts and I found it, up to a point, refreshing. But once having invested herself in the material of the book, Abbott sometimes finds it difficult to bring herself back into the protective cover of dispassionate analysis.
She seems to have a particular animus against the Roman Catholic Church, and this shines through with little restraint at a number of places in the book. In a work relatively devoid of strong judgment about the subject matter, she delivers a relatively unrestrained diatribe against the Church's response to the widespread violations of celibacy among the clergy: "Like a tongue-tied mute, incapable of so much as a squeak of disapproval." She refers to the Vatican's "intelligence system operating even more efficiently than the CIA's." I'm not suggesting that she is not entitled to these judgments, but they stand out as anomalous in a book that generally eschews judgment in favor of reportorial narrative.
As a historian, she knows the difference between fable and history but she doesn't always make that difference clear in her recital of various [End Page 249] episodes and stories. One often wonders which of the episodes she reports, especially from the ancient period...