Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.4 (2002) 681-683
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A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. By Cynthia B. Herrup. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi + 216. $13.95 (paper).
In A House in Gross Disorder Cynthia Herrup reconstructs in meticulous detail the dramatic case of Mervin Touchet, the second earl of Castlehaven, who was executed in 1631 for abetting in the rape of his [End Page 681] wife and committing sodomy with his male servants. Such actions would seem to speak primarily to the history of sexual violence and sexual identity, but Herrup reorients our conceptions about what this case once meant and what it has since come to signify in the historical imagination. Although Herrup focuses on unraveling the case in its own day, she also addresses how "over three centuries writers have used the example of Castlehaven in arguments about (among other things) cuckoldry, tyranny, degeneracy, redemption, marital abuse, marital reform, toleration, and homophobia" (115). The final chapter of the book, "Retellings," will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. Here Herrup suggests how replaying Castlehaven's tale neatly bears out a Foucauldian timeline in which commentators from 1700 onward increasingly emphasized the deviant sexuality of a debauched aristocracy.
One historical constant maintained from early Stuart England to our own day, however, has been the assumption that Castlehaven's crimes were entirely transgressive. Yet what was sensationally transgressive about the earl's behavior in his own day would be downplayed as later commentators salaciously focused almost exclusively on the lurid details of rape and sodomy. While eighteenth- and nineteenth-century retellings highlighted sexual transgressions in Castlehaven's behavior, Herrup argues that seventeenth-century contemporaries were more anxious about Castlehaven's behavior as corroding the fundamental structure of the early modern, aristocratic, and patriarchal household. Throughout this eloquent microhistory, Herrup reminds readers of the patriarchal ideal: patriarchs had power over their dependants, but that power was not simply a privilege, it was also an obligation to protect children, women, servants, and subjects. Furthermore, the head of the household had an obligation to restrain himself. Stuart England thus viewed Castlehaven's sexual activities with his servants as a crime "less about desiring men than about desiring everything" (33); the fear, then, was that voracious, excessive desire ruptured the boundaries and undermined the hierarchies that stabilized both households and society.
Thanks to their faith in analogies and resemblances, Stuart England saw here more than simply a sensational story of one household inverted. Instead, the case revealed to contemporaries how "some of the most dearly held categorical ideas in early modern English life" could be "uncomfortably pliable" (97). Herrup carefully demonstrates that Castlehaven's case was particularly fraught with broader symbolic meaning, not simply because he was a typical aristocrat who took a debauched turn but because his own life was built on a series of uncomfortable anomalies and exceptions within his hierarchical, aristocratic, Anglican world. Herrup reconstructs the details of Castlehaven's complicated family history and alliances, illuminating how he and his wife, like many other aristocratic couples, brought to their alliance unequal components of wealth and title. Castlehaven's religious affiliation was unclear; his eldest son and heir was a Catholic, and Castlehaven had Irish [End Page 682] connections. Although none of these aspects was unusual, each helped to position him as unstable in authority and rank and to explain why his household succumbed to violence and disarray.
Herrup also argues that because of the politically tense situation as conflict simmered between Parliament and the monarch, Castlehaven's inappropriate patriarchal behavior easily came to symbolize the wrongs of Charles I. Importantly, this tale of rape and sodomy appeared in print only in 1643, over a decade after the events themselves, because at last Parliament had wrested authority from Charles and suspended "the system of government licensing" (126). While Charles would have had little interest in allowing the story of a failed noble to be told in print, antimonarchists...