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  • Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History
  • Deborah Seiler
Phillips, Kim M. and Barry Reay, Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2011; paperback, pp. 200; 14 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £16.99; ISBN 9780745625232.

With Sex before Sexuality: A Premodern History, Kim M. Phillips and Barry Reay take on the complex topic of sexualities in history. They note that the modern practice of seeing sexual behaviour as a defining aspect of personal identity is something that is at odds with what is found in historical sources, yet is commonly seen in much historical research.

While their aim to address this issue is admirable, the reality falls short in a few key areas. The lack of a clear methodological approach is frustrating, as the reader never forms a clear understanding of how the authors are approaching their sources. While their claim that modern sexual terms are detrimental to historical research is valid, the lack of an alternative [End Page 239] proposition for reading primary sources is vexing. The frequent reiteration that commonly used terms such as heterosexuality are inappropriate in a historical context is problematic when no alternative is offered. Beginning with the Introduction, the thorough but extensive use of endnotes also becomes somewhat frustrating, as nearly every second sentence has a note attached.

Another thorny problem, still in evidence here – especially in the chapter ‘Before Heterosexuality’ – is the claim to be representative of both the medieval and the early modern periods, while relying predominantly on, the presumably more abundant, early modern sources. This highlights the difficulties associated with using a term such as ‘premodern’: unless a strong methodological approach is attached, it becomes a throwaway term in its broadness and inclusivity.

The third chapter deals with male–male sexuality, with a significant proportion of the discussion given over to sodomy. The points raised are well supported by primary evidence, but again the methodology being used could have been more clearly articulated. While the authors initially note that ‘sodomy’ in the medieval period had no precise definition – stating that sodomy covered a range of inappropriate sexual acts and was not limited only to men – they then, unfortunately, revert to using it to describe only male–male acts.

In the next chapter, Phillips and Reay move on to sexuality between women. While the previously mentioned uncertainty regarding terms and methodology persists, a wide range of sources are investigated. Small inconsistencies such as referring to someone by their surname for several paragraphs but then abruptly switching to their given name, and unclear use of quotations detract from comfortable reading. Despite this, the impressive scope of the research is evident.

The title of the fifth chapter, ‘Before Pornography’, speaks for itself and the authors’ viewpoint. While Phillips and Reay claim that no clear case for the existence of pornography in ‘premodern’ times can be made, their argument would have been more convincing if their key term had been more precisely defined. The attempt is there to make a case for resisting the urge to use modern concepts on historical sources, yet the complexity of both modern, and possible historical, pornography is not treated with enough depth to be satisfying.

In the last chapter, ‘Epilogue: Sex at Sea?’, the authors restrict their focus to the impact of sea-faring on concepts of sexuality. They highlight not only the disparity between western European and New World perceptions of sex, [End Page 240] but also the difference between modern and historical perceptions, opening up many lines of future inquiry.

While students may find the complex technical apparatus frustrating, historians will be drawn to the extensive sources used: Sex before Sexuality illustrates how complex historical sexualities are and the use of sources as varied as letters, court records, and poetry, show how much can be gleaned from the most unlikely areas.

It is clear that the authors have done considerable research, and I found the relatively consistent integration of medieval sources and the inclusion of art being two of the most positive aspects of the book. For me, Sex before Sexuality poses many intriguing questions; I would have liked, however, a few more answers.

Deborah Seiler
The University of Western Australia


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pp. 239-241
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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