- “Wantoning with the Thighs”The Socialization of Thigh Sex in England, 1590–1730
Robert Herrick’s “Description of a Woman” (1645) is a typical blazon poem in that it features a speaker who catalogs the desirable corporeal features of his beloved. In this case, the speaker moves down his beloved’s body, praising her eyes, lips, breasts, belly, and feet. At one point, he stops to extol the virtues of her thighs:
Now love invites me to survey her thighesSwelling in likenes like twoe christall skyesWith plumpe soft flesh of mettle pure and fineResembling sheilds both smooth and christalline.1
The speaker’s decision to lavish so much attention on this part of the body might seem odd—yet another example of Herrick’s penchant for the “perverse” or the “fetishistic.” Herrick is, after all, the writer who penned an entire poem “Upon the Nipples of Julia’s Breasts,” in which he likens Julia’s “niplet[s]” to “strawberr[ies] . . . half drown’d in cream.”2 But it was quite conventional for poets to praise the beauty of their beloved’s thighs. There are over a hundred blazons written during the period from 1590 to 1730 that contain lines celebrating this part of the body, including poems by Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Donne, Marston, and Carew. In fact, in Philip Sidney’s Old Arcadia, the character Pyrocles suggests that describing the thighs is a crucial part of any blazon. Pyrocles declares:
Never shall my song omitThose thighs (for Ovid’s song more fit),Which, flanked with two sugared flanks,Lift up their stately swelling banks [End Page 1] That Albion cliffs in whiteness pass,With haunches smooth as looking glass.3
Pyrocles insists that he will “never omit” the thighs from his song, despite the fact that this description might be seen as indecorous (“more fit” for “Ovid’s song”).4 Mercutio likewise implies that the thighs are a sexually charged part of the body when he catalogs Rosaline’s desirable features for Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He first compliments Rosaline’s “bright eyes, her high forehead, and her scarlet lip,” and then, shifting to a more bawdy register, he mentions her “quivering thigh and the demesnes that there adjacent lie.”5
Modern readers might be surprised to find that early modern writers placed so much emphasis on the thighs, since contemporary erotic representations do not generally focus on this part of the body. This is not to deny that there are people today who find the thighs attractive and are aroused by them.6 Indeed, websites like thighlovers.com cater to devotees and help to transmit this appreciation to others. Still, the thighs were more widely eroticized in the early modern period than they are today. They were praised in popular literary texts, as well as in more elite sources. In “A New Ballad Composed by a Lover in Praise of His Mistriss,” for instance, the speaker exclaims: “Thy Thighs as Ivory columns are, / by Natures kind well framed,” and he adds that “betwixt there is a place I’ll spare, / which shall [End Page 2] not here be named.”7 The most remarkable text in this vein is a popular song entitled “White Thighs.” This song is over thirty lines long and—as its title implies—is devoted entirely to celebrating the beloved’s “lovely white thighs.”8 The speaker insists that although other “poets praise . . . their mistress’s . . . / Coral lips, pearly teeth, and fine eyes,” these features “can never compare, / To my charmer’s elastic white thighs.”9
The sexually explicit blazons that began to appear in the middle of the seventeenth century stressed the erotic appeal of the thighs. The Wandering Whore (1660), for example, includes a scene where the titular character praises what she purposes to sell, boasting that she possesses “a pure pair of naked breasts, smooth Buttocks, Lovely and ivory thighes whiter than untrod Snow, with the best red-lip’t C—— in Christendom.”10 It is significant that the speaker mentions her thighs alongside her breasts, buttocks, and genitalia, implying that they are on a par (erotically) with these...