- Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470–1600 by Martin Ingram
Martin Ingram’s Carnal Knowledge is a deeply researched and meticulous study of the regulation of disorderly sexual behavior in Tudor England. His main thesis, which he demonstrates conclusively and convincingly, is that legal prosecution of sexual transgression was a common and pervasive feature of English life before, during, and after the English Reformation. Using surviving records of civil and ecclesiastical courts between 1470 and 1600, Ingram refutes the commonly held notion that the strict regulation and punishment of sexual offenses was primarily a feature of Protestant zeal. He demonstrates that adultery, prostitution, and the bearing of illegitimate children were broadly and severely prosecuted throughout the period in rural areas, towns, and cities by church, state, and local officials and by both Catholic and Protestant authorities.
Although much recent work on the history of early modern sexuality has focused on homoeroticism and on issues of sexual identity, Ingram has little to say about either. His subject is the official prosecution of sexual offenses, and the legal records are not much concerned with either sexual identity or homoeroticism. They overwhelmingly address breaches of law and custom concerning marital sex: adultery, bigamy, premarital sex, and sex between men and female prostitutes. Although sodomy was a crime, prosecutions for sodomy were extremely rare in early modern England. There was no English analogue to the Florentine Office of the Night, which investigated seventeen thousand men for same-sex relations during the fifteenth century. While homosexual activity undoubtedly occurred in England, Ingram argues that “same-sex acts and emotions did not easily mesh with the conceptual framework of procreation, marriage, household, and neighbourhood that . . . underpinned the authorities’ concern with sexual regulation” (37). The authorities were concerned above all with enforcing the laws and customs surrounding marriage. While same-sex activity scarcely appears in court records, prosecutions for prostitution, adultery, bigamy, and premarital sex were commonplace. [End Page 489]
This was in part because marital transgressions had consequences that went beyond questions of individual sexual behavior; they also affected property and inheritance, raised financial issues, and reflected upon the larger community. An illegitimate child who was not supported by his or her parents became a charge on the parish; quarrels over adulterous affairs often had broader effects on relations between neighbors; a prominent bawdy house could affect a neighborhood’s reputation, in addition to being a practical nuisance. The main concern of the authorities, whether secular or ecclesiastic, was to ensure that orderly social norms around marriage were enforced. Those who transgressed were punished, either physically, financially, or both, and they were often publicly shamed. Ingram stresses that while judicial sanctions could be harsh, they often echoed community judgments. Arguably, the courts often reflected community sentiment rather than imposing penalties in a top-down effort to control a disorderly populace.
There is no question that the Reformation introduced new attitudes about matrimony. Although marriage was no longer considered a sacrament, it was actively idealized as the only positive and acceptable form of sexual relations. Marriage was brought increasingly under the control of the church and was no longer seen as spiritually inferior to chastity. Although these changes were culturally and socially significant, they did not lead to more widespread policing of marital transgression. Rather, the strong measures already in place continued to be enforced. Pre-Reformation mechanisms of control proved a useful tool in the hands of the reformers.
The main legal change brought by the Reformation was a drop in prosecutions of clerical promiscuity. When a Catholic priest who had taken a vow of chastity kept a mistress, had adulterous affairs with parishioners’ wives, or committed other transgressions, his hypocrisy corroded faith in the institution of the church, as well as disrupting standards of social order and decorum. After the Reformation, Protestant clergy were permitted to marry, and prosecutions of clerical promiscuity became relatively rare.
Following an introduction that establishes the social and cultural contexts for the early modern regulation of sexuality...