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  • Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470–1600 by Martin Ingram
  • Shannon McSheffrey
Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470–1600. By Martin Ingram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xvi plus 465 pp. $34.99).

As Martin Ingram writes, "All societies regulate sexual behavior and sexual expression, though how they do so, and to what degree, varies enormously" (5). In Carnal Knowledge, Ingram considers attempts to control sexual conduct in one specific society: England south of the Humber from the mid-fifteenth century to about 1600. If one of the distinguishing features of the emergence of "modern" sexuality was the decline of state regulation in consensual heterosexual relations—adultery, for instance, became a moral but not a criminal matter—by contrast, in premodern English culture, sexual relationships were very much the business of governing authorities. Over the century and a half Ingram considers, adultery, fornication, and the fostering of sexual misbehavior were prosecuted, with varying degrees of intensity, in tribunals local and regional, secular and ecclesiastical. The regulation of sexuality has been extensively researched for the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, but the time frame Ingram considers, bridging the scholarly chasm between medieval and early modern, brings both the first full investigation of the subject for the period between 1450 and 1560, and a substantially different perspective on the Elizabethan period and beyond. Carnal Knowledge is a magisterial work based on deep immersion in archival sources of many kinds, harnessed in clear and cogent analysis. It will be required reading for scholars working in gender, sexuality, law, and politics in the premodern world.

The first two-thirds of Carnal Knowledge considers the period between 1470 and 1530 in a series of thematic chapters. A chapter on marriage and reputation establishes the importance of disruptions to marital relationships and patriarchal households as drivers of sexual regulation. Although Christian morality was certainly an important aspect of defining impropriety, concerns about household order inflected what kinds of misbehavior received most attention. Regulators' emphasis on adultery, unruly households, and the sex trade were driven by concerns about disruptions to patriarchal household rule, while concomitantly slight attention was paid to premarital sex, which was winked at, providing it truly was premarital. Same-sex relationships were virtually ignored. Although in general women were more vulnerable to prosecution than men, there was no absolute double standard, as men were also frequently charged. Different social and jurisdictional contexts produced some variations. In rural areas, the "bawdy courts" [End Page 1386] (local ecclesiastical tribunals) were the main forum through which sexual misbehavior was prosecuted, often from complaints made by neighbors rather than through the court's or clergy's seeking out of wrongdoing. Provincial towns developed an ethos of godly morality by the middle of the fifteenth century, expressed through pursuit of adulterers, fornicators, and bawds in both civic and ecclesiastical forums. Sexual regulation in London and its suburbs (treated in three separate chapters) was inevitably more complicated, as its multiple jurisdictions intersected with larger populations and a more variegated spectrum of sexual activity. Everywhere—rural areas, provincial towns, and London—experienced intermittent intensity of regulatory energy: sharp bursts when sexual regulation could become extraordinarily forceful (as in the metropolis, for instance, in the 1490s) followed by periods of relative laxity. Even during concentrated periods of prosecution, punishments imposed were relatively mild, only rarely involving corporal punishment, and frequently, especially for the better-off, commuted to a fine rather than a publicly humiliating shaming ritual. A final chapter in the first section focuses on a problem that many authorities—especially lay governors of manor, town, and city—saw as especially troublesome, fornicating priests. The main thrust of this first section is that sexual regulation in the decades around 1500 was not imposed from above by an authoritarian church on a would-be libertarian laity, but was at base an intensely local phenomenon, arising from internalized ideas about respectability and honor, from neighborhood relationships rather than distant authorities.

The last third of Carnal Knowledge treats the period between the introduction of the Reformation to England in about 1530 and the end of Elizabeth I's reign. The chapters are organized chronologically rather than thematically, as change becomes the theme...


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