For those of us who teach pre-modern English history and literature, there’s a conversation that happens nearly every semester. When the subject of sex comes up in class, some well-meaning student offers a version of the following:
“Well, of course, people back then didn’t believe in sex outside of marriage.”
What the student means by this, of course, is not that they think no one ever had sex outside of marriage. What they really mean is that they assume sex has a progressive history: that, if they’re having one kind of sex, then the sex Shakespeare and his contemporaries had 400 years ago was, necessarily, four centuries less advanced. Less exciting or liberated or kinky or fun. That, in short, Shakespeare hadn’t yet learned how to have sex in the way we understand it.
As a way of responding to these assumptions, I’ll often have students turn to John Donne’s poetry. We might look, for instance, at his elegy “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” There, Donne directs his lover in the art of the strip tease, verbally peeling off her clothes and drawing her into the bed where he lies, waiting.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads the hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry coronet and shew
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then,
What needst thou have more covering than a man?
The students are, predictably, riveted. Some find Donne unspeakably sexy; some see him, in the words of one of my students, as “a real early modern fuckboy.” But no matter what they think of the poet, the students see in the poem the outlines of something familiar: the lived reality of sex, made real through individual and recognizable actions and emotions.
In their recent book, Sex Lives – Intimate Infrastructures in Early Modernity, Joseph Gamble argues that early modern scholars should be paying closer attention to the sex lives of the early moderns. By “sex life,” Gamble invokes the contemporary, colloquial sense of the term, what you or I might mean when we talk about our own sex lives: things like frequency, quality, or variety. The sex life is distinctly not a theoretical or ideological structure, though it can offer a useful perspective on those. “There is no sex life that is not a particular sex life,” Gamble argues, “a particular bodymind in space-time, a particular set of experiences sedimented in flesh” (10). In this area of focus, Sex Lives distinguishes itself in useful and productive ways from histories of sexuality or queer theory approaches, foregrounding the quotidian and individual, rather than the systemic or ideological.
This is not to suggest that Sex Lives ignores questions of ideology or theory. Rather, these questions are framed through what Gamble describes as “meso-level analysis.” Most existing scholarship on sexuality, they note, focuses on macro discourse: social systems, ideological structures, and categorical definitions. The “sex life,” on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the world of microhistory: the actions, bodies, and feelings of the individuals having (or attempting to have) sex. Sex Lives foregrounds this meso-level approach throughout, engaging in “analyses that try to tarry in and piece apart the circuits and exchanges” tying the micro and macro registers together (19).
This approach becomes particularly useful in Sex Lives’ treatment of early modern sexual racism. Then as now, racist ideologies often manifested in sexual behavior and preference: whose bodies were desirable or fetishized, dismissed or celebrated. These questions were particularly salient in the early modern period, as global colonial encounters fueled emerging ideas about racial identity. “Because racism is effected in part through quotidian sexual practices,” Gamble writes, the sex life becomes a lens through which we can more clearly see the momentum of racist ideologies begin to accrue in the period (23). This is where the emotional texture of early modern life becomes so crucial; Gamble looks both to early modern literature and the historical record to unearth the emotional reality of navigating racist ideology—“how it felt to navigate racism in everyday sexual and romantic encounters in early modernity” (11).
By advocating for the importance of these meso-level analyses, Sex Lives offers another major argument, a core feature of Gamble’s work on the history of sex: one must learn how to have sex. The sex life is where we can most clearly see the processes of teaching and learning and reteaching and relearning that occur in each encounter. Donne’s declaration that he is going to teach his mistress what to do in bed, for example, is not just pillow talk—for Gamble, a statement like that is also a genuine reflection of the way sex works: we learn, through trial and error, teaching and feedback, the kind of sex we want to have.
The first half of Sex Lives traces early modern advice on the physical logistics of sex—what Gamble calls sexual know-how—that circulates across sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. For example, Sex Lives presents a trove of sources, both literary and artistic, offering advice on the act of penis-guiding: how a partner might guide a man’s penis into position for vaginal sex. As Gamble points out, the prevalence of this advice confirms the book’s central thesis: that sex—even heterosexual penetration, the most vanilla and supposedly normative of sex acts—requires teaching and practice, and can go awry without it. All sex is learned sex.
This learning doesn’t just stop at mechanics. Gamble argues that sex lives—early modern or contemporary—also involve developing nuanced emotional knowledge about the world, what they call the “feel-how of the sex life.” These are “the more ineffable mechanisms and practices of living: trying to understand what others want, and how they want it; what you want, and how; how to articulate what you want; how to teach a partner or partners to hold you up and carry you in the world, affectively speaking” (95).
For instance, one of the central chapters in this section centers on conversion marriages in the early modern world. These unions—marriages in which one partner chooses or is urged to convert to a different religion to make the union possible—were a familiar trope on the early modern stage. For scholars, these plays have provided useful nexus points where sex and racial ideologies collide.
Gamble looks at English plays such as The Island Princess and The Merchant of Venice, both of which dramatize a woman’s conversion from Islam and Judaism, respectively, in order to marry a white Christian man, charting the emotional uncertainty inherent in these pairings. It’s here that the strengths of Sex Lives’ meso-level methodology shine through: while there is a wealth of existing scholarship on conversion and marriage, Gamble’s approach turns our attention to the lived experience of these unions, deftly pointing out that these characters—and, by extension, the many historical figures who found themselves in similar unions— must engage in rapid and expert-level sexual learning: they must understand the rules of whiteness, of desirability, and, above all, the emotional instability of their partners-to-be.
Sex Lives is a long overdue testament to the value—pedagogically, intellectually, and historically—of peering behind the closed doors of early modern bedchambers. The messy, quotidian reality of sex often gets pushed aside in our teaching and our scholarship because, well, it’s just that—messy and quotidian. But, as Sex Lives convincingly argues, those are the very things that make the sex life worth studying. It’s through trial and error, hope and heartbreak that early moderns—and we—find our way, at last, to pleasure.
Eileen Sperry holds a PhD in English Literature with a concentration in Cultural Studies. Her teaching and writing focus on early modern English literature, embodiment, and poetics. Her current book project explores death and decay in early modern lyrics.