Dr. Albrecht Classen

title.none: McClanan and Encarnacion, eds., The Material Culture of Sex, Procreation, and Marriage (Dr. Albrecht Classen )

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.007 02.12.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Albrecht Classen ,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: McClanan, Anne L. and Karen Rosoff Encarnacion, eds. The Material Culture of Sex, Procreation, and Marriage in Premodern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xiv, 285. $59.95 0-312-24001-5. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.07

McClanan, Anne L. and Karen Rosoff Encarnacion, eds. The Material Culture of Sex, Procreation, and Marriage in Premodern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xiv, 285. $59.95 0-312-24001-5. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Albrecht Classen

As the contributions to the present anthology demonstrate, the world of sex, procreation, and marriage has always been intimately identified with and defined by a material culture. By studying relevant objects and the way how they were utilized or valued, we can learn how a past society approached the erotic and reflected upon all its implications. The focus here rests on the premodern world from the antiquity through the late Renaissance, and the authors approach the topic from archeological/anthropological, literary-historical, art-historical, medical, and theological perspectives. There is, however, a certain danger with such a broad sweep of articles, as the individual topics might be just too far apart from each other for all of them to form a complete whole. In fact, we might not be able to see the forest for all the trees. Nevertheless, by the same token, the authors alert us to the potentials of cultural-anthropological research related to the world of intimacy, and allow us, for instance, to gain a better understanding especially of women's cultural history.

Janet Huskinson illustrates this perspective through a close analysis of Roman sarcophagi that provide many representational images of women of the early Byzantine era. Funeral art, however, has almost always been subject to extensive idealization, yet the projection itself allows us to trace society's concept about itself and the model of an ideal woman and her virtues. Yet Huskinson also points out that many, if not the majority of sarcophagi were mass-produced, which allows her to subdivide the women images into two categories. In the first, the virtuous women models closely resemble male types, and in the other we encounter transgendered images as a result of a sarcophagus's reuse or employment for unexpected purposes (25).

Abortion was an issue already in late antiquity, requiring the application of a wide range of instruments and tools. Anne L. McClanan introduces those commonly found from the early Byzantine period in archeological diggings. She explains both their application and investigates the public discussions about the morality of abortion, particularly within a Christian world where sharp criticism was raised on the same ground as the one modern conservative fundamentalists rely on. Alicia Walker examines Byzantine marriage jewelry which displayed a rich array of pre-Christian magical motifs and symbols which were never eliminated despite the protests of the Church.

Curiously, from here the anthology makes a huge leap from late antiquity to late-medieval French culture, and never visits the early and high Middle Ages. Veronica Sekules studies the function of linen and similar fabrics which were prepared by a bride and later the wife for the sleeping room as this fabric proved to have a highly symbolic role regarding the relationship between husband and wife. Linen was, in fact, a significantly symbolic object in an aristocratic household reflecting upon the wife's honor and virtue, but also the husband's wealth and influence.

Paula M. Rieder attempts to analyze medieval churching as a "ritual performance of gender that both affirmed and challenged medieval notions of the roles and positions of men and women" (93). Women were, especially as new mothers, treated with greatest respect when they reentered the church after the delivery and were welcomed by the priest who used his stole to honor them. To argue, however, that this churching implied a "gender subversion" (108) stretches the evidence beyond the possible, although churching as a ritual performance certainly played a noteworthy role in gender identification.

Similarly interesting, but likewise rather tenuous, proves to be Katharine Park's suggestion that the transformation of the holy woman Clare of Montefalco's corpse into a storehouse of relics by way of total autopsy was tantamount to a caesarean operation, even though such operations were first attempted around the time of Clare's death in 1308. By contrast, Geraldine A. Johnson's examination of the devotional and talismanic function of early modern Marian reliefs in fifteenth-century Italy for expecting mothers finds easy corroboration. Her evidence also would have allowed her to demonstrate the erroneous approach to medieval childhood defined by Philippe Ariès in his 1960 monograph L'enfant et la vie familiale. Adrian W. B. Randolph reaches similar conclusions in his study of mass-produced Florentine glazed terracotta statuettes from the Renaissance for domestic use to secure fertility. He specializes on the many available representations of Donatello's lost Dovizia from 1429 and examines their function to demonstrate the family's wealth and hopes for many offsprings -- an important aspect for a city that had seen a dramatic decline in its population by about a third between the 1330s and the late fifteenth century. Randolph's subsequent observation, however, that these statuettes advocated the employment of wet-nurses instead of breast-feeding by the biological mother has no solid foundation even if wet-nurses considerably gained in popularity throughout the late Middle Ages. Charlene Villaseñor Black's study of the lactating breast in early modern Spanish art and literature emerges as a truly stellar article in this volume. First she provides a convincing survey of relevant opinions about breast-feeding in early-modern European discourse (Erasmus, Vives, Fray Luis de León), then she turns to visual depictions of the breast-feeding Virgin Mary as an ideal nursing mother, and finally follows the considerable changes effecting this image caused by a dramatic decline due to the Inquisition's censorship. Increasingly, the Virgin was depicted fully covered, then breast-feeding was sometimes replaced by cup-feeding, and finally wet-nurses substituted for the actual mothers. Nevertheless, as the author indicates, not all Spanish artists and writers submitted under the inquisitional demands to increase the level of public decency banning the depiction of nudity. And by far not all mothers refrained from breast-feeding their babies either. Together, as it appears, both groups raised considerable resistence against the Inquisition fighting for the Virgen de la leche model both in artistic and practical terms.

Finally Karen Rosoff Encarnación studies the public debate of procreation and sexuality as reflected in sixteenth-century visual documents (paintings, carvings, sculpture) dealing with Adam's temptation by Eve. Although the moral message is open to see, a closer analysis also reveals a considerable degree of curiosity about the sexually conditioned (female) body. Helmut Puff's article on "Sodomitic Clothes" concludes this volume. Examining sixteenth-century court papers about sodomites on trial, he detects the considerable role of clothes as gifts in return for sexual favor. Considering that money was, particularly for members of the lower classes, certainly not an easily accessible commodity, clothes represented an important means of exchange. It remains doubtful, however, whether clothes alone were utilized to arrange for sodomitic relationships. Puff only mentions trials where that was the case, but it seems more than likely that other goods were used as well, including food, animals, perhaps weapons, etc.

The volume is rounded off with an index for persons and objects. All contributions prove to be intriguing investigations based on a wide variety of art historical and literary evidence. Unfortunately, the common denominator of all of them seems to be too general as to provide a true focal point. Undeniably, love, sex, and marriage are not only esoteric aspects and must be grounded in the material culture as well before we can understand them as historical phenomena. But it is a considerable stretch from women's representation on Roman sarcophagi to sixteenth-century court trials dealing with homosexuals and their mutual gift giving. Bibliographers might despair if they have to categorize this volume for future readers, as "material culture" means just all and everything.