17.11.06, Moulton, ed., Eroticism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

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Barbara H. Traister

The Medieval Review 17.11.06

Moulton, Ian Frederick, ed. Eroticism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Magic, Marriage, and Midwifery. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 39. Turnhout: Brepols, 2016. pp. . ISBN: 978-2-503-56788-4 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Barbara H Traister
Lehigh University

This collection of seven highly diverse essays deals with eroticism, very broadly interpreted. While it demonstrates little more focus than the "ubiquity and diversity of eroticism in the period" (x), as its editor Ian Moulton phrases it in his brief introduction, its individual essays offer insights and information about an array of largely unrelated topics.

The first two essays consider some relationships between eroticism and medieval/early modern Roman Catholic doctrine. Albrecht Classen examines twelfth century co-optation of erotic language by certain religious thinkers, primarily female mystics, as part of their quest for spiritual happiness. Considering both secular and religious texts which elevate the erotic "into a metaphor of the highest mystical experience" (32), Classen argues that such metaphors provided a positive approach to contemplation of the divine.

Asunción Lavrin studies rather different sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Church attitudes toward the erotic. Looking at Spanish culture, most particularly in Mexico, she describes a Church on full alert to quash any indication of lust or lascivious behavior among the clergy. Avoidance of the opposite sex, lowered eyes, and rigid bodily discipline are among the techniques prescribed to erase erotic impulses. Lavrin's text also includes anecdotes about both nuns and priests who failed to subdue their bodies and hence left themselves subject to stringent Church discipline.

Lilith, Adam's first wife, is Sharonah Frederick's subject. She touches on the identities associated with Lilith from the medieval to post-enlightenment periods, when she was known variously as Eden's snake, the seductress, the anti-mother, and the she-demon. Despite all these negative characterizations, Frederick argues, Lilith remains "a collaborator in the divine plan" (80), an enemy to Adam and his human descendants yet unquestionably "a loyal servant of God" (81) who assists the divinity by being the "negative model" (80), an erotic temptress whom mankind must resist.

Rosalind Kerr writes about Isabella Andreini's La Mirtilla (1588), possibly the first pastoral drama written by a woman. Andreini, herself a stage actor, clearly modeled her play on Tasso's Aminta, but reversed the usual gendered power relationships of pastoral. To make this point, Kerr focuses on the satyr characters in both the Tasso and Andreini pastorals. In Aminta, the satyr captures, ties up, and threatens to rape the nymph Silvia, the object of the shepherd Aminta's passion. In Mirtilla, by contrast, a nymph lures, captures, and tortures a satyr. While Kerr admits that Andreini's drama can be read as "a witty exposé of sexual politics," she also concludes that it suggests that "reciprocal conjugal love" (98) offers the best way to experience true sexual pleasure.

Although the first four essays in this collection offer little indication of how they reflect any of the terms in the volume's alliterative sub-title, "Magic, Marriage, and Midwifery," each of the final three is related to one of these terms. Lillian Leopardi's contribution looks closely at Camillo Leonardi's Speculum Lapidum (1502) which deals, in part, with the magical powers of engraved gems and the jewelry, especially rings, into which the gems are set. Leonardi writes about a type of magic whose purpose is to insure phallic power over another. Leopardi's essay, accompanied by a number of her own photographs of book illustrations of engraved jewels, deals with "sexual magic...that directly addressed the male body--that is, it affected its potency and virility" (105). Wearing magical rings offered men not only enhanced virility but also made visible an external symbol of their "social masculine status," a status they could pass on to their male heirs by willing to them the engraved jewelry.

David L. Orvis examines marriage in Shakespeare's sonnet sequence from a queer and presentist perspective. Focusing on Sonnet 116, he notes the instability of the poem's view of marriage. By "troping marriage" he argues, Shakespeare "denaturalizes it, subjecting it to figurative processes that generate a multiplicity of meanings and possibilities" (132) and which, stretching far beyond the language used in the Book of Common Prayer to define marriage, ultimately open the door to "diverse queer relations that traverse and transgress the stricture of the dominant discourse" (149), of which same-sex marriage is one example.

Midwifery takes its turn in the final essay where Chantelle Thauvette looks for erotica in Thomas Raynalde's The Birth of Mankind (1545) and Nicholas Culpeper's A Directory for Midwives (1656). Trying to determine when a distinction between the genres of erotica and sexual education literature was acknowledged, Thauvette contends that both Raynalde and Culpeper, writing more than a century apart, "recognized distinctions between educational readings of their work and erotic ones"(152). Raynalde writing on general reproductive health, attempted, especially in his preface, to ward off potential erotic readings. Culpeper addressed his manual to midwives, seeming to restrict its audience, but in reality, Thauvette argues, he appealed to other readers by extending its content beyond that necessary or relevant to midwifery. The steady sales and reprinting of both volumes over many decades suggest to her that these relatively expensive illustrated texts were purchased not only by midwives or for reproductive knowledge but also for erotic pleasure.

For a titled collection of essays, both the range of subjects treated by and lack of connections among the contributions seems unusual. The only generalization I feel confident in making about so heterogeneous a volume is that it bears few signs of editing, or even of proofreading. Such lack of concern belittles the good material to be found in its individual contributions.

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