Waddell on Ingram, 'Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470-1600'

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The following book review from H-HistSex may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Martin Ingram


Brodie Waddell

Martin Ingram. Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 340 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-316-63173-7.

Reviewed by Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck, University of London) Published on H-Histsex (November, 2018) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50063

Ingram’s new book has a title that is hard to resist and anyone who reads it will certainly gain a wealth of new examples of Tudor carnality as well as a broader knowledge of sex in the period. The subtitle, while unlikely to provoke as many book sales as the title, offers a more precise guide to the remit of the study. As Ingram explains in the introductory chapter, this book is focused more on regulation than on sex itself. As such, it draws on decades of archival research by one of the top scholars in the field to present an innovative picture how the English courts sought to govern sexual behavior over more than a century of tumultuous change.

This study has a number of features that make it especially valuable and important to the field. First, it is not limited to a single jurisdiction or court. Rather than focusing on a handful of selected archival collections, Ingram ranges widely but methodically across ecclesiastical and secular court records at all levels of jurisdiction. Likewise, he examines rural, urban, and metropolitan material, thus making his claims about widespread patterns and geographical variations much more convincing. Second, the book has unusually long chronological coverage, stretching from the late medieval period to the end of the sixteenth century. He crosses the traditional boundaries (e.g., 1485, 1529, 1558) to address changes and continuities across the whole period. Third, he has collected enough material to be able to draw plausible conclusions from quantitative analysis. Although Ingram is careful not to overstate these findings or neglect qualitative analysis, the fact that he is able to tabulate some long-term trends in sexual regulation is very welcome. None of these features are unprecedented in this field—for example, Marjorie McIntosh also quantified various forms of “misbehavior” over a long period—but it is extremely rare to find them all in one place and a testament to the massive amount of research undergirding Ingram’s book.

The result is a study that provides a powerful argument about the relationship between sexual regulation, state formation, and religious change. Ingram makes a good case that much of this regulation was “bottom up,” with information coming to the authorities through unofficial channels rather than through top-down ecclesiastical visitations and the like. Moreover, he is able to trace a wide variety of significant changes, such as the shift away from concerns about adultery to a focus on premarital “fornication,” especially bastardy. Perhaps most importantly, Ingram argues forcefully for continuities amid such changes. According to him, much official energy was spent on sexual regulation before, during, and after the Reformation, rather than it being primarily a product of Protestantism or late sixteenth-century demographic pressure. There were, for example, major “purges” of sexual offenders in London in 1473 and again in the 1510s-20s, well before Protestant reformers took power. He also offers plenty of evidence that most people in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England tried to live within the bounds of traditional Christian morality, with popular (or elite) libertinism very hard to find, even prior to the propaganda campaigns that accompanied the Reformation.

Of course, no book can be definitive or all-encompassing in such a lively subfield. Perhaps the most notable issue for the readers of H-Histsex will be the fact that there is relatively little discussion of gender beyond quantitative comparisons of the regulation of men and women. As Ingram acknowledges in his introduction, the book does not directly tackle questions of manhood and masculinity or womanhood and femininity, and it largely ignores homosexual relationships because they are numerically rare in court documents. Thus, for historians of gender or sexuality, this book may sometimes prove frustrating. Ingram’s engagement with some parts of this historiography is also occasionally dissatisfying. There are, for instance, a few somewhat dismissive comments about Laura Gowing’s work on the “double standard,” aggravated by the fact that Ingram’s own evidence seems to show that sexual defamation suits did indeed tend to revolve around the terms like “whore” or “cuckold,” both of which primarily concerned women’s sexual behavior. In addition, there is frequent mention of highly coercive or exploitative relationships without much acknowledgement of these power imbalances, most notably in the discussion of sexual relationships between householders and maidservants, which often must have been little more than rape. One suspects that the vicar of Thornton, who “succumbed to the sexual attractions of his maidservant” in the 1520s (p. 249), may have had more agency and power than this description implies. As a result, sometimes the writing seems to unconsciously reproduce the outlook of the elite, male court officials who created almost all the documents upon which this study is built. To take one particularly striking example, Ingram suggests that when women working in inns were “cited to court under the name of ‘Tapster’ … [it] aptly conveyed their function in life, serving ale and servicing men” (p. 125). It seems unlikely that such women would have agreed that this was “their function in life.”

Nonetheless, when considered within its own perimeters, this book a major achievement. It substantially expands our understanding of late medieval and early modern sexual regulation and it challenges the most common assumptions about how this changed over the course of the sixteenth century. It does not offer as much to scholars focused on issues outside Ingram’s declared remit, such as sexual identity or gender norms, and it sometimes neglects to consider power dynamics as fully as it might have. Yet, it is still an excellent example of an exhaustively researched and clearly articulated historical argument about an important subject. Anyone interested in how people’s sexual behavior was monitored, judged, and punished in the past will want to read this book.

Citation: Brodie Waddell. Review of Ingram, Martin, Carnal Knowledge: Regulating Sex in England, 1470-1600. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50063

Categories: Review, H-Net Reviews
Keywords: Book Review