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Toulalan, _Imagining Sex_

Toulalan, _Imagining Sex_

Toulalan’s book gives a fairly comprehensive insight into attitudes towards sex in the seventeenth century, building on the insights gained by works like Ian Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (OUP, 2000), but I have a fair few criticisms. Toulalan assumes that Foucault got it right in saying that, at the dawn of the century, people discussed sex frankly and openly, and applies this – mistakenly – to discussion of sexual flagellation. She does not convincingly support her assertion that ‘beating and whipping were practised supposedly for their alleged spiritual benefits, but really because they brought sexual pleasure and gratification’ (p. 99) and her references do not support her claim that ‘For the most part, though not entirely, sexual flagellation is represented as a Catholic practice, pursued and promoted by a corrupt and hypocritical priesthood’ (p. 100). This becomes truer as the century progresses, but it is scarcely true prior to the Civil War, and only starts to become widespread at around the time of the Oates Plot.

Toulalan does not give page references, which is a serious weakness in an academic work, and makes it hard to check her sources. In this particular case, she supports her claim with only one reference dating from the first half of the century (most of the others are from the 1680s), and that reference – to Thomas Robinson, The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon in Portugall (London, 1622) – is, at best, inconclusive; the nuns are exploited sexually by Father Foster who ‘play[s] rex’ over them (p. 18), but it is highly dubious whether this implies that he beat them either for his or their sexual pleasure (according to Webster, the expression means ‘domineer’, but OED says it simply means to ‘play tricks’). Altogether, Toulalan’s book is a fairly useful guide to early modern sexuality, but its claims need to be crosschecked and should not be assumed to be correct as they stand.