Friday, 24 October 2014

Aphrodisiacs, fertility and medicine

It's a particular pleasure to see Jennifer Evans' new book, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England, hit the newsstands:

If you really want to read a blog post about this book, you're probably better off reading one of hers, but my own stake in this was that I was the advisory editor for the RHS Studies in History series who worked with her on the book, and so I feel a certain avuncular pride in it.

With a title like that, it'll certainly sell (wait till you see the pictures). But the book has a deadly serious historical point. Modern scholars have been almost unable to write on early modern aphrodisiacs without being consumed by titillation (cheered on by publishers, naturally). At best, we think of them as part of what Faramerz Dabhoiwala calls the first sexual revolution. Jennifer's argument is that this fundamentally misses the point. Artificial stimulants to sexual desire were, in the early modern period, not solely or even primarily a means to debauchery or sensory gratification. They were a means to fertility, a human function whose connection to sex we are sometimes liable to forget. Infertility and subfertility were at least as sharply painful in the early modern period as they are today, and much harder to treat. But, unusually sensibly by early modern medical standards, the truism was that stimulating sexual desire would assist conception. Unlike plenty of other contemporary medical theories, this was, as far as it went, harmless. And perhaps a little better.

Jennifer's book carefully traces the uses of aphrodisiacs to treat fertility problems across the period, which is a useful corrective in itself, but I think also raises some more profound issues about the acculturation of sexual desire. It seems pretty clear to me from some of her sources that, in this period, fertility was itself desirable, and fertile sex was sexy sex. The modern world, which has for excellent reasons concluded that fertility and sexual fulfilment are almost in opposition to one another, is in a very different place.

In other words, this book manages the trick every good historian aims at: to make the past seem both familiar, intimately familiar in this case, and also very alien indeed. I recommend it.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Despatches from New Orleans

The Sixteenth Century Conference, this year in New Orleans, was as fun and stimulating as ever. The expected highlights included a terrific panel on scepticism featuring Peter Marshall, Alex Walsham and Phil Soergel. But the real fun is always to hear cutting-edge stuff from more junior people, so here’s my personal selection.

Amy Blakeway from Cambridge, who is positioning herself to be the bad girl of sixteenth-century Scottish history, did a lovely piece on the administrative structure of Scottish government in the 1530s. Stay with me. It’s partly that she can prove that King James V had a sort of official council when we didn’t know that before, and that’s just quite an impressive thing to discover. But it matters because Scottish institutions were wonderfully ad hoc and pragmatic, and it’s nice to see one swimming into existence in that way. James used it, apparently, to deal with the fact that he was always on the move, but he needed some sort of permanent executive in Edinburgh. And, as a bonus, he also used it the way bureaucracies are always used: to fob off unwelcome visitors. English correspondents who were trying subtly to denigrate James by implying that Henry VIII was his overlord got directed into a bureaucratic slow lane that seems to have been created specially for the purpose.

Brad Pardue, from the College of the Ozarks, gave a paper in a lamentably poorly attended session on the 1539 Great Bible title page, one of the best-known images in Tudor history:

I thought there was nothing more to be said about this (unless someone should discover something specific about how, when and by who it was created). But Brad, amongst other things, pointed out something which is obvious once he said it. Look again at the bottom third, the common people gratefully receiving the king’s gift of God’s word:

No books! Not even the preacher has one! The Word does go to the lay elite as well as to the bishops, but it stops there. It’s not just that the common people are only supposed to learn one thing from the Word, namely, long live the king. Just to ensure they get the message, they aren’t allowed actually to see it. In 1543 Henry VIII restricted the common people’s access to the Bible by law, to great outrage: but look, back in 1539 he as good as told them he was going to!

But for me, the paper of the conference was from Jon Reimer, also from Cambridge: a PhD student working on an old friend of mine, the bestselling and shamelessly self-publicising Protestant polemicist Thomas Becon. I thought I had ‘done’ Becon’s early works. Jon, however, has used the dedications in those books as the basis of some really detailed, impressively careful detective work, and managed to conjure up a whole network of Kentish aristocrats who were supporting Becon – even if some of them, especially the older generation, didn’t seem actually to agree with him very much. He’s taken a broad-brush picture that we used to have and given us some gorgeously specific detail, and in the process opened up a whole network of printers, gentry and preachers working together in a messy, pragmatic way. This is dirty-fingers history the way it ought to be done: I can’t wait to see the PhD.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Journal of Ecclesiastical History

I've recently taken over as one of the editors of this wonderful journal, which at the same time is an alarming responsibility, a significant workload, a source of endless fascination and - thanks to the rest of the editorial and office team - a consistent delight.

Lots of things going on with it: in particular, the Journal's remit is the whole of the history of Christianity, but it has traditionally been centred on some specific areas and periods, and we're trying to broaden the range, especially beyond the North Atlantic world.

But I mention it today because the October issue is just out (vol. 65 no. 4, for those who are counting): and, in what I hope will become a regular service, I want to flag up a highlight or two from it.

Of course all the articles are excellent (we don't publish anything else). But the one I want arbitrarily to highlight is by Hector Avalos, a campaigning and controversial figure in American religious studies: you don't write a book called The End of Biblical Studies if your main intention is to make everyone like you. His article in this issue of the Journal is characteristically combative. The subject is a precise and momentous one: what exactly did that monument to Christian virtue, Pope Alexander VI, say in the 1490s about the right of the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors to enslave the native peoples in the lands they discovered? One text in particular, the 1497 papal letter Ineffabilis et summi patris, has been cited to exculpate the papacy on this point. It has been read to imply that the Pope only allowed for indigenous peoples to be subjected or enslaved if they somehow voluntarily submitted themselves. Such a provision would of course have been completely ineffectual, but it fits well with a narrative that tries to distance the Church from responsibility for colonial atrocities.

That's not a narrative which Avalos instinctively likes, and this claim has roused him to do a terrific piece of scholarly detective work. The article is a precise and, to my eyes, devastating attack on this reading of Ineffabilis. Once he has translated the whole thing (not simply cherry-picked sections), and correctly identified the individuals involved and the political context within which they were operating, the attempt to defend the papacy's role vanishes like a mist. The letter was more about jockeying for position between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, and in particular the Portuguese attempting to test the limits of the Tordesillas settlement which had excluded them from the western hemisphere. Who was allowed to enslave which heathen peoples was hotly disputed. The fact that Christians could and should enslave them was not in doubt.