02/06/2013 16:02 BST | Updated 30/07/2013 06:12 BST

What's in a Sex? Understanding the Sexual in Early Modern England

With all the exposure that the Internet provides, "sex" is as mundane a word today as "bread" and "water". Mind, I say *word*. It is remarkably absent from the language until the very sunrise of the 20th Century.

Every probing into the past is illuminating to the present. Applying our intuitions to understand past practices is rewarding but exploring history to make better sense of our present concerns is even more fulfilling. History is not merely a vacuum, a reality in its own shell, a lived away period - it is more a piece of the jigsaw of human life, an essential abstract of the human continuum. The perspective of historical knowledge is always illuminating, virtually in any dimension, including ... sex.

With all the exposure that the Internet provides, "sex" is as mundane a word today as "bread" and "water". Mind, I say *word*. It is remarkably absent from the language until the very sunrise of the 20th Century. These days, with all this freedom of speech, we use the word "sex" as freely as ever. But how did people refer to sex before the word "sex" developed the default meaning (as different from gender) that we know today? How did they talk about sex before "sex"?

Highly qualified academics have recently joined to produce an engaging book called Sex before Sex: Figuring the Act in Early Modern England. The academic profile of the book should not put off the general reader. It is a fascinating collection of insightful essays on sex, sexuality and what counted as sex in Early Modern England. The authors show how a retrospect into the Early Modern period is not an end in itself, a sheer academic pleasure - but is ultimately bound to shed light upon our modern perceptions and understanding of ourselves and our universe.


With a puzzling title, Sex before Sex seeks to figure out the act in the blooming age of Renaissance before the word "sex" was even used in the sense of copulation. Although the absence of the word to refer to the act obscures the understanding of what counted as sex, the book is by no means just a linguistic observation. The insightful and thought-provoking essays expand on a variety of issues on sexuality, its perception, realisation, exposure in literary works and ultimately what was indeed considered to be sex or a sexual act. The authors look for sex in the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Ford, Donne and others. The after-marriage scene in Romeo and Juliet, the double entendre of "conversation" between Adam and God in Paradise Lost, the controversy of motif in Lucretia's suicide - to name but a few - are among the most engaging discussions.

The authors dwell on the evolvement of attitudes and perceptions of what was viewed as a sexual act. Some of the essays are especially illuminating in this respect: Will Fisher's essay on the erotism of chin-chucking in 17th century England, Stephen Guy-Bray's writing on an erotic relation to plants, Will Stockton's article on the erotics of consumption in Milton's Comus are spectacular. Fisher shows that we no longer recognise the term chin-chucking - which is the gentle stroking of someone's chin and cheeks - as a sexual act. However, the double implications of it as an innocent gesture versus a sexual invitation incited a number of court cases where someone was accused of adultery based on the very act of chin-chucking. Guy-Bray brilliantly analyses the sexual attraction to plants in Donne's Sappho to Philaesnis and Marell's The Garden. Stockton shows how Milton depicts drinking as sex in his Comus - not as a symbol of sex, but sex itself. And Thomas H. Luxon is very persuasive in his essay on how human life began as he analyses what really happens when Adam has a "conversation" with God, shortly after which Eva is created in Paradise Lost. Indeed, what Milton means by "conversation" still leaves much to be uncovered.

Sex before Sex is published by the University of Minnesota Press and can be obtained from their website as well as other stores. An absorbing read for anyone interested in the perceptions of sex and the sexual in Early Modern England and through the human continuum.