What people know, or think they know, about sex is always a composite idea drawn from myriad social practices – but crucial among them is what people read. In early modern England, more than ever before, that reading material was printed matter: attitudes towards and understandings of sex were shaped by printed books of diverse genres, including medical books, sermons, travel writing, and poetry and drama. Yet early modern printed books were, of course, never the product of the writer’s creativity alone. Publishers exerted substantial agency over how a book’s sexual content was framed and how it could be read, while writers and publishers alike responded to the commercial imperatives of the book trade and the developing conventions of popular genres. Both the physical structure of books and their generic conventions impacted the information about sex that readers could access, thus shaping how they understood sexual desire and activity.
This paper, drawing on the early stages of a project investigating the relationship between sexual knowledge and print culture in early modern England, illuminates these arguments through case studies of medical books and travel writing. Attention to the paratexts of vernacular medical books printed in early modern England reveals a tension between writers – who used prefaces to tightly circumscribe the readership of their sexual content – and publishers, who used title pages to advertise the wide accessibility that vernacular content provided. Attention to travel writing, meanwhile, reveals that its generic conventions demanded exoticised, often racist narratives of sexual transgression in othered cultures: conventions which simultaneously provided readers with valuable access to detail of what same-sex activity physically constituted, and contributed to the othering and oppression of both queer sexuality and people of colour. Together, these case studies begin to demonstrate the extent to which, in early modern England, the making of books was entangled with the making of sexual knowledge.
Kit Heyam is a Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, as well as a trans awareness trainer and heritage practitioner. Their research focuses on developing new methodological approaches to the history of transgressive gender and sexuality, especially in early modern literature and culture. Their first book, The Reputation of Edward II (Amsterdam University Press, 2020) explored the impact of literary texts and concerns on the development of Edward II's queer reputation. Their second book, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (forthcoming later in 2022 with John Murray Press in the UK and Seal Press in the US) is a global history of gender nonconformity for a public audience, focusing on stories that defy categorisation in modern and/or Western trans paradigms. They are currently working on their next academic book project, which explores the relationship between sexual knowledge and print and literary culture in early modern England.
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