Coming and going

Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science - A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature
June 23, 1995

University librarians may object to spending £350 on a book about dirty words, but they would be wrong. Gordon Williams's three-volume survey is not only a browser's delight but an indispensable resource for those interested in the vocabulary used by 16th and 17th-century writers, major as well as minor.

One learns that Prospero in The Tempest described Caliban's mother as "this blew-ey'd hag" not because of the blueness of her irises, but because of the traditional association of pregnancy with discolouration around the eyes. And it seems that green sleeves (as in the famous song) and red velvet petticoats are equally loaded with sexual implication.

Only the vast array of references brought together by Williams can enable one to make full sense of the particular choice of words made by Tudor and Stuart authors, for it is remarkable how quickly usages once commonplace slip out of the collective memory. Even so assiduous an antiquarian as Walter Scott, later of Waverley novels fame, had no qualms about naming his best-selling poem The Lady of the Lake, though this had been a recognisable mode of referring to a prostitute only a century earlier.

Much of the slang of former times has vanished without trace. Williams writes in his introduction: "Investigation has taken in manuscript as well as printed sources, but the times when a Thomason tract or similar item has yielded a completely unsuspected expression give a hint of how much must never have been recorded at all." He makes a convincing case for supposing that the idea of having one's brains between one's legs, or thinking with one's tool, though first appearing in print in James Jones's From Here To Eternity in 1952, dates at least from the 17th century.

A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature is also an immense repository of data about sexual folklore and sexual practices, though inevitably the alphabetical ordering by words and phrases makes searching for this data rather awkward. It is a pity that the dictionary's 1,616 densely printed pages have almost no margins: if ever there was a book that deserved to be read for half an hour every evening, and carefully annotated with one's own cross-referencing, this is it.

Williams's dictionary is obviously a labour of love, and it is reassuring to find that British universities and publishers are still occasionally willing to sponsor such projects. Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science, edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich, is a more typical academic production of this era of personal computers and departmental research rating exercises. The articles in this collection do not add up the history of attitudes to sexuality promised in the subtitle. Several of them are retreads of earlier publications.

Porter's discussion of the work of the 17th-century sexpert Nicolas Venette is at least the third attempt at the subject since 1984, though he still does not have the correct date for the first edition of Venette's Tableau de l'amour conjugal, and has not noticed how much Venette's book owed to the earlier Geneanthropeia of Giovanni Sinibaldi.

As in any collaborative project, the standard varies. Helen King, Robert Martensen and Simon J. Frankel deserve honourable mention; but those of us who thought Aristotle wrote in Greek, not Latin, will be puzzled to learn from Londa Schiebinger's essay "Mammals, primatology and sexology" that the Stagirite coined the term quadrupedia and established the distinction between aves and vermes; and the 118 men who stood trial for unnatural offences in 1884 would, if still alive, be less than delighted by George L. Mosse's suggestion (in "Masculinity and the decadence") that homosexual acts were not prosecuted in England prior to the Labouch re Amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill in 1885.

But of course many reputable scholars these days think that allowing oneself to become too involved in fiddly little details, as Williams does, stops one from seeing the big things.

A.D. Harvey is the author of Sex in Georgian England.

Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality

Editor - Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich
ISBN - 0 521 44434 9 and 44891 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 408

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