Sex & Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero

This collection of essays was gathered together from the pages of an Italian historical journal, Quaderni Storici. In the introduction, Ruggiero writes that there was a need to present little-read journals to the English world. He is right. These articles, though short by English standards and rather disjointed in their organization, are illuminating and unfailingly interesting.

The essays all address the issues of sexuality, the body, honor, and femininity in early modern Italy. Menstruation, syphilis, in-law relationships - all these things were dealt with in ways that demonstrate deeply seated cultural biases. The efforts to regain honor is a common theme throughout the collection, and we can see it in the women who came forward to confess to witchcraft and superstition and who were eager to give up other women in their communities; in the legal battles of women who had consented to sex after being promised marriage, but then been repudiated by their lovers; in the women who, for various reasons, were either forcibly entered into a convent-like institution or applied for admission themselves. All these women sought to regain an honor that had been taken from them; most of them succeeded.

Perhaps the most interesting article was that which essentially accused the Catholic Church, along with other centralized institutions, of promoting a social atmosphere that prevented peers from controlling marriage and reproduction, thereby allowing a tremendous increase in abortion, abandoned children, and rape. I wish, though, that this thesis had been presented at the beginning of the article instead of at the end, so that I could have more easily followed the path of the author's argument.

This collection does achieve what it set out to do: it has opened to me other scholarly worlds, and has shown me that more rigorous translation of scholarly works needs to occur. Important research and writing is being done all over the world, and it is a shame to limit ourselves to only one or two languages.


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