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Gender and Sexuality


This session will explore how gender was understood and experienced in early modern society. In the early modern period, women were regarded in political, legal, religious and cultural discourses as the ‘weaker sex’. Their political and legal rights were restricted, but even so they enjoyed considerable agency in many spheres of everyday life. This seminar investigates the relationship between sex and gender and how attitudes changed over the course of the period. It also looks at the operation of patriarchy in practice and how men and women experienced, negotiated, and challenged expected gender norms in early modern Europe. We will also put questions of early modern gender into a more ‘global’ framework by comparing attitudes towards women in early modern European culture with those elsewhere in the world, especially in New World, Islamic, and African cultures.


Seminar questions

  • How far did ideas about sex determine gender roles in early modern European society?
  • In what ways did European attitudes towards sex and gender differ from those of non-European cultures?
  • Was religion the only sphere in which women were able to acquire agency in this period?
  • Were early modern men equally constrained by patriarchy?


Required preparation

  • Read Allyson M. Poska, ‘The Case for Agentic Gender Norms for Women in Early Modern Europe, Gender & History 30 (2018): 354–365
  • Read Katherine Crawford, European Sexualities, 1400-1800 (2007), ch.2
  • Choose a seminar question to focus your reading around. Come to class prepare to discuss it with the rest of the group.
  • Read a primary source of your choice below – come to class prepared to discuss it to the rest of the group.


Primary sources


Further reading

Early modern sex and gender key texts:

Judith Bennett and Amy M. Froide, ‘A Singular Past’, in Bennett and Froide (eds), Singlewomen in the European Past, 1250-1800 (1998), pp. 1-38.

Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (2003).

Laura Gowing, ‘Ordering the body: illegitimacy and female authority in seventeenth-century England’ in Michael J. Braddick and John Walter (eds), Negotiating Power in Early Modern Society: Order, Hierarchy, and Subordination in Britain and Ireland (2001), pp 43-62 (ebook).

Laura, Gowing, ‘Women’s Bodies and the Making of Sex in Seventeenth-Century England’, Signs 37, no. 4 (Summer, 2012), pp. 813-822.

Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London (1996).

E. Muir and G. Ruggiero (eds), Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective (1990)

Allyson M. Poska, Jane Couchman and Katherine A. McIVer (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (2016).

Ulinka Rublack (ed.), Gender in Early Modern German History (2002), chs. 2, 6, 7.

Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (1993; new edn. 2019), chs 2, 4

Early modern masculinity:

H. Wunder, ‘What made a man a man? Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century findings’, in Ulinka Rublack (ed.), Gender in Early Modern German History (Cambridge, 2002)

Alexandra Shepard, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (2003), ch. 3.

Elizabeth Foyster, ‘Male Honour, Social Control and Wife Beating in Late Stuart England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, vol. 6 (1996), pp. 215-224.

Ruth Mazzo Karras, ‘Mail Bonding: Knights, Ladies, and the Proving of Manhood’, in Ruth Mazo Karras, From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, 2003), pp. 20-66, 172-81.

Mary Laven, 'Sex and Celibacy in Early Modern Venice,' Historical Journal 44 (2001), 865-88

Pieter Spierenburg, ‘Masculinity, Violence, and Honor: An Introduction’, in Pieter Spierenburg, ed., Men and Violence: Gender, Honor, and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus, OH, 1998), pp. 1-35 .

Deviant sexuality:

Caroline C. Bingham, ‘Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Deviant Sex’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1 (1971), 447-68.

J.C. Brown, Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1986)

W.G. Naphy, Sex Crimes: Renaissance to Enlightenment (Stroud, 2002)

K. O'Donnell and M. O'Rourke (eds), Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800: Siting Same Sex Desire in the Early Modern World (Basingstoke, 2006), ch. 1 [has a good range of chapters on non-European cultures]

T. Betteridge (ed), Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester, 2002)

Jill Liddington, Anne Lister of Shibden Hall, Halifax (1791-1840): Her Diaries and the Historians’,History Workshop 35 (1993), 45-77.

Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York, 1996), chs. 3,5

Valerie Traub, ‘The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England’, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7: 2 (2001), 245-263.

Non-European perspectives:

K. Anderson, Chain Her by One Foot: The Subjugation of Native Women in Seventeenth-Century New France (London, 1991).

Linda Heywood, ‘Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo/Matamba: African Leadership, Diplomacy, and Ideology, 1620s-1650s’, in Kathryn Joy McKnight and Leo J. Garofalo (eds), Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812’ (2009).

Paul H. D. Kaplan, ‘Isabella d’Este and Black African Women’, in T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe (eds), Black Africans in Renaissance Europe (2005)

Renee Levine Melammed, ‘Sephardi Women in the Medieval and Early Modern Period’, in Judith Baskin (ed.), Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (1991), pp. 115-134)

Caroline Dodds Pennock, Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle, and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture (2008), ch. 5.

José R. Jouve-Martin, ‘Death, Gender, and Writing: Testaments of Women of African Origin in Seventeenth-Century Lima, 1651-1666’, in Kathryn Joy McKnight and Leo J. Garofalo (eds), Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1811-1660’ (2009).

K. O'Donnell and M. O'Rourke (eds), Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800: Siting Same Sex Desire in the Early Modern World (Basingstoke, 2006), chs. 8-11.

Leslie P. Peirce, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (2003), chs. 4, 6.