Book Review – ‘Sex and Sexuality in Tudor England’ by Carol McGrath


Thank you to Pen and Sword Books for the gifted copy of this book to review.

I really enjoyed this book. It was so interesting, and I learnt quite a lot about the way the Tudors thought about sex and the roles of women and gender. It is irrevocably tied in to the Reformation and changing religious views across the long Tudor century. This is all discussed throughout as McGrath dives into several different areas.

The perceptions of sex are discussed including when you should and shouldn’t have sex, words related to sex, and some humorous sections, as there was bound to be when discussing sex! It’s a great mix of informative and entertaining which I really enjoyed. It’s not too ‘heavy’ to read and quite a concise and clear read.

It offers a different view on Tudor England, though there is still quite a lot of focus on Henry VIII and his relationships with his wives. There could have been more on the general populace, and maybe looking more at court cases about women i.e. scolding, adultery, fornication, and children.

The main reason I didn’t give this book 5 stars was because I felt there was too much focus on the royal history, as well as a few errors as below:

  • Page 12/64 – Thomas Howard referred to as Earl of Norfolk when he was Duke of Norfolk
  • Page 27 – It was said that Katherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur were married at Westminster Abbey when they were actually married in St Paul’s Cathedral
  • Page 58 – Field of the Cloth of Gold said to have happened in 1521, but it was actually 1520
  • Page 88 – Anne Boleyn’s father was described as Duke of Wiltshire when he was Earl of Wiltshire
  • Page 88 – Francis Byron questioned over Anne Boleyn’s fall, but it was Francis Bryan
  • Page 92 – McGrath says that Catherine Carey was acknowledged as Henry VIII’s daughter, but she was never acknowledged, it was only rumoured

Resolving these errors would make the book read a lot better and make me feel more like I could trust what else the author was saying. Errors make me feel like I can’t believe everything the author is saying, but this book was so interesting that I didn’t want to knock more than 1 star off my review.

Chapters:

  1. The Church, the Lady and Sexuality
  2. Tudor Marriage and Matters Sexual
  3. Medical Practices and Beliefs Associated with Childbirth and Contraception
  4. Attracting the Opposite Sex
  5. Dress to Impress & Tudor Dance and Music
  6. Courtly Romance and Poetry
  7. Noli Me tangere, for Caesar’s I am & Court Mistresses
  8. A Visit to a Brothel and Illicit Sex Issues & Aphrodisiacs and Love Potions
  9. Sex and Witchcraft
  10. Renaissance Art and Sex
  11. The Commoner, Villages, Towns and Sex
  12. Naughty Vocabulary during the Tudor Era

The Changing Position of Women


What Evidence is there for a Change in Ideas about Women between the Late Medieval and Early Modern Periods?

            Ideas about women in the Medieval period were very different to ideas about women in the Early Modern period with this change largely being due to the religious upheavals that were taking place all over Europe, known as the Reformation. This essay will look at the era of 1100 – 1800 and how ideas about women changed and evolved in this period. The key themes that will be explored are women’s education and writing, looking at writers like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) and Christine de Pizan (1363 – 1430) to try and understand why ideas about them changed and how much. Other themes are marriage, looking at the influence of the Church in them, and an early developing form of feminism which many of these writers could be considered as being a part of. This essay will argue that ideas about women did change, but it can be debated as to whether or not things actually improved or declined, as marriage laws got harsher rather than better. There is one main problem with this broad debate – the changes definitely were not universal and affected different parts of Europe in different ways with a divide between north and south.

Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler's Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.
Punishments for witchcraft in 16th-century Germany. Woodcut from Tengler’s Laienspiegel, Mainz, 1508.

The differences between Medieval and Early Modern marriage look to be minimal at first sight, but they are actually very different. It was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that the Church began to take responsibility for marriage which may have been because the Church was gaining more power and becoming more important in European affairs.[1] So, at least in the very early Medieval period, marriage was not sanctioned by the Church, but by the middle of the twelfth century, Church courts settled marriages, the consequences and the validity of such whereas in earlier centuries the Church attempted to influence courts who had the final say on marriages.[2] By the Early Modern period, the Church had control over most areas of everyday life, at least in Catholic countries. Continue reading “The Changing Position of Women”

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