Book Review

Moulton, Ian Frederick. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Kris McAbee | March 20, 2004

“It makes no more sense to speak of sixteenth-century English pornography than it does to speak of sixteenth-century English haiku. Neither of these genres existed in that culture, though that did not stop people from writing about sex or writing short striking poems. But just as epigrams are not haiku, so early modern erotic writing is not pornography” (15). This quote from Ian Frederick Moulton’s book, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England is emblematic of both the tone and argument of Moulton’s approachable and engaging study. Before Pornography explores more than the distinction between contemporary notions of pornography and erotic representation in the early modern period; Moulton also investigates the role of early modern erotic writing in the broader political spectrum. Moulton first concentrates on distinguishing early modern erotic writing from pornography; the second discusses “the socially engaged nature of much erotic writing in the early modern period, in particular its role in discourses of national and gender identity” (3). Hence, this book is a valuable resource for scholarship dealing with either erotic representation in the early modern period as applicable to a variety of texts and/or for Moulton’s reading of such canonical writers as Sidney, Spenser, Marlowe, Nashe, and Jonson.

Moulton engages to some degree with feminist and queer theory to establish the fundamental role that erotic writing played in the construction of gender identity during this period. Unfortunately, due to gendered constraints of literacy in this period, Moulton focuses on the construction of gender and national identity though the threat of effeminacy and based on issues of masculinity, leaving little room for exploration of a broader range of gender identities. The book includes an extremely helpful introduction which attempts to define both “erotic writing” and “pornography” in all of their fluidity: “Erotic representation is not static – it is potentially as fluid as desire itself” (11).

Before Pornography is divided into two parts: “English Erotic Writing” and “The Aretine and the Italianate.” In part I, Moulton provides “an overview of erotic writing in early modern England and explores the relationship of erotic representation to the formation of English national identity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries” (30). The first chapter discusses the role of erotic poetry in manuscript transmission and contends that the integration of erotic writing in miscellanies containing a variety of nonerotic genres suggests a relationship between the sexual and other early modern English realms of society. The focus of Chapter 2 is accurately reflected by its title, “Erotic Writing, Effeminacy, and National Identity.” It discusses these notions through an exploration of John Fletcher’s scandalously bawdy play The Custom of the Country (c. 1619) in contrast to moralistic writings such as the antitheatrical pamplets by Stephen Gosson, John Northbrooke, John Rainoldes, and Philip Stubbes. This chapter provides a sustained discussion of Sidney, Spenser, and Marlowe. The second part of the book, and chapter 3 specifically, deals more intimately with the importance of Venetian writer Pietro Aretino and the relationship between Elizabethan England and Italy. The fourth chapter examines “the anxieties about effeminacy and the italiante that surface in the highly charged polemic between Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey.” Focusing on Nashe’s erotic narrative poem, “Choice of Valentines” (c. 1592), Moulton discusses Nashe’s respect for Aretino as a model for his own writing practices. The final chapter, “Ben Jonson and the Erotics of a Literary Career,” discusses Jonson’s assimilation of the “Aretine” erotic into the proper and detached modes of English writing. This chapter most explicitly deals with a multiplicity of gender identities by exploring Aretino’s political effect in light of his sensual and subversive writing.

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