Social Bonds and Sacred Bodies: Negotiating Marriage, Manhood, and Religious Identity in Reformation and Post-Reformation England, 1530–1640

AHA Session 199
North American Conference on British Studies 4
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 205 (Hynes Convention Center)
Susan Wabuda, Fordham University
Eric Josef Carlson, Gustavus Adolphus College

Session Abstract

Historians continue to debate the number (one to several), success (minimal to great) and character (local or international, elite or popular) of the English Reformations. 

But none can deny that they were fraught with gender trouble.  England's messy breakup with the Rome began with mistresses and miscarriages, briefly stumbled at settling spiritual headship on a supremely female monarch, and nearly came to naught with the late seventeenth-century birth of a Catholic prince.  But the sexual and gendered dilemmas of religious change didn't stop at the epicenter of the English crown; they radiated outward through the nation.  And with good reason, as the old spiritual order of the medieval church had profoundly overlapped and intertwined with the gender order of English society. 

The traditional church had divided English sexuality into three religious categories: sacred chastity, lawful but profane married heterosexuality and the sinful deviancy of whoredom and sodomy.  The church had also separated gender roles into two versions: spiritual and lay.  Finally, by administrating the Sacraments of Baptism, Marriage and Penance, the church had functioned as the primary regulator of sexuality, reproduction, family formation and—to a degree—gender role conformity.

Attacking monastic and clerical celibacy, undermining the distinction between lay and clerical masculinity, and abolishing the Sacraments of Marriage and Penance, Protestant theology uprighted the old gender order.  The chaotic process of actual Reformation in England intensified this disruption.  For instance, Protestant doctrines of the ministry were reversed, revised and inconsistently applied, leading to contradictions in clerical masculinity.  The factionalization of English Protestantism and the persistence of a Catholic minority created conflict over the nature of marriage, the jurisdiction of church courts, and the question of what made a man or woman holy.

In the last two decades, scholarship has begun to delve more deeply into the impact of religious change on the gender of early modern England.  Eric Carlson and David Cressy have explored its impact on the legal and social dimensions of marriage and reproduction.  Frances Dolan, Michael Questier and Colleen Seguin have probed the gendered dynamics of recusant activism and Anti-Catholic reaction.  Patricia Crawford, Phyllis Mack, Diane Willen and Susan Wabuda have, among others, addressed Englishwomen's assertions of spiritual authority.  Several scholars, including Carlson, Helen Parish and Peter Sherlock have examined the reception of clerical marriage in sixteenth century England. 

Yet much work remains to be done, particularly on gender and sexuality within the recusant community and competing models of religious masculinity.  This panel presents new research on these topics, exploring how marriage and masculinity worked to challenge and construct religious authority, identity and community boundaries.  With papers on the competing patriarchal claims of a Catholic husband and priest on the sexuality, property and person of a high-ranking recusant woman, the contradictory demands of married manliness and clerical holiness confronting an Elizabethan minster with a bewitched wife, and the role of marriage in Tudor reformers' Scriptural reconstruction of clerical masculinity, this panel demonstrates how gender comprised a critical intersection of the social and the sacred in early modern England.

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