Women, Sex and the Courts in Early Modern Eurasia

AHA Session 293
Monday, January 5, 2015: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Concourse D (New York Hilton, Concourse Level)
Shannon McSheffrey, Concordia University (Montreal)

Session Abstract

This roundtable of original research brings together specialists from one end of the early modern Eurasian world to the other (Korea, China, the Ottoman Empire, France, and England) who are working at the nexus of women, sexuality, the courts, and society. These topics engage a number of issues that are of interest to a wide range of historians, including how to approach the conflicting issues of social control and individual agency (particularly how to understand women’s sexual, legal, and social agency in deeply patriarchal societies); how to manage the strengths and weaknesses of microhistory; and how to deal with the tension between viewing history as the experience of individuals and as the cultural and legal construction of subject positions. More broadly, panelists and audience will struggle with and benefit from dialogue among specialists who share a broad topic and time period but who study different cultures within the Eurasian world.

Dr. Jungwon Kim will launch the roundtable with an examination of changing debates over the legal construction of rape on the ground in the local courts of early modern Korea; the role of gender, status, and networks in legal practice; and how individuals and communities sought to seize the law for their own ends. Dr. Janet Theiss moves us to early modern China and plunges us into the world of sex, corruption, and power. She moves deftly from a gripping case study to the general nature of political culture, analyzing the social practices and cultural constructions that bind the two.  Approaching a center of Eurasia, Dr. Leyla Kayhan Elbirlik takes us in a different historiographic direction. In an institution and cultural environment where women have often been viewed by outsiders as disempowered, Elbirlik shows how, on the contrary, women in the shari’a courts of early modern Istanbul had significant degrees of agency. Dr. Jacob Melish continues the movement across the landmass and the focus on the historiographic tension between social control and agency. He uses the well documented case of a tough working woman from early modern Paris to analyze the array of forces that sought to limit working women’s sexuality, and how a woman could ride rough shod over them and attract support, yet the context he provides puts this in sobering perspective. Finally, at the far western tip of the Eurasian landmass, Dr. Shannon McSheffrey likewise roots herself in the power of an individual woman -- which involves gripping testimony of seduction and murder in early modern London -- but forces us to confront the cultural construction of female sexual transgression and the impacts such constructions could have.

The roundtable will appeal to a wide audience, including historians interested in women and gender, sexuality and transgression, law and society, microhistory, and dialogue across Eurasia.

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