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Sexual Politics in the English Revolution

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This dissertation examines the unprecedented public emergence of explicit sexual rhetoric in polemical print during the English Revolution of 1642-1660. Prior to 1640, obscene, libelous, and politically subversive sexual language in England was largely confined to underground manuscript and oral culture by the twin regulatory mechanisms of ecclesiastical press licensing and the pervasive early modern culture of “civil discourse.” With the outbreak of King Charles I’s war with Scotland in 1638 and the subsequent collapse of governmental press oversight in England during the early 1640s, however, the political and polemical imperatives of impending civil war soon ushered explicit sexual politics – defined here as epistemological systems in which early modern discourses of sex and the body served as significant descriptive, explanatory, and/or theoretical means of conceptualizing king, church, and state – into print for the first time in English history. First in cheap, anonymous, and unlicensed pamphlets, and then in formally-sponsored partisan polemic overseen by key regime figures on both sides of the conflict, libelous and obscene sexual language was transformed into a preeminent weapon of midcentury print apologists. As the revolutionary struggle intensified, so too did the varieties of sexual polemic that appeared in partisan print. From generic sexual slanders rooted in longstanding early modern stereotypes to vicious libels against the personal chastity of specific political and religious leaders, and eventually in elaborate theoretical formulations in which the king and his rebellious parliament assumed the metaphorical guise of scorned husband and adulterous wife, respectively, the 1640s and 1650s witnessed a revolution in early modern sexual politics. Moreover, although many contemporaries railed against the spread of licentious language in revolutionary England, many more bought, read, and circulated the offending printed texts with gusto. By the time of the Stuart Restoration, twenty years of public sexual politics had laid considerable groundwork for the novel political culture of King Charles II’s libertine court as well as for the broader development of Western sexual history after 1660. As the conclusion argues, the legacy of midcentury England’s revolutionary sexual politics is still dimly visible in Western political culture today.

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This item is under embargo until December 13, 2024.