J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, August 01, 2019

Sexy Mamas of the 1700s

Joanne Begiato of Oxford Brookes University has been sharing long essays about the history of sexuality and gender in early modern Britain on her website. Here’s an extract from one on how sex fit into marriage:

Thanks to the centrality of reproduction to concepts of marriage, children were perceived as expressions of sexual love. This is represented by the rather charming expression of offspring as ‘pledges of love’. One tale in The Lady’s Magazine, 1782, described children as ‘the dearest pledges of our mutual attachment’.

Children were proofs not only of a loving marriage, but of a satisfying sexual relationship too since both were linked with successful conception. Seventeenth-century midwifery texts, for instance, explained that marital love improved chances of bearing children, no doubt influenced by an earlier idea that women as well as men needed to orgasm in order to conceive, and in turn the want of love caused barrenness.

In some cases, therefore, lack of children indicated marital failure. Lawyers even took up this motif when defending husbands who sued their wives’ lovers for criminal damages. The wonderfully emotive Counsel for Captain Parslow, 1789, Thomas Erskine, declared that ‘There was every reason to believe, that but for the intrusion of this defendant (Francis Sykes), many children would have blessed the parents, and adorned the family – Children at once the care and happy fruits of the nuptial bed’. Clearly the seducer was being held culpable for the cessation of marital sex and love.

Another example is seen in Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s La Mere bien-aimee 1769, which Emma Barker describes as an eroticised vision of family life. The father returns from hunting to be a spectator (along with the male viewer) of his wife’s overwhelming maternity – depicted by her open bosom (this was when maternal breastfeeding was being relentlessly promoted) and her numerous offspring tumbling over her. Daudet de Jossan responded to the exhibition of this painting in 1769 by imagining that it would seduce men, observing that there was ‘nothing more seductive than to see her with her cortege … it makes one’s mouth water to be a father, and especially with such a mummy’.
Here’s an engraving based on that Greuze painting. To modern eyes, it looks like the mother would all in all rather enjoy a couple of days’ peace.
I’m never sure how much New England, an unusual religious outpost within the British Empire, followed the larger trends. Some of what this essay describes, such as the sharp rise in couples who must have conceived their first children before marrying, is mirrored by records from New England, albeit a little later. So now I’ll keep my eyes open for hints from the culture that child-bearing increased a woman’s sexual appeal.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

If you ask me, what the mother in that picture looks like is EXHAUSTED!