Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Boundaries of Eros by Guido Ruggiero, etc.

Alright, having finished The Boundaries of Eros by Guido Ruggiero, I have a few things to say about sex in Renaissance Venice, about books that I read, and about this blog.

First off, a few observations about The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice.

The final chapter of this book is called “Perspectives on Normal Sexuality: An Essay”, but as much as anything else it is really a conclusion to all that came before, for throughout this book Ruggiero draws conclusions about “licit sexuality” from his examination of the illicit. Besides polishing his previous observations and giving the reader a sense of closure, there’s not a whole helluvalot new here.

Well, with the exception of a particularly noteworthy quote from the court records of the Patriarchal Court of Venice in the 1470s.

It would seem that here was this fellow Nicolo whose wife wanted her marriage annulled, claiming that he was unable impotent. Nicolo’s boss Francesco Barbetta was for some reason interested in helping him out, and so he arranged for Nicolo, the local priest, a scribe, and Francesco’s father all to get together with two female prostitutes.

Nicolo not only proceeded to fuck both of these women, but at one point came in the priest’s hand, at another point had the priest feel his cock while he was having intercourse. And this is in the court records, and nobody at the time thought it scandalous, wrong, or abnormal…

All of which is, quite graphically, to say that “normal” sex in other times might not quite be what Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI – or, for that matter, Dr. Phil or Oprah – think it should be today. Which isn’t to say it was necessarily any more liberated or less patriarchal than sex today – the same legal system that did not blink at this public sex was busy executing sodomites in record numbers – just to say that it was different.

The only other new observations which made an impression on me in this last chapter were (1) Ruggiero’s speculations that increasing age segregation may have been related to the general explosion of homophobia at the time, as there was often a teacher-student older-younger active-passive structure in gay male relationships at the time and (2) that affective bonds between sex partners may have been more common amongst the working class than amongst the nobles. This point in particular I found interesting, not only as it flies against certain stereotypes of “courtly love”, but also because it tends to lean against Sylvia Federici’s claim that the fifteenth century saw a dramatic rise of working class male sexual violence. I say “lean against” because it does not contradict it – just etnds to point in the other direction.

A few last points regarding The Boundaries of Eros:

  • qualifying what I wrote a couple of days ago, regarding the hierarchy of different sex crimes: these are inexact categories, that line up with Ruggiero’s categories. The legal cases seem to have been prosecuted an a more ad hoc basis, the categorization here is based on Ruggiero’s thorough sifting through the legal records of the time, specifically looking at penalties handed out.

  • Furthermore, regarding Fornication, it should be pointed out that especially amongst the working class and poor people fornication was a common and accepted behaviour – the cases prosecuted were cases where someone complained, often because the guy was not willing to follow through and marry the woman as he may have promised beforehand. So not only were the cases brought to trial the tip of the iceberg (as is to be assumed with all of these categories), in the case of Fornication the cases brought to trial were certainly not representative of the pre-marital sex that was common in Renaissance Venice.

  • Regarding sodomy, which I dealt with at greater length a couple of days ago, Ruggiero’s last chapter brings out an additional detail which shows how the 15th century was a time of increasing persecution of gay men. It seems that anal sex between husband and wife – while always illegal – was also subject to increasing levels of punishment:

Most suggestive is the fact that the early cases [14th century] of this activity reported between husbands and wives invariably ended with acquittal. Eventually, however, as paranoia about sodomy grew, the Ten did convict and punish husbands, first with lesser penalties, but occasionally toward the end of our period [15th century] with execution. It appears that as the Ten became more concerned with what they saw as a growing subculture of sodomy, they became more willing to burn out of society what they had previously viewed in the light of contraception and thus been willing to overlook. (pp. 165-166)

Ruggiero finally mentions the word “abortion” on page 166, but just to say that it must have occurred. That’s it! It “nonetheless seems to have been used”! Nothing more to say on the subject!

This is kind of disappointing. I mean I have no idea what politics Ruggiero has – he’s a professor of history at the University of Miami, that’s all I know about him – but his silence about both abortion and lesbianism are in sad contrast to the useful observations and speculations he does make about women. I guess this book would be best described as a look a how men and women dealt with illicit male sexuality in Renaissance Venice, and perhaps this is merely a necessary result of the fact that the law codes that prosecuted sex crime then were blind to these female realities, but if this is the case at the very least Ruggiero should have said so!

That said, I did like this book, and did find it interesting. I guess on a scale of one to ten I would have to give it a 5 for politics, a 7 for information, and a 9 for readability.

All of which brings me to my next point, which is how I read books, and how I intend to write about them on this blog.
Sketchy Thoughts is going to be a less-than-formal brain dump for me. I hope to publish entries most days of every week, mainly dealing with books as I read them. Perhaps I’ll also talk about television shows or movies I’ve watched, music I’ve listened to, the state of the world or the weather, but for the immediate future I see the focus being on books.
However, what I will be writing will most likely fall short of actual book reviews – not only am I writing as I read the books but I am not holding myself to incredibly high standards. I may have misunderstood something in the book, I may be interested in an aspect which is not central to what the author is dealing with, i may have my own interpretation which may actually be dead wrong – and most importantly I may change my mind after writing what I write.
So let me reiterate: these are not book reviews – if I manage to write something coherent which works as a review, I will post it to the Book Reviews page on my website. What you see here are Sketchy Thoughts – no more, no less.
Finally, I have not been in the “educational system” since I dropped out of high school twenty years ago. I don’t get as much time to read as I would like, and I don’t often find myself reading the same things as my friends, this despite the fact that we often have relatively similar politics and interests. One part of why I am doing this blog is to have the pleasure of putting down what I am thinking about what I am reading, one part is to give myself an incentive to actually remember what I’m reading – but another part is to hopefully be able to discuss what I am reading with others.
So if you have read any of the books I deal with, and have something to say – either in agreement or disagreement with yours truly – please don’t hesitate to share.

Next book on my list… Marilyn Waring’s Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth (University of Toronto Press 1999) – a critique of economics from an ecological feminist perspective.

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  1. Just wanted to lend a word of encouragement. You're first few post have been fascinating - keep it up!!