A certaine incredible excesse of pleasure  : medical writing about eroticism in early modern England

Valerie TRAUB

Department of English, University of Michigan, 3187 Angel Hall, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA


In this paper, I analyze dominant ideas about the meaning and purpose of erotic congress between women and men as expressed in early modern medical texts. Such texts reveal female erotic pleasure to be a central facet of a reproductive economy that enjoined men to attend to women's desires to insure successful generation. I then place this unequivocal cultural investment in women's erotic pleasure next to the equally unequivocal distaste for female genitalia expressed therein. Through a calculus of asymmetrical compensations, these texts judge the horror of male contact with female genitals to be equivalent to women's pain in childbirth. The same discourse that legitimates female pleasure deems the material source of that pleasure - her genitals - as a threat to man, a threat that is only conquered by man's submission to the "little epilepsy" that is orgasm.

I then explore how this contradictory attitude toward women is projected by these writers onto their own project of publicizing "obscene" matters in the vernacular.

Through the recurrent visual trope of the "Venus Pudica", the woman who modestly covers her genitals while exposing the rest of her body, the naked yet chaste female body bears the burden of anatomists' anxieties about "lifting the veil of nature" and, in particular, exposing what is underneath to all those who can read (or be read to). Aware that their words are no longer limited to a social or scientific elite, their prefaces and apologies attempt to overwrite the desiring female body as always already modest and in the service of man, creating an analogy between woman and text - even as their anatomical project depends on her visual display and gestures toward her ability to exceed masculine control.


Panel 6A   (Nervous Fluids and Innards in Early Modern Physiology and Culture)
Thursday, 16 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999