Focusing on cases of extramarital sex, Johanna Rickman investigates fornication, adultery and bastard bearing among the English nobility during the Elizabethan and early Stuart period. Since members of the nobility were not generally brought before the ecclesiastical courts, which had jurisdiction over other citizens' sexual offences, Rickman's sources include collections of family papers (primarily letters), state papers, and literary texts (prescriptive manuals, love sonnets, satirical verse, and prose romances), as well as legal documents. Rickman explores how attitudes towards illicit sex varied greatly throughout the period of study, roughly 1560 - 1630. Whole some viewed it as a minor infraction, others, directed by a religious moral code, viewed it as a serious sin. seeks to illuminate the place of noblewomenin early modern aristocratic culture, both as historical subjects (considering personal circumstances) and as a social group (considering social position and status).She argues that two different gender ideals were in operation simultaneously: one primarily religious ideal, which lauded female silence, obedience, and chastity, and another, more secular ideal, which required noblewomen to be beautiful, witty, brave, and receptive to the games of courtly love.
'This book thoughtfully and thoroughly examines illicit sexuality in early modern England focusing on the aristocracy and the court. Rickman finds there was more flexibility about illicit behavior in some circles than one would think only from reading the prescriptive literature. Her specific case histories of such couples as Penelope Rich and Charles Blount and Frances Howard are fascinating to read.' Carole Levin, University of Nebraska, USA ’I would recommend this book to students or specialists pursuing research in Early Modern history, particularly within the specialities of gender, sexuality, and life at court, along with those interested in the specific case studies simply for their own sake.’ Parergon ’… this is a well-researched, thoughtful analysis, based in a wide range of sources including family archives, state papers, legal records, and newsletters. It makes a valuable contribution to the study of sexual transgression, female agency, and aristocratic culture and society.’ American Historical Review 'Rickman’s work is an exemplar of how to combine narratives of continuity and change, providing a clear overall picture while emphasising diversity. Her concluding remarks, suggesting that some élite families had more illicit sex than others, are intriguing, and her call for further studies on aristocratic sexual relations in provincial England and at continental courts must be taken up. […] There is no doubt that this is an excellent piece of scholarship that must be read by anyone interested in early modern gender, nobility and court culture.' English Historical Review '… this qualitative study becomes one of the strengths of the book, as it allows for a sense of the "very palpable human drama" that is inherent within the illicit affairs Rickman describes and that are effortlessly captured by that author for the appreciation of the reader. Rickman's book is a useful contribution to the history of sexuality in the early modern period..
Contents: Introduction; Illicit sex at the court of the Virgin Queen; Illicit sex at the court of James I; Conscience and contention: Penelope Rich and Charles Blount; Love and letters: Mary Wroth and William Herbert; Preserving honor: Frances Villiers and Robert Howard; Conclusion; Appendix; Bibliography; Index.