NPJ Book Review: In and Out of the Marital Bed. Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe By Diane Wolfthal

In and Out of the Marital Bed. Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe By Diane Wolfthal 

A perspective: This is an attractive relief from the pressures of the day. Wolfthal’s work is insightful, thought-provoking and enjoyable. It’s an aspect of history that’s a pleasure to explore in this age of the full-frontal angst of a pandemic, the fatigue of war, brutality of poverty and effect of climate change that seeps into all facets of human life. Her in-depth study looks below the surface of a taboo subject – the erotic imagery of the European Renaissance. She seems to leave no stone unturned as she investigates erotic art images among other source material concerning human sexuality in and out of the bedchamber. And as an aside, Jesus’s genitals will never be the same, social-theological-artistically speaking.

The art and act of sexuality in all of its characteristics – heterosexuality, homosexuality, courtship, prostitution, voyeurism, fetishism, adultery, marriage are offered up for consideration. This work of love explores social, religious and secular perceptions of sexual habits whether in the bath, street, dressing room, window, along with other places – each chapter devotes itself to a specific theme. For lovers it was a matter of place which in turn was relative to availability of space and the converse. People are sexual beings and this work displays it. And humans are all voyeurs to some degree, regardless of sermons. And the marital bed could be viewed as a place of stress, performance anxiety, fidelity and infidelity along with procreation and not always with one’s partner. Where does one look to relieve the challenges the marital bed represents? 

Intriguing are the sources both esoteric and traditional the author tapped into for her research – from letters, sermons, poems, religious treatises, dowries and so forth. “The erotic rides a fast horse through artists, merchants, preachers and humanists with a saddle bag of aristocrats along for the ride”  – my words.

And just when you think the author has exposed every erotic detail, she provides another one and the reader may ponder the difference between sinner and saint on the canvas of life and come away confused.

As a connoisseur of footnotes and bibliographic material this is a well-researched study. It serves as an excellent reference work in an area where there is increasing scholarship. Finally, Wofthal’s writing, though scholarly, is  accessible and retains a poetic sensibility.