Common Bodies


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Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England

Laura Gowing

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This pioneering book explores for the first time how ordinary women of the early modern period in England understood and experienced their bodies. Using letters, popular literature, and detailed legal records from courts that were obsessively concerned with regulating morals, the book recaptures seventeenth-century popular understandings of sex and reproduction. This history of the female body is at once intimate and wide-ranging, with sometimes startling insights about the extent to which early modern women maintained, or forfeited, control over their own bodies.

Laura Gowing explores the ways social and economic pressures of daily life shaped the lived experiences of bodies: the cost of having a child, the vulnerability of being a servant, the difficulty of prosecuting rape, the social ambiguities of widowhood. She explains how the female body was governed most of all by other women—wives and midwives. Gowing casts new light on beliefs and practices of the time concerning women’s bodies and provides an original perspective on the history of women and gender.

Laura Gowing is lecturer in history at King’s College, London.

“This is a wonderful book . . . offering a new perspective on why men needed women to regulate each other and on why women were willing to do so. A provocative and persuasive piece of history.”—Cynthia Herrup, Duke University

“[An] innovative and far-reaching study. . . . Gowing’s imaginative and sophisticated portrait is especially valuable in its rare and productive attention to the physical and the popular—the concrete historical context of the ordinary woman in this era. Highly recommended.”—Choice

“The importance of Laura Gowing’s contribution to the history of early modern women cannot be overestimated. . . . Eagerly awaited, Gowing’s second monograph, Common bodies, will not disappoint. This is [an] innovatory and thought-provoking book . . . based largely on court records found in an impressive range and number of archives across England, from Devon to country Durham. . . . Gowing has set the agenda for others to follow.”—Elizabeth Foyster, Continuity & Change

“There are riches in Common Bodies . . . for readers of every kind, such as absorbing new material and stimulating arguments likely to convince and provoke in equal measure.”—Bernard Capp, History: Reviews of New Books

“The result is a book that manages to honour the complexity of its subject while refusing to be overwhelmed by it. The best kind of history, in fact.”—Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian (London)

"[A] provocative and immensely stimulating book. . . . [A] highly original perspective on the politics of the body in Tudor and Stuart England. . . . Gowing has produced a volume that should be essential reading for anyone interested in the workings of early modern societies."—J.M. Ellis, Urban History

"Gowing's insightful and significant study draws from church court, quarter session, assize, and Bridewell records as well as letters and popular literature in order to examine ordinary people's discourses about women's bodies in seventeenth-century England."—Colleen Seguin, Renaissance Quarterly

“A rich and detailed panoply of ideas about the adult woman… Gowing’s book leaves a powerful impression of how women’s bodies could become instruments of men’s control over women in early-modern England.” - Amanda L. Capern, Women’s History Magazine

"Gowing convincingly challenges the assumption that the all-female experience of childbirth was comforting for most women."—Katherine Crawford, Journal of Modern History

First Place winner of the 2003 New England Museum Association Publication Design Competition

Winner of the 2004 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize sponsored by the American Historical Association

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2005 by Choice Magazine
ISBN: 9780300207958
Publication Date: December 17, 2013
272 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4