The human body, gender, and sexuality each have histories. Pioneering studies since the late-1970s have shown how what bodies mean has changed over time as societies have idealised, represented, and regulated the body in distinct ways. The experience of being male, of having sex, of desiring someone of the same gender, of speaking with a feminine voice, of growing old in a relationship, or of changing gender was not the same in 1600, 1800 and 2000. This paper asks how, why and with what consequences people have made gender and sexual identities from embodied experience in the British Isles since 1500.
The paper examines how state, religious, medical and cultural authorities have categorised and regulated bodies including, most powerfully, in establishing binaries of gender identity and of sexual orientation. What made certain appearances, acts and relationships normative? How did ideas of bodily ‘deviance’ change over time?
The paper also examines how people accepted, negotiated, subverted or rejected these categories through their everyday actions and sense of self. How did people’s experiences of their bodies, desires and relationships change over five-hundred years? What circumstances enabled individuals or groups to alter what bodies might do, how they looked, and what they meant? How did gender and sexual identities interact with each other and with identities founded, for instance, in class, race, health, or religion? These, more archivally demanding, questions allow us to think about how individual, social and cultural change happened across more than five-hundred years.
This reading list is arranged in three parts to help navigate the reading. There is no requirement to answer questions that are associated with each part of the paper in the ‘take home’ exam. Many of the readings could be included on multiple reading lists and the headings are often arbitrary, particularly for the large central topics on gender and sexuality. So, do form connections between your weekly topics to identify the cross-cutting themes that interest you.
The first part offers some introductory conceptual and methodological readings, which may also be of interest as part of work for Disciplines of History. The over-arching historiography of this paper engages critically with three linear narratives of historical change: of progressive liberation and the rise of individual freedoms; of increasing regulation and discipline; and of continuity in human biology and desires. This case study of the British Isles allows these accounts to be scrutinised by considering how people disseminated – and contested – the gendered and sexual meanings of bodily experience across localities, the nation, empire, and globe.
The second part, ‘Making identities’, asks us to think thematically about patterns of continuity, change and diversity across five centuries. Each topic is centred upon individual corporeal experience. The topics examine how embodied experience not only shaped gendered and sexual selfhood, but also how subjective experiences were mobilised to create collective identities and sometimes social change. Intersectionality is integral to each reading list, so that the question of how bodies have been classed, racialised or disabled are always interrogated in relation to the central themes of gender and sexuality.
The third section, ‘Making categories’, focuses on eight chronological moments that historians have identified as ‘turning points’ in the categorisation, regulation and conceptualisation of gendered and sexual identities. These topics enable thematic arguments to be developed in greater depth for particular decades. It is also important to reflect on how the evidence that each time period offers shapes historians’ arguments.
This paper examines experiences and ideas that people formed from, and about, bodies. Evidence about the past – and therefore the possibility of historical study – is often the product of violence, abuse and distress, including graphic descriptions of people’s experiences. In addition, many primary and secondary sources use language and express attitudes that are not acceptable in Britain today. We have an ethical responsibility as historians to make sense of these past experiences and viewpoints while communicating in ways that are sensitive and appropriate to our society. This material is thought-provoking, controversial, and important for us all, but we will each be affected in different ways when we interrogate these topics as historians. Please be aware of the content of this paper before choosing to study it, but do not hesitate to talk to a tutor at any point if any of the topics you study are raising particular concerns for you.