The VERY raunchy history of sex is revealed in a new book
From lesbian poetry by 12th century nuns to ‘molly houses’ where gay men dressed as women in the 1720s… the VERY raunchy history of sex is revealed in a new book
- Sex: Lessons from History explores the shifts in sex culture throughout history
- Author Fern Riddell includes fascinating anecdotes and case studies
- Tells of a woman who was put on trial for ‘deceiving’ her wife by posing as a man
- Also reveals the passionate poetry written between 12 century Bavarian nuns
From erotic poetry written by 12th century nuns to the gay culture of London’s so-called 18th century ‘Molly houses’, a new book offers fascinating glimpses into the history of sex that prove licentiousness is by no means a modern concept.
In Sex: Lessons from History, author and cultural historian Fern Riddell aims to ‘uncover the sexual lives of our ancestors’ through chapters on everything from flirtation and lesbian relationships to masturbation and sex toys.
‘This book is built on the public and private records of those who have lived and loved before us. It is an attempt to reset the narrative, to change the our cultural memory that portrays sex as something our ancestors were ashamed of, to show that in reality, sex has always been at the forefront of our lives,’ she writes.
Throughout the book, Riddell offers up case studies to bring her arguments and history to life. Here, FEMAIL shares some of the the most revealing…
WOMAN WHO ‘DUPED’ HER WIFE INTO MARRIAGE
Married to a woman: In November 1746, Mary Hamilton, also known as George or Charles Hamilton, was put on trial for posing as a man and deceiving a woman, Mary Price, into marriage. She was sentenced to prison and whipped. Pictured, a depiction of the punishment
In November 1746, Mary Hamilton, also known as George or Charles Hamilton, was put on trial for posing as a man and deceiving a woman, Mary Price, into marriage.
Hamilton had been born in Somerset but the family later moved to Scotland. At 14, Hamilton used her brother’s clothes to pose as a boy and travel to Northumberland where she entered into the service of a doctor.
Reports are conflicted but some suggest Hamilton married as many as 14 women by posing as a man.
Hamilton and Mary Price lived in Somerset and had been married for three months before Price discovered her ‘husband’ was not a man but a woman who had ‘deceived’ her into marriage and into ‘fulfilling the acts of a marital bed’.
‘These “deceitful practices” were most likely the use of sex toys and dildos to mimic the act of penetration,’ writes Riddell.
The case attracted headlines across the country. Readers were fascinated by how a woman could impersonate a man so convincingly that another woman could be ‘duped’ into sharing her marital bed.
Although there was some disagreement over what crime had been committed – if any – Mary was ultimately sentenced to prison and whipped for impersonating a man and being a vagrant.
The tale was so notorious that it was immediately fictionalised in Henry Fielding’s 1746 story The Female Husband.
Riddell writes: ‘This is something that frequently occurs in the history of women who have loved women.
‘Stories like that of Mary Price, of women discovering the bodies of their husbands were actually female, and they had (often) been unsuspectedly penetrated… are not uncommon.’
NUNS WHO WROTE PASSIONATE LESBIAN POETRY
Medieval concerns: Riddell explained how the clerical community of early medieval Europe was terrified that nuns living together in convents would lead to ‘carnal lust, lesbian acts and the use of sex toys for penetration’. Pictured, a 12th century nun named Hildegard of Bingen
In a chapter on lesbian relationships, Riddell explained how the clerical community of early medieval Europe was terrified that nuns living together in convents would lead to ‘carnal lust, lesbian acts and the use of sex toys for penetration’.
From ‘Cupid’s cloister’ to the ‘oysters’, the VERY unusual words used for genetalia
Riddell pays close attention to the language used in relation to genitalia, sex and sexuality.
In one chapter she lists the different names used to describe male and female genetalia:
‘Vulvas have been called ‘Cupid’s cloister’ (1896), the ‘altar’ (1680) and ‘nature’s tufted treasure’ (1827), while the clitoris is the ‘purr-tounge’ (1910)…
‘For men, the penis represents some of the most inventive word choices in the English language: if it’s large, you were a ‘lob-c**k’, a word that first appeared in 1682 and was still in use in 1896; if it was hard it was your ‘spike’ (1842) or your ‘stiff-stander’ (1650); while the testicles were ‘oysters’ (1762), plums (1618) and whirligigs (1698); and to be impotent was to be an ‘apple-john’ (1599) or a ‘stuffed eel-skin’ (1841).’
Indeed, there is evidence lesbian relationships did exist between nuns.
Riddell recounts the story of Sister Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, in Tuscany, who, in the early 1600s, was found to have forced another sister into sexual acts by claiming she was being possessed by a divine male spirit.
‘This Sister Benedetta, then, for two continuous years, at least three times a week, in the evening after disrobing and going to bed would wait for her companion to disrobe, and pretending to need her, would call.
‘When Bartolomea [the other nun] would come over, Benedetta would grab her by the arm and throw her by force on the bed. Embracing her, she would put her under herself and kissing her as a man, she would speak words of love to her.’
The words were taken from a testimony given by Bartolomea during an investigation into Benedetta’s false religious claims.
Meanwhile in the 12th century a Bavarian nun in Tegernsee wrote a passionate verse to another sister.
The short verse explicitly indicates a physical, sexual relationship between the two women.
It reads: ‘It is you alone I have chosen for my heart … I love you above all else, You alone are my love and desire…
‘When I recall the kisses you gave me, And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts, I want to die, Because I cannot see you.’
SHEEP GUT CONDOMS SOLD AT LONDON’S FIRST SEX SHOP
Scandalising society: Teresia Constantia Phillips (1709-1765), pictured, was a well-heeled bigamist and goddaughter of the Duchess of Bolton who ran The Green Canister in Covent Garden, which sold contraception and sex aids that were not sold publicly at the time
Teresia Constantia Phillips (1709-1765) was a well-heeled bigamist and goddaughter of the Duchess of Bolton who ran The Green Canister in Covent Garden, which sold contraception and sex aids that were not sold publicly at the time.
Her specialty were ‘Bandruches Superfines’, handmade condoms made of sheep’s or goat’s gut that were ‘fashioned on glass moulds, eight inches long, and either pickled or scented’.
‘Those of her best quality were “secured round the neck with ribbon, which could be in regimental colours”; while for the gentleman determined to avoid either pregnancy or disease at all costs, her ‘Superfine Double’ were made from “two superimposed and gummed caecums, the blind end of the sheep’s bigger gut”.’
Teresia, known as ‘Mrs Phillips’, is remembered for her memoirs, An Apology for the Conduct of Mrs T.C. Phillips, which were published in 18 different parts in 1748–9 and scandalised high society.
The courtesan married Henry Muilman, a Dutch merchant, in 1724. She left London for Jamaica in 1751 in the wake of her memoirs being published.
Mrs Phillips died in Jamaica
THE MOLLY HOUSES WHERE MEN COULD CONDUCT GAY AFFAIRS
Raided: In the 18th and 19th century, meeting places for homosexual men were known as molly houses, from the popular term for gay men, Miss Molly, or simply ‘Molly’. Pictured, the Vere Street Coterie were a group of men arrested at a molly house in Vere Street, Camden, north London in 1810 for sodomy and attempted sodomy. Two were hanged and six were pilloried
In the 18th and 19th century, meeting places for homosexual men were known as molly houses, from the popular term for gay men, Miss Molly, or simply ‘Molly’.
‘These clubs offered their members the opportunity to meet, love and be themselves in an environment supposedly out of reach of the law,’ writes Riddell. Until 1861, penetrative sex between men was punishable by death.
In the early 18th century there were reportedly more than 40 molly houses dotted across London.
Some of the men at these clubs dressed as women and assumed female names like ‘Miss Fanny Knight’ or Princess Seraphina.
Riddell writes: ‘At Sukey Bevells, in the Mint, the club was renowned for its great extravagances, “The Stewards are Miss Fanny Knight, and Aunt England; and pretty Mrs Anne Page officiates as Clark.
‘One of the Beauties of this Place is Mrs. Girl of Redriff, and with her (or rather him) dip Candle-mary, a Tallow Candler in the Burough, and Aunt May, an Upholsterer in the same place, are deeply in Love”.’
Although initially visited by working class men, molly houses eventually drew the upper classes.
‘‘Kate Hutton’, an old man that never wears a shirt; ‘Orange Mary’, an orange merchant near London Bridge; and ‘Pretty Chris’, a solider of the Second Regiment, were recorded alongside ‘Hardware Nan’, ‘China Mary’, and ‘Flying Horse Moll’,’ all appear in an account of Molly Houses written in the 1720s, quoted by Riddell.
THE ART OF FLIRTING WITH A FAN
Attracting attention: Two women (centre) hold fans like the ones used for flirting. The image above is an illustration of Parisienne fashion taken from Peterson’s Magazine in December 1877
Riddell looks at how fans were used as a tool for flirting, allowing men and women to telegraph messages to each other across a dance hall. They could also be used to secretly communicate at close quarters.
‘Fanology made flirtation into an artform. It formed an intellectual connection to the object of your affection, to create a bond that would lead to true love, and, more importantly, great sex,’ writes Riddell.
The fans took a number of forms and could be used in different ways. One required both the sender and the recipient to memorise a series of gestures and the meanings or phrases attached to each one.
‘[By the 1860s] These codes were now so accepted that the newspapers began to print guides to them, and courting manuals devoted pages to decoding, and instructing, young couples in the language of the fan.’
Here, one example from an 1869 edition of the Globe newspaper:
Carrying right hand in front of face – Follow me.
Carrying in the left hand – Desirous of an acquaintance.
Placing it on the right ear – You have changed.
Twirling it in the left hand – I wish to get rid of you.
Drawing across the forehead – We are watched.
Carrying in the right hand – You are too willing.
Drawing through the hand – I hate you.
Twirling in the right hand – I love another.
Drawing across the right cheek – I love you.
Closing it – I wish to speak to you.
Drawing across the eye – I am sorry.
Letting it rest on the right cheek – Yes.
Letting it rest on the left cheek – No.
Open and shut – You are cruel.
Dropping – We will be friends.
Fanning slow – I am married.
Fanning fast – I am engaged.
With handle to lips – Kiss me.
Shut – You have changed.
Open wide – Wait for me.
AN 18TH CENTURY SEX HOW-TO THAT PUT WOMEN FIRST
Focus on foreplay: A man draws a reluctant and distressed woman toward the bed he is sitting on in an etching from 1736. A 1709 publication instructed men in the art of foreplay
In a chapter on the orgasm, Riddell includes an excerpt of a 18th century publication offering advice on how to please a woman.
‘Published in English for the first time in 1709, An Apology for a Latin Verse in Commendation of Mr Marten’s Gonosologium Novum, contained an English translation of the supposed work of sixteenth-century surgeon, Ambroise Paré.’
The extract gives direction to men about how they should seduce a woman before bedding her and introduce foreplay to the bedroom.
‘When a husband cometh into his Wife’s Chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton Behaviour and Allurements to Venery; but if he perceive her to be slow, and more cold, he must cherish, embrace and tickle her, and shall not abruptly… break into the Field of Nature, but rather shall creep in little by little, intermixing more wanton Kisses with wanton Words and Speeches, handling her Secret Parts and Dugs, that she may take fire, and be enflam’d to Venery…’
ANNE LISTER AND THE STRUGGLE FOR ORGASM
Riddell also touches on the story of Anne Lister, whose story was brought to life in BBC drama Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones (pictured)
Riddell also touches on the story of Anne Lister, whose story was brought to life in BBC drama Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones.
Anne Lister was not only was she a hard-bitten industrialist, but she was also a student of anatomy, enthusiastic explorer and prolific diarist.
She has been dubbed ‘the first modern lesbian’, a woman unafraid to embrace her sexual orientation decades before her lifestyle would be accepted by society.
Dressed in sharply tailored black outfits crowned with a black silk top hat, Lister was dubbed ‘Gentleman Jack’ by locals in her home town of Halifax, West Yorkshire, for her appearance, confident stride – and the sexuality they guessed, even if they did not understand it.
Sex: Lessons From History, by Fern Riddell, Hodder & Stoughton Hardback, eBook and audio, £20, out now
It was author and historian Helena Whitbread who first brought the surprising truth about Lister’s life to public attention, but only after she had waded through more than four million words and 6,600 pages of Lister’s 26-volume diary.
The vast quantity of material was not the only problem. Key sections in Lister’s diaries were written in a fiendishly complex code, or ‘crypt’, a mixture of Greek, Latin, mathematical symbols and the zodiac, and it took Whitbread five painstaking years to decode them.
What emerged was a tale of sexual conquest so extraordinary, some thought the journals were a hoax when they were published.
The diaries tell of Lister’s life as mistress of Shibden Hall, an ancient manor house outside Halifax, her successful wrangles with local businessmen over the price of her coal, and her journeys to France and Russia.
But the memoirs also record, in unsparing detail, Lister’s romantic exploits with the women she seduced, including descriptions of orgasms, sexually transmitted diseases and sex toys which are explicit even by today’s standards.
Riddell points to one 1818 extract where she bemoans her partner’s lack of orgasm or sexual arousal.
‘Tried for a kiss a considerable time last night but Isabella was as dry as a stick & I could not succeed. At least she had not one & I felt very little indeed.’
Sex: Lessons From History, by Fern Riddell, Hodder & Stoughton Hardback, eBook and audio, £20, out now
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