Monarchy and Incest in Renaissance England: Literature, Culture, Kinship, and Kingship

By Bruce Thomas Boehrer | Go to book overview
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5. Conclusions: The Politics of Incest Theory

Westermarck, Morgan, Nature

To this point, I have discussed the immediate forms taken by the problem of incest within Renaissance English society, particularly as those forms involve the interrelation of literature and royal politics. Now it remains to connect those issues to the larger theoretical matters that subtend this discussion. In order to do this, I will return to the schematic survey of incest theories with which this study began, and I will recall that each of these theories was and remains a way of grappling with and defining human nature, whatever that may or may not be. Thus the various notions of instinctive aversion, biological degeneration, family exogamy, and family competition, as they are applied to the subject of incest, come to represent different ideological perspectives and at least potentially different political agendas; they allow us to think about ourselves in different ways which have varying consequences within the realm of concrete action.

The ideal of a stable, perspicuous human nature is most prominent in those theories of the incest prohibition that seek to ground themselves in biology or essence: that is, the theories of biological degeneration and of instinctive aversion. Both these bodies of argument aim at harmonizing human sexual behavior with nature, and as a result both tend to view culture as an extension of or response to noncultural, objectively determinable phenomena. Thus Westermarck's mountainous compilation of data on mating practices leads more or less directly to his (and Henry VIII's) conclusion that incest is bad because it is repulsive: that is, that we as human beings are simply constructed, by virtue of a transcendent principle consonant with nature itself (for Henry VIII it is natural law, for Westermarck "natural selection" [353]),1 so as to find the act of incest distasteful. This is a classically Victorian line of argument, and thus Westermarck's theory is also a supremely authoritarian one. Summoning what he regards

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