Feminism and Renaissance Studies

By Lorna Hutson | Go to book overview

13 Women on Top in the Pamphlet
Literature of the English Revolution

Sharon Achinstein

There was much gender trouble in the pamphlet literature of the English Revolution, and that gender trouble was often expressed through sexual satire. Radical sects in particular bore the brunt of much of this satire. “Unnatural” sexual acts were commonly depicted in this literature, like the woodcut of the public masturbation of “Adamite” men on the title-page of A New Sect of Religion Decried, called ADAMITES (1641), which, though it served the reader's voyeuristic pleasure also served to delegitimize the sects by ridicule. Ranting rites were said to include group sex, public sado-masochism, and female erotic behavior; one such depiction of a Ranter church service in a pamphlet from 1650, entitled The Ranters Ranting, shows a woman kneeling to kiss a brother's buttocks, while naked women and men—with woodcuts crudely depicting the men's erections—dance around a fiddler.1 Such pornographic attacks on radical sects expressed fears about radicals who threatened to “turn the world upside down,” and who appeared to destroy the effects of civilization and its rule of propriety, starting, of course, in the bedroom.

Sexual satire was a means to delegitimize, demonize, and scapegoat “Others” in the Civil War period—the radical sects for example—but such sexual satire served other purposes as well. For example, Royalists often represented Parliament as a woman, whether as a sick female, as a bewitching temptress, as a whore, or as a sexually ravenous beast.2 The bawdy image used by Royalists of “Mistress parliament” offered a counter-offensive to the Whore of Babylon imagery applied to Henrietta Maria by the Parliamentary pamphleteers.3

The “Mistress parliament” genre and the attacks on women in the radical sects may be understood in the tradition of charivari. Natalie Davis has examined this “women on top” tradition in the folk rituals, the charivaris of early modern France, in which women temporarily

From Women's Studies, 24 (1994), 131-63. © 1994 Gordon and Breach Science Publishers SA.
Reprinted with permission.

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