Early Modern Asexuality (and Aromanticism)

by Liza Blake, September 2022

What does it mean to read for, or look for, asexuality and/or aromanticism in early modernity (~1500-1700), centuries before the terms for those identities would be coined? An active group of scholars of premodern asexuality have recently been working to answer just this question, and a subset of that group (including myself, Simone Chess, Catherine Clifford, and Aley O’Mara) have gathered a robust recommended reading list (“A Bibliography for Early Modern Asexualities”) that can be found at https://tinyurl.com/earlymodacebib. The recommended readings in this blog post form a subset of that larger list. 

Focused readings on asexuality as an orientation or identity are a relatively new phenomenon in the field of early modern studies. Simone Chess’s “Asexuality, Queer Chastity, and Adolescence in Early Modern Literature,” published in 2018, offered the first focused argument that early moderns may have had an understanding of asexuality as a sexual identity or orientation in the modern sense. Focusing on literary depictions of adolescents from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, she argues that these characters are represented as not just abstaining from sex (a conscious act of celibacy), but as possibly oriented asexual. 

Melissa E. Sanchez likewise makes an argument for an early modern concept of asexuality as a recognized orientation in her “Protestantism, marriage and asexuality in Shakespeare,” published in 2020. Sanchez reads not literary texts but the writing of prominent Protestant writers Martin Luther and John Calvin, demonstrating that both put forward in their writing the concept of a “true virgin,” as she describes it, “a distinct type of person in terms that strikingly anticipate the identitarian discourse of nineteenth-century . . . sexology” (104). She invites her readers to use this discourse to see how premodern religion often defies modern norms, and to think about the intersections of faith and queerness.

Also in 2020 was a live-streamed roundtable entitled “Early Modern Asexuality and Performance,” which featured six scholars (Liza Blake, Nicholas Brush, Simone Chess, Rho Chung, Catherine Clifford, and Aley O’Mara) each offering short position papers on what it might look like to integrate asexuality studies into early modern studies, with a focus on questions of performance. The session, an hour total including the Q&A, features the research of Dr. O’Mara, whose recently finished dissertation (presented in quick summary here) examines how the writers of the Protestant Reformation re-wrote Catholic celibacy as perversity, and helped to set the stage for the allonormativity that still structures our society today. Other papers focused on aromanticism and genre; asexuality, gender, and appetite; the history of the field; performing asexuality; and asexual reading as a methodology (respectively). 

Though not explicitly marking themselves as concerned with asexuality, two other works of scholarship offering queer readings resonant with the burgeoning field of asexuality studies include Theodora A. Jankowski’s Pure Resistance: Queer Virginity in Early Modern English Drama; and the introduction to Christine Varnado’s monograph The Shapes of Fancy: Reading for Queer Desire in Early Modern Literature. Jankowski’s book makes a case for early modern virginity as a queer identity, and Varnado trains her readers to see queer desire more capaciously, insisting that while queerness occurs, to her mind, “in the realm of desire,” it requires us to understand desire as “exceeding . . . genital eroticism” (8). The introduction to her book ends with a reading of the character Peregrine in Brome’s play The Antipodes, also the subject of the asexual reading by Simone Chess with which this post began; the contrast in the readings, as well as their similarities, is a fascinating exercise in thinking about what different methodologies people might deploy with faced with a literary character who opts out of sex. 

The field of early modern asexualities is an exciting and rapidly expanding field, with an in-progress edited collection (edited by myself, Catherine Clifford, and Aley O’Mara) promising essays on early modern asexuality as it intersects with questions of race, disability, colonialism, gender, and other forms of queerness. This collection will, we are confident, will further expand the already impressive plurality of approaches on offer, as featured even in this short post.