Tag Archives: History – Europe – Great Britain

Silence

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jane Brox.

Brox Slience

The “social history” promised by the subtitle of Silence is pretty limited in scope. Author Jane Brox focuses particularly on two environments: prisons and monasteries. Despite a brief engagement with Thoreau and some short tangential passages about the development of silent reading, silence in Quakerism, and so forth, institutional penitence dominates the account.

The fourth of the five parts is dedicated especially to the social effects of gender on expectations of silence. An extensive discussion of female silencing and related judicial punishments leads into the women’s particulars of incarceration and monasticism. Implicitly, silence is given to be a sign of obedient virtue in women for the history treated, but there is no clear sign of how any masculine silence compares or contrasts with it (let alone the silences imposed on exceptional gender and gender resistance).

Brox’s prose is generally lucid and occasionally beautiful. The history is leavened with reflexive anecdotes regarding her research experience and significant digressions about architecture. A considerable portion of the book is given over to thoughts from and accounts of the twentieth-century celebrity monk Thomas Merton.

I learned some history in the course of this reading. It was surprising that I was a little less ignorant of the ancient and medieval aspects of monasticism than I was of the modern evolution of the US penitentiary. But in any case, I never really arrived at the understanding of the social role of silence that the subtitle indicated would be on offer.

The Sexual History of London

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus Reviews The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catharine Arnold.

Arnold The Sexual History of London

Arnold’s Sexual History of London boils down to a history of prostitution, pornography, and sexual scandal, with not much besides. Although she notes her sources, there are only about a half-dozen of these for each chapter, and this book really falls in the category of “entertaining non-fiction” rather than scholarship. It is happily full of thumbnail biographies of colorful characters, even if it does at times give the impression that sex is an activity reserved to prostitutes, their clients, and homosexuals.

Although the primary organization of the book is chronological, the author has a tendency to jump back and forth in her pursuit of selected subtopics, and her ostensible “medieval” chapter is loaded up with anecdotes from the Renaissance. Her later treatment of the Whitechapel murders of “Jack the Ripper” seemed to strike a reasonable tone, but I thought there was just far too much of it on its own terms, and not enough done to tie it back into the central topic of sex and sexuality.

Arnold’s narrative voice is pleasant and easy to follow, although she has a recurring tendency to ape the diction of her sources, as when she references (without quotation marks) “base and filthy lucre” (87) and “actors … whipped at the cart’s arse” (89). The book shows sympathy for the historical individuals whom it covers. It reads quickly, but there is quite a lot of it, so it can make a pleasantly extensive reading project for someone looking to read it straight through.