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Speaking relatively: a history of incest and the family in eighteenth-century England

By Seth J. Denbo

Abstract

Incest was not prohibited in eighteenth-century English society, or so the examination of statute law would lead one to think. This was not due to a lack of interest. In literary texts as varied as Moll Flanders, Horace Walpole's The Mysterious Mother and Henry Neville's The Isle of Pines, incest played crucial roles. Nevertheless, historians have either overlooked its significance its significance, or have assumed the universality of its prohibition. In fact, the eighteenth century had no concept of universal taboo, and the law did not specifically prohibit sexual relations within the nuclear family.\ud \ud All of these factors: the lack of an idea of universal taboo, the complexity of the law, and its importance in literature are focuses of this thesis. This investigation of a hidden phenomenon has utilised a wide range of texts: imaginative productions; church and temporal court records; newspaper accounts; biblical commentary; and legal tracts. Unlike socially oriented studies of the family, all of these sources are read as produced texts in which incest provides a unique lens for viewing attitudes towards relationships between individual and collective identities. The mother who slept with her son, the father who raped his daughter, the brother and sister overcome by desire all contributed to the contemporary understanding of family life. The ability of incest to reveal underlying fault lines in ideas about authority, sexual relations and kinship ties makes it a promising topic.\ud \ud The exploration of legal conceptions of incest examines contemporary prohibitions and their origin in biblical law. Intertwined with the legal discourse on the family were conceptions of natural law. The operation of the church law in the consistory courts and the temporal law in London's Old Bailey provides insight into the relationship between legal understandings and social practice

Topics: HQ, DA
OAI identifier: oai:wrap.warwick.ac.uk:2835

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