James Grantham Turner. Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics and Literary Culture, 1630-1685. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. xxii+343pp. ISBN 0 521 78279 1.
Jim Daems
Simon Fraser University

Daems, Jim. "Review of James Grantham Turner. Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics and Literary Culture, 1630-1685." Early Modern Literary Studies 9.1 (May, 2003): 19.1-5 <URL:

  1. Libertines and Radicals is a wonderful companion work to Turner's earlier One Flesh. In this book, Turner examines low-libertine culture and how the world of the streets interacts with the "high" culture of early modern London. Pornographia, the central term of the book, is an important critical concept for examining the literature and culture of the period. From its etymology, the term signifies the prostitute reviled and revealed, and the often violent literal or figurative marks that attempt to delineate status between the prestigious courtesan and the whore. This occurs in both the strictly sexual sphere as well as in the political sphere in reaction to female agency. Pornographia "carried associations of punishment and publication, writing on the body and expository display of its achievement.... The same 'graphic' mechanism...defines the sexually errant female" (2). The term itself is used in hindsight, although Turner calls attention to early modern coinages with a similar meaning. Nobody specifically used it in early modern London, "but everybody participated in it.... As I define it, pornographia is an act as well as a text" and points, ultimately, to the prostitution of representation itself (4). Libertines and Radicals draws out the implications of this insight.

  2. Turner demonstrates the fascinating relationship between discourse and the often violent "celebrations" in the city in order to bring "text and action closer together" (164). This encompasses lower-class riots and shaming rituals as well as more "genteel" and aristocratic violence such as Mrs. Pepys' threat to knife her maid and the Coventry episode -- acts which are all, ultimately, attempting to maintain status distinctions through a notion of the "whore." The urban setting of all of this is an important part of Turner's "cultural geography" that comprises both orderly and disorderly sites: brothels, Bartholomew Fair, prisons, and the court itself in a symbiotic relationship. His "goal throughout is to reveal the common 'porno-political' preoccupations across widely different decades, and to embed illicit sexual discourse in the material life and rituals of the metropolis" (xiii). The social body itself comes to be marked and assigned a status through the graphic mark, as "pornographia identified with the mapping-impulse of official codification" (142) that brought about a "pornosphere." Indeed, as "political pornographia entered its terminal condition" (252) in the 1680s, the court itself was seen as an ambiguous site through the confusion of royal mistresses and whores -- the court had become a brothel. This is not merely an issue of sexual politics, but one in which pornographic arousal is inextricably linked to political discourse -- as a reaction to the actual or supposed threat of female agency at the very centre of society.

  3. Turner establishes the broader context in the opening two chapters. Chapter one provides an overview of continental pornographia and its role in distinguishing the status of the courtesan and the whore. He examines both literary representations, particularly Pietro Aretino, as well as ritual attacks on the houses of prostitutes and the horrific act of face-slashing in order to highlight the violence and ambiguity of pornographia. Chapter two links the continental influences to issues in early modern London, in particular, popular shaming rituals such as the Skimmington Ride. Throughout these two chapters, Turner draws on the critical theories of Bakhtin and Kristeva. In regards to the carnivalesque, Turner stresses that we must attend to the very real literal and figurative violence of popular celebrations rather than seeing them simply as a harmless, sanctioned release of social tensions. In addition, he sees representations of the "whore" in the early modern period as anticipating Kristeva's notion of the abject.

  4. But, whereas the acts and texts of the pornosphere attempt to distinguish status through the "whore," the result is often to realize her ambiguity more graphically" (10). This leads to an inherent bind in pornographia -- an escalating desire to more clearly reveal the reviled. However, it is precisely through the ambiguity of this graphic insistence that the "'pornographic' devolves into the political whenever power is perceived to depend too much on personal charisma and clandestine, unaccountable favour, and this was particularly true after the Restoration of a hedonistic culture and a seducer-king" (18). The court of Charles II is obviously the best example for Turner's theories regarding the interaction of high and low libertinism, but while, perhaps, the court of Charles I and the increasingly monarchical court of the protectorate were not as promiscuous, more could have been done in relation to pornographia in relation to the platonic court culture of Charles I and Henrietta Maria as well as the rapacious Cavalier stereotype so prominent in mid-century. Also, while Catholicism plays a role in Turner's discussion of Charles II's mistresses, the prominent association of religion and whoredom in the period could have been more rigorously examined in relation to Henrietta Maria.

  5. In the remaining four chapters, Turner brings together the "status-confusing courtesan" and the popular, native "ceremonies of abjection" in order to produce a nuanced reading of a variety of both private and public literary sources: pamphlets, diaries, letters, poetry, petitions, and drama. Here, sexual transgression and prostitution come to serve as a general equivalent for politics, or public actions determined by private passions. As he convincingly demonstrates, political crises create a situation whereby the figurative aspects of pornographia become literal. Turner argues that this begins to coalesce at the end of the Cromwellian regime. True, but as stated above, this process occurs, arguably, somewhat earlier in reaction to the Protectorate. Be that as it may, with the Restoration an "upward mobility of abjection" (158) clearly occurs, evidenced both in the king's behaviour and that of the court wits, most notably Rochester. This blurring of high and low libertinism at the very centre of society highlights the troubling status of the royal mistresses and their very public behaviour. The "Royal mistresses...provided the female equivalent to the Sons of Belial" (166). But a curious thing occurs according to Turner. While the high appropriation of lower class riot and libertinism still attempts to demarcate and maintain status boundaries while reproducing them on the libertine's body, the confusion prompted by the royal mistresses' status allows "the dissenting subculture...[to] reappropriate the pseudo-plebeian elements of aristocratic hooliganism in order to protest against the sanctioned 'riot' of the Sons of Belial" (185). This is the death-knell of pornographia as Turner defines it here.

Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).