Jessica Keene

  • Fellowship year:2018-2019
  • University: Johns Hopkins University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Early Modern Europe
  • Dissertation Title: 'Spiritual Fornication': Conceptualizing Sexual Depravity in Reformation England
  • My dissertation investigates the ways in which ideas about sexuality and the alleged sexual depravity of Catholicism and Catholic monks, nuns, and clergymen, legitimated the Reformation and shaped the trajectory of Protestant reform in the regions of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. I argue that Protestant reformers' narrative about the widespread sexual depravity of Catholicism and especially of Catholic religious substantiated, in their view, the need for thoughgoing Protestant doctrinal, moral, and sexual reform. Writers of religious treatises often emphasized the 'manliness' of English Protestantism in contrast to the feminine or effeminate 'whoredom' and 'filthiness' they alleged to predominate within Catholicism; changes in worship led to the closure of all England's monastic institutions by 1539 because they were perceived as being sexually lascivious institutions promoting 'incontinence' and 'sodomy'; former monks and friars turned Protestant priests and bishops endorsed clerical marriage and attacked Catholic religious for keeping 'whores' and 'concubines' with the tacit approval of the Church in Rome; and changing conceptualizations of celibacy, sexuality, and sexual honor led to the closure of brothels and to the increased policing of illicit lay and clerical sexual behavior.
    My project describes Protestant conceptualizations of illicit sexuality both through careful and multilayered analysis of the extensive discussions of 'whoredom', 'adultery', 'incontinence', and 'sodomy' in Reformation polemic and devotional literature, and through extensive analysis of heretofore unexamined or under-examined and un-indexed consistory court cases and bishopric visitation records in Winchester, London, and Norwich. Five interrelated "case studies" will together establish the centrality of issues of alleged sexual depravity to the process of the Reformation in England. Each case study- of illicit sexuality as described in English and Continental Reformation polemic; of the roles of allegations of sexual 'depravity' in the dissolution of the monasteries; of the concern for sexual and moral 'purity' for Church of England clergymen former Catholic monastics in the mid-to-late sixteenth century; of legal accounts of sexual defamation in English church courts; and of prosecution of lay misconduct recorded in bishops' Act Books and visitation records- offers insight into Protestant conceptualizations of depraved sexuality. Cumulatively, they will be used to demonstrate how issues of sexuality were central to Protestant reform in sixteenth century England.