A HOUSE IN GROSS DISORDER by Cynthia Herrup

A HOUSE IN GROSS DISORDER

Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A mildly interesting analysis of the 1631 trial of the infamous earl of Castlehaven, who was beheaded for sodomy and rape. Herrup, professor of law and history at Duke, takes us back to Stuart England to explore the legal, social, and political implications of the Castlehaven trial. Castlehaven’s household was a paragon of family dysfunction. The earl favored his male servants over his own son, encouraged one servant to rape his wife, and engaged in sodomy with the house staff. Herrup theorizes that the case against Castlehaven went far beyond these shocking allegations, tapping into deep-seated cultural anxieties about power and hierarchy. Castlehaven’s inability to control his own sexual urges, combined with his failure to regulate his household, was viewed as undermining the established social order. Thus, King Charles I prosecuted the “disorderly” Castlehaven as a lesson for those in power. At trial, the specific facts of the case were largely ignored in favor of arguments about how Castlehaven’s misconduct tended to endanger social harmony. The crown’s prosecutors also harped on Castlehaven’s alleged Catholicism to cast him as a dangerous outsider. Herrup’s contention that a high-profile trial can transcend its factual circumstances is hardly groundbreaking. What a particular trial is “about,” what it means in a larger cultural context, depends largely on the interpreter: sensational trials fascinate us because they have many subtexts. While Herrup skillfully examines the different meanings given to the Castlehaven trial over time, what she doesn’t do particularly well is flesh out the individuals involved or place them in a convincing historical context. Scholars of Stuart England will find much here that’s intellectually provocative, especially in the realm where law and social history meet, but the general reader will want a bit more human drama mixed in with the intellectual abstractions. (15 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-19-512518-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999