A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven

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9780195125184: A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law, and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven
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Sex, privilege, corruption, and revenge--these are elements that we expect to find splashed across today's tabloid headlines. But in 17th century England, a sex scandal in which the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven was executed for crimes so horrible that "a Christian man ought scarce to name them" threatened the very foundations of aristocratic hierarchy.
In A House in Gross Disorder, Cynthia Herrup presents a strikingly new interpretation both of the case itself and of the sexual and social anxieties it cast into such bold relief. Castlehaven was convicted of abetting the rape of his wife and of committing sodomy with his servants. More than that, he stood accused of inverting the natural order of his household by reveling in rather than restraining the intemperate passions of those he was expected to rule and protect. Herrup argues that because an orderly house was considered both an example and endorsement of aristocratic governance, the riotousness presided over by Castlehaven was the most damning evidence against him. Castlehaven himself argued that he was the victim of an impatient son, an unhappy wife, and courtiers greedy for his lands. Eschewing simple conclusions about guilt or innocence, Herrup focuses instead on the fascinating legal, social and political dynamics of the case and its subsequent retellings.
In prose as riveting as the moral and legal dramas it depicts, A House in Gross Disorder reconsiders a scandal that still speaks to contemporary anxieties about sex, good governance, and the role of law in regulating both.

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About the Author:


Cynthia Herrup is Professor of History and Law, Duke University. She is the former editor of the Journal of British Studies and the author of The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in 17th Century England. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

From Kirkus Reviews:

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) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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