Isabel Hull investigates the "sexual system," "the patterned ways in which sexual behavior is shaped and given meaning through institutions," in early modern Germany, in Sexuality, State and Civil Society in Germany, 1700-1815 (1). This well documented and detailed, post-modernist work illuminates the reciprocal relations between not only the sexual system vis-à-vis the state and civil society, but also between "private" and "public" society. Through an analysis of numerous era state documents as well as numerous secondary sources, Hull contends "that the sexual system itself cannot be understood at all except in relation to" the burgeoning German civil society and the state (6). Moreover, in a vein similar to Joan Scott as well as Kate Millet, Hull points out the social, culturally defined categorizations of gender that metaphysically and psychologically defined and permeated early modern German government, society, culture and customs. In this sense, Hull's tome also offers valuable insight into a linguistic turn, as well as the vacillation of agency and experience between physical body and abstraction within the discourse of early modern Germany.
A key feature of Hull's analysis is her focus upon the Absolutist relationship with sexual discourse. "The absolutist state was genuinely intent on safeguarding the villages and families" of its realm (50). However, as Hull illuminates, the state's motive was more economic than moral. For example, the state was concerned with illegitimate offspring in regards to employment and hence regional social tranquility (avoidance of uprisings by the unemployed). Moreover, the state, as well as bureaucrats, held the assumption that the king was emblematic of the family structure, in that fathers would marry, produce children, and run a patriarchal structured household. Parents were, therefore, "the first-line police force of the state" (51).
The repetition of laws against incest or adultery were often issued not because of Draconian measures carried out by the state, but, rather because of "their perceived failure" by the state to enforce "proper" sexuality (105). Thus, the proliferation of corollaries concerning such laws does not, as some scholars argue, provide evidence of an uber-state that regulated the "sexual system." The state was simply responding to various instances of sexual behavior throughout Germany that defied cultural norms. Royal expressions of piety were likely most successful in maintaining the cultural conceptions and practices of sexual conduct. Therefore, "the sentence" for a crime such as incest was typically "first spoken in its extremity and then afterward made milder" (104). As Hull indicates, utilizing a more post-modern, linguistic approach, these findings on the jurisdiction and power of the central state are in opposition to the typical notion that absolutist states sought to control society. "Where absolutism did impose new sexual norms, these were more inclined toward gender equality than those of the liberal, civil society that succeeded it" (3).
Hull's take on the Enlightenment, and its impact upon the "sexual system," constitutes a critical aspect of her cultural argument. "Enlightenment precepts dominated literate culture," as "around 70 percent" of Germanic speakers were literate (west of the Elbe) by 1800 (202). The Enlightened thinkers carried on "a public debate on the (sexual) ligaments holding that [civil] society together or threatening to pull it apart" (200). " Late eighteenth-century discussion of sexual behavior and its impact on state and society...laid the foundation for the `modern' assumptions about `sexuality'" (200). Enlightenment debates were concerned less with class than with gender. In elaborating "the moral code" of society, the men of the Enlightenment era "sought primarily to recast relations among men" (225). Thus, women were, in effect, labeled and categorized as well, in relation to gender defined male roles in the "sexual system." Gender classifications within the framework of "natural laws," Hull contends, "seemed a logical extension" of the Enlightenment era which sought to explain relationships through "natural universals" (225). Furthermore, classifying morality and gender relations helped to imbibe concepts of "the future civil society" envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers (230).
Another key theme for Hull is the creation of "public" and "private" spheres. She investigates the role of the cameralists in creating these separate spheres. The cameralists were "the first theorists of German civil society" (155). They focused upon the Gemeinwohl (common good) in an effort to not only enhance their respective prince's prestige, but also to "conceive of a civil society on its own terms separately from government (161). Although they emphasized improving the economic stead of their region, their most pressing concern "was always society in its organized entirety" (161). The way in which cameralists such as Justi and Thomasius framed "desire" and "happiness," as well as the cameralist view that "order" went hand in hand with "morality," laid the groundwork for the development of a "private" sphere. The Enlightened era worked to create a male dominated "private sphere," which subjugated women within a patriarchal hierarchy, clearly delineating the cultural conception of gender (207). Hence, men created a private sphere for men. However, the female sphere existed vis-à-vis the male sphere; they were "sexual derivatives of men" (251).
Hull presents a post-modern, gender history that questions and challenges previously held ideations concerning the political, social and cultural interactions within the Holy Roman Empire from 1700-1815. The post-modern lens permits a broader interpretation of the discourse while the feminist prism permits the reader to view the era and cultural region in a new and interesting light.