on 10 June 2015
In "A History of celibacy", academic Elizabeth Abbott sets off to describe celibates and celibacies in all cultures and in all times: from Ancient Greek concepts of celibacy to modern, twentieth century celibacy, from religious celibacies in the world's best known religions and the celibacy of shamans and ancient civilizations, to celibacies that are not religious. In the passages on "celibacy for non-religious reasons", we are told about people who are celibate because the government of their countries regulates their sex lives in invasive ways, people who are celibate due to a fear of STDs and AIDS, historical figures who had bad breakups and could not engage in relationships as a result, gay people who hate their own sexuality and therefore refuse it... This book offers to give an overview of all this and more. Even for an academic like Elizabeth Abbott, this is a very ambitious project for a book. Because this book is trying to be this ambitious, it could have failed in so many ways, but it doesn't.
Even though this is the first "celibacy book" I am reading myself, it is quite clear to me that Abbott intended this book to be a reference in the field of "celibacy studies". This book clearly manages to do that. A "gender studies", "sexuality studies" student or sociologist will find a good starting point to understanding the way celibacy and its opposite, sexuality, have informed human thought throughout the ages. But more importantly, this book is not written in a jargon-like, technical, hard to understand style. Abbott is a historian, and also very much of a storyteller. Every chapter of this massive book is divided into smaller, easy to apprehend subchapters about all she discusses.
In reading this overview of celibacy throughout the ages, you will read very little analysis of the phenomenon of celibacy at large. Rather, you will read stories: stories coming from mythology, short biographies of historical characters, summaries of "celibacy literature" or texts of both fiction and non-fiction that approach celibacy from different angles, stories coming from the Gospels as well as from "non official", apocryphal Christian texts...
This book describes the phenomenon of celibacy, but it doesn't analyse this phenomenon very much. After all, this is just a vast overview, and this overview is more intent on describing celibacy as a phenomenon than in understanding it. Further studies of certain types of celibacy will be needed to truly understand WHY virginity and abstinence would have had this much of an importance in various cultures. One chapter however, "Celibacy as womanly duty" (chapter 7) looks at the reasons why pre-marital virginity would have been a fundamental value of most human societies, and that chapter is, therefore, much more analytical of the phenomenon of celibacy than any of the chapters that came before it in the book. I wondered, at first, why the author would wait for seven chapters before providing some analysis of the "whys" of celibacy. However, the more analytical chapter 7 does require you to have read the previous six to be fully understood.
And this is another great achievement of this book: at times, you would wonder why the chapters are written in the order they are presented in. However, each chapter builds on the previous one, and each chapter compares and contrasts whatever you are reading in this chapter with whatever phenomenon was described to you in a previous chapter. In that sense, I have come to the conclusion that the structure of this book is excellent and that, by reading it in full and in the order it is written in, you will get a much fuller view of the subject described here.
Of course, no one can be interested in reading about all these societies and different phenomena of celibacy over thousands of years: we all have our own interests or reasons for reading this book. However this is fine, and it is understandable that each reader will more or less enjoy certain chapters, or derive anything from it. Whether you are totally fascinated by what you are reading, mildly interested or not interested at all however, it is undeniable that this book will teach you many things about the way societies have developed certain moral rules or certain philosophies. And this leads me to another important point about this book. This may be a book about celibacy, but it is not just about that. A book about celibacy will also be a book about sexuality and sexual expression. In discussing celibacy, this book also tackles such subjects as the marriage institution, gender identity constructs, prostitution, or descriptions of individuals who failed their celibacy by having sex. In telling you about different societies, this book also touches on anthropology, religious studies, history of the law in certain countries (such as, for instance, the history of laws regulating street prostitution in nineteenth century England, a passage that tells us as much about urban laws in England as it does about prostitution itself). This is a massive book, a very dense one, and every chapter will give you a wealth of information on all these questions.
Of course, if you know a lot yourself about some of the history described in this book, you may really feel that this book is giving too fast, too incomplete an overview of those things you know about. I personally know quite a bit about Buddhism and also about literature, and I found that the description of both Buddhism and Medieval courtly love literature went too fast and was rather incomplete. This is normal: this book can only give a vast overview. On any aspect of celibacy, history or religious studies that you know yourself, you will find this book to give a much too fast description of those things you know about.
But no one knows everything, and I can guarantee you that the great variety of histories and phenomena discussed in this book will astound you. You will learn something from this, you may even learn about phenomena and societies whose very existence you barely even thought of.
This book is, in my opinion, an absolutely perfect, academically sound, well written, sometimes poignant or funny account of the history of celibacy. The only problem I have with this book is that it does not include a clear bibliography of all the author read to write this. There are no footnotes in the main text, all notes for the whole book are to be found, chapter per chapter, at the very end of the book. The footnotes at the end of the book give a full reference of the titles referred to in the main text. However, this book being huge and written in quite a small font, I found looking at these notes very difficult. In my opinion, there would have been more of a need for a clear bibliography here, in this way: "The titles I used to write chapter 1 are as follows", followed by book title, author and publisher of the English language version of the text. This would be much clearer than the confusing swarm of notes at the end of the current edition. It would also allow anyone who has to read this as part of a "gender studies" or "Sexuality studies" course to look through the bibliography for quick reference and to engage in further reading.
One more thing: the author is, quite clearly, a feminist. On the whole, I find her style very objective, but even though she is objective, her writing style betrays her own feminism at times. Anyone who has a bone to pick with feminists and feminism might be disturbed by this. However, I am sure that if you can overlook this aspect, you will still see that the author gives a pretty accurate description of the condition of women in History. If the author's style sometimes displays a lot of emotional engagement on her part, I feel this is better than a detached, more technical and jargon like overview of the subject.
So who is this book for? Clearly, a "gender studies", "sexuality studies" or sociology student will find a good starting point here to writing academically about celibacy. This is also a book for anyone with an interest in history, philosophy, religious studies, anthropology and history of thought. If you are not a student yourself but still interested in this topic, I am sure you would really enjoy this book. Even if you are not an intellectual, this book is an easy enough read, stylistically, that you would get a lot from it. If you need an overview on the subject of celibacy, this will do. If you need a starting point on this subject with the view of doing further reading or study of the subject, this book is also an excellent starting point. This book will test your patience however: it is big, and reading something this long will either require commitment or a very fast reader who will not be spending too long finishing this. But it is worth it. Sexual expression, love and romance are, after all, at the core of what makes us human. Read about those people who refuse sexuality or try and control it, and you will get an incredible insight into what it means to be human.