Historicizing Consent: What Did it Mean to Agree in the Late Medieval and Early Modern World?

April 2022

Tamar Herzog, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Sonia Tycko
, Oxford University

Does consent have a history? A growing literature recognizes the pervasive discourses around consent in different realms of late medieval and early modern life: sex, marriage, religious conversion, labor, colonization, and contract law. But no existing scholarship has yet examined the general theme of consent across all of these areas. Indeed, it has been difficult to explain the prevalence of apparently egalitarian concerns for freely given consent in this era, when a stable social hierarchy was a much-sought after ideal. A Harvard Radcliffe Institute exploratory seminar on “Historicizing Consent” will create an international, interdisciplinary scholarly network and define a new research agenda for historians, literary scholars, legal scholars, theologians, and scholars of gender and sexuality studies, working on Europe and the Americas. The seminar will rally a dispersed group of scholars, many of whom have—within their discrete topics of inquiry—analyzed consent as a hegemonic concept that imposed order as much as it liberated individual choice. Meanwhile, emerging critiques of the concept of consent in present-day political and legal discussions, for instance around prosecutions of sexual assault, have similarly highlighted where consent falls short of its emancipatory promise. Such critiques in turn invite scholars to denaturalize the notion of consent and investigate its multiple uses and meanings in the past. We offer to do so by observing the past and examining its relevance to the present.