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Professor Sarah Toulalan

Associate Professor


01392 724455

My main area of research is in the history of the body, with particular interests in gender, sex, sexuality, ageing, body size, shape and management, health and medicine in early modern England. I have published articles on both fat and thin bodies and reproduction as well as on various issues to do with child rape and sexual abuse. 

I am currently finishing writing a book on 'Children and sex in early modern England: knowledge, consent, abuse c.1550-1750' generously funded by a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship; earlier work on this project was funded by a British Academy Small Research Grant. I am aso working on editing two collections of essays, one on early modern bodies and another on beauty.

I am currently supervising doctoral theses on a number of topics including: obese bodies in early modern England; human ingredients in early modern medicine; the body, medicine and sex in early modern India; the material culture of female health and exercise, c.1870-1914; and commodification in eighteenth-century England. I welcome thesis proposals for research projects on a wide variety of topics relating to my research interests.


Research interests

My main research interests are to do with issues relating to the body, sex and sexuality, gender, health and medicine. I am currently researching body size, shape and body management (fat/thin bodies) and health; ageing, sex and health; and sexual practice and health.  My primary area of research at the moment is to do with children and sex in early modern England.

Current Projects I am currently finishing writing a monograph (the research for which was funded by the Leverhulme Trust) on Children and sex in early modern England: knowledge, consent, abuse c.1550-1750.  This builds on an earlier research project on Bodies, sex and health in early modern England which was supported by a British Academy Small Research Grant.  I am also working on two edited collections, one on early modern bodies for Routledge and the other on A Cultural History of Beauty in the Early Modern World for Bloomsbury.

Selected seminar and conference papers

'Child rape and sexual knowledge in early modern England: medical ideas about virginity, the hymen, and proving rape', Vreie University, Amsterdam, 2019.

'Representing children and sex in seventeenth-century pornography', Heidelberg University, 2018.

'Speaking in signs: children's bodies and sexual abuse in early modern England', ESSHC, Belfast 2018.

'Old age and sex in early modern Europe: 'exceedingly hurtfull and pernitious'', University of Groningen, 2017.

'Newspaper reporting of sexual crime in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England', Sorbonne, Paris, 2017.

'They "know as much at Thirteen as if they had been Mid-wives of twenty years standing": excluding girls from sexual knowledge', Warwick University, 2017.

'Proving chld rape in early modern England: virginity and the hymen', ESSHC Valencia 2016.

'Children raping children? Boys and child rape in early moden England', Freie Universitat, Berlin, 2016.

'Fat bodies and reproduction', Reading Early Modern Studies Conference, July 2013.

‘Women that be leane & slender do not conceaue’: thin bodies and infertility in early modern England', Infertility in Science and History Conference, Edinburgh, July 2013

'Puberty in early modern England' at European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, Utrecht September 2011

'Children and venereal disease in early modern England' at the Anglo-American conference, London July 2011



Research supervision

I am very happy to discuss research proposals on any subject relating to my research expertise and interests. I am especially happy to consider working with candidates with interests in the following areas of early modern history:

  • the body, sex and sexuality, including pornography/erotica and prostitution;
  • health and medicine including mental health/sickness and venereal disease;
  • body size and shape
  • gender;
  • popular culture;
  • clothing or dress (including cross-dressing);
  • issues relating to age and ageing as well as children and childhood.

I have also supervised - and continue to do so - theses to do with the above topics for the nineteenth century.

Research students

Current supervisions

Amy Wilson, 'A Tasteful and Comfortable Pregnancy: Women of the Social Elite, Dressing the Maternal Body 1680-1830'

Yishu Wang, ‘Politics, reproduction, pregnancy, and childbirth in Tudor England’  (China Scholarship Council)

Polly Lowe, Morality and the Market: Contested Commodification in Eighteenth-Century England’ (ESRC)

Marsha Wubbels, 'A Healthy Interest: Diet, Exercise and Ideal Bodies in England and Holland, 1650-1800' (Wellcome Trust)

Hannah Slajus, ‘The Body as Medicine:  Human Ingredients in Seventeenth Century Britain’.



Sonia Wigh, 'The Body of Words: A Social History of Sex and the Body in Early Modern India' (2021)

Betsy Lewis-Holmes, ‘The material culture of female physical health culture in England, 1870-1914’ (2020)

Abbie Johns, 'Children, Accidents and Death in England and Wales, c.1600-1800' (2018)

Angela Muir, ‘Deviant maternity: illegitimacy in early modern and eighteenth-century Wales’ (2017)

Michelle Webb, ‘‘As fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her’: facial disfigurement in sixteenth and seventeenth century England’ (2017)

Alanna Skuse, ‘Constructions of Cancer in Early Modern England’ (2013)

Victoria Bates, ‘Physiology and Morality: Medical Perspectives on Sexual Consent, 1850 -1914’ (2012)

Pei-Ching Chen, ‘The Plebeian Cross-Dressing Woman in C18th and C19th Britain’ (2011)

Jennifer Evans, ‘Aphrodisiacs, Impotence and Fertility in Early Modern England’ (2011)

Victoria Sparey, ‘Inherited Humours: The Formation of Identity in Early Modern Medical Discourse’ (2010)

Hannah Newton, ‘The Sick Child in England, 1580-1720’ (2010)



Other information

I am currently on research leave holding a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship.

I am a member of the Social History Society and of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. I am also a trustee of the Reid Trust.

Contribution to discipline

My first monograph, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-century England, published by Oxford University Press, is an interdisciplinary study of the subject that re-conceptualised how representations of sex, both written and visual, might be thought about for this historical period: it argued for a contemporary understanding of sex as inseparable from ideas about fertility and reproduction. I subsequently wrote the chapter on early modern pornography for the Cambridge Companion to Erotic Literature ed. Bradford K. Mudge (Cambridge University Press, 2017). I edited, with Kate Fisher, The Routledge History of Sex and the Body, 1500 to the Present published in 2013. This book was selected by Choice as one of the two outstanding academic titles of 2013. I have also contributed to TV history programmes such as, ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A C17th History for Girls’ and ‘Fit To Rule: How Royal Illness Changed History’.

My current research on children and sex early modern England explores a subject that has been comparatively overlooked in the history of early modern sex and sexuality and develops a nuanced contemporary concept of child sexual abuse that pays close attention to religious ideas about childhood innocence as well as to both legal constructions of children's ability to consent and medical ideas about sexual development.

I am on the editorial board of Social History of Medicine.



Academic consultant for ‘The Real History of Sex’ screened by BBC3.

Interviewed by Lucy Worsley for a series on Restoration women, ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: A C17th History for Girls’ (screened on BBC2, 2012).

Interviewed by Lucy Worsley for 2 episodes of ‘Fit to Rule: How Royal Illness Changed History’ (screened on BBC2, 2013).



My teaching relates to my research on bodies, sex, health and medicine but also incorporates subjects that relate to it more broadly, such as crime, the family, and social deviance.


Modules taught


I was appointed to the post of Lecturer in Medical History at the end of May 2005, having previously worked at Exeter as a temporary lecturer since 2002.  I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2010.

I gained my Ph.D in 2002 from the University of London (Royal Holloway) with a thesis entitled Writing the erotic: pornography in seventeenth century England published as Imagining Sex: pornography and bodies in seventeenth-century England by Oxford University Press in 2007. I also completed my M.A. at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 1995, having returned to academic study after spending ten years working as a civil servant at H.M. Treasury in London. My undergraduate study was at the University of Southampton.


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