Trigger Warning: Mentions of homophobia, descriptions of sex.
David Halperin has pointed out that we have only witnessed 100 years of homosexuality as we know it. The distinct nature of homosexuality as a social, sexual and cultural category is modern, and therefore often anachronous when applied to the past. So how was same sex love and desire conceptualised before this? As LGBTQIA+ history month draws to a close, I wanted to take the opportunity to align two of my interests: early modern studies, and the history of sex. There can be few better ways to do this than to dive into Duke University Press’ 1994 publication Queering the Renaissance. This edited volume was a major revision of renaissance studies, identity politics, and the categorisation of homo/heterosexuality. Featuring a collection of essays from sixteen scholars of gay and lesbian studies, the work surveys same-sex desire in the renaissance, but locates it within historicised theoretical frameworks.
I wanted to discuss two chapters which I have found fascinating when it comes to understanding same-sex desire and eroticism in early modern Europe: Alan Bray’s ‘Homosexuality and the signs of male friendship in Elizabethan England’, and Valerie Traub’s ‘The (In)significance of “Lesbian” desire in Early Modern England’. Taken together, they help us sketch out the political, social and religious dynamics of what we today would term ‘homosexuality’, whilst simultaneously problematising the term all together.
Bray exposes a raw nerve of Elizabethan sexual politics (a minefield in and of itself) – the tenuous and contradictory differentiation between a masculine friend, and a sodomite. He tells us that Elizabethan society entirely lacked the concept of a homosexual minority as distinct from the general population, though this did not mean that sodomy was accepted, quite the opposite. It was indeed a sin, and a grave one at that being punishable by death, but it was considered a crime that anyone was capable of, not restricted to a certain group of men in society. According to puritan John Rainolds, sodomy was a sin to which “men’s natural corruption and viciousness is prone”, and was subsequently attributed to drunkenness. Court records have shown some men even claimed they committed the act in their sleep. Sodomy was also equated with a general desire to rebel against society, associated with other transgressions of deception, atheism and blasphemy, all serving to ostracise the sodomite from the acceptable boundaries of respectability and piety negotiated by the community.
Bray encourages us to juxtapose this state of affairs with the concept of masculine friendship in the same period: though far removed from the sodomite in public consciousness, the male friend could cultivate a high level of intimacy with his peers. Male friends could be ‘bedfellows’, men kissed and embraced, often in public, and professed profound love for one another. But yet this was acceptable. It appears that this intimacy was considered civil, whilst sodomy was inherently subversive, as it compromised patriarchal notions of penetrative sex as a manifestation of male power and superiority. Nevertheless, many found the dividing line between the two forms of homoerotic relationships to be difficult to discern, creating the need for conventions of male friendship that needed to be followed to ensure it remained in the acceptable frame of reference. Bray explores this anxiety, and reminds us that a neatly demarcated homosexual minority “was a shield Elizabethan England did not have”, creating ambivalence when it came to the precise erotic nature of male companionship.
Valerie Traub looks at female homoeroticism in her chapter, and affirms it as a problematic field from the outset: of course, the ‘lesbian’ did not exist, and our conceptual framework of female desire is incompatible with what (little) we see in the early modern period. In the French context, female sodomy was considered the use of illicit sexual devices which enabled women to assume the part of a man in intercourse, i.e. prosthetic aids to penetration, the use of which was grounds for execution. But there was a legal distinction between sinful desires and criminal acts, as well as between sexual practices with or without penetration. In contrast to sodomy, tribadism was female same-sex intercourse without prosthetics, essentially ‘rubbing’. Either one of these actions was thought to make the feminine body masculine – two feminine bodies in erotic acts were conceptualised as an imitation of male parts, both in terms of body parts and in role performed. Patriarchy was so pervasive that it infiltrated and shaped sex even with no men present. Traub shows how female eroticism exposes the constructed nature of gender in this period, as women performed maleness in their erotic actions. It was not woman’s desire for woman that was problematic to authorities, but as she puts it, the “usurpation of male prerogatives.”
Gay and lesbian studies are fundamental to histories of culture and sex, but we must be wary of superimposing our own analytical frameworks onto the past. Queering the Renaissance remains a foundational text in its ability to decentre modern ideas of same-sex desire and relationships, and attempt to see them through an early modern eye. It is clear that homoeroticism in this period was compromised not only by legal prosecution, but fraught with political, social, cultural and sexual tensions.
Source: Jonathan Goldberg (ed.), Queering the Renaissance, (London, 1994).