Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Gay As a Lord... or Lady: Why Wouldn't There Be Gay People in the Middle Ages

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne's Booking History.

One result of the publication of Brandy PPurdy's two excellent books, The Confession of Piers Gaveston and Vengeance Is Mine*, is what I felt was a lot of undeseserved vitriol at the portrayal of gay characters in the novels. For instance, this customer rev iew of "Vengeance" from "Brittany":

"The entire court seems to be made up of bisexuals, which would be highly unlikely since if this were the case there would be no court since the people making up the court would all be executed for their bisexuality. I complain about this on the grounds of historical accuracy and my own personal moral beliefs. "

Not sure what Brittany's personal moral beliefs have to do with historical accuracy, but for the record I take issue with the assertion that there would not be bisexual people in the Tudor court. Let me explain.

A number of surveys have estimated that five percent of the human population is gay, lesbian or bisexual and likely has stayed around this prportion throughout history. I am inclined to support that. Why that is is irrelevant. My own opinion, which I suppose is just as valid or invalid as said Brittany's, is that the expression of human diversity is broad and beautiful, that love is love and love-making is love-making, and the more the merrier. (I actually believe that 100% of himans are born bisexual, but that unlikely to be a poopular opinion with the Brittany's of the world.)

The particular point I want to address in Brittany's remarks is her assertion that in the Middle Ages bisexuals "would all be executed for their bisexuality." It is true that conviction for homosexuality was punishable by being burned at the stake or other equally grisly punishment, but I just don't believe this was universally applied. There is a wonderful conceit that if all gay people woke up tomorrow morning with purple skin, we would be amazed at how many and who they were. I expect the same could be true in 908, 1208, and 1508 as well.

An act being against the law does not mean all who committ it are punished. In general I believe people are punished when they piss someone off who is in power or has influence. Certainly people in the upper castes of society, as are most of the bisexuals in Purdy's books, will have far more liberty and relative immunity for "deviant" behavior. We tend to overlook class issues when we talk about historical fiction, but that's a topic for a future essay. The average person tends to have to hide more since they don't have the money or connections to fall back on, but nevertheless a discrete person would probably be able to go through life without being chained to a stake and burned. Then there was this whole career path where heterosixual practice was not only not required but actually frowned upon, that being the clergy. Not that heterosexuality was punished either depending on how high up you rose in the Church.

The people likely to be most at risk would be in three camps: male prostitutes or others who were indiscrete, people who victimized children, and people who got on the wrong side of someone with their own reasons to want to see them out of the way. My belief is that male prostitutes would have some protection from those who frequented them, at least in terms of whether they were out-ted and punished. Victimizers of young people, gay or straight, are another matter than simply gay people exercising their predilection to love adults of their own gender. As with tagging unmpopular women as witches, denouncing someone as homosexual was a handy way to blow off frustrations of your own or to gain from their disenfranchisement.

Specific to Purdy's books, the men and women who are gay or bisexual are for the most part the elite, with their own society and rules and immunity from most of the pettiness of their society. In the case of women, it is likely no one even credited them with sexuality or at least regarded it as a threat worth addressing. Remember that noblewomen in jpart of the Middle Ages lived in the women's quarters, sleeping apaart from their mengolk unless required. And they tended to share beds. Are you thinking what I am thinking?

In short, I believe there have alw2ays been gay people, throughout history, most of whom could fall in love or just have sex without anyone either being the wiser or taking any action about it. My own favorite pair of gay lovers in historical fiction are martin Werther and Ambrose the rebex playe3r in Candace Robb's Owen Archer mysteries. I can't decide if I am more skeptical of their wholehearted acceptance by Owen and Lucy or impressed with Owen and Lucy's socially enlightened attitudes.. but who knows. Infinite variety. All things are possible.

Nan Hawthorne

See gay historical fiction at Speak Its Name.
Image: Sir Francis Weston

* This novvel was republished as "The Boleyn Wife" in 2010 buy kensington, and there is a British edition, "The Tudor Wife".  See more at Brandy Purdy's web site.


Stephanie Dray said...

The sexuality of historical figures seems to me, to be one of the areas in which authors are more than welcome to speculate. These are matters which the historical figures would almost assuredly have kept private, so there's no reason not to speculate.

csmith said...

Hi Nan,

I found this post very interesting -- could you point me in the direction of any primary sources you've found on medieval sexuality?

Thanks :)


Dr John Yeoman said...

I agree that homosexuality has been with us since Eden. (We need not refer to the curious marriage practices of Spartans who, allegedly, could only copulate with their wives by imagining them to be boys.) Its open practice was vilified in medieval times but tolerated in private, especially in the more dissolute monasteries.

Bisexual, or dominant, women were so visible in 1620s London that a pamphlet 'Hic Mulier' was published to mock them.

However, I'm not sure that child sexual abuse has been considered a serious crime until very recent times. Oscar Wilde was punished for his homosexuality, not his rampant paedophilia. Children (and women) have always been, for the most part, silent victims of male aggression.

For example, Sir Percall Brocus was a notorious rake of the Jacobean era. John Chamberlain refers to him in 1612: ‘The other weeke a younge mignon of Sir Pexall Brockas did penance at Paules Crosse, whom he had entertained and abused since she was twelve yeares old’. It is significant that the girl, and not Brockas, was punished for his crimes. (Brockas was eventually hanged for treason. The law was never much concerned about his paedophilia, although it was common knowledge.)

Nan Hawthorne, Shield-wall Books said...

Chris, I am afraid I cannot offer primary sources, though there may very well be some. I tend to write on what makes sense intellectually. Especially in a topic like this, the likelihood of honest and accurate records is slim to nil.

John, what a pleasure to be on a blog with you! I am not sure 12 would be considered a child. I wonder myself sometimes why nature would make a girl able to conceive but not intend to have her do so for another six years. I think how we see childhood in our own societies frames what is actually harmful. That is, today in the West sex with a 12 year old is pedophilia. I don't know that it would be in a time and place where adulthood started by 14.


Erastes said...

Nan - I'm sorry to be the argumentative voice, but this is supposed to be an historical blog with people--if not actual qualified historians--but people who are committed to getting the history right and have the sources to back them up. You can't say "what makes sense" on an historical blog - you have to be able to back it up with hard research! It's ok to extrapolate to a certain degree, when you write gay historicals this is unavoidable but you can't say "this happened" if you have no shreds of evidence to support it. For example - I would have thought it "impossible" that gay men in the English Army in WW2 would write open and pretty graphic love letters to their lovers. 1. because of the "no gays in the army thing" and 2. because of the censoring of letters - however it's proven that at least one couple (Glover and Hall) ( couple corresponded in this way, so I can happily use this device in a book. However if I found NO evidence of this, I'd be extremely wary of having such letters in in any book of mine.

I also have to say that I object to paedophilia being linked to homosexuality on this blog. So many people link the two and it's an ignorant and entirely wrong assumption. The practice of youthful love in ancient civilisations has NO connection with modern paedophilia. Most paedophiles are straight men. I have not seen--with extensive research--Wilde ever been accused of this. He preferred young men, granted, but there was no law about homosexual consent (obviously) in those times and his lovers were without exception, I believe in some kind of employment or other, whether rent boys, or telegraph boys or hotel porters and the like.

Please remember also, that we aren't all American - Today the age of consent throughout the world varies hugely from 13 upwards - and in some countries is not even on the statute books. It makes publishing a little difficult for us writers of gay romance and gay fiction because many American publishers won't publish anyone under 18 having sex which is totally ludicrous - both for m/f couples and m/m couples in a historical context.

Can you imagine: "Here you are, my lord, your bride has arrived. I'm afraid she's 14 so you won't be able to have sex with her for 4 years."

One thing I will point out though, that at the time I was researching Standish (and this leads on from a point of John's) that my character Ambrose is jailed for six months for "allowing a sodomitical assault." which seems rather unfair, but yes - it happened.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Is that portrait really of Francis Weston? The subject looks awfully Elizabethan to me.

Lee Rowan said...

I'd highly recommend the books "My Dear Boy," edited by Rictor Norton, and "Pages Passed from Hand to Hand," by Mitchell and Leavitt, both of which contain primary-source material, the former dating back to a note from Hephaestion telling Alexander's mother to stop bugging him about getting married.

As for the pedophilia issue... my grandmother was married at 14, in the US of A, in the early part of the 20th century. Age of consent varies enormously across the ages, and yes, when people had an average lifespan of 40-odd years and a boy of 16 was doing a man's work and his wife already had a baby or two, children were often sexually active long before we'd consider them ready for such relationships... but I'd hope to see less of the very tired misconception that all gays are sexual predators of children. That is generally not the main focus point of the gay historical fic I've read, and certainly none that I've written.

As far as girls being fertile before they attain the physical or emotional maturity idea for child-rearing, people mature at different rates--and a biologist friend of mine had a different view: "The DNA just wants to be passed on. It doesn't CARE if the parents are good parents, it just wants to make babies."

My own suspicion is that the 'gay gene' or whatever makes same-sex attraction a part of the human makeup is that we are a manifestation of Mother Nature's built-in birth control mechanism.

Victoria Dixon said...

Nan, great post. In a novel I'm still struggling plot-wise with, I've got a bisexual Emperor of China. I think he's going to be surreptiously murdered, but we'll see. LOL Historically speaking, he was bisexual and could not be touched for it in the political arena. Once he died of natural causes, his lover didn't fare as well. ;D

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