Autumn 2017 edition - page 28-29

In the 21st century, there is a common belief that the liberalisation
of English society is a purely modern entity – gay men can marry, women
can vote, religious freedom is (for the most part) encouraged. The past was
a time of straight, white, male domination and homosexuality, in any way or
form, was vilified. But what if it wasn't? A closer look into the sixteenth cen-
tury's perception of homosexuality (or as it was accepted then, masculine
friendship) is interesting for two predominant reasons. First, it disproves the
theory, at least to an extent, that modern homosexuality has always been
a concept society was disgusted by until the recent surge in social accept-
ance of LGBT+ rights. Second, it reveals fascinating truths about the effect
societal norms can have on the manifestation of love and romance –forms
of sexuality are first and foremost the creation of culture.
In order to fully comprehend this article it is important to recognise
a crucial truth - sixteenth century England did not have a concept of homo-
sexuality as we do today. In fact, the term 'homosexual' was not even used
until the 1890s. As Bruce Smith, author of Homosexual desire in Shake-
speare's England writes: "‘homosexual behaviour may be a cross cultural,
trans-historical phenomenon,".Yet it is the behaviour, not the way it was
received or recognised by society, that is able to transcend both time and
societal norms. In Elizabethan society, this behaviour manifested itself in
the form of two main images that shared characteristics strikingly indicative
of modern homosexuality, and yet they evoked very different, and extreme,
reactions in early modern England. They are the images of the sodomite and
masculine friendship.
Sodomy was a crime equal to murder, adultery and blasphemy. The
hatred and fear of sodomy was to be expected in the widely religious Eliza-
bethan society; the Bible clearly states "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as
with womankind: it [is] abomination." However, the image of the sodomite
was opposed much more extremely than it is today; it was a political and
religious crime that the king was morally bound never to forgive. The sodo-
mite was a corruption of nature, and therefore a habitual liar, blasphemer
and danger to society. In the present day, it is largely accepted that the op-
pression of homosexual minorities has been a continuous and contemptible
practise for centuries, and the perception and treatment of 'sodomites' is
strong evidence for this to be true.
However, the view of masculine friendship offers a new and largely
unexplored perspective on this idea. Masculine friendship refers to both an
emotional and a physical intimacy between men, especially among those in
positions of power or authority. An example is that it was common practise
for men to be each other's "bedfellow" or "bed-companion". Archbishop
Laud wrote in his diary in 1625: "That night in a dream the Duke of Bucking-
ham seemed to me to ascend into my bed, where he carried himself with
much love towards me, after such rest wherein wearied men are wont ex-
ceedingly to rejoice; and likewise many seemed to me to enter the chamber
who did see this." As suggested by his title, Laud was an extremely religious
man, who if asked would have opposed sodomy with conviction and dis-
gust. However, there was no problem with writing of sharing his bed with
the Duke of Buckingham (who was very powerful and close with the king)
and speaking of sharing a "love" with him. This may seem strange as emo-
Homosexuality In Sixteenth Century England
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