Being gay in Elizabethan times

This post and some links in it contain advertisements for my books.

In sixteenth century England, sodomy was a capital offence, but maybe not for the reasons we think. It wasn’t just about homosexual behaviour, but about sexual debauchery in general. It had nothing to do with who you were (there was no such thing as “a homosexual” then), it was just something you did. Anal intercourse was a sin partly because it avoided conception and was only done for fun, no matter who you did it with.

For this reason, you could be hanged if you practised it, at least in theory. There aren’t many records of such executions, but this can have other reasons: records can burn or otherwise disappear. From what we can surmise, though, it seems the authorities mostly chose to look the other way. Maybe that’s understandable. I mean, if they had to hang every Tom, Dick and Francis who did something sexually questionable, they wouldn’t have the time to focus on the really important stuff like wars, would they?

Curiously though, they looked more sternly on the offence if you combined it with coining and atheism. To a 21st century person, this is completely baffling. What do sodomy, coining and atheism have to do with each other, after all?

Well, as this article and this book put forward, sodomy, like atheism, could be used as a symbol for antisocial behaviour in general. Also, funnily enough, coining and sodomy were viewed as two sides of, forgive the pun, the same coin. Lots of fascinating reasons are laid out in this article, but one aspect touches on the current view (of some!) that gay people somehow have an agenda to spread homosexuality to straight people. The Elizabethans believed that you could be “contaminated” by it, and that by practising sodomy, instead of creating children, you created new sodomites. If you also created fake money through coining, that was taken as further proof, because look, you’re making more of something bad, and it’s the same thing, right?

Right. In hindsight, many beliefs can look downright silly, but just try to view our own times with a future person’s eyes. Won’t they find a lot to laugh about?

Anyway, back to the sixteenth century. Poet Kit Marlowe was accused of sodomy, atheism and coining, and some believe that these are the things that led to his death. I won’t comment on that in this post, since it would completely ruin Rival Poet for you, should you ever wish to read it. I will say, however, that the accusations smack of truth. His poem Hero and Leander is nothing short of a gushy Leander fan letter, and Hero is described mostly through her clothes.

Exhibit A, Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;

Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.

Even as delicious meat is to the taste,

So was his neck in touching, and surpast

The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,

How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;

And whose immortal fingers did imprint

That heavenly path with many a curious dint

That runs along his back…

Okay, we get it. He was delicious enough to eat.

On to exhibit B, Hero:

The outside of her garments were of lawn,

The lining purple silk, with gilt stars drawn;

Her wide sleeves green, and border’d with a grove,

Where Venus in her naked glory strove

To please the careless and disdainful eyes

Of proud Adonis, that before her lies;

Her kirtle blue, whereon was many a stain,

Made with the blood of wretched lovers slain.

No need to go on, we get the picture: Marlowe liked a bit of flair on a gal, but the gal herself? Barely there.

Another prominent person to be accused was Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. This guy, held by some to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works, was charged for raping his boy servants. Not just sodomy, then, but pederasty. Insert horrified gasp here. Our revered perhaps-Shakespeare, a child molester?

But wait a minute. The men who accused him may have had a bone to pick with the earl. It’s the old Michael Jackson conundrum: how can we ever guess the truth about an alleged crime committed by a rich and famous person when 1) the law tends to be lenient towards them just because they are rich and famous, and 2) people tend to accuse them of crimes in order to bring them down and/or get at their riches? Add to this that the crime in question happened more than four hundred years ago, and all we can do is speculate. In the end, Oxford was acquitted, but we can’t know why.

For my part, I chose to exploit this little historical nugget in Rival Poet. I’m not saying Oxford really did it, but I used it to add some tension to my plot and to strengthen one of my themes.

Also, as a devout Stratfordian, I guess I’m not above a little bitching…

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