March 2008


Mother Clap’s Molly House, (The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830) by Rictor Norton


Review by Alex BeecroftFirst published in 1992 by GMP Books. A Second, Revised and Enlarged edition published in October 2006 by Chalfont Press (Tempus Publishing, UK).

Available through Amazon, or via Rictor Norton’s site HERE which is a great place to go for a more detailed run down of the contents. It’s also a fascinating site in itself, where you can find essays on all sorts of queer issues from the homosexual pastoral tradition to bawdy limericks.

Table of Contents
Introduction
1. The Renaissance Background
2. The Birth of the Subculture
3. Mother Clap’s Molly House
4. The Sodomites’ Walk in Moorfields
5. Maiden Names and Little Sports
6. Caterwauling
7. Popular Rage
8. Blackmail
9. The Third Sex
10. The Warden of Wadham
11. The Case of Captain Jones
12. The Macaroni Club
13. The Vere Street Coterie
14. A Child of Peculiar Providence
15. Men of Rank and Fortune
16. Tommies and the Game of Flats

Review:

Basically, for anyone interested in what it was like to be gay during the 18th and early 19th Century, this book is a must. By combing through records of criminal prosecutions for buggery, and the documents kept by the Societies which persecuted gay men, Rictor Norton has amassed an enormous wealth of evidence about a heretofore unknown subculture. He’s able to prove that our own century was not the first to have cruising grounds, gay bars and even a sense of gay pride. On the contrary, our own views on homosexuality and our own modern gay culture have their roots in the culture which came to light in the 18th Century.

I say ‘came to light’ because as the book shows, it’s entirely possible that this gay subculture had already evolved by the 16th Century. The first chapter of the book describes King James Ist’s court, in which the King’s love for George Villiers made the court a relatively tolerant place for gay relationships to flourish.

Norton holds that the specific subculture we see in the 18th Century did not spring to life in that century, but was merely revealed as a result of the purges organized by the newly formed Societies for the Reformation of Manners. These societies organized ordinary people to shop their neighbours for immoral behaviour, and as a result an awful lot of gay men were prosecuted for buggery. With the result that there were a lot of executions, but also that for the first time we have documented existence not just of one or two isolated individuals but of a whole culture of homosexuality.

In successive chapters, Norton explores some of the plays that show the playwright’s knowledge of this culture; the locations of the cruising grounds; the most famous gay bars (or Molly Houses). Incidentally, I was amused and a little relieved to find out that Mother Clap’s molly house was so called because it was run by a gay-friendly lady called Margaret Clap, and not because that was what you could expect to acquire there!

Norton also covers the molly’s slang, some of their stranger rituals – like the practice of having pretend marriages, and sometimes even pretend childbirth. We’re introduced to an enormous variety of characters, from blackmailers to Dukes. I have to admit my heart was warmed to read of the butcher ‘Princess Seraphina’, who borrowed the clothes of his female neighbours and was obviously treated as one of the girls by the neighbourhood. It was also good to read of Reverend John Church, the ‘child of peculiar Providence’, who as a gay priest had worked out a theology of God’s love long before our own time, and officiated at some of the marriages at The Swan molly house.

Less happy, however, are Norton’s accounts of so many trials and executions, and the enormous hatred of the general public for the mollies. Such hatred that even those who were only sentenced to the pillory often barely made it out alive.

There is also a very interesting final chapter on Tommies or Lesbians – Norton is able to show that the word ‘lesbian’ was already in use in its modern sense at this time.

The strength of this book is its reliance on primary sources, so that the reader almost feels she is meeting the people described and participating in their tumultuous, dangerous, but ultimately surprisingly positive lives. They seem to have been, despite the level of hatred and persecution surrounding them, confident, unashamed and well able to justify themselves to themselves. The sense of positive, courageous joy in life is a welcome antidote to the statistics of trials and persecution. I came away impressed by their resilience and convinced that it was not necessarily all doom and gloom, after all, being a gay man in the 18th Century.

The weakness of the book, I think, also comes from its reliance on primary sources. There is a sense that although we’re meeting a number of fascinating individuals, the writer hasn’t managed to synthesize this information into very much of a larger picture. There was a feeling of listening to repeated anecdotes, and by the end I yearned for some sort of pulling together of the evidence into a summary.

That didn’t happen. I didn’t get any sense that an argument was being made, or a logical plan was being followed through the sequence of chapters. There’s a sense in which this is simply a disorganized dumping of information on the reader. But really, it’s such interesting information, and so lightly and amusingly told, that asking for more would be grasping.

A must have book for anyone writing m/m historical fiction from the late 17th Century to the early 19th.

Buy: From the Author: Amazon UK: Amazon USA

Okay, get your minds out of the gutter! *G* My upcoming gay historical paranormal is finally on the “Coming Soon” page of my publisher. No cover yet, but I just finished the first edits and that’s always a good thing!
Re-reading it made me fall in love with my characters all over again. If I had any doubt that my story belonged here, it vanished after doing these deep edits.

All the research and love I poured into my guys’ stories came through – I hope!

More to come!

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: (Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century), by John Boswell.

boswell.jpg

Available at Amazon.com for $17.25

Author bio: John Boswell (1947-94) was the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University and the author of The Royal Treasure, The Kindness of Strangers, and Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe.

Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Definitions

3. Rome: The Foundation

4. The Scriptures

5. Christians and Social Change

6. Theological Traditions

7. The Early Middle Ages

8. The Urban Revival

9. The Triumph of Ganymede: Gay Literature of the High Middle Ages

10. Social Change: Making Enemies

11. Intellectual Change: Men, Beasts, and “Nature”

12. Conclusions

Review:

This is rightly called ‘a truly ground-breaking work’. For the first time in the debate over homosexuality, John Boswell has gone back to the sources and combed through an immense amount of writings by Latin, Greek and Early Medieval authors to find out what they really had to say. And it turns out that the picture is nothing like what we expected. As is often the case when human beings are involved, everything is much more complicated than it initially seemed.

Even in the society where we think we have the gay relationship pinned down to a socially acceptable model – the ‘classic’ Greek relationship of older lover with younger beloved – Boswell unearths numerous exceptions which disprove the rule.

That complication persists and increases when Christianity enters the picture. At this early date, in the process of formation, Christianity is being influenced by many different, conflicting, strands of thought, and – of course – is reflecting a society in Rome quite unlike our own. But Boswell picks these influences apart and shows that though Christianity took on board a Stoic distain for earthly pleasures, a Manichean distrust of the flesh and various other philosophies which valued chastity over sexuality, none of these sources are particularly homophobic. They are against sexual pleasure in any form. In contrast, at the same time, abbots, bishops and saints were writing love poetry to their same sex ‘friends’ which would later go on to form the seed of the medieval courtly love tradition.

Boswell acknowledges that there is no way of knowing whether sex featured in these passionate friendships, but he points out that the society of the time made no distinction between passionate friendships which did include sex, and those which did not. And he casually drops into the text the mention that gay marriage was legal and well known in Western society up until 342ad, while there were forms of Church liturgy for uniting a same sex couple in a forerunner of civil partnership. He follows the ups and downs of society’s tolerance through the fall of Rome to the rise of Medieval Europe, and draws interesting parallels between the fate of homosexuals and the fate of the Jews.

But it is hopeless to try and write a summary of what is a densely researched book, covering over a thousand years of social flux, and explaining the attitudes of ages which did not have the same conceptual framework as our own, let alone the same words. Better to read the book itself, taking it slowly to let it all sink in. Boswell’s style is pleasant, and the astonishing material makes for a compelling read, but it is heavy going, particularly while wading through footnotes in Latin and Greek. It could not be more worth it, however. Suffice it to say that this is an eye-opening book, a must read for anyone thinking of setting their work in antiquity, and a recommended read for everyone who did not know that our own age’s tolerance is part of a long tradition.  It’s a warning too that it’s possible to have such tolerance and then to lose it so thoroughly that even the memory of it is wiped out.  Something we should bear in mind if we’re ever inclined to grow complacent.

Hi, my name is Erastes – male pen name, female body… undecided inside.

I started to write gay historical romance because it seemed that, at least since Gaywyck and Vadrial Vail there was almost no-one doing it and I couldn’t understand why. I was sure there must be a market for it and so I started to write Standish, (Regency) even though some people told me that there was NO market for gay romance, particularly historical.

I’m glad that they were proved wrong. Standish hasn’t made me rich but it has proved to me that people want to read this kind of book, men and women both, and that’s great. I’ve also found out that people are writing it, and I’ve made some good friends due to the shared interest.

I’m also the owner of Speak Its Name, the only place on the net dedicated to news, view and reviews of gay historical fiction.

My other writings include over 20 short stories in various anthologies and a novella within Night Moves, published by Aspen Mountain Press. The novella is called “Chiaroscuro” and is about a 19th century Florentine artist who falls in love with his model.

I have a further novella coming out in Summer 2008 published by Linden Bay Romance. It’s called Hard & Fast (Regency) and will be in an anthology of three novellae with two other members of this blog, Lee Ransom and Charlie Cochrane. You can read an excerpt of Hard & Fast here.

I hope you enjoy the blog, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask us.

Cheers,

Erastes
Website

Or how I wound up a part of the Macaronis.

My first books published were part of a paranormal trilogy. The second book included two sets of characters who engaged in m/m sexual activity. One couple was comprised of the villain and his cohort. The shared sex verged on nonconsensual and was portrayed in a negative manner — not the gay aspect, the forced, cruel aspect. My other couple were written in a positive light. One character, traditionally for his position as a “shaman”, felt compelled to give up his love and remain celibate. This precipitated a break of twenty years since the rejected fellow misconstrued this rejection as a revulsion toward his feelings and left the community. My book was set twenty years after this breakup and the characters reconcile. Now, these guys were secondary characters, but I loved their scenes together. Several books later and only one contained m/m characters but in the back of my mind characters were begging for release.

I love history and more and more of my books have an historical overtone. So, finally, this year I thought of my favorite period in American history and wondered how was it for men who loved men? I knew a little about Walt Whitman’s vacillating homosexuality, but that was about it, and so, before I set out to write this book, I researched as much additional information about homosexuality in that time frame as I could.

Man, talk about don’t ask don’t tell. I did find material, but it was an arduous task. Anyway, now that I’ve dipped my toes in the water, I’ll be writing more m/m historicals because I love writing them!

Whew! Glad to get that off my chest!
Jeanne

BOYS AT SEA
Sodomy, Indecency, and Court Martial in Nelson’s Navy

by Professor B. R. Burg (Arizona State University, USA)

Hardcover, Palgrave/Macmillan, ISBN 978-0-230-52228-2

B. R. Burg

“(…) ‘Boys at Sea’ is a study of homoerotic life on board ships of the Royal Navy in the age of fighting sail. It deals not only with sex among ordinary crewmen, but reveals that the most conspicuous feature of prosecutions for sodomy and indecency from the reign of Queen Anne almost to the dawn of the Victorian age involved officers forcing their attentions on unwilling ships’ boys. (…) It provides a probing look into the careers of youngsters who served on board Britain’s warships, revealing a dark and terrifying aspect of their lives. (…)”

* * *

I’m aware that my researches have always been one-sided – had to be, because I have neither the means nor the connections to get insight into archives. I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer of Age of Sail adventure with a touch of supernatural and male/male romance. I write Penny Dreadfuls, not the 50980986th biography of Nelson. While I try to keep the historical settings correct, I’m well aware that the characters I write about are fictional not only because I created them, but also because they would not have behaved the way they do in my stories if they had been real. That’s why it’s called “fiction”. But this doesn’t mean I’ll wear blinders when it comes to the dark side of history.

History, so they say, is written by the winners. That’s true, but I’d like to add: history is also written by those who could actually write. When researching information regarding the Age of Sail, we find journals, reports and letters by the officers – but it’s very unlikely that a ship’s boy or powder monkey would have kept a diary. At least I don’t know of any such case. Those who could write might have sent a letter, but oral tradition and the odd article about a mutiny in the papers aside, the voice of the lower deck is a faint whisper compared to the mighty choir the higher ranks have left us as a legacy.

One of the few occasions where “Jack Tar” could be heard was in front of a court. The words of the illiterate have been immortalised by clerks, the records are now in libraries and museums, for us to read and study. Professor B. R. Burg’s book is mostly based on court martial records, which gave the ones who couldn’t leave a track in history their own voice.

“(…) a large majority of the defendants were officers and that in almost every case the officers were accused of forcing sodomy and indecent acts on unwilling boys. Ordinary sailors customarily found partners among their peers, as did midshipmen, but no officer was ever called to account for buggering another officer. Neither did men holding commissions or warrants select those immediately below them in rank as sexual partners. They chose only those in the lowest tiers of the naval hierarchy. Captains did not have sex with lieutenants; lieutenants did not have sex either with petty officers or with the “ratings” or “the people,” as seamen were variously called by those in posts of authority. The preferred partners for officers of every level were the boys that comprised between 8 and 10 percent of ships’ crews. (…)”

Learning about homosexuality in the Royal Navy of the 18th century is like trying to put a puzzle together. Letters. Reports. Journals. Gossip. Court records. Paintings. Caricatures. These are all part of the puzzle, but what we’ll never know is how many men were not “caught in the act”; how they felt, lived. It’s speculation, so a large part of the puzzle will always remain missing.

What we do know, though, is that not every case of “buggery” or, when played down for decency’s sake, “uncleanliness”, found its way in front of a court martial. There were various reasons: it took ages to get the number of captains together that were required for a court martial. Buggery was considered such a heinous crime that even the mention of it, no matter how insubstantial the claim was, could ruin a man’s career and the precious reputation as a “gentleman”. Last but not least, the reputation of the ship was tarnished as well.

We know that Collingwood, for example, absolutely “wouldn’t suffer” officers calling the men “buggers” when unsatisfied with their work, as he considered it an outrageous insult. Then we have Captain Graham Moore’s journal entry about a case of “uncleanliness” aboard his ship:

“(…) Yesterday I did what I had no right to do, in flogging and turning a seaman ashore, who had acted in a manner disgraceful to the character of an Englishman. I must either have acted as I did, or taken the fellow round to be tried by Court Martial; it was impossible for him to remain in the ship after it. The horror and indignation which our countrymen have for attempts of that nature could not brook such a man remaining amongst them. Besides I am of opinion that morality suffers by such practices becoming notorious. (…)”

(For source and more information, please see here.)

I think we can assume that Moore wasn’t the only one who preferred to punish a man for a lesser offence than risking a court martial, and we know of another instance where two “buggers” were encouraged to desert the navy (with the knowledge of the officers!) rather than drag them in front of a court martial and get the ship a bad reputation. It’s very likely that many occurrences of “uncleanliness” were swiped under the sea chest.

The court martial records are at times explicit, yet by far not as bad as your average news report on television. They deal with crimes of a sexual nature, so you can’t expect modesty when it comes to abuse or rape. The court martial records show that every detail of the “crime” was researched and questioned – who topped? Who was the bottom? Was there an agreement about the act? What, exactly, did the act consist of? Did one or both parties ejaculate? If yes, where? What was the light condition like? Did the moon shine or not? At times, the mind boggles, and some of the reports make a downright absurd read.

But it’s exactly the ancient style of the records which helps reading them with the distance needed, and we have to see them within the context of the century they have been written in. A “boy”, for example, was not necessarily a child (the distinction between “child”, “adolescent” and “adult” was not as clear-cut as it is today); it was also a position aboard a ship. Every officer had his boy(s) – servants, aides. They could be every age up to eighteen. It takes a while to understand that our modern words might not have had the same meanings in the 18th century.

Luckily, Professor Burg doesn’t fall into the trap of applying our 21st century viewpoints and morals on the 18th century. He reports and analyses, he doesn’t judge; a difficult task. Of course the first reaction when reading of an officer trying to get his way with a fourteen year old boy is “give me ye olde rusty knife so I can cut ye sick tossers balls off” – but pretending no such occurrences happened would be a beautification of history. It’s the last thing we need; we shouldn’t forget that there weren’t only heroes in the Age of Sail.

What I found the most interesting and to me new fact was victims of unwanted sexual attentions and aggression did inform their officers. They told their ship mates, each other. They didn’t mind going to court. They didn’t mind giving testimony, with exceptions of some cases where they feared retribution. This doesn’t only show courage, but also a trust in the authority of the court martial to serve justice.

Was this trust justified? I’d say “yes, but…” – sometimes the words of the victims were doubted, especially when they were very young or had a bad reputation for lying. A “gentleman” would be considered to be more trustworthy than a common man. Still, they were heard out, and the younger the victims, the less likely there would be any punishment for them, even if the court suspected “agreement” from their part.

We can also catch a glimpse at the way the navy dealt with the people of colour in their service. The British Empire was huge – there were men serving from all places serving in the navy, and according to some sources, a third of them were not white. That’s a separate field of research, but the fact that a sailor’s word was deemed to be less worthy because he was “a foreigner” and not white gives us a hint of the way the authorities dealt with POC. Maybe aboard a ship, a world and society on her own, ones origin didn’t matter much, but it certainly did in front of a court martial!

The closer the records get to the Victorian age, the more difficult they are to understand. New prudery and more deeply religious officers in the navy had a strong influence on language. While the old records called spades spades and arses arses, you will have to make your way through “yards” and “fundaments”. With some excerpts, you can almost imagine the clerk writing the testimonies down blushing and cringing.

To me Burg’s core sentence is that

“(…) Ordinary sailors customarily found partners among their peers, as did midshipmen, but no officer was ever called to account for buggering another officer. (…)”

He seems to be of the opinion that “partners” (willing or unwilling ones…) were always chosen from the “(…) lowest tiers of the naval hierarchy. (…)” – captains did not have sex with their lieutenants.

And that’s where I disagree. Just because there were no court martials about it doesn’t mean it never happened. All through mankind’s history people have broken the law out of love, not to talk out of lust (probably even more so!) and of all the men aboard a ship, high-ranking officers were the ones with the most privacy and the most opportunities to break that specific Article of War. Considering how much weight was put on reputation and honour, on being a “gentleman”, they would have been extra-careful and had only chosen partners on whose discretion they could rely.

I refuse to believe that in a century of naval history, not once an officer has been involved with another officer.

I bought “Boys at Sea” despite its horrendous price (£ 50.00 regularly and £ 32.00 if you’re lucky to get it used) – a price which is justified, by the way, considering the research that has gone into it – because I want to complete the puzzle as far as possible. Can I recommend the book? Yes, absolutely, if you’re interested in getting a halfway realistic view on homosexuality and the legal system within the RN in the 18th century. And for me, and my writing, it’s important to understand the general spirit, the way of thinking, the morals, values and social structures aboard a ship. For that, “Boys at Sea” is an excellent source.

(c) Emma Collingwood

If you are wondering why this blog about gay historical romance is named after a type of pasta, wonder no more :)

In fact a ‘macaroni’ in the 18th Century was an over elegant, foppish young man, who had been on the grand tour around Europe and was suspected of having imported into England, along with his other suspicious foreign ways, that detestable crime which decency forbids me to name.

what-is-this-my-son-tom-1774.jpg

 But Macaronies are a sex
Which do philosophers perplex;
Tho’ all the priests of Venus’s rites
Agree they are Hermaphrodites.
(‘The Vauxhall Affray’, a 1770s print)

 

A macaroni could just be, of course, an idle youth whose affected ways and adherence to high fashion were no more than the result of having too much money and too little to do.  But nevertheless the true British bulldogs of society – the sort of men who ate at the Beefstake club were pretty sure that the macaroni’s effeminacy didn’t even attempt to hide their sodomitical ways.  In fact they flaunted it.

Which is why it makes it a perfect moniker for a group of writers who flaunt their love of gay historical romance.  Not that I for one would ever consider wearing that wig.

Lots more fascinating information on the Macaronis and the (possibly mythical) Macaroni Club on Rictor Norton’s  website here.

It puts a whole new slant on Yankee Doodle, I must say!

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