Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body after their battle. Sculpture.

Sculpture in Ardee, County Lough, of Cuchullain carrying Ferdia's body.

Celtic culture was ever a warrior culture, no matter where and when they resided, and as such were part of the virtually global tradition of warrior lovers.

Celtic language, culture and traditions once spanned most of the continent of Europe, bringing it into contact with the classical societies of Greece and Rome for hundreds of years.  Celts at their widest expansion, that is, by 275 BC, ranged from the Ukraine west to Spain, France and, of course, the British Isles.  Rome sought to incorporate these peoples as they conquered their lands, but Germanic migration forced the contraction of Celtic language and cultures until they occupied only parts of the British Isles and Brittany.

Celts themselves relied entirely on oral tradition for perpetuating their way of life; so Classical scholars and military leaders recorded much of what we know about these peoples.  It is remarkable that coming from a culture that recognized and honored same sex relationships, the Greek teacher Aristotle comments in his Politics (II 1269b) on the greater enshrinement of warrior lovers among the Celts.  Coincidental with this was a sometimes-disputed tradition of warlike women, or at least greater liberty for women in and out of matrimony.  Brehon law, which governed Irish tribes, for example, permitted divorce initiated by wives.

In ancient Irish mythology, male warriors paired off much as the great male lovers of ancient Greece, such as Achilles and Patroclus and Alexander and Hephaestion.  They shared a bed and fought as a team.   Perhaps best known of these couples is Cuchullain and Ferdia.  Cuchullain was semi-divine, almost invincible and able to turn into a ravening beast in battle.    In the legend, the two lovers are forced to meet in battle to the death.  At the end of each day of hand to hand combat, they met in the middle of a ford to embrace and kiss three times.  When Cuchullain finally kills his friend, he mourns, singing over his body,

Dear to me thy noble blush,
Dear thy comely, perfect form;
Dear thine eye, blue-grey and clear,
Dear thy wisdom and thy speech.

(Quoted in “A Coming Out Ritua“l)

Even after the Christianization of Ireland the record in regards to acceptance of same sex relationships is ambiguous.  According to Brian Lacey’s new history of homosexuality in Ireland, Terrible Queer Creatures: A History of Homosexuality in Ireland,  St. Patrick traveled with a lifelong companion his that he is recorded as having great affection for and sleeping with.  In the famous illuminated gospel, The Book of Kells, there are numerous illustrations of men embracing.  In typical Christian revisionist manner, the Church has interpreted these illustrations as calling for the eradication of sodomy. 

One person in a chieftain’s household, the poet/bard called the ollamh was afforded great access to his lord physically, sharing his bed and demonstrating affection with him in public.  In songs or poems the ollamh  often referred to the chieftain as a beloved or even a spouse.  It is interesting in Dorothy Dunnett’s sexually ambiguous Lymond Chronicles the protagonist in the second volume, Queen’s Play, masquerades not as any other sort of bard but as an ollamh.  The tradition continued well into the Middle Ages. 

Ireland’s homophobia is now being confronted in its courts where it is likely the prohibition against same sex marriage will go the way of the ban on contraception.

One result of the publication of Brandy Purdy’s two excellent books, The Confession of Piers Gaveston and The Boleyn Wife (published as The Tudor Wife by Emily Purdy in the UK see link), is what I felt was a lot of undeserved vitriol at the portrayal of gay characters in the novels. For instance, this customer review of  “Wife” 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 this proportion 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 humans are born bisexual, but that is unlikely to be a popular 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/Renaissance 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 commit 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 heterosexual 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 unpopular 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 legal 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 part of the Middle Ages lived in the women’s quarters, sleeping apaart from their menfolk unless required. And they tended to share beds. Are you thinking what I am thinking?  In Purdy’s novels, the characters are, in fact, punished, just not for homosexual acts.  All are punished for treason.  The treason consisted variously of corrupting a king, plotting against a king, or, in fact, bedding a queen.  Their gay sexuality was nover an issue.

In short, I believe there have always 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 rebec player 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.  And… it is the realm of fiction to explore that possibility.

Nan Hawthorne

Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History.

Image: Sir Francis Weston

Novelist Nan Hawthorne

Novelist Nan Hawthorne

As a new member of The Macaronis team I would like to introduce myself.  I am a historical novelist and have been a professional writer for several years.  I wrote my first short story when I was seven years old, but it was not until the 1990s that I started to write as a career.  For many years I divided my work between my first book, Loving the Goddess Within: Sex Magick for Women and, later, hundreds of articles published on the web about nonprofit management and employment issues related to disabilities.  Though I had written a notable amount of fiction as a teenager, I did not touch fiction other than a couple stories for such magazines as WomanSpirit and Albatross, until 2006 when I seriously considered writing a novel.  The immediate result of that choice was my first novel, An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England, published via BookSurge.  You can find links to most of my books on my web site, www.nanhawthorne.com.

In the meantime I discovered that I was not the only woman in the world who likes to read romances involving gay men!  It turns out, of course, that there is a whole genre, maybe even more than one, so dedicated.  I happen to have a severe visual disability, so picking up a paperback and reading it is no longer possible, but ebooks in general and the Kindle 3 in particular have allowed me to start reading all the M/M romances I could ever want.

My first novel itself is not in that genre, though there are gay male characters that play an important role.  One of the chapters featuring these two men will be published in the December 2010 issue of Wilde Oats.  I have just completed a novel with a lesbian protagonist whom I created mainly to experience writing a female character I could relate to, strong, capable and not defined by the nature of her genitals.  This novel takes place during the Crusade of 1101 with the main character joining it disguised as her own late twin brother.  It is an adventure, but there is romance within it.  I have some more mainstream novels in the works, but plan to concentrate on writing M/M romance in the near future. 

 One thing that has proved empowering to me is the Internet.  Thanks to the help of what is called assistive technology my lack of any central (fine) vision I can write, read, discuss, research, and network very nearly like a fully sighted person.  I am like a kid in a candy store at times and have several blogs that I have loved creating.  I choose to continue to write about the characters in An Involuntary King, characters a teen friend and I began developing back in the 1960s, on a blog of the same name.  I explore opportunities for accessible reading and review historical novels on another.  In another I provide an extensive blog list. Of course, there is also my own personal and professional blog that I call Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History.  On this last I make a point of providing other novelists with a place to expose their work (Historical Fiction Roundup) and discuss hot topics (Burning Issues in Historical Fiction), both regular features on that blog.

 For fun I participate in the collaborative writing tool, Ghostletters, which I originated in 1994.  I warmly invite anyone and everyone to check it out.

 Lately I have become involved in more gay and M/M publishing, being a new member of the editorial teams for Wilde Oats, The Macaronis and other online publications.  I am also the originator of Bosom Friends, the lesbian companion to Speak Its Name.  My activities are not limited to the literary, however, as I own and operate an Internet Celtic music radio station, Radio Dé Danann, at Live365.com, enjoy what I call “yarn paintings”, and squeeze in between all that my greatest passion, listening to books on audio and text to speech readers.  I am a member of the board of the Independent Authors Guild and a North American member of the Historical Novel Society.

I am proud to have been included in The Macaronis and hope to be a useful, informative and fun member of the group.  I will be happy to say more on any of these subjects if you have questions.  Just leave a comment below or write to me via my web site, www.nanhawthorne.com

Some of my blogs:

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