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.
Reprinted from Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History.
Image: Sir Francis Weston