Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was an extraordinarily talented painter of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Ken Craigside has recently written a play about her being commissioned to paint likenesses of Ben Franklin, the Chevalier D’ Eon, and Marie Antoinette.

He’s had to cut out this wonderful monologue (in rhymed couplets) he wrote for a portrait of George Sand to be delivered over a piano piece played by Frederick Chopin while Elizabeth paints. It celebrates a woman who, taking on a male name and mode of dress, dashingly succeeded in what would be viewed as a man’s world. As Ken says, “And many Macaronis have also done that, at least in terms of name (and skill).”

Etude Au Nu

You’ve painted, he’s played,
For most of this week,
Yet I’ve heard every word
That you two did not speak.

The slap of your brush,
And the plunk of his keys,
The sigh as you paint,
His cough…and his wheeze.

You asked for my silence.
Let him play, let you paint.
But I itch to scratch silence,
With a spoken complaint:

Of the fact that his music
Can say more with a phrase,
Or you with a line
And a daub or a glaze,
Than a writer could write
Were he writing for days.

Delacroix painted us,
Monsieur Chopin and me.
Dear Frederic played music,
While I sat at his knee.

Chou-Chou had the light.
I sank in the shade.
Mere woman enraptured
By a glow quite man-made.

But now I have the light,
And you paint in the shade,
While He plays out of sight,
As MY portrait is made.

My gender engendered in such gentlemanly ways.

He plays.

You paint.
And I…repose.

He hears.
And let’s us hear love songs.

You see.
And let us see loveliness.

But I feel…everything…and try with all my heart to craft those feelings into words.

Delacroix, in the mode,
Paints society’s cream,
Just as you did, my dear,
For the Ancient Regime.

You might wonder, Elisabeth,
Why I chose you to portray
Madame George Sand
Dressed up in this way.

With Delacroix handy,
Why take you off the shelf?
Well, remember the portrait
Which you made of your self?

I can still see that girl
In a white cotton dress,
Uncoifed, unaccoutred,
In a way that says “yes,
If a portrait needs doing,
I’ll do it the best.”

You crafted your image
In paint with a frame.
While I crafted mine
With clothes and a name.

And you wrote, in your memoirs,
Which I’ve avidly scanned,
That your sitters’ apparels
Were most carefully planned.

That a face and a posture
Could give keys to one’s soul,
But the subject’s own costume
Might best speak of one’s goal.

So…my cigar and top hat,
My long pants and strong nose.
Can you paint truth, my dear,
Of such items as those?

Women’s clothes
Are our virginal fortress.
Bodice guarding our breasts,
Skirts girding our loins,
Veils shrouding our manes.

Donning our dresses in hopes of addresses
That change Mademoiselle to Madame.

Men’s clothes
Allow them to climb mountains.
Allow riding astride;
Legs grabbing the saddle,
Hands grasping the reigns.

At my Grandma’s chateau,
Every girl that I knew
Wore her brother’s old pants,
When out riding she’d go.
It wasn’t risqué.
Just the smart thing to do.

For we found, as we rode
With our legs round the horse,
As we raced up each hill
With the wind in our hair,
That we might, that we could,
That we would, that we will!

And then, as a woman,
When Paris I’d visit,
I found it constraining
To be so exquisite.
Ladies lounged in the loges,
Or the boxes above;
Restrained from the stage,
With its passion and love.
Décolletage camouflaged,
And hands hid by silk gloves.

Men’s clothes
Were a ticket of entree
To the pit and Parterre,
To a world without care
Where no one dared to stare
At a man’s somber coat.

Knowing Monsieur is Monsieur is Monsieur
Despite one’s vocation in life

Men’s clothes
Were a sort of a passport
To anonymous treats,
And the life of the streets,
Where a person might stride
` Rather than float.

So I fled from our fortress
Garbed in top hat and pants;
Free from the censure
Of propriety’s glance,
Free for life’s pleasure
And danger…and chance.

Masculine is a Mask.
That is all, just a mask.
But it says, no it shouts,
In a plain-spoken way,
That he might, that he must,
That he can, that he may!

Now you should understand,
There was never a plan
On my part, to dress up as a man.
Just a logical change,
Increasing the range,
To allow for the strange and the new.
To investigate life,
To observe human strife,
And do all that a writer must do.

Oh Elisabeth, I wanted an author’s name
There for all to see on a title page.

But it had to be, as it always was,
A man’s name inscribed on that page.

First I wrote with a man.
Jules Sandeaux was his name.
Not a lover. Those were others.
Just a hack on the wane,
But a way to give credence to covers.

When I split with Sandeaux,
Then I split Sand from eaux,
For a name I might groom,
With a George for his Jules.
Thus George Sand, give a hand
For my proud Nom de plume!

My new name.
My top hat.
My cigar.
My success.
My career!

All my books, all my plays,
Read by those who will pay.
My town house, my chateau,
And my life, with Chopin.
That I might, that I could,
That I would, that I will.
That I dared, that I did,
And I have, yes, I have!

He plays.

You paint.
And are almost finished?

I write.

My life,
Or should I say…I mold my mask?

Delacroix’s a Romantic
Who will paint what he feels
But your style, being antique,
Must concern what is real.

So here is George Sand
With her masculine mask.
And a writer’s illusion.
Is your new painter’s task.

To see past the façade?
Find the female within?
Show the mother, the lover,
The saint…and the sin?

I revere your self-portrait,
Madame Vigée-LeBrun,
Self filled with the thrill
Of heroic homespun.
That you might, that you could,
That you must and you will!

Your figure quite swathed
In that plain cotton way,
And your palette held out
Like a girl’s fresh bouquet.

But that too was a mask…
Of ambition t’would seem…
Whose viewer might bask
In the light of your dream,

Eyes aglow ‘neath the shade
Of that simple straw hat.
And I’ll hope that today
You’ve made…something like that?

That we might, that we could,
That we dared, that we did,
That we would, that we will,
That we have, yes, we have!
Oh my dear, we both have.

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.


Surely not?  Does anyone know?

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

First of all, I apologize for the absence of the Friday links over the last fortnight.  Almost everyone in the Macaronis has been busily doing NaNoWriMo, and it’s hard to squeeze anything else in.  However, I’ve now finished my novel, so I hope that it will be business as usual here in future (at least until I get to the OMG, I must finish this right now stage of the next thing.)

As usual with our Friday links, the Macs are not responsible for the content of other sites, nor do we endorse any products or services they provide.  All the links prove is that we thought there was an interesting article here. (more…)

When I planned to write this article I thought I knew about the origin of ‘policing’ in this country, but my research showed me otherwise. There was a system in place much earlier than I had believed.

It seems the origin of the British police lies in early tribal history and is based on customs for securing order through the medium of appointed representatives. In effect, the people were the police.

The Saxons brought their system of  ‘tythings’ over to England with them.  This meant that each village divided the people into groups of ten – the tything – with a tything-man as the representative of each group; and then these men were divided into larger groups each of ten tythings under a ‘hundred-man’ who was responsible to the Shire-reeve – or Sheriff – of the County.

Then when the Normans invaded they developed the system. The tything-man system changed quite a bit after contact with Norman feudalism, but it was not wholly destroyed. As time passed the tything-man became the parish constable and the Shire-reeve became the Justice of the Peace, to whom the parish constable was responsible. Just as in Anglo-Saxon times, if a hue and cry was raised, everyone had to join in.

Medieval towns had curfews in place to maintain law and order. A bell would ring at about 8pm, warning residents (and inn-keepers) to finish working and stay indoors. Anyone caught outdoors – or “abroad” – after curfew had to be prepared to justify their actions to the night watch crew.

During the Middle Ages, coroners had numerous legal duties that went beyond investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. In some parts of the country the coroner was responsible for investigating all felonies – crimes that carried the death penalty. Capital crimes included murder, manslaughter and the theft of any item worth a shilling or more.

The coroner had to record details of all deaths he investigated on his rolls. The process was so cumbersome and convoluted that it often resulted in errors. As a result witnesses and other people involved in the investigation were often fined. It wasn’t unknown for folk to carry a corpse by night to another village to avoid being burdened with the results.

In the towns the responsibility for maintenance of order was conferred on the Guilds and, later, on to other specified groups of citizens, usually made up of higher class citizens, as well as tradesmen, craftsmen and shopkeepers. They supplied bodies of paid men, known as ‘The Watch’ who guarded the city gates and patrolled the streets at night. It was also their responsibility to light street lamps and watch out for fires – a major concern in those days.

Throughout the medieval period it was believed that the only way to keep order was to make sure that the people were scared of the punishments given for crimes committed. For this reason all crimes from stealing to murder had harsh punishments.

Although there were gaols, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment, which ranged from simple fines to being placed in stocks or the pillory – where one could be pelted with rotten eggs, squishy tomatoes, or a well aimed stone! – mutilation (cutting off a part of the body), or death were the most common forms of punishment.

Up until this point any disturbance that couldn’t be controlled by The Watch had to be dealt with by the military. The Justice of the Peace would ‘read the riot act’ and the army would be called in. But having a group of ill-disciplined soldiers, under the control of their aristocratic officers, billeted on the local community was often worse than the disturbance they were meant to control. The need for a more disciplined force, directly under local control became obvious. As far as the middle classes were concerned, rising crime and disorder were still to be attributed to the moral decay of the masses. There was a willingness to criticise the old criminal justice system as inefficient, both as regards crime control and the regulation of public order.

In the eighteenth century came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns. The parish constable and “Watch” systems failed completely and the impotence of the law-enforcement machinery was a serious menace. Conditions became intolerable and led to the formation of the ‘New Police’ in the nineteenth century.

There was an attempt in the middle of the eighteenth century to improve matters with the introduction of the ‘Bow Street Runners’. There had been other men who attempted to solve crime for a small fee, but the Bow Street Runners were the first official ‘thief takers’ as they were assigned to a Magistrate (Justice of the Peace). These men did not patrol but served legal writs and ‘arrested’ offenders, eventually even travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals. Often former constables, at the end of their year of service, were selected for the positions, after having some formal legal training.

The Police – as we know the term today – was the brainchild of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary from 1822. Building on the idea of The Watch, the Bow Street Runners, and the dock police in London, Bristol and Liverpool, Peel formed the London Metropolitan Police. (Though it should be mentioned that these older ‘forces’ continued for some time after Peel’s founding of the ‘Peelers’ because Peel’s New Police was focused on other things than simple safety of the streets and the protection of property.)

Sir Robert Peel

Peel argued in Parliament for his Metropolitan Police Bill in 1828 on the grounds that it would be more efficient than the existing systems. These he characterised as uneven: some boroughs had effective Watch patrols but they tended to displace crime into less well policed areas.

Peel addressed his reforms directly to the more general fear of the ‘dangerous classes’ in  society. While crime such as street robbery and burglary was a problem, it was only part of a more fundamental issue of public order which was seen not simply as the problem of riots but more generally the discipline of the lower orders: how to make the working class as a whole less of an unruly mob and more a sober orderly group who would behave themselves in public and go to work on time and obey their employer’s instructions.

The main theme was ‘crime prevention’ by the moralisation of the working class. The police targeted Ale houses and the streets where legislation such as the 1824 Vagrancy Act enabled constables to arrest individuals not for crime committed but for ‘loitering with intent’. The police aimed not at those who had actually committed crimes but on the poor as a whole who were seen as a ‘criminal class’. The main task of the New Police was not crime detection.

Detectives only appeared in 1842, and originally there were only a few of them. The modern Criminal Investigation Department (CID) did not appear until 1877.


I had 1914 in mind when I wrote this, but with DADT it could apply in the USA today.

It will not be the same

It will not be the same for us as for other lovers.

There’ll be no babe born when you’re nine months absent,
Six of them maybe spent under cold clay.

Nor will I share your picture with the men.
They’ll say, “This is Mary.
And young Tom.”
We’ll smile and say he’s the image of his dad.
“This is my Dora. We’ll be wed, soon as I’m home.”
We’ll toast them with watery tea, trying not to show
We don’t believe he’ll ever get back.
They’ll never hear,
“This is my Freddie. Isn’t he a peach?”

And yet our blood is just as red
And it’ll flow just as freely when the bullets fly

We’ll give our lives the same
For our country
For our families
For the sake of those who condemn us and want us dead
We’ll die to keep them safe,
Not to satisfy a god they’ve made in their own image.

It will not be the same for us as for other lovers.
But you are no less a man because of me
And I am not diminished because of you.

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