Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Forbidden Desire and Blameless Friendships

I should know better than to write about reviews of books rather than the books themselves, but I've been lazy lately, and since this review irritated me enough to start me writing, I'll go with it.  Remember, though, that I haven't yet read the book in question, and that I'm writing about the review.

So I happened on this review at the Guardian's website, of Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750 by Noel Malcolm, published in December by Oxford University Press.  My beef is primarily with the reviewer, Peter Conrad, who writes as if he's never read a book about gay history before.  While that's true of many people, including gay ones, I expect a little better from a reviewer in a prestigious newspaper.

Evidently the book focuses on the brutal persecution of "the sodomites, as Malcolm grimly insists on calling them," and Conrad says it's all the fault of Christianity as he grimly but pruriently insists on detailing the punishments that our fore-uncles suffered.  "As Malcolm demonstrates, this paranoid bigotry derived from a misreading of scripture. The ungodly city of Sodom is condemned because its inhabitants committed a particularly abominable sin, but the Bible does not specify that this peccadillo was 'male-male sexual intercourse or desire."  Conrad here echoes gay Christian apologetics of the 1960s through the 1990s or so, which argued that the story of Sodom was not about male-to-male buttsex but about violations of hospitality.  This line reached its peak in John Boswell's influential Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago, 1980), which strained mightily to prove that Christianity was not hostile to homosexuality at all.  Boswell was effectively rebutted by numerous gay scholars, but his work remains popular (if largely unread) by gay laymen.  I'll just note that Conrad overlooks the prohibitions of male-to-male sex in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13), which commands the execution of both partners, and in Romans 1, without referring to Sodom.  He also overlooks the hostility to receptive partners in Greek and Roman antiquity, expressed in heated rhetoric that presaged the ranting of medieval theologians on the subject.  That hostility is often found among gay men today.  While male-to-male sex was clearly common and popular in Roman society, an equally popular way to discredit one's political or other enemies was to accuse them of enjoying sexual passivity.  This let the accuser wallow in elaborate exciting fantasies about other people's practices, as bigots have done ever since.

The persecutions of sodomites weren't as consistent as Conrad implies either.  That doesn't excuse them, but it does indicate that religion wasn't the only or determining factor.  In Florence, for example, moral panics came and went.  According to Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Oxford, 1996), authorities realized that draconic punishments made it harder to get convictions, so they changed the penalties to fines. "Sex here seems to be followed, almost automatically, by excruciating death," Conrad writes; well, sometimes, but not always or "automatically."  If the Florentine sex cops were driven by religious fervor, they should have maintained the beheadings and torture.  Conrad even acknowledges this: "The moral panic whipped up by these prosecutions often concealed squalid financial or political motives. A French assault on the secretive Knights Templar in the 14th century used sodomy as an excuse for confiscating their wealth."

Conrad may not be aware of it, but gay scholars have been investigating these matters since at least the 1970s.  In addition to Rocke, I think of a paper in The Gay Academic (ed. Louie Crew, Etc. Publications, 1978, pp. 73-78) on a sodomite hunt in the Netherlands that led to the execution of at least fifty-nine men, plus the harassment and expulsion of many more, in 1730.  Jonathan Ned Katz' Gay American History (Crowell, 1976) has a long documentary section on official violence against gay people. Louis Crompton's Byron and Greek Love (California, 1985) details the public torture and executions of English sodomites in the late 1700s. And so on: these are just off the top of my head.  I imagine Noel Malcolm is aware of his predecessors, even if Peter Conrad isn't.

I look forward to reading Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe,possibly this year; the Kindle edition is reasonably priced, so I intend to buy it soon.  But I found this bit, the end of Conrad's review, off-putting: "Announcing that he has 'come to this subject with no personal investment in it', Malcolm resists the wishful thinking of historians who double as gay activists and back-project 'anachronistic sexual significances' on to blameless friendships between medieval men."  For a moment it was as if I were reading about a publication from the 1970s or earlier, with the author distancing himself from his subject (he's not that way, he's impartial and objective!), as if anyone cared anymore.  Even worse is that bit about "anachronistic sexual significances" and blameless friendships.  I've written about that before.  Erotic love relations between men are also blameless, and there's nothing anachronistic about wondering if same-sex friends were also erotic partners. The ancient Greeks, for example, were sure that the Iliad's Achilles and Patroclus were erastes and eromenos - though they couldn't agree on which was which.  If anything, gay scholars like Alan Bray and David M. Halperin have done the opposite of what Malcolm says, denying erotic elements in medieval friendships.  So I'll have to see Malcolm's remarks in their context.