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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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Indictments for sodomy were most frequent in periods of social upheaval, when people were looking for a scapegoat. Thus, for example, the arrest and execution of John Swan and John Lister in Edinburgh in 1570 coincided with social tensions provoked by the Reformation and the return to Scotland of Calvinist exiles. In more tranquil times, indictments were most frequently brought against those who challenged the social order through violent acts, theft, and other crimes against property. At least some accusations of sodomy were linked to racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice.

Despite the sporadic enforcement of the law, it provided a frightening reminder to men of the potential consequences of homosexual acts. Even when it did not result in conviction, an indictment for homosexual acts must have been a devastating experience.

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James I: The Limits of Royal Authority

The history of James I (1566-1625, King of England, from 1603; James VI of Scotland, from 1567) reveals that even monarchs were subject to public condemnation if they disregarded social prohibitions against public displays of same-sex desire. James's impassioned relationships with his male favorites caused him to be censured by the Privy Council, and they almost provoked civil war.

Already at the age of fourteen, James revealed his emotional and sexual preference for other men, when he fell deeply in love with a French courtier, Esmé Stuart. James's longest and most impassioned relationship (1613-25) was with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. The depth of James's feelings for Buckingham is eloquently revealed in his impassioned letters to him. Aware of the dangers posed by his desires, James frequently warned Buckingham that he must never allow anyone else to see their letters.

Many modern scholars have attributed the furor over James's affairs with his courtiers simply to the jealousy on the part of those who did not receive royal preferment. However, displays of same-sex affection directly inspired much of the criticism heaped upon his relationships. For instance, John Oglander, who introduced a motion of censure in the Privy Council in 1617, declared "I never saw any fond husband make so much or so great dalliance over his beautiful spouse as I have seen King James over his favourites, especially the Duke of Buckingham." Defending himself to the Privy Council, James compared his love of Buckingham to Christ's love for his disciple John.

Reconstructing Queer Lives in Renaissance England

In his groundbreaking study on same-sex desire in Renaissance England, Alan Bray reviewed factors that directly shaped the lives of ordinary men who engaged in homosexual acts. Paramount among these was the pervasive otherworldly context of references to sodomites, who generally were discussed in conjunction with monstrous beings. Lacking a legitimate place in the realms of heaven and earth, the homosexual was associated with all manifestations of breakdown of order, including both social chaos and natural catastrophes.

Because homosexuals were thought to resemble fantastic beings, they easily could be overlooked by their neighbors. A reluctance or unwillingness to recognize the existence of sodomy can be noted in much court testimony. For example, in the trial of laborer Matthew Davy (1630), a man who shared a bedroom with him insisted that he did not realize the significance of the sexual acts he witnessed.

While the British seem to have had difficulty recognizing homosexuality in their midst, they had no trouble locating it in other cultures. Accounts of Renaissance era travelers are full of condemnations of sodomy, as practiced by foreigners.

The extravagant and dissipated sodomite was an occasional character in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater. Corresponding with satirical traditions that extend back to the Classical world, this figure can not be regarded as an accurate indicator of how homosexuals appeared to people outside the theater. Nevertheless, some pervasive themes--for example, masters having sex with apprentices--correspond with evidence from other sources, such as legal records.


In English theater of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, boys and young men played all the female roles. In As You Like It and other plays, Shakespeare utilizes the transvestite conventions of the Elizabethan stage to question the social and sexual conventions of gender. Moreover, in his Sonnets, Shakespeare more directly challenges sexual and gender categories, exploring, for example, in Sonnet 20, the passion inspired by a young man he refers to as his "Master Mistris."

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