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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
 
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Often considered the archetypal rake of the era, prominent author and courtier John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680) challenged prevailing social conventions even more thoroughly than other aristocratic libertines did. Rochester's sexual escapades and his libelous, satirical poetry disturbed the normally tolerant Charles, who repeatedly exiled him from court.

In the poem "Love a Woman? You're an Ass!," Rochester characterizes heterosexual love as a thing "designed for dirty slaves" and contrasts it to rewarding and homosexual associations. In a world from which women have been banished, drinking and revelry with like-minded men serves to "engender wit." Sex with a "sweet, soft" boy is said to be infinitely more satisfying than intercourse with a woman.

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Male couples are depicted as lovers in numerous plays of the Restoration era, including Rochester's Valentinian (performed by 1684) and several works by Nathaniel Lee, such as Rival Queens (1677). In these plays, satisfying, serious sexual relationships between men co-exist with love for and marriage to women.

Some notably handsome, virile actors, such as the popular Edward Kynaston (1640-1712), specialized in playing rakes who pursue male lovers with relish. The fluid gender categories of the Restoration stage are suggested by the fact that Kynaston initially became famous through his convincing portrayals of female characters.

Despite the mood of general tolerance, the death penalty and harsh prison sentences were still occasionally enforced against men who were proven to have committed sodomy. Yet, it was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century that systematic and extensive efforts were made to entrap sodomites and to suppress homosexual behavior.

The Emergence of a Distinct Male Homosexual Subculture

In the early eighteenth century, there emerged a new subculture that defined itself in terms of homosexual desire. Paramount among the factors that contributed to this development were the industrialization and urbanization of England, which brought significant numbers of single, working-class men to London and other large cities.

For the general public, cross-dressing and a lack of sexual interest in women were the most obvious indicators of the new subculture. Thomas Gilbert's poem "A View of the City" and numerous other eighteenth-century literary works suggest that many residents were aware of the nocturnal use of St. James Park and other London public spaces for cruising.

Originally referring to a female sex worker, the term "molly" was adopted by some men who engaged in same-sex sexual activities as a form of self-identification by the early eighteenth century. Defiance of gender norms was evidenced by mollies through feminine mannerisms, cross-dressing, the use of female pronouns and names, and other means. These distinctive patterns of behavior were not confined to homosexual meeting places, but they also were sometimes openly displayed by mollies on the streets. Thus, witnesses testifying on behalf of John Cooper during a trial for petty theft (1732) indicated that he was known as Princess Serafina to his working-class neighbors.

Some mollies gathered at taverns and private houses referred to as "molly houses." By the mid-1720s, over twenty molly houses were located throughout London north of the Thames in all sorts of neighborhoods, ranging from slums to wealthy suburbs. Men circulated freely among the molly houses in very different types of neighborhoods. Social fluidity characterized these establishments and other homosexual meeting places in defiance of the rigorous class system that largely structured life in the era.

The best known molly house is the establishment run by Margaret Clap in Field Lane, Holborn, which was raided by police in February 1726. According to court testimony, up to fifty men gathered in Clap's house on busy nights. After talking, kissing, and dancing in the main room, men retreated to a bedchamber for ceremonies, described at the trials as weddings.

Three of the men arrested at Clap's house were hanged in May 1726. Some of the others were fined, and at least one of those arrested died in prison before being brought to trial. Rejecting Clap's plea that she did not know what occurred at her establishment, the jury sentenced her to jail for two years.

The Societies for the Reformation of Manners, a crusading religious organization, claimed credit for the raids on Clap's tavern and numerous other molly houses in 1725 and 1726. The Societies trained agents to target the molly houses and encouraged these men to instigate actions that could be reported to the police.

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