Catherine Fletcher reflects on reading Gary Ferguson’s new book Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity and Community in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2016).
Although it isn’t the main focus of my research, over the years I’ve taught a number of classes on sexuality in early modern Europe. One of the most challenging issues for students is getting to grips with the idea that sexual identities five hundred years ago didn’t necessarily follow the patterns or labels we know today, and that the idea of a ‘homosexual’ type of person arose only in the nineteenth century.
The prevalence of ‘gay gene’ arguments in the past twenty years, and the dominance of the idea that LGBT people are ‘born not made’ – which indeed reflects the experience of many, but not all, people who define as LGBT – are a challenge when it comes to engaging with the rather different attitudes towards sexual identity that prevailed in the European past.
It is fairly well-established that quite a lot of men in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy had sex with other men without having a ‘homosexual’ identity. It was a stage in a lifecycle where men typically married in their late 30s or 40s (to much younger women) and where young women’s sexuality was subject to close control. Ferguson’s contribution, in his new book on Same Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome, is to suggest that for some men, however, ‘a permanent homosexual desire was a defining characteristic, not only of their sexual life but also of their life more generally’.
He makes this case with a small-scale study of a tragic event that took place in Rome in 1578. It involved a group of mainly Spanish men who had gathered at the church of San Giovanni in Porta Latina, as they often did, to have sex with other men. On 20 July that year they had planned a wedding and accompanying feast for two of their number. The wedding did not go ahead (one of the grooms was ill). Worse was to come: the authorities got wind of the plans, and eleven of the men were arrested. They were interrogated and tortured, and eight of them were burnt at the stake.
We know about this story because, in 1581, the French essayist Michel Montaigne heard it, and recorded it in his travel journal. Ferguson adds to this account details from the men’s trial (which survives in part; it was apparently burnt with them), from their wills and from other correspondence written by people in Rome at the time. The details of what happened on the day itself remain sketchy, but the men’s testimony raises fascinating questions about how sexual identity was understood in this period. This is not only the case as regards the extent to which sexual identity might be central to an individual’s sense of self, but also in terms of sexual practice. Most scholarship to date has argued that sexual roles in same-sex relationships in this period were typically fixed with one active and one passive partner, but at least some of this Roman community were versatile and switched roles within their partnerships.
This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of same-sex relationships.
Catherine Fletcher is Associate Professor in History and Heritage at Swansea University. Her full review of Gary Ferguson’s book will be up at H-Net Reviews shortly.
Alys Einion February 27th, 2017
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