Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs

James Davidson

  • The Friend by Alan Bray
    Chicago, 380 pp, £28.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 226 07180 4

In 1913, Turkish workmen restoring the Mosque of the Arabs in Istanbul uncovered the floor of a Dominican church. Among the gravestones was a particularly striking one in grey-white marble with pink and blue veins. Two helmets with slits for eyes faced each other, like a pair of beaky dolphins about, clangingly, to kiss: ‘Tomb Slab of an English Couple’, the label in Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum says.

The couple were illustrious knights of the royal chamber of Richard II, Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe, ‘the Castor and Pollux of the Lollard movement’, as the medieval historian Bruce McFarlane called them. Neville died just four days after Clanvowe, the inscription records, in October 1391. The Westminster Chronicle fills in the details. Following the death of Clanvowe, ‘for whom his love was no less than for himself’, Neville starved himself to death. Beneath the helmets their shields lean on each other, indicating the position of the bodies beneath. Their coats-of-arms are identical, half-Neville, half-Clanvowe, a blend called ‘impalement’, used to show the arms of a married couple, with Neville’s saltire on the husband’s half, Clanvowe’s bearing on that of the wife. Well, not quite. There are two impaled shields rather than the usual one, indicating a mutual exchange of arms, a double dubbing, so to speak.

In 1626 John Gostlin, Master of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, dictated his will. He was to be buried alongside a former master of the college, Thomas Legge, who had died twenty years earlier. Gostlin had commissioned a memorial to his friend which you can see on the south wall of the college chapel. Legge kneels in prayer. Beneath him hands clutch at a blazing heart. ‘Love joined them while they lived. May the earth join them in their burial. Gostlin’s heart belongs still, Legge, to you.’ The college annalist noted that Gostlin had lived with Legge coniunctissime, ‘in most conjoined fashion’.

With its unprovocative title, its brass-rubbings and its frequent dippings into the nitty-gritty of Christian rites, Alan Bray’s last book, The Friend, might not seem terribly exciting at first glance. And yet it is written in part as a defence of John Boswell’s Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, which came out a decade ago, and in part as sequel to his own Homosexuality in Renaissance England, which came out a decade before that. Both were considered exciting events at the time.

Boswell’s book, which I reviewed in the LRB (8 February 1996), centred on the liturgy of ‘brother-making’ or adelphopoiesis (‘bilateral – same-sex – sibling-making’) described in handbooks of Eastern Orthodox rites, which Boswell compared to heterosexual marriage ceremonies. It was headline-grabbing and old-fashioned looking, making much of primary documents ‘discovered’ in the archives, in proper Rankean manner. Reviewers, myself included, generally gave it a fairly hard time, and its central claim – that these same-sex unions sanctioned by the Church were analogous to heterosexual marriage rituals – had few takers among churchmen, historians or students of sexuality. Bray’s much shorter book had focused on the claim that ‘the sodomite’ was such a grotesque figure in Renaissance discourse that many men were quite surprised to discover it was a term that might apply to them for the kind of bum-fun they got up to with their bedmates on chilly winter nights. Full of subtlety and much admired, it has attained the status of a modern classic.

There is irony, therefore, in the late, cool Alan Bray riding, not without risk to his own reputation, to defend the late, uncool John Boswell. Or perhaps we had better view it as a gift, an expenditure of the symbolic capital Bray had accrued to breathe new life into a project considered dead in the water, a lavishing of his subtlety on a topic which had seemed in desperate need of some.

Which is a way of saying that I have changed my mind about Boswell’s thesis, and that it is Bray’s subtlety that converted me. Boswell, it’s beginning to seem, was on the right track; his overly gay interpretation of same-sex unions is less misleading than the loveless ‘anti-gay’ alternatives offered by his critics. For a very long period, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual.

They were never identical to heterosexual marriages – in societies in which gender differences were so significant, how could they have been? – but were often implicitly or explicitly compared to and contrasted with heterosexual marriages, and were by no means considered to come off the worse for the comparison. Indeed, as partnerships entered into by individuals acting as autonomous agents out of love for each other, same-sex weddings are much closer to modern companionate marriages than the heir-centred, family-allying and often family-arranged marriages of former times. In historical perspective, a love for someone greater than love for life itself, a love that obliterates the mundane world, wife, property, nation, children, is most typically a feature of the discourse of a same-sex lover. Which is why ‘would that all the Trojans died and all the Greeks as well, and you and I, Patroclus, alone survived to demolish Troy’s holy crenellations’ were considered by ancient commentators just about the gayest lines in the Iliad.

Bray was concerned that his book be seen not merely or not at all as an argument in favour of (the antiquity of) ‘gay marriage’, but The Friend is not merely about friendship either, and by the end of it I found my thoughts turning to some topics I had not anticipated: the traditionalism of the English, the British social security system, the origins of the state, and the manicure of an Egyptian pharaoh of the middle of the third millennium BCE.

Alongside the monuments Bray presents and describes are some startling texts. On 12 February 1834, Anne Lister recorded in her diary her plans to solemnise her union with Ann Walker: ‘She is to give me a ring & I her one in token of our union.’ Their relationship ‘would be as good as a marriage’, Ann had said. ‘Yes,’ said Anne, ‘quite as good or better.’ Earlier she had broached the subject with her aunt. ‘My aunt seemed very well pleased at my choice and prospects. I said she had three thousand a year or very near it . . . She thought my father would be pleased if he knew and so would both my uncles.’

In the 1180s, Gerald of Wales described the energetic same-sex marriage practised by the Irish:

First they exchange covenants of co-fatherhood (compaternitas, also ‘comradeship’). Then they take it in turns to carry each other around the church three times. Next, they go inside, relics of saints are placed at the altar, all kinds of solemn obligations are given out, and then finally, with a Mass and priestly prayers they are indissolubly bonded as if by a betrothal (desponsatio).

But Irish friendship all too often goes horribly wrong, Gerald says. For then, as a kind of ‘consummation’, they each let blood, in order for the other to drink it. But they cheat in the bleeding so that one of them is left very nearly dead from loss of blood. Hence all too often ‘a bloody divorce (divortium) follows, precedes or even interrupts – whoever heard of such a thing – the very betrothal.’

It is this sudden divorce, (too) neatly linked to the heretical pagan blood-exchange, that makes the Irish so faithless, so fake, not the same-sex church wedding itself. Weddings between men were a familiar feature of Gerald’s culture. A ‘wed’ is a ‘pledge’ (a ‘security deposit’, a ‘hostage’), and a ‘wedding’ is a ‘pledging’. Traditional ballads were full of married men, ‘wedded brothers’, ‘wed-brothers’, ‘troth-iplighted’, utterly devoted to their partners: Guy and Tirry, Bewick and Grahame and, most celebrated of all, Amys and Amylion: at the climax of the tale, Amylion is cured of leprosy by the blood of Amys’s children, while Amys’s wife looks on approvingly (‘We can always produce more kids’).

The minute Edward II set eyes on Piers Gaveston (probably in 1297), the Cottonian chronicle says, ‘he bombarded (?) him with love (amorem) to the extent that he entered into a covenant of brotherhood (fraternitatis fedus) with him. He chose with steadfast determination to tie him to him indissolubly with a chain of loving devotion (dileccionis vinculum) before all men.’ Sworn brothers pop up frequently in Chaucer among all types and classes, most notably perhaps the Thebans of the ‘Knight’s Tale’, Arcite and Palamon. The pair are first found close to death on the battlefield, side by side, wearing the same arms. Taken prisoner, they become rivals for the love of Princess Emily. Their sworn brotherhood was a Chaucerian addition to Boccaccio’s original Theseid and it is hard not to read into it a reference to the kissing knights of Constantinople. Clanvowe and Neville were close enough to Chaucer to witness a document releasing the poet from liabilities in a mysterious rape charge of 1380. And in his high-minded Boke of Cupide God of Loue, Clanvowe had been able to quote from what must have been an earlier version of the ‘Knight’s Tale’, advertised as the tale of ‘the love of Palamon and Arcite of Thebes’.

About the existence of the institution of wed-brothers, or whatever you want to call them (sworn brothers, blood brothers, federated brothers, brothers-in-arms, love-brothers, amatory bilateral fraternity; for if we are not always talking of one single unitary thing, there does seem to be a very close family resemblance), in post-classical Europe, there is no doubt. In 1997, in a special edition of the academic journal Traditio dedicated to the topic, Claudia Rapp suggested the institution was pervasive in Byzantine society from the seventh century onwards. In the Latin West, it appears not only in popular ballads and literature, but in chronicles and even on pay-rolls: companies were sometimes commanded not by one knight but by two, who were paid for their services not as individuals but as a pair.

There is plenty of disagreement, however, about almost everything else: about the distinction between a wed-brother and a brother ‘through adoption’ (per adoptionem), a man adopted as one’s father’s son (even by oneself), with all the legal rights (inheritance) and impediments (incest-prohibition) of a biological brother; about the identification of particular instances of sworn brothers; about the survival of sworn brotherhood in the West into the early modern period; about its relationship to what we might have to start calling ‘inter-sex marriages’ and to sexuality; about its role in politics and society; and about the reasons for its deletion from our collective historical memory, which alone explains how the idea of two women or two men plighting their loving troth to each other in a church till death did them part came to seem like a reckless futuristic fantasy instead of a dusty traditional practice – very dusty, it is beginning to seem, as old ‘as history herself’, Roger Aubenas suggested in 1960, and very probably somewhat older than that.

Some of the problems that could arise with Bray’s ‘brothers’ had already been revealed by the publication in 1994 of Pierre Chaplais’s studies on Piers Gaveston: Edward II’s Adoptive Brother, not least the problem of knowing of their existence. For instead of a ‘covenant of brotherhood’ between Edward and Piers, the first modern editor of the Cottonian chronicle had been able to see only a ‘covenant of constancy’ (firmitas). The specific nature of the troth became clear only when Chaplais looked again at the manuscript. Chaplais’s authority is unimpeachable, but why didn’t the original editor see the word ‘brotherhood’ instead of ‘constancy’? After all, fraternitas is not that close to firmitas. Chaplais, moreover, presented his wed-brotherhood as a disproof of sodomy, as if there could be but one flaming fire to produce the screaming smoke of sodomitical rumour: either a wedding or a consummation, but not both.

There do seem to be some real problems with evidence for sworn brothership. In ballads wed-brothers often end up in one tomb, like Patroclus and Achilles, sometimes through miraculous teleportation by grace of God. Inasmuch as two same-sex gravemates share a tomb, therefore, they inevitably place themselves or are placed in that context. But the word ‘brother’ rarely (never?) appears on their gravestones. One can think of lots of reasons why ‘brother’ might be thought a misleading or inappropriate word to describe a bilateral relationship which was first and foremost an amatory one between men who were neither biological brothers nor (merely) members of the same (religious) fraternity, but it does mean that Bray’s identification of same-sex tomb-pairs as wed-brothers, though often cogent (not least in the case of the kissing knights), remains frustratingly circumstantial.

But for Bray it is less important that a shared slab indicates a brother-wedding than that common public tombs and common public vows are examples of a same-sex relationship monumentalised for others to gaze at and wonder. This emphasis on objectivity, on friendship as concrete actuality, is one of The Friend’s several important contributions to the debate.

Another reason for the sepulchral emphasis is that only the tombs provide continuity into the early modern period, which is where Bray’s main interest lies. Indeed, all this reticence about the brothership between the lovingly co-interred in the Middle Ages, when a sworn brotherhood was likely, makes it easier for Bray to postulate a formal alliance in the early modern period, when it wasn’t, although the ballads of sworn brothers were as popular as ever, he notes, ‘in the tauernes & alehouses and such other places of base resort’.

It is at this point that the Western version of the same-sex wedding seems to become a prerogative of the English. England became a last refuge of traditional Christianity, Bray argues, preserving old European forms of ritual kinship that elsewhere in the West were ravaged by rampant Protestantism and finished off by the Council of Trent (1545-63). And somehow or other it managed to linger on into the first half of the 19th century, where it allowed a provincial Tory landowner like Anne Lister to contemplate exchanging vows and rings first with Mariana Belcombe and then with Ann Walker as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do, ‘as if one had found the 15th century, alive and well, living in the large and prosperous parish of Halifax’. Anne Lister plays an important role in The Friend, not just as an example of a lesbian bride among so many wed-brothers, but also for her evident conservatism.

Bray’s traditional kinship also comprehends relationships created around baptism, between ‘gossips’ (God-sibs), i.e. God-kin. Here his ghost makes another benign intervention by attempting to depolarise the terms of the modern debate: a ‘true’ heterosexual v. the ‘pretended’ homosexual unit. The ‘family’, Bray notes, can be defined in several different ways, in terms of blood relations, household or marriage. But marriage used to be only one of ‘several forms of what one might call voluntary kinship, kinship created not by blood but by ritual or a promise’. Marriage, godparenting and sworn brotherhood are just different species of the voluntary kinship genus.

Here Bray puts the same-sex wedding in a broader political context. Although some on the left continue to view ‘identity politics’ as a bourgeois distraction, an enduring (quasi-)Marxist current in British gay activism, represented by both Jeffrey Weeks and Peter Tatchell, has viewed ‘homosexuals’ as an oppressed class, like the proletariat, produced, along with housewives, by a historically contingent bourgeois sexual system which emerged alongside modern capitalism/consumerism in the 19th century. Its focus is not ‘equal rights for gay people’ so much as the overthrow of the bourgeois sexual system and, as a consequence, the complete disappearance of the class of ‘gay people’, a group(ing) to which some gay activists are thoroughly antipathetic. For such revolutionaries, gay marriage has been a regressive step, the equivalent of turning the working classes into shareholders. In a long endnote to Homosexuality in Renaissance England, Bray, once attached to the Gay Liberation Front, placed himself firmly within this contingent tendency, disagreeing with Weeks only in backdating the origin of ‘the homosexual’, and therefore of the bourgeois sexual system, from the 19th to the 17th century.

Shortly afterwards Bray converted to Catholicism and, twenty years later in The Friend, he takes a different political tack, redeeming the same-sex union for (Christian-)socialist politics, by viewing it as one element in a broad network of social relations subsidised by practical ethics in pursuit of social harmony, deploying the ‘traditional Christian faith that took it as axiomatic that the point of religion – what it did for a living – was that it was an instrument by which neighbours, kin and friends could succeed in living in peace with each other’.

Many historians would be happy to accept that links through baptism were of great importance in the past, and that both sworn brotherhood and inter-sex marriage need to be seen in the context of a much broader network of made kinships, which often overlapped and reinforced one another. Writing of Byzantium, Claudia Rapp felt confident enough to sort such kinships into a hierarchy of consequentiality on a priori grounds, with sworn brotherhood at the bottom (no children, no consequences), godparenthood in the middle, and heterosexual marriage at the top. This is clearly an ‘anti-gay’ rebuff, an attempt to place Boswell’s same-sex unions on a level as far removed from marriage as possible. Bray, on the other hand, sometimes seems to suggest that ‘traditional kinships’ do not just frequently overlap but are all much of a social muchness, eliding the exceptional and peculiar and, in some contexts, rather antisocial nature of same-sex weddings on which his sources seem to insist: all-male ‘betrothals’, male ‘wives’, tombs of Mr and Mr and Mrs and Mrs.

What needs to be confronted is not so much the juxtaposition of intra-sex with inter-sex pairings – an inevitable juxtaposition it seems to me, pace Bray, Rapp et al, whenever such pairs occur – but the imposition of the homophobic (properly speaking) notion that the one is an imposture – a threatening parody – of the other, Black Odile distracting the Prince from White Odette, a ‘pretended family relationship’ in the words of Section 28, which undermines the authentic coinage. In case that seems like homophobophobia on my part, let us remember what Norman Stone foresaw for Denmark when it legalised gay marriage in 1989: ‘Its population will consist of golden oldies watching porn videos. The only people to get married will be the gays, and the only people to have children will be the Kurdish immigrants.’ No wonder American voters were so worried about gay marriage. The Kurds are coming! Remember the Danes!

Considering wed-brotherhood in relation to its other Other, biological brotherhood, anthropologists have long been aware of the dangers of the notion of ‘pretended family relationships’. Instead of a ‘pseudo’, ‘fictive’, ‘spurious’ or ‘artificial’ kinship, such fraternising is now described in more positive terms as ‘ritual kinship’ or ‘voluntary kinship’. At this point, same-sex weddings become enmeshed in a far grander epic than the mere history of the British family and the development of Western capitalism: the story of the origins of the state.

In the 19th century, Darwinian theorists created an evolutionary narrative of the ascent of homo politicus. This ran from nature to law, from savage groups based on biological kinship, ‘clans’ and ‘bands’ to central government based on institutions. Historians of the British state, such as Maitland and Pollock, bought into this narrative big-time: ‘Step by step, as the power of the state waxes . . . kindred wanes.’ This is not, however, as Bray implies, an old-fashioned, now obsolete narrative, but one that was revived almost unchanged in the postwar period. Such teleological tales of the ascent of the state, and/or of civilisation itself, remain a vital element in the more panoramic political theorising.

‘Pseudo-kinship’ had an important role to play in the earliest stages of this narrative, a simple-minded way for simple-minded people to conceive of ties to other members of their tribe to whom they were not in truth related, a quintessentially primitive type of relationship, no matter at what point in the history of a state it appeared. When false relations popped up in later periods in the form of blood brothers and godfathers (not excluding the Mafia kind), they were an indication of an archaic or primitive throwback, a state in deformation, or a fringe phenomenon belonging to the borderlands where the state began to fray. Fake relationships were to be found once more at the scene of the state’s non-composition, just like the fake/gay marriages in Stone’s Denmark.

Hence in his contribution to the Traditio volume, the Roman historian Brent Shaw suggested:

Artificial brotherhoods were formed for the purposes of protection, defence and armed aggression in a disintegrated social order in which the threat of violence and physical force was a real and ever present danger . . . The reasons for the formation of the bonds of artificial kinship were connected with the prevalence of primal forms of social organisation in the face of the weakness of effective central state power.

This kind of thinking has led to a fashionable view of the same-sex wedding of brothers-in-love quite contrary to the hyperbolic romanticism of the sources and to Boswell’s wishful thinking. Why would a guy want to marry a guy? In the hope that he might think twice before shafting him.

Against this, Bray draws attention not only to the reams of lovey-dovey discourse, which the ‘dread-brother’ theory must discount, but to the elective nature of the partnerships and to the central role played by such relations (on some occasions) in central admin: ‘Two sworn brothers like Neville and Clanvowe were not its unruly opponents: they were part of it . . . If Edward II had been seeking a sworn brother of the kind Brent Shaw conjectures, he would have sought it among the magnates who were threatening him and not in an intimate who could act for him like Piers Gaveston.’ That a heterosexual marriage alliance might be used to bring potential enemies together, as indeed it often was, does not mean that marriage in general is essentially a form of truce. The evidence insists that same-sex weddings were alliances of exceptional love and devotion. If some individuals tried to use some of that fairy-dust to counteract (potential) hostility, or as a wicked, treacherous feint, it does not mean the loviness is inherently specious.

Above all, historians need to remember that the information we have was preserved for a reason, and Shaw, at least, parenthesises his conclusions accordingly. Using chronicles to get an overview of sworn friendship is like using the Sun to get an overview of the state of marital fidelity. It is precisely because the love-brotherhood between the Dukes of Burgundy and Orléans was followed by murder that their wedding was recorded by Juvénal des Ursins. The ritual of troth-plighting, the loving words and gestures described in ironic detail, these are what made the murder so outrageous: that is, so worthy of recording.

This is another reason for Bray’s emphasis on tombs. They show how the friends wanted to see themselves, and they reflect a sincere ethics of friendship continuing beyond our mundane insecurities and worldly interests. They are not unmotivated, of course, or a representative cross-section, but they provide a corrective perspective on same-sex friendship, more peaceful and enduring than the chroniclers, less businesslike than the accountants and the jurists, more realistic than the balladeers.

But what we really want to know is whether love-brothers, or ‘most coupled’ friends, or same-sex grave-mates, had sex. Montaigne recorded a famous incident: a group of Portuguese men gathered together at the church of San Giovanni a Porta Latina in Rome (where Jesus’ ‘beloved disciple’ had nearly been martyred), to get married. By this time, the late 16th century, the ceremony could be viewed as an oddity: ‘une étrange confrérie’, Montaigne says, ‘their’ version of ‘our’ heterosexual nuptials (‘mesmes serimonies que nous faisons’); or, according to the Venetian ambassador, an attack on marriage (‘bruttando il nome sacrosancto di matrimonio’). After the ceremony, according to Montaigne, the Portuguese men went to bed together. Roman experts told him that the men had thought that, since a conjunction between male and female was legitimate only in marriage, ‘this other activity would become equally righteous, once it had been authorised by church ceremonies and mysteries.’ The Roman authorities quickly rounded them up and burned them alive.

What we have in these weddings is a violent collision between two epochs: one in which exchanging vows with a loved friend in church was perfectly traditional, and another in which it was viewed as a wicked innovation, a threatening forgery of what was now the only true marriage, that between a man and wife. But was the notion of a wedding night a traditional feature of love-brother-weddings, even if only revealed, like the secrets of ancient mystery religions, at the moment of their obsolescence? In that respect, were the Portuguese being traditional or modern? Or were they a bit confused?

Most medievalists, if not Pierre Chaplais, accept that the wed-brothers Piers Gaveston and Edward did it in the 14th century. Edward ‘was excessively fond of the sodomitical vice’, according to the chronicle of Meaux, ‘a work of outstanding scholarship’, according to Bray. I don’t really see what scholarship has to do with it, but I note with interest the chronicler’s qualification, ‘excessively’ (nimium) – twice nightly, twice monthly, twice yearly, twice? But Canute and Edmund Ironside? Were they at it like rabbits the night after they exchanged vows? The Dukes of Burgundy and of Orléans? King Malcolm and Earl Tostig? Probably not, but who knows? At the other end of the timescale, Anne Lister certainly did do it with the woman she exchanged rings with, as previously with her intended from whom she caught a venereal disease: gotcha!

Returning to the theme of his previous book, Bray draws attention to the gulf he observed in Renaissance England between the unearthly discourses of apocalyptic sodomy and the earthy sex that men had with each other nevertheless. One Venetian diarist recorded hearing a ‘good sermon’ against the plague-bringing ‘societies of sodomy’. The diarist, Marin Sanuto, was known to the Mantuan ambassador as a famous sodomite who had had sexual relations with his servants and was so forward as to give Frankie Howerd a run for his money: ‘When he has spoken with one a few times he comes upon one as if to impale one.’ Bray’s argument at this point is supported by several studies of early modern inquisitorial records which came out in the wake of Homosexuality in Renaissance England, confirming its conclusions with knobs on: notably Michael Rocke’s investigation of sodomy in Florence, Forbidden Friendships, which gives the impression that Michelangelo’s male contemporaries were all at it, most of the time, despite all the sermons, and quite oblivious to sexual orientation (which hadn’t been invented yet). The Church was officially opposed to same-sex sex; but the Church was officially opposed to sex before marriage, too, and this injunction was certainly ‘widely disregarded’.

Bray leaves most of this sex stuff until the end of the book. Those who don’t read that far could well come away from The Friend with the impression that he is playing down or even denying sexualness, while playing up the ordinary physical intimacies of friendship: ‘Those who have written of the apparently openly “homosexual” nature’ of Marlowe’s Edward II ‘have not grasped its irony or that the intense emotion, the passionate language, and the embraces we see between these two men have ready parallels in Elizabethan England in the daily conventions of friendship without being signs of a sodomitical relationship’. Alongside friendship-in-fact are acts-of-friendship-in-fact – kisses, embraces – which means that when old texts in many languages refer to ‘intercourse’, ‘confederation’, ‘making love’, ‘embracing’, ‘mingling’, ‘going with’, ‘being with’, it is often impossible to know whether they are talking of physical contact or not, or of sex or not, or indeed of same-sex marriage: ‘coupling’.

Bray’s argument that sodomy is not necessarily an element in intense homosexual relationships, even the most passionate and affectionate, and not necessarily the critical diagnostic even of the sexual ones, that friendship is not a euphemism for, or a second-rate alternative to, the real sexual thing, but has a facticity all its own, is a direct challenge to the foundations of much work on the history of sexuality, which has merely substituted for an essentialism of orientation – is so-and-so essentially homosexual? – an essentialism of sex: is such and such a relationship, is such and such an institution (‘Greek Love’, love-brotherhood) essentially homosexual, i.e. sodomitical? Is there penetration in this word – ‘wickedness’, ‘eros’, ‘brother’, ‘embrace’? Is there homosex in this text?

The Friend politely ravages the territory of the history of homosexuality, pillaging many of its materials and handing them over to the history of same-sex loving coupledom, which comes to seem like an alternative and more coherent field of research. For in The Friend the probably sodomitical and the probably non-sodomitical but (nevertheless) devoted pairs sit very happily side by side, looking for all the world as if they are part of one story.

The sex-obsessed historians of sexuality, by contrast, seem now to have been writing perverse histories, separating the sodomitical relationships of ancient Greek men, for instance, from the passionate pairings of Sappho’s Lesbos or the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, whose (apparently) non-sodomitical same-sex love was deleted from the history of ‘Greek homosexuality’ by Kenneth Dover and David Halperin, as if the fact that a spectacularly homosexualising culture produced some of the most spectacular (but non-sodomitical) lesbian love poetry and has a spectacular (but non-sodomitical) homosexual relationship at the centre of its foundational epic is simply a rather amazing coincidence.

If we discount sodomitical essentialism, a path is opened up from the same-sex couples of Bray’s England, and indeed from the corpus of troth-plighted brothers in European history, all the way back to ‘Greek homosexuality’, the omission of which from these histories of same-sex unions, with the notable exception of Boswell’s, seems tendentious. For Bray’s loving coupledom is something with a proper historical backbone, with substance and form, something that you can trace over time, visible and archaeologicable.

To begin with, there is more than one cultural tradition flowing into the river of same-sex unions in the British Isles. Elizabeth Brown in the Traditio volume suggests that the distribution of wed-brothers in (the chronicles of) Norman lands may imply a powerful Scandinavian tradition. Brent Shaw cites an account of Celtic homosexual marriage, overlooked by Boswell, preserved by Eusebius in the fourth century CE. Among the Celts, we are told, young men contract marriage alliances (gamountai) with complete freedom, and, it seems, no sexual inhibitions either. Aristotle shows that the Celts acquired a reputation for ‘publicly honouring’ man-to-man coupling (‘society’, ‘intercourse’) almost as soon as they arrived on the pages of history, 650 years before Eusebius.

Similar practices are attested for the Franks and the Taifali, who were so vicious, according to a Roman historian of the fourth century CE, that ‘mature men couple up with males,’ the wedding (foedus) involving some unmentionable sexual intercourse. These barbarian same-sex unions seem to have left traces in the archaeological record. Among the Bog People of Northern Europe is a pair found in 1904 in Holland in a carefully arranged and well-preserved, if soggy, 2000-year-old embrace. They were immediately nicknamed ‘Darby and Joan’, until closer examination revealed that Joan had a beard, and they were renamed ‘Darby and John’.

The main current, however, seems to run through Rome. In the lands of the eastern Roman Empire, the same Christian(ised) institution of sworn brotherhood is well documented from the seventh century CE. But even before the empire Christianised and split, love-brotherhood played a crucial role in Diocletian’s pagan arrangements to stick it back together again after the briefer disintegrations of the third century. For Diocletian entered into a relationship of brotherhood with his fellow emperor Maximianus (frater adscitus). The evidence for this is decisive, as Brent Shaw notes, although most scholars have ignored it.

The ancient Greeks had other terms to refer to same-sex couples, without recourse to the language of kinship. For although classicists have made great efforts to marginalise homosexual relationships, permanent and formalised same-sex unions are attested for nearly all the major communities in mainland Greece. For Athens, we have Thucydides, who notes, in his account of the two ‘tyrant-slayers’ who prepared the way for the democracy, that Aristogiton was not just Harmodius’ admirer (erastes) but ‘had him’: a technical term, my dictionary notes, for ‘have to wife, or as husband’; translators prefer the less matrimonial ‘possessed’. In Sparta, Thessaly and Crete there were odd-sounding technical terms for each partner in such arrangements.

We have a full description of how the Cretans went about these things. Announced at least three days in advance, there was a public tug-of-war over the prospective boy (usually assumed, for various reasons, to be in his late teens), with the boy’s fan-club (‘the friends’) on one side and the suitor on the other, and much anxiety about the appropriateness of the match, a matter on which the rest of the community could have made their feelings known with cheers and boos. If the suitor was considered suitable he was allowed to drag the boy to his ‘men’s house’. Next, the whole party went hunting for up to two months, with extraordinary licence to hunt anywhere in the land (chora) they wished, although modern commentators, following their own script, prefer to banish the happy couple, minus ‘the friends’, into marginal land or ‘the bush’, for which no marriage licence would be necessary.

The boy was showered with expensive gifts to which ‘the friends’ were obliged to contribute. Finally, one of the gifts, a valuable ox, was sacrificed at a homecoming feast hosted by the boy, during which he consented (or not) to his abduction after the fact, and to the relationship (homilia) thus established. The boy now received the title ‘famous’, while his abductor became ‘the friend’ (philetor). The boy received the right to wear a mysterious ‘costume of military character’ given him by his partner, and to wear another distinctive costume when he was eventually initiated into full adult citizenship at 20. It seems likely the abductees also had a military role, forming a battalion of beauties who performed a sacrifice to the god Eros before battle. Where men marry men, to modify Aristotle, Mars and Venus are not strangers.

As Boswell saw, you could not get a better example of a same-sex wedding, but classicists have, almost without demur, preferred to see an ordinary ritual of initiation into adulthood (a possibility the source explicitly excludes; in Crete, the mass-marriage of the entire graduating class of new men to prepubescent girls fulfilled that function), to which they add a large dose of initiatory sodomy, about which the sources say nothing.

The other city for which there is good evidence for the rituals of same-sex pairing is Thebes, home to the ‘army of lovers’, the Sacred Band of three hundred champions, organised in love-couples. Predictably, the existence of the Sacred Band has been questioned on a priori grounds by David Leitao. Such an army would break all the rules of Greek homosexuality (notably its supposedly transitory and initiatory character). The evidence he must discount, however, much of it from contemporaries, is overwhelming. Xenophon claimed that in Boeotian Thebes, ‘man and boy live together, like married people,’ in E.C. Marchant’s Loeb translation, or, more pedantically, Boeotian men ‘form relationships (homilousi) once they have been conjugally yoked (syzygentes) as man and boy’; the ‘like’ is Marchant’s addition.

If the evidence for an army of lovers is plentiful and consistent, it is hard at first to imagine how it worked in practice – boyfriends clutching marriage certificates as they presented themselves as couples for recruitment; an army officer going round the barracks and pairing people up – but the detailed account of the Cretan ritual shows that same-sex yokings could be elaborate public affairs, and that, despite the emphasis on voluntary election, the community might be able to contribute to the selection of a group of men on whom its safety depended. The yoke-pair exchanged vows at the tomb of Hercules’ boyfriend, Iolaus. Plutarch adds the information that a Theban erastes gave his boyfriend arms when he entered the ranks of men. It would not be completely astonishing to discover that the equipment donated by the erastes carried his own insignia, which would make the composition of the army of lovers immediately visible to anyone drawn up against them.

Bray thinks that by making the Thebans of the ‘Knight’s Tale’, Palamon and Arcite, sworn brothers with identical arms, Chaucer was imposing on his couple the forms of 14th-century England. But Chaucer, as we can see, may have been rather better informed. At any rate, the choice of Thebes as the homeland for them is unlikely to have been a coincidence, and read against the background of the city’s ancient reputation, the love-brothers’ rivalry over Princess Emily looks like a self-conscious heterosexual triangulising of a notoriously homosexual relationship, as happened most spectacularly with the story of Troilus (lusted after and nearly raped by Achilles in the ancient version) and Cressida. Among Theban men, Cicero blabbed to anyone prepared to pick up on it, ‘lust has unfettered licence.’

Among their Aeolic cousins on the island of Lesbos, Sappho uses the same conjugal term, ‘yokemate’ (synzygos), for women’s partnerships, although most have ignored the Italian scholar Bruno Gentili, who concluded decades ago that this can only mean that among the women ‘of archaic Lesbos there were liaisons of an “official” character, which could involve a genuinely matrimonial type of relationship’. Around 520 BCE, the poet Anacreon explained why his interest in one girl wasn’t reciprocated: ‘For she is from Lesbos . . . and is gaping at another of her sex.’ Commentators have tied themselves in knots trying to escape the implications of Anacreon’s facetious jest. How could all the women on an island be homosexual? How would a foreigner know? It was the institution of the amorous yoke-pairing of women, something visible and archaeologicable, something celebrated by Sappho, and, in this part of Greece, something unique, that explains how the women of Lesbos acquired such a reputation. In exactly the same way, eight hundred years later, Eusebius could see in Celtic same-sex unions evidence for homosexual personalities among Celtic men.

There was nothing marginal about these ancient same-sex unions. A monument was erected to Harmodius and Aristogiton with a unique double statue, uniquely situated at the heart of Athens, in the agora, a model of a heroic death-transcending love-bond in opposition to the perversion of monarchical rule. The Famed of Crete, with their distinctive costume and their special places in dances and races, represented a spectacular cross-section of a community, transcending divisions of clan and house. So too the Theban army of lovers, which was properly called the Battalion of the Polis. Pericles provided one of the earliest examples of the state conceived as an independent abstract entity when he suggested that citizen-soldiers should behave towards Athens like boyfriends, erastai: i.e. love the city without calculation, more than life itself. Love’s outrageousness, its ability to transgress social, political and party political boundaries, makes it a particularly useful relationship in the formation of so socially outrageous an entity as the state.

Doubtless there is a play-off in human societies between the security guaranteed by personal pledges and the security guaranteed by the institutions of an effective state, especially if those institutions insist on overriding personal pledges and thereby undermining them, which is why the campaign for gay marriage is a campaign for state recognition: i.e. for the state to cease undermining homosexual relationships by imposing its own rules on next-of-kinship. But the same-sex troth-plighted love-pair, whether explicitly sexual, explicitly asexual, as you will or undecided, has a very long history in Europe, and has played an important role in a variety of political organisations, kingdoms, empires, democracies, ancient, medieval, modern, on the borderlands and on the citadel, in war and peace, in documents and in rather a lot of songs.

It isn’t a uniquely European phenomenon. The oldest same-sex couple that I know of is the one (probably) monumentalised in an Egyptian tomb constructed during the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom in the middle of the third millennium BCE. When it was discovered in 1964, archaeologists were surprised to find it was the tomb of two men, shown more than once in murals either leading each other by the hand or face to face in profile, exactly like the kissing knights of Constantinople, their hieroglyphs entwined. They were assumed to be twins, until Greg Reeder suggested they were more likely to have been a conjugal same-sex couple. His case was subliminally helped, no doubt, by the fact that they both rejoiced in the title of ‘Manicurist to the King, and Inspector of the Manicurists’.

Bray would have liked his book to help resolve the ‘conflict between homosexual people and the Christian Church’, without it being seen as an intervention on either side. There can be little hope for reconciliation if the Church is not first prepared to confess the crimes it has committed against homosexual humanity, crimes that Bray (like Boswell) plays down, most conspicuously by eliding the tragedy, so relevant to his theme, of the poor Portuguese martyrs who had the misfortune of marrying in the church at the Latin Gate.

The long-lost history of same-sex couples, both pagan and Christian, constantly holding up a mirror to one another, across millennia and across miles, ancient Thebes, medieval Constantinople, 19th-century Halifax and Lesbos 600 BCE, often barely understanding what it is that is being reflected, puts the modern gay-marriage conflict in a slightly different light, if not quite transforming it into a little local difficulty. Modern same-sex couples have a treasure-house of traditions to draw on, of which the Christian rite is only one. If your priest proves recalcitrant, just get your intended’s exes together on the pavement outside a gay bar, and have yourselves a tug-of-war. You don’t have to have sex with your partner, you don’t necessarily have to fancy them, you don’t even need to be that way inclined, but you really shouldn’t do it unless you are prepared to go all the way with them, till death do you two part.

Bray made a great contribution in helping to bring this long history to light, not just because the material he gathered for love-couples on these islands makes the evidence for same-sex unions elsewhere a priori less hard to believe, and not just because his thoughtfulness and subtlety show what can (and cannot) be done with those materials, but because of his extraordinary ability to question the questions we ask of the past and to rethink the issues in a way that does less violence to the traces the friends have left behind.