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Lidh ENG 211 08 December 2008 When observing same sex relationships between men throughout history, it is easy to believe that these relationships have become more open over time, as society has reached a more modern, liberal mindset. Yet, even today there is still a taboo associated with same sex relationships, and these homosexual behaviors are often labeled as immoral. As art often imitates life is it easy to observe the taboo of same sex relationships in the context of literature. How many works are written about male lovers compared to heterosexual couples? How often are the heroes of works sexually attracted to men? However, there was a time when same sex relationships conveyed no sense of shame or disgust, when people were open without fear of criticism. What then caused the change that transitioned same sex relationships from openness to suppression? Again, by examining literature, specifically English literature from the Middle Ages to the 18th Century, the source of the homosexuality hush is clearly the Christian church. When poets began singing the praises of God, they stopped openly detailing erotic encounters between men. As the Bible became the new source of inspiration, references to same sex relationships were either slyly inserted into works or used as insults. And when the Church loosened its hold on England, writers alluded to homosexual behavior much more freely.
Also. some evidence of openly homosexual behavior does exist in what few pieces of literature from the Middle Ages have survived. Because society had no religious reason to fear or despise homosexuality. When mighty warriors were deified. The latter class of literature was purposed in integrating Christianity into the life of the Anglo-Saxons. so too did the portrayal of homosexuality in English literature. In the early Middle Ages (ca. men could be with other men sexually. homosexuality wasn’t considered shameful or immoral. when battlegrounds were sacred.Large 2 Thus. were considered weak. Most literature of this time was either oral (most of which disappeared from history) or written by men of the Church. The society was in the midst of a religious transition and followed a moral code based on the ethics of battle. whether or not they were homosexual. not on Biblical principles (Greenblatt 30). However. While the aforementioned societal practices of this age have been studied and estimated by historians. Christianity was a new concept and had not yet been completely accepted or formalized by the mostly Pagan masses. and bountiful treasure troves were venerated. which was the greatest sin of this period (Frantzen 90). . as the prominence of the Christian church in England changed over time. without fear of prosecution because homosexuality was not yet a controversial issue (Frantzen 136). Strong. men who were effeminate. homoerotic encounters were not viewed with any evil emphasis. During this time. 673-1010). and thus. would have few examples of homosexuality. homosexual behaviors were not equated with effeminacy. burly warriors could be attracted to other men and remain powerful in society. few examples of same sex behaviors exist in early literature.
The language of the unknown poet who compiled Beowulf used to describe the departure is heavy with emotion and hints of homoeroticism. the aged Danish king whose kingdom is collapsing. “The unique manuscript of Beowulf [was] produced about 1000 A. especially after Beowulf secures the safety of Hrothgar’s kingdom. However. According to Beowulf translator Frederick Rebsamen.D. perhaps even as far back as the late seventh century (Rebsamen xii). which is still evident in Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem. can be found within the tale of the mighty warrior. until Beowulf’s departure. Because the story takes place in the early Middle Ages.Large 3 One of the most prominent displays of affection between two men can be found in one section of the epic poem. the two men form a bond. Frantzen in Before the Closet. then broke down in sudden tears. and Beowulf. Beowulf. And so the good and gray-haired Dane. including openness regarding homoeroticism. the story of Beowulf circulated long before its manuscript was formed. the young hero who rescues it” (92). kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck. that highborn king. Throughout the epic poem. This bond seems almost like one between father and son.” after the Church had already begun to take form in England (xi). Two forebodings disturbed him in his wisdom. but one was stronger: . “Beowulf describes two of the most manly men in Old English literature – Hrothgar. the values and ideals of the early Middle Ages. According to Loyola University English professor and gender studies scholar Allen J.
Various translations have even interpreted Hrothgar feeling something stronger than “fondness. Chickering Jr. After all. (1870-1880) Hrothgar’s behavior is these lines can simply be characterized as friendly.’s translation of the aforementioned lines Hrothgar experiences “a deep-felt longing for the beloved man” that “burn[s] in his blood” (159). langa. Hrothgar never expresses equivalent emotion towards any other character.Large 4 nevermore would they meet each other face to face. it warmed his heart and wound the heartstrings tight in his breast. when kissing and embracing are mentioned along with “fondness” that is so “deep-founded” that it “warm[s] [the] heart” Hrothgar’s feelings seem more than fatherly. However. even the actual word suggests passion. Despite different translations. When Grendel slaughters Hrothgar’s closest friend Æschere.” In Howell D. While Chickering’s interpretation seems much more passionate than Heaney’s the actual Old English word. or even fatherly. which describes Hrothgar’s emotion is defined as “longing” and “unsatisfied craving” (Clark Hall). it was common for men to kiss and embrace in the Middle Ages without any homosexual connotations. And such was his affection that he could not help being overcome: his fondness for the man was so deep-founded. Hrothgar only briefly addresses his loss and . This passion that Hrothgar expresses before Beowulf’s departure is unique.
my counselor. Clearly. Dick Ringler translates Hrothgar’s response to his comrade’s untimely death as the following: Æschere is dead. Thus. and closet friend the faithful comrade who fought at my side in bloody battles when boar standards clashed. such was Æschere! (2646-2658) There is no mention of longing or burning for Æschere. if . but the eulogy.Large 5 lacks the passion he feels towards Beowulf. as Hrothgar mentions. confidant. whatever a good soldier should be. lacks the sexually charged language with which Hrothgar’s emotions towards Beowulf are described. the older brother of Yrmenlaf. Hrothgar and Æschere had a deep friendship. while mournful. tossing in tumult.
Because there is no mention of negative reaction to Hrothgar’s kiss. it can be assumed that these strong followers of Hrothgar and Beowulf are not offended by homosexuality. Although the Catholic Church had been trying to formalize in England since the early Middle Ages. according to Allen J. just like most of the society of the time. Affection between fathers and sons is not commonplace in Old English verse” (97). Never was there any mention in the epic poem of Beowulf’s wife. its influence was weak until Henry II began to lay the foundations for English unity during his . at least one of whom deeply loves the other” (94). the homoerotic moment of affection between Hrothgar and Beowulf is displayed in front the Geat warriors and Hrothgar’s Danes. While Frantzen believes that it is certain that Hrothgar loved Beowulf. which implies that he may have never had sex with a woman. yet void of passion. the language would be similar to that found describing Æschere – complementary. A great shift occurred in the portrayal and practice of homosexuality. Frantzen supports this assertion stating.Large 6 Hrothgar only regarded Beowulf as a friend. Therefore. Also. Frantzen. the feelings that Hrothgar expresses upon Beowulf’s departure appear to stem from homosexual desires.D). he had no offspring to inherit his throne after his death. the kiss seemed to have had a lasting impact on the life of the title hero as well. Additionally. “the embrace and kiss the men share is one of the most impressive and moving displays of same sex love in Anglo-Saxon literature…it unites two men. as the Catholic Church began to tighten its grip on medieval England (around 1100 A. “Old English texts that discuss relations between fathers and sons offer no models for Hrothgar’s response.
Where men used to be able to express their homosexual desires openly. during this time. “Written as a collection of stories told by late fourteenth-century English pilgrims en route to Canterbury Cathedral. Lesbian. According to Frantzen. which generally reflects official moral and social doctrine on this issue. and Queer Culture. (Cheyney 145). Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. is evidence that literature portrayed homosexuality unfavorably.D. men began to suppress any homosexual behaviors. and signified that homosexual activity was no longer tolerated.Large 7 reign beginning in 1154 A. including ten years penance for same-sex intercourse (Frantzen 180). The self-abasement required for any homosexual activity was now thoroughly documented. “regulations governing sexual conduct were translated into vernacular penitentials. Because of the new regulations enforced by the Catholic Church. Bisexual. The power of the laws of the Church increased as the Common Law Courts became more consistent (Cheyney 153). they are placed in a negative light. “when sodomy and sodomites are represented in the period's literature. like homosexuality in society. and any piece that was found offensive would be prevented from reaching an audience (Coulton 7). the Church practiced strict censorship. Thus. When Geoffrey Chaucer began composing works in the 1300’s. or handbooks of penance (Frantzen 111). they now were punished for any homoerotic displays. Transgender. The Canterbury . Writers also had to suppress homoeroticism in their works. “Some sexual offenses (including homosexual acts) were included among [sins] seen as especially grave and even sometimes regarded as unmentionable” (4). Furthermore.” A major work of the time. According to the Encyclopedia of Gay. homosexuality in literature was linked with sin.
When detailing lechery. there wasn’t a concrete attitude . The Pardoner is not the only character in The Canterbury Tales to be described as homosexual. This “unkyndely synne” which is not mentioned by name. The Summoner. Chaucer continues the homophobic attitude of the time in “The Parson’s Tale. portrayals of homosexuality.” This lengthy tale is meant to be a penitential tract. before the Pardoner’s evil acts are detailed. is homosexuality. yet clear. Translated. Aside from revealing that the two most corrupt characters in The Canterbury Tales practice homosexual behaviors. it is more likely to be a reference to a sexual relationship between the Pardoner and the Summoner because “stiff burdoun” is innuendo for erect male genitalia. Chaucer exemplifies the medieval period. who also turns out to be wicked. this phrase states that the Summoner provided bass accompaniment to the Pardoner’s love songs. In “The General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales Chaucer describes the Pardoner as “a gelding or a mare” (693).Large 8 Tales uses male homosexual relations and desire as a means to cast moral judgments on and to satirize characters in the text” (Boyd 1). Chaucer discreetly reveals his sexual orientation leaving audiences of the time to despise him. which feared and prosecuted homosexuality because of influence from the Catholic Church. While the two periods of literature preceding the Renaissance presented two distinctly different. is described as a sodomite. through describing corrupt characters as homosexuals and listing homosexuality as an unmentionable sin. In “The General Prologue” Chaucer mentions that the Summoner “bar to [the Pardoner] a stiff burdoun” (675). the Parson refers to an “unkyndely synne… [where] a child may nat be conceived” (577). and includes descriptions and remedies for seven sins. Though this duet could be interpreted as friendly. By revealing that he is a eunuch and referring to him a female horse. Thus.
homosexuality was both embraced by some and still feared by many. it also renewed awareness of the ancients’ common homoerotic practices and aspirations” (1) However. Transgender. in favor of Protestantism (Cheyney 332). “The sodomy statute 5 Elizabeth. . made acts of sexual penetration between males a felony that was punishable by death (An Encyclopedia of Gay. Even though Christianity was still prominent in England. My desire. While Shakespeare included many homoerotic characters and situations in his plays. Queen Elizabeth I revoked Catholicism as the official religion of England. looking at homosexuality based on the laws of the Renaissance period reveals that there was a stigma surrounding homosexual behaviors. and religious figures did not have the final say in homosexuality. More sharp than filèd steel. Lesbian. After the death of Queen Mary. it was not the main governing power. and Queer Culture). Bisexual. “As the Renaissance sought to renovate the cultural accomplishments of Greek and Roman antiquity. chapter 17. The passage then that best reveals Antonio’s homoeroticism is his response to Sebastian after rescuing him: I could not stay behind you. did spur me forth. In fact.Large 9 concerning homosexuality in the Renaissance. thus portrayals were mixed. William Shakespeare best merged both attitudes regarding homosexuality in his works. Antonio in Twelfth Night is arguably the “most forthright character in speaking about his homoerotic desires” (Smith 6). passed by Parliament in 1562-1563. Thus. According to Kenneth Borris in his book Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance : A Handbook and Anthology of Contemporary Documents.
Smith. “The reward for [Antonio’s] forthrightness. Therefore. Bruce R. In a society that both fostered homosexuality and yet denied homosexual bonds. While Shakespeare’s portrayal of homosexuality created a middle ground between the depictions of homosexuality in the early Middle Ages and in Chaucer’s medieval era. Attitudes concerning homosexuality continued to be . According Georgetown English professor.” which becomes homoerotic when compared with the phallic sword (“filèd steel”). Antonio’s response is representative of the suppression of homosexuality. Shakespeare also describes the silencing of the homosexual population by laws influenced by the Church. however. Because Antonio is not allowed to be with Sebastian. By giving Antonio no words in response to Sebastian’s betrothal. Shakespeare is revealing that men were not permitted to have relationships with each other. (3. is isolation. Shakespeare allows Antonio to blatantly reveal his “desire. Shakespeare portrays the more forthright aspect of homosexuality in the Renaissance.6-13) In this passage. Shakespeare then embraces the more Christian induced homophobic aspects of Renaissance culture. Antonio is scripted to say not a word. in this passage.Large 10 … My willing love The rather by these argument of fear Set forth in your pursuit.” In the play's final scene. it was not the stopping point in history. Through the final scene. once Sebastian has been betrothed to Lady Olivia.3.
and people once again became more open sexually. One particularly bawdy libertine was writer John Wilmot. Rochester describes the Kingdom of Sodom. Rochester fully indulged in sexual liberty and experimentation. Between the Renaissance and the Restoration in England. The Farce of Sodom Or the Quintessence of Debauchery. and suggests several “pimps” for Bolloximian’s experimentation. . known as libertines. and Restoration England celebrated its overthrow by revolting against sexual repression (395). who took advantage of the “tolerant” rule of King Charles II and the shrinking presence of the Church of England (Cheyney 469). as they were in the Middle Ages. “With the death of Cromwell.Large 11 recycled and redeveloped during the Restoration. In one of his most blatantly homoerotic works. When Bolloximian expresses his disgust with having sex with women as their genitalia are “clad with the filth of … nasty whites” (1. Homoerotic behavior was no longer taboo to the aristocrats. ruled by King Bolloximian. According to Borastus. the tide turned against Puritanism. Being a member of the English court. Before the succession of Charles II to the English throne. and his poems graphically detail the homosexual behaviors that had become accepted during the Restoration (Farmer 1). the country had been under the strict Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell (Cheyney 464).1) his advisor. there was both a political and religious upheaval that drastically changed the perception of homosexuality. No one gave into the new sexual liberties more than the nobles of the Restoration period (1660-1689). second Earl of Rochester. Borastus suggests that the king try sodomy. and they engaged in once unmentionable sexual practices condemned by the Puritans. According to Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization.
Besides. as the men of Sodom abandon their women and heterosexual intercourse. sir. When last.Large 12 The choice of buggery. especially with men. sir.1). Pene has so soft a skin ‘Twould tempt a Saint to thrust his pintle in. seem abnormal in an era so far from modernization. (1. Borastus is an advocate of “buggery” (sodomy). good sir. Tooly.1) Clearly. Vieth. a pimp. reveals that Bolloximian has indulged in homosexual intercourse with him previously and found it enjoyable. While the lifestyle of Rochester. according to Southern Illinois University English professor. your pleasure did vouchsafe To let poor Tooly’s hand your pintle chafe. to make a pass Once more at Pockenello’s loyal arse. Homosexual encounters and references continue to be prevalent throughout the play. Within the next lines. is wanting now.1) Upon recollection of his sexual encounter with Tooly. David M. and especially his works like Sodom. sir. “No man was ever more typical of his age than John Wilmot” . (1. I would advise you. in favor of sodomy. You gently moved it to my arse – when lo! Arse did the deed which light hand could not do. Bolloximian declares that “buggery may be used/O’er all the land” (1.
Large 13 (xvii). homosexuality was not uncommon during the Restoration. After a period of suppression through Puritanical doctrine. because homoerotic practices were a part of Rochester’s life. brought a rebirth to English culture and ideas of homosexuality. Although in 1999. homoeroticism was soon stifled in practice and in literature by the strengthened Church. the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that . Tales of strapping warriors and the accounts of sexual libertines in English literature provide a glimpse into why the portrayal of homosexuality has changed throughout history. Then the Renaissance. Thus. homosexuality would have never been scorned. homosexual behaviors have always been present in culture – it is attitudes regarding homosexuality that have changed. Because Christianity has lost its power in Britain. Yet hundreds of years away from Renaissance England in 2008. While there are not laws in the United States that prohibit homosexuality. Once open and unregulated. there are laws that restrict a homosexual relationship from being equal to a heterosexual relationship. today’s American culture has reverted back to attitudes regarding homosexuality present in Shakespeare’s time. Without the Church’s influence. or even viewed with distaste as it is today. with a Church far less mighty. Thus through its varying degrees of power the Church has greatly shaped the portrayal of homosexuality. as the nation has become completely secularized. the Church lost much of its influence and the portrayal of homosexuality came full circle as writers once again described homoeroticism openly. judging from Vieth’s assertion. From Sodom and Gomorrah to Will and Grace. when the Church’s rule had little influence. same sex relationships are completely open as they were in Restoration England (Brown 14).
If this pattern continues. other states feared this policy of acceptance and pushed for a federal Defense of Marriage Act (Kerstin). though not the nation’s official religion. the Christian religion still influences opinions concerning homosexuality. like the United States.Large 14 homosexuals were being discriminated against by their inability to marry and amended the Constitution of the State of Vermont. dominated America. until the two periods merge. The United States in the 1960’s was more open about homosexuality. as churches across the nation swayed both traditionally conservative and liberal states (Arizona. followed by suppression. even in a culture with no “official” religion. Just as today’s American society can be equated with Shakespeare’s Renaissance culture in terms of attitudes regarding homosexuality. in two hundred years from now. various other “modern” time periods parallel their early English counterparts. Florida) to oppose various “gay marriage” amendments because of Biblical principles. Always influenced by the Church. Thus. and the AIDS scare proliferated by the Christian churches in the 1980’s once again brought suppression to homosexuality (Eaklor 1-5). the portrayal and practice of homosexuality undergoes a cycle much like the one found in early English literature. Hollywood movie stars. Even as recently as November 2008 there has been a shift in attitudes regarding homosexuality. which shied away from organized religion. Christianity. There is a period of openness. how will society feel . yet there were few people who admitted to engaging in a homosexual relationship. had to hide their homosexuality to be accepted. The 1950’s were reminiscent of medieval England. causing the cycle to renew. The “free love” generation of the 1970’s. California. embraced sexual liberty. like Rock Hudson.
like Beowulf or Rochester? Or will those who prefer same sex relationships be forced back into the closet? .Large 15 about homosexuality? Will people be sexually open.
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