Homosexuality in Elizabethan England

One of the issues that keeps coming up in reviews of The Alchemist of Souls is my portrayal of the non-straight characters. Readers who know the period praise the authenticity, whilst those who know little about Elizabethan culture seem surprised by it. Rather than comment directly on individual reviews (which seldom reflects well on the writer), I decided to discuss it here.

Partly it was a deliberate choice to play down any homophobia – I didn’t set out to write an LGBTQ novel, so I didn’t want that aspect to overshadow the plot. However the more I researched the topic, the more convinced I became that it would not be a big issue for my characters, for several reasons.

Just good friends?

Firstly, there’s the matter of differing social mores. Nowadays men and women are more-or-less equals, but they remain differentiated by expectations of how they conduct platonic relationships. Women’s friendships are expected to be affectionate, and it is acceptable for such feelings to be displayed in public with no assumption that the relationship in sexual in nature; in comparison, men are expected to be emotionally distant, and any physical contact is limited to horseplay.

Elizabethan men, by contrast, were legally superior to women and had very different expectations from women as to their role in society, but the social behaviour of the two sexes was less well differentiated; strong, emotionally deep friendships between men (based on ideals from both medieval chivalry and the Bible) were considered quite normal, and male friends could walk arm-in-arm or even kiss without any sexual connotation. Also, in this period a brief kiss on the mouth was a normal social greeting, no more sexual than a peck on the cheek. Hence I considered it entirely plausible for my gay male characters to express their affection for one another without social approbation, as long as they weren’t too blatant.

A different image of masculinity: Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, as a teenager

In this period, male and female dress was distinguished by cut, not by the fabrics used. Silk, lace, embroidery and jewels were markers of status, not gender, giving rich Elizabethan men a decidedly effeminate appearance to modern eyes. Portraits of young men and women can be hard to tell apart!

Perhaps under the influence of Greek literature, homosexuality in this period was conflated with pederasty. In both the poetry of the time and the legal cases that have come to light, the relationship under scrutiny was nearly always that of an adult male and an adolescent boy. The sexualisation of boys was further entrenched in English urban culture by the theatrical practice of having female roles played by boys and young men.

Until relatively recently, homosexuality was not seen as a permanent orientation, equivalent to heterosexuality, but as a pattern of temporary behaviour and an indicator of moral degeneracy. Satirists described the fashionable bachelor as spending the afternoon with his mistress and the evening with his catamite; both relationships were considered equally unmanly and foppish, transgressing normal, respectable standards of behaviour.

Ponte delle Tette, Venice (photo by Didier Descouens)

An additional factor was surely that this was a highly segregated society, where female virginity had both moral and monetary value and where formal education and most professions were male-only. As in modern-day boarding schools and prisons, many men must have resorted to homosexual practices as a physical outlet. As a result, a Renaissance man who had sex with another man didn’t consider himself gay, any more than does the guy in prison who makes you his bitch.

Indeed the Venetian authorities were so worried about the proliferation of sodomy that they decreed that prostitutes should bare their breasts in an effort to persuade young men to part with their money! The bridge where the prostitutes displayed themselves is still known as the Ponte delle Tette (in fact there are two of them, as I recently discovered).

Given all these factors, I imagined a culture where gay relationships between adults could slip under the radar, or even be tolerated in certain circles: amongst the more intellectual coteries at court, for example, and most likely amongst the theatre fraternity, which has always attracted outsiders. In other words, exactly the social circles that my characters move in.

I attempted to include some dissenting voices, through characters who openly disapprove of Ned and Gabriel’s relationship, as well as through Mal’s ambivalence about his own dealings with Ned, but perhaps between subtlety on my part and lack of historical context on the readers’, I have perhaps not struck the perfect balance. This is always a problem for the writer of historical fiction – how to portray people from another era, whose attitudes were in many ways alien to ours, in a way that readers can relate to. But if the past was just like the present day, where would be the fun in writing about it?