History of History Workshop

Among the tombs of the dead: Assessing the queer legacy of Alan Bray

Gaywood: “Taste; Cavaliers in room with three women behind eating and drinking”, 1564-62. (The British Museum)

Between the publication of his pioneering Homosexuality in Renaissance England in 1982 and his death in 2001, historian Alan Bray transformed our understandings of male homosocial and homosexual interactions in the early modern period, although his later work covered the period from the middle ages to the nineteenth century, and here I will consider his impact on three leading historians of gender and sexuality.

Bray’s main argument was that in Renaissance England contemporaries did not think about sexuality using a hetero- and homosexual binary, but rather sought to draw distinctions between the male friend and the sodomite – models informed by classical and Christian values –  the importance of which began to lessen in the enlightened and increasingly urban world of the later seventeenth century.

Bray belonged to the History Workshop collective and his early work was intended to support the Gay Liberation Movement which emerged in the 1970s.  In 1982 Bray noted that interest in the history of sexuality was not solely due to the emergence of the new social history in the 1960s, but also:

lay in the growth, in the years since the Second World War, of visible homosexual subcultures in the major cities of the western world, which in the last ten or fifteen years have become increasingly articulate and questioning.  And the questions on the level of the individual or the many, have largely meant asking Who am I? What then are we?  I believe historians have something to say to this, for identity without a consciousness in time is impossible; but they should never forget that it was not they to whom it first occurred to ask the questions they are now concerned with and that it is not only in the universities that the answers they give will be put to the test.  This book should be judged, firstly, by its capacity to explain the many fragments from the past bearing on homosexuality which are now coming to light, and secondly, by its ability to illuminate the world around us as history has given us it and – this above all else – to play a part in changing it.

(A. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, London, 1982, pp.10-11).

Similar political and personal comments can be found in the introduction to Bray’s second book, The Friend, published posthumously in 2003, where he described how writing the book helped him mourn those he had lost during the AIDS pandemic of the previous decades:

I think I was seeking among the tombs of the dead those lost friends; I would not let them go: and with the guiding hand of scholarship and the eye of a historian, against all expectations I found such friendship there in those monuments.

(A. Bray, The Friend, Chicago, 2003, p.5).

Photo of graveyard by Lana Graves on Unsplash

Anne Laurence wrote an obituary for History Workshop Journal which provides an excellent overview of Bray’s key works, so I want to use this article to consider his legacy to historians of early modern England. Bray influenced the field of literary studies too, but for reasons of space I will focus on the scholarship of three historians (for a wider overview of his work from a literature specialist’s perspective see the essay by Valerie Traub in Love, Friendship and Faith in Europe, 1300-1800).

The first of these historians is Cynthia Herrup, a historian of crime and the law.  One of the cases Bray discussed in his first book was that of the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven, Mervin Touchet, who was executed on 14 May 1631, having been indicted and found guilty the previous month for rape and sodomy.  Bray used the case to illustrate early modern attitudes towards sodomy, but Herrup argued instead that it was not primarily sodomy, but rather Castlehaven’s failure to discipline and order his household which led to his prosecution and execution.

Like Bray, the scholarship of Judith Bennett on women’s work and sexuality often crosses deeply entrenched chronological boundaries between medieval, early modern and modern.  Also like Bray, Bennett has highlighted how the LGBTQ+ politics of the period she had lived through has shaped what she writes about, and in 2006 she included an autobiographical anecdote in the introduction to a collection of her essays, noting how she:

came to feminism in the 1970s as a way of reconciling my two full but contradictory identities at the time.  In one, I was a lesbian feminist, absorbed by activism at home and in the streets.  In the other, I was a studious medievalist, training under the guidance of male professors, most of them priests, at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.  Radical feminist by night, medievalist by day; feminist history brought my two selves together. … In the 1970s it seemed crystal clear that one of the battlefronts of feminism was women’s history, where feminists – both in the academy and outside it – were reclaiming a lost past in their research, empowering students in their teaching, and using historical insight to inform feminist strategy.

(J. M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, Manchester, 2006, p.1).

One way in which Bennett has made her politics explicit in her scholarship has been to suggest that the concept of ‘lesbian-like’ might be a way to solve what she has defined as the ‘lesbian problem’ in women’s history, namely an unwillingness to ‘consider that the dead women we study might have been other than heterosexuals, other than wives, mothers, and lovers of men.’  Deploying the concept of ‘lesbian-like’ has allowed Bennett to broaden the remit of the history of lesbians and lesbianism to include ‘women whose lives might have particularly offered opportunities for same-sex love; women who resisted norms of feminine behaviour based on heterosexual marriage; [and] women who lived in circumstances that allowed them to nurture and support other women’, but Bennett argued that its greatest impact lay in women’s history, noting that:

Many historians of women pause at the L-word threshold.  We agonise “was she or wasn’t she?”  We feet about applying our contemporary term “lesbian” to women long-dead.  We pause over the differences between sexual identities and sexual acts.  “Lesbian-like” can get us over the threshold, out of the master’s house, and into possible worlds that we have heretofore seldom been able to see.

(Bennett, History Matters, pp.108-11).

Two nude women, one with her arm around the other’s shoulders. (The British Museum)

Laura Gowing, a historian of women and gender in early modern England, has been used the concept of lesbian-like to good effect, using it as means to engage with Bray’s work on male friendship.  Commenting on the latter, Gowing opined that the history Bray wrote was:

dependent on the political, public role of elite men and their aspiring servants, and on the relative absence of women from the living arrangements of the great houses.   It seems at first rather obvious that it does not work for women: women’s friendship had few of the explicitly political implications that charged intimate touch between men, and the lack of a widely recognised fear of same-sex sex means that women’s intimacies tend to look more straightforward and relatively consistent over time.  But both are now problematic assumptions.

(L. Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England, London, 2003, pp.65-66).

Analysing the life of Lady Anne Clifford, Gowing focused on her relationships with her bedfellows, Arabella Stuart, Frances Bourchier and Mary Carey, as well as how she shared a bed with her first daughter, Margaret, and the role that touch (handshakes for men, kisses for women) played in her interactions with neighbours and tradespeople.  Gowing argued that for Clifford what mattered most in these encounters was the sharing of intimate space, rather than the sexual nature of such touches, but also demonstrated how early modern people thought about close relations between women in many ways, evidence for which can be found in writings on religious and intellectual matters, in printed pornography, erotica, medical books and travel narratives, and in depositions made before ecclesiastical and secular courts.

Examining the scholarship of Cynthia Herrup, Judith Bennett and Laura Gowing demonstrates how Alan Bray shaped the histories not only of male homosexuality and masculinity, but also of lesbianism and female friendships.  It is a legacy in which, had he lived longer, he surely would have taken great pride.

Read more: 

M. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester, 2006)

A. Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1982).

A. Bray, The Friend (Chicago, 2003).

L. Gowing, Common Bodies: Women, Touch and Power in Seventeenth-Century England (London, 2003).

L. Gowing, M. Hunter & M. Rubin (eds.) Love, Friendship and Faith in Europe, 1300-1800 (Basingstoke, 2005).

C. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven (Oxford, 1999).

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