Queering History: The Renaissance
I edit textbooks for a living, so I’ve had the opportunity to take more undergraduate courses than the average person—especially one that doesn’t have multiple degrees. One of my areas of expertise has been history. In particular, I’ve become something of a Renaissance scholar over the years. (I once wrote a paper without citing any sources, much to the chagrin of my professor.) I’m by no means an expert. I am fairly well-versed in the discourse around the Renaissance.
One of my favorite subjects is sexuality and gender throughout history. While we tend to think everyone in history acted like us, had the same ideals as us, this ignores the reality of human cultures as constantly evolving and changing. While they may not have understood LGBTQ+ identities in the same way or used the same terms, ideas and practices have long existed, as evidenced by the ancient Greeks and other cultures.
So what does the Renaissance have to say about sexuality and gender?
Shakespeare Had a Gay Lover
Shakespeare likely wrote Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” about a man? Yup. Scholars now agree this individual was likely a male lover of Shakespeare’s.
This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given that King James also may have had a gay lover or two, including the very comely Duke of Buckingham. The duke and James both appear to have been somewhere on a sliding scale of human sexuality; both also had relations with women. (In fact, the duke may have had a dalliance with the queen of France, Anne of Austria—whose husband, King Louis XIII, may have also had male lovers.)
So here we have some very high-ranking men—two kings, a duke, a member of the French nobility, and the chief playwright of the era—having homosexual relations in an era when, one might have thought, Christian belief would have outlawed it.
Despite Christian strictures against “unnatural acts,” there’s suggestion men and women alike engaged in homosexual relations, even from medieval Europe. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a medieval work in Middle English, but there’s much suggestion the Parson is “a sodomite.”
This isn’t to suggest homosexuality was widely encouraged, talked about, or even accepted. Christian belief did come into play, and accusations of sodomy could ruin one’s reputation. It’s likely the reason Pope Julius II’s detractors tried to paint him as a sodomite after his death.
Like Strengthens Like
To understand why it may have been acceptable for high-ranking men to keep same-sex lovers, it’s important to understand the Renaissance conception about masculinity and femininity. Masculinity enhances masculinity. Femininity, by contrast, detracts from masculinity.
A man who slept with another man was thus more masculine than a man who slept with women. It’s sort of the concept of “you are what you eat,” except in this case “you are what you fuck.”
A man who loved a woman would supposedly take on “feminine” traits such as becoming more shrewish and less receptive towards sex. He might become more delicate or emotional. By contrast, a man who loved another man would find his courage increased, and so on and so forth.
With this conception at play, it would be perfectly acceptable for a king to take another man as a lover. After all, you wouldn’t want a weak or effeminate king sitting on your throne. Men of high-rank may have taken same-sex lovers in order to enhance their position.
Derived from the Greeks and Romans?
Ancient Greece and Rome delighted people of the Renaissance. Scholars took particular delight in rediscovering “lost” works or translating from Latin and Greek (although many still learned this language).
The Greeks, as already noted, held the practice of pederasty in high esteem. A man would take a “beautiful youth” under his wing. During this time, they would be lovers, master and student, until the boy came of age. At that time, he was expected to marry (women were necessary for procreation). In time, he would adopt the role of “master” to his own “beautiful youth.”
The Greeks were incredibly misogynistic, so it should be little wonder that they held love between two men as being more pure and joyous than love between a man and woman. Women were necessary for procreation, but they were a “necessary evil.” The alleged practices of Sparta might make this more clear: A man might demand his wife dress up as another boy or man on their wedding night, in order to consummate the marriage.
Given that the Renaissance held the Greeks and Romans in such esteem, it may not be much of a surprise that their discourse around sexuality and even how masculinity and femininity add to or detract from each other seems to reflect at least something of the sensibility of the Greco-Roman culture.
Misogyny and Women Rising
Christian culture throughout Europe was overlaid on a Greco-Roman foundation, so it may not surprise to find that misogyny was strengthened in many ways. Both Christianity and Greek culture could be hostile toward women, the cult of the Virgin Mary notwithstanding.
Queen Elizabeth I proved her fitness to rule by demonstrating how masculine she was. Although we may not have guessed it from the portraits of her in enormous dresses, she told people she “had the stomach of a king” (stomachs coming in either “strong” or “weak” varieties, with women usually having the latter). Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, was so obsessed with having a son that he broke from the Catholic Church to divorce his wife. He remarried—six times.
In Italy, women generally needed to stay at home, subservient to their fathers, then later their husbands or their brothers. They were generally denied educations, although during the Renaissance, some women did pursue studies (often with the blessing of their fathers).
Laura Cetera sparred with male thinkers of the time, and Isabella d’Este discussed the humanities with leading thinkers. Around this time, the “querelle des femmes”—or “the woman question”—emerged as a subject of continued debate. Christine de Pizan participated. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had a book prepared for her daughter, the eventual Queen Mary I, which suggested women should not rule. A competing book so emerged, arguing the opposite. The debate continued, even after Elizabeth I, Mary’s half-sister, assumed the throne.
A Different Conception of Sexuality
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind here is that Renaissance people didn’t conceive of sexuality the same way we do. Their actions can best be described as “bisexual.” Most of the men I’ve mentioned had relationships with women at some point or another. Shakespeare was married and had a family. James definitely left heirs to the throne, and did King Louis XIII.
It’s very difficult to pin down identity then. Renaissance people didn’t conceive of a sexual identity the same way we do. They likely wouldn’t have described themselves as “gay” or “straight,” “homosexual” or “heterosexual.” They didn’t have these terms, and they didn’t necessarily think of their sexuality as an identity, per se, but more in terms of actions.
Thus we could call their actions “bisexual” and we can suggest there was “bisexual attraction,” but we can’t say King James was gay or straight. We can’t say King Louis XIII was bi. It’s an anachronism, attempting to apply identities to people who didn’t understand themselves in such a way.
What we can see from this, however, is that there has always been a wide range of sexual practices in human societies. The terminology and acceptability of these practices has also varied widely, between cultures and historical periods.
So, you want to write about male lovers in Renaissance Italy? Go for it. Just be careful not to apply modern understandings to your characters, and the historical record will be behind you the entire way.