Early Modern Urban Queer Studies?

It’s good to be back after a long hiatus. The spring semester and all of its time commitments and responsibilities most certainly got the best of me. In the future, I plan to make a much more assertive effort not to let this blog become a ritual semester sacrifice. But, for now, it’s the summer. And, I have some time to write.

brayI’ve been reading Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England this past week. I’ll gloss over the sad fact that it’s taken me 2-3 weeks per book so far this summer as I work my way down my summer reading list, but all traveling is over for the time being and I’m starting (I think/hope) to pick up some more efficient reading habits which will help. Bray’s Homosexuality is a book that I’ve cited in easily four papers but have never actually read. Which is probably a problem, but I’m sure I’m not the first graduate student to have done it. And, it’s one of those books that you feel like you know so well because everyone else you read has summarized the main arguments and talked about it in so much depth. So maybe that gives me an out. Either way, it’s been invigorating to finally read it. The ideas, as usual, are so much better and more complex when read first-hand and it’s really making me think and reassess some of my work.

One section in particular has been on my mind this past week. In his second chapter, “The Social Setting,” Bray works through the day-to-day presence of homosexual behavior in Renaissance England. His first chapter discusses the connections between homosexual practice and certain myths and symbolic frameworks of the culture, so this second chapter is it’s counterpart – life on the ground, if you will. When he starts explaining his evidence, court cases in particular, he has a brief section on Renaissance London and the reasons why we cannot read into London the kind of “urban” culture (specifically urban homosexual or queer culture) that we read into cities in our present day. His argument is this: “the analogy, although plausible, is misleading. London was not a world apart. Firstly, it depended on a flow of immigrants from the countryside, who continues to be influenced by the way of life they had so recently left; and the inward flow was matched by an outward flow in the periodic exodus in search of work, particularly at harvest time when large numbers regularly left the city to work in the surrounding countryside….In such circumstances, it would be unwise to assume that sexual life was less subject to traditional moral codes in London than it was outside” (Bray 36).

Bray’s footnote to this section suggests that there is some evidence, based on the number of court cases, for a larger amount of homosexual activity in London, but he argues that it wasn’t based on a growth in homosexuality per se, but rather the increased breakdown of social hierarchy such a place enabled. This quote immediately made me think of Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacies, which we read in my queer theory seminar this past semester and which I highly recommend. Shah’s articulation of queer behavior, or what he calls “stranger intimacy” sounds a lot like Bray’s account of Renaissance London. It’s based on movement and fleeting interaction, migration and the breakdown of social and cultural hierarchies that come with it. Bray’s argument is that, in London or not, we cannot recognize the same kind of “homosexual subculture” in Renaissance England that we can in modern day society. That part of his argument I do agree with. He makes a strong case for it and there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that homosexual practices were woven into the cultural fabric of early modern England (specifically when it comes to fields like friendship studies) and not the kind of marginal, subcultural behavior that we look for in more contemporary literature and history. But I wonder if Bray is a bit too quick to reach the conclusion that just because London’s population was transient, there is not sufficient evidence to read into it the kind of “urban” practices of current urban queer studies.

Or, maybe just the fact that he takes our modern day definition of “urban” and tries to pin it on London and, since it doesn’t work, London is disregarded as a special case. But maybe we just need to come up with a different label/definition for “urban” cultures of early modern England? Shah’s ideas about the kinds of relationships that arise in wake of transience (urban neighborhoods or not) seem to open up other possibilities for early modern London than Bray’s argument. Shah’s idea about the spaces of these transient encounters is perhaps helpful. The spaces, themselves are as transient as the people passing through them. The kinds of “fleeting” spaces that Shah looks at – hotels, train stations, brothels, etc. – are perhaps more like what early modern London was. Temporary and makeshift, growing so quickly that spaces were thrown together to accommodate the population flux rather than put up purposefully with the idea of permanence in mind.

And, bringing Shah’s ideas into play would also upset Bray’s claim that most homosexual behavior in Renaissance England was enacted between neighbors, friends, and generally people who knew each other rather than strangers. In the small towns and villages that make up most of Bray’s analysis and evidence, that seems plausible. But if we have evidence that the London population was really so migratory and transient, we may have to reassess that assumption. Perhaps in London it was plausible for fleeting moments of encounter to take place that render in the same way as the stranger intimacies of Shah’s case studies. This probably merits revisiting Shah’s work and finishing Bray’s last chapter before I can do anything else, but I’m interested in thinking about a kind of early modern “urban” queer culture (population?) further. Any ideas where I can start digging around for this?

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