Missing article about sex, of all things

bray_sex_amazonOn June 18th, I wrote, “Last week I wrote a review of Alan Bray’s excellent Homosexuality in Renaissance England.” That was a bald-faced lie, or rather a brazen exaggeration. I wrote one measly sentence recommending the book. Unacceptable! So here is the promised review.

Bray’s book is excellent; not only a clear-eyed, detailed resource on the stated topic, but also a fine example of historical writing, on both technical and stylistic grounds. Read this together with Alan Haynes’ Sex in Elizabethan England and you’ll learn the difference between history and literature-based speculation.

Bray’s thesis is that a study of homosexuality ought properly to belong in a general study of interfamilial relations. He begins quite correctly with a discussion of his sources. He notes that most of our ideas about homosexuality in early modern England derive from Havelock Ellis’ 1897 Sexual Inversion. Ellis was trying to create a new culture. He was not writing a history book.

Bray notes on page 9, “There was an immense disparity in this society [early modern England] between what people said — and apparently believed — about homosexuality and what in truth they did.” Indeed. What people said was pretty horrible. Diatribes and sermons of the time displayed a persistent association between unnatural acts, homosexual sex and bestiality. Boys + goats = demonic debauchery.Goat_wikicom

Strictly speaking, nobody ranted about homosexuality, because the term wasn’t coined until the late nineteenth century. The earlier term was ‘sodomite;’ gritty and biblical, meant to be shocking. Like ‘atheist,’ the word had more to do with outlawry and social nonconformity, — behaving in a manner contrary to the laws of man, God, and nature — than with sex. Nobody you liked and respected was ever a sodomite. It was a word you hurled at someone you were trying to injure.

There was plenty of ranting, some of it truly vile. The odious Sir Edward Coke thought buggery was treason against the King of Heaven. (Coke was one of Bacon’s lifelong rivals; for this and other reasons I despise him.) Bray reviews the rantings and discusses the reasons people were so fearful about overturning God’s laws. You’d turn the world upside down. Chaos would result. 

World_Upsidedown_wikicomHe also gives us a look at the caricatures drawn in early modern literature: “…the sodomite is a young man-about-town, with his mistress on one arm and his ‘catamite’ on the other; he is indolent, extravagant and debauched.” The Earl of Oxford fit this portrait perfectly. Note that this man-about-town was omnisexual — depraved in all directions.

Bray examines court records for hints about interpersonal relations. Buggery cases were heard in the Quarter Assizes, judged by county Justices of the Peace. While the crime was a felony, cases were rare. In the 66-year period 1559-1625, in all of Kent, Sussex, Hertfordshire, and Essex, there were only 4 indictments for sodomy. These cases involved violence and were thus breaches of the peace. Nobody was sneaking around spying out naughty buggers and hauling them into court; not even into church courts.

Bray situates garden variety homosexuality inside the home, observing that homes in early modern times were also workplaces. The workshop was on the ground floor of the house or in the yard. A typical path for a young person, male or female, was to leave the natal home in the early teens and go off to work in someone else’s house. Boys might be apprenticed to a craftsman; girls would find work as servants. They would work until they were able to support themselves, through savings and advancement in their craft. In early modern England, as now, couples were expected to establish independent households. They married later as a result; men well into their twenties or even thirties, women around mid-twenties. Note that this is also an effective means of managing the birth rate; pretty much the only means they had other than abstinence.

Servants and apprentices lived with the family, though they might sleep on cots in the attic or in a cockloft over the barn, segregated by sex. Thus there were many opportunities for opportunistic sexual relations; desirable as a way of relieving sexual pressures without producing unwanted pregnancies.

Bray concludes that, “In general homosexual behaviour went largely unrecognised or ignored, both by those immediately involved and by the communities in which they lived.” Vehement hostility in public was matched by willing blind complicity in private.

Bray notes that Francis Bacon was known to have sexual relations with his servants, which no one would have minded if he hadn’t been so outrageously generous with gifts. Envy! He quotes Aubrey’s Life of Francis Bacon: “He was a παιδεραστής. [paiderastes~pederast] His Ganymedes and favourites took bribes; but his lordship always gave judgement secundum aequum et bonum [according to what is just and good.] His decrees in Chancery stand firm, i.e. there are fewer of his decrees reversed than of any other Chancellor.”

Thus we see that Bacon may have been queer, but he was also always fair.

Honored in the breach: sumptuary laws

Robert Dudley wearing silk from head to toe. Wikimedia Commons.


Sumptuary laws are way for the upper classes to restrict the symbols of their wealth and power. In rigidly stratified societies, knowing a person’s social status is essential; sumptuary laws allow this vital fact to be determined at a glance. And persons aspiring to be taken for greater than they are have a handy list to take to their tailor!

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is displaying a silk velvet cap with a gold band. His suit is silk with many tiny slashings. His hose are both slashed and wide, stuffed probably with horsehair. Both ruffs and cuffs are trimmed with lace, probably imported from the Low Countries. He wears a sword with both gold and silk on the hanger.




What not to wear

Here’s a sampling from sumptuary laws from China to Mexico:

Emperor of the Tang Dynasty. Wikimedia Commons.
  • Ancient Greece: limit women to 3 traveling dresses.
  • Republican Rome: limit use of gold ornaments and multicolored garments.
  • Sui and Tang Dynasty of China: only emperors could wear yellow; only high officials could wear purple.
  • Aztec Mexico: only kings could wear mantles of multicolored threads and featherwork; common people could not wear cotton clothing, but only cloth of maguey fiber.
  • Tudor England: no man under the rank of lord could wear wool not made in England; no serving man could use more than 3 yards for a long gown.
  • Tokugawa Japan: embroidery was prohibited in women’s clothing.
  • Elizabethan England: no silk on hats; no puffy pants for servants.


Special note for the early Tudor period: The act of apparel passed in November 1515 made a special exemption allowing gentlemen of the Inns of Court to wear satin, damask, and camlet like the nobility. How many of those legal gentlemen were Members of Parliament during that session? (Camlet~chamlet was a blend of silk and linen; later of silk and wool.)

Failure to comply

Shively’s article shows that in Japan, as in Tudor England, these laws were issued, re-issued, and issued again. He found seven laws issued in 1683 alone! Frequency of repetition is a good sign that laws are not being obeyed.

Samurai of the Tokugawa period. Wikimedia Commons
Samurai of the Tokugawa period. Wikimedia Commons

Enforcement was the challenge. There were no clothing police. You’d have to be noticed by a powerful person who already had a reason to cause you trouble, in which case you were cruisin’ for a bruisin’ no matter what you wore. A typical penalty throughout the Tudor period for such infractions was a fine along with the forfeiture of the item in question.

The act of 1510 made it lawful for anyone to seize any apparel worn contrary to the statute outside the court and to keep it for his own use. I’ll bet that was a popular law! “Give me that hat, thou wretch!” I can see duchesses ripping silks off the backs of their ladies in waiting or more likely, a master snatching a bit of finery from his puffed-up apprentice.

Punishments could be more severe. Cardinal Wolsey made a very unpopular attempt to enforce the sumptuary laws for a while in Henry VIII’s early days. He actually set one young man in the pillory for wearing a slashed shirt. (Slashing revealed silk linings, very stylish. Not to mention the microscopic hand stitches around each slash. Expensive!) I’m betting the young man in question did more than just wear that shirt. Back talk, at a minimum.

The last act of apparel was passed in 1554 under Queen Mary, amending the law of 1533. The new act prohibited silk of any kind in or upon hats, bonnets, nightcaps, girdles, hose, shoes, scabbards, or spur leathers for persons below the rank of son and heir-apparent of a knight OR persons with incomes less than £20 per annum. Offenders might suffer 3 months in prison or a fine of £10. Dire! Except the odds were about like getting a ticket for a rolling stop in your own neighborhood today. (How many have done this? Raise your hands. What’s that on your hat — a silk ribbon?) Hooper discovered only one prosecution under this act. Note the exceptions: if you could legitimately afford it, you could wear it, apart from some very special stuffs like ermine.

Efforts to control outward show increased under Elizabeth, not surprisingly, since she was the Show Master par excellence. Her sumptuary policies were set forth in the form of proclamations, rather than acts, because she did not like to work through parliament. She and her right-hand man, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, made an attempt to clamp down in the 1560s and 1570s on persons such as ‘som Smithfield Ruffian’ flaunting ‘som new disguised garment, or desperate hat, fond in facion, or gaurish in colour.’ (“Byerlady, Will, that hat is like totally desperate!”)

Aztec prince, Codex Magliabechiano. Wikimedia Commons.

Burghley devised schemes to appoint watchers in each parish to keep sharp eyes out for prohibited silk trimmings. Parish courts didn’t like prosecuting such matters, however, so they dragged their feet through various forms of appeal. Still, Burghley kept refining his methods, creating a schedule of reports to be made by the watchers and rules for the judges of assize to follow during their circuits. Briefs of the apparel statues were provided for handy reference. Hosiers and tailors were required to enter into bonds, money they would lose if they were found to be supplying prohibited garments.

Officials did do some prosecuting, especially of servants wearing monstrous hose (puffy pants.) The offenders’ hose were emptied of stuffings right there in the court, a humiliating experience. People were fined. No one was pilloried. There was a lot of pushback, often in the form of detailed requests for clarification. How much silk exactly? Here, or there? It’s devilishly difficult to enforce a law when the people tasked with enforcement are among the chief offenders.

Hooper sums up the topic admirably: “Fashion, however, was stronger than law.”


Anawalt, Patricia. 1980. “Costume and control: Aztec sumptuary laws,” Archaeology, Vol. 33 No. 1 (Jan/Feb 1980) pp. 33-43.

Hooper, Wilfrid. 1915. “The Tudor sumptuary laws,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 30, No. 119, (Jul., 1915), pp. 433-499.

Secara, Maggie. 2011. A Compendium of Common Knowledge.

Shively, Donald H. “Sumptuary regulation and status in early Tokugawa Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 25 (1964-1965), pp. 123-164.

Xinru, Liu. 1995. “Silks and religions in Eurasia, C. A.D. 600-1200,” Journal of World History, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 25-48.

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