Welcome back to Queer History 101!
This week, we’re traveling back to the Italian Renaissance with the help of historian Gary Ferguson. A professor at the University of Virginia, Ferguson works in particular on 16th-century French literature and culture.
While reading the travel journal of a famous French writer, he stumbled across something remarkable: evidence of a same-sex wedding ritual that took place in 16th-century Italy. “There was a group of men, mostly Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, who were celebrating marriages between couples in the group,” Ferguson explained.
In 1578, they planned a wedding ceremony followed by a banquet at the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate, but one of the intended spouses failed to appear. Then, unexpectedly, the police arrived and broke up the party. “They arrested as many of the men as they could,” Ferguson told me. “Most of them escaped, but eleven were put on trial and eight were ultimately executed.”
For context, 16th-century Rome was a very interesting time for marriage. In the first half of the century, it was very easy to get married. “Think of Romeo and Juliet,” Ferguson explained. “They essentially run to a friar in the countryside and get married in secret.”
“But many powerful families and states like France were unhappy because kids could do whatever they wanted,” he continued, “so there was a lot of pressure on the Catholic Church to make the rules stricter.”
The turning point came in 1563, the last year of the Council of Trent, a series of meetings held by clerics and theologians of the Catholic Church in response to the challenges of the Protestant Reformation. “It was basically the Catholic church saying, ‘We have to get our act together. We need to state our position clearly, try to impose it, and get people to do what they're supposed to do.”
One of the decrees that came down from the Church was aimed at enforcing stricter conditions for marriage. “When a version of Romeo and Juliet’s story was published in Italy in 1554, their marriage would have been legal but irregular,” Ferguson explained. “After 1563, it would have been null and void.”
Any form of same-sex sexual activity was a crime at the time, but the evolving nature of marriage and Church discipline probably influenced both the actions of the men at the Latin Gate and their tragic sentencing.The evidence from their trial, however, provides a fascinating account of these rituals and the culture that these men had created around them.
“They would meet at this church on the outskirts of the city that they had in a sense claimed,” Ferguson explained. “It was very remote and they created a kind of a communal space there. The marriages were probably partly serious, partly playful, but they were very much community events.”
“And the group wasn’t acting quietly either,” he continued. “That's part of what's wonderful about them. They were setting themselves up to get caught in a way because they weren’t being discreet enough. They might have got away with things, but they wanted to have a party.”
There is also evidence that several of the men in the group did not adhere to the expected sexual practices of the time. “There are older men who took a passive sexual role,” Ferguson explained. “There are other men who are versatile. These things sound kind of obvious in a modern context, but it's something that historians have had a lot of trouble finding evidence for in pre-modern Europe.”
They even invented code words for specifically queer behavior. “The term they use for older men who like to take a passive role is ‘commare,’ which means a ‘gossip’ or ‘godmother,’” Ferguson explained. “There’s a nice, queer idea in that right? I mean, the figure of the gossip is often associated with sexual impropriety. It’s often a code word for gay men as well as being associated with women. Godmother is also kind of interesting––like a fairy godmother.”
Queer weddings? Exuberant parties? Fairy godmothers? It’s generally agreed upon amongst historians that “homosexual” subcultures did not begin to exist until centuries later; however, given everything he told me, I couldn’t help but ask if he thought this group counted as evidence of an early “gay” subculture.
“I think we do see a community here that shares some of the characteristics of the gay or homosexual subcultures that appear in the 18th century in larger cities like Paris and London,” Ferguson responded. “The group in Rome is much smaller. It's not on the same scale, it's less well established, but I think there is something there: a small, gay subculture that's forming and which is something that’s going to develop.”
Ferguson explores these men in his book, Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome. Their story may be proof that queer men have been loud and proud far earlier then we previously imagined. It’s evidence that fostering community, even in the face of opposition, has always been a part of our shared past.
It’s also another reminder for historians to continue to look at the margins of history, extending their gaze past the confines of established narratives. “They're not the kings and the queens or leading philosophers and artists of their day,” Ferguson explained. “They’re just ordinary people. But the stories of ordinary people are sometimes the most interesting.”