Welcome back to Queer History 101.
This week, we’re traveling to Early Modern England to talk about “buggery laws” with the help of Alan Stewart, a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
His interest in this fascinating field of study began while he was an undergrad at Cambridge University. During that time, he came across Alan Bray’s book, Homosexuality in Renaissance England. Bray's final chapter mentions the rise of early queer subcultures in the late 17th century, which raised an important, unanswered question for Stewart: where did those early subcultures come from? He decided to investigate their origins. Though it was difficult to find them, his research culminated in his first book, Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England.
According to Stewart, the first known legal use of “buggery” (another word for sodomy) appeared in a statute that passed through parliament in 1533, which moved the crime from being under the jurisdiction of the church to being under the jurisdiction of the state. “It’s a strange, almost accidental law,” Stewart explains, “as there’s no attempt to define what ‘buggery’ might be.”
In the original manuscript of the parliamentary bill, he found that someone had altered the original language, writing the word “buggery” over it. “So it's not as if there's any great planning of this particular act,” he explains. “Legal authorities over the next century, two centuries, would try to work out what 'buggery' means. Is it between men? Can women be guilty? Are animals involved? Is it akin to rape, or are both parties equally guilty? It was a very strange, improvised law.”
Reports of “buggery” in the 16th and early 17th century were rare, because they usually didn’t involve one person accusing another, as in the case of rape. Instead, accusations of buggery came from a third-party observer reporting the act. As a result, throughout the course of his research, Stewart only found a handful of cases in this period.
To broaden his search, he looked for relationships that may have been vulnerable to accusations of sodomy–– master/servant, schoolmaster/pupil, master/secretary, friends––rather than trying to find evidence of the acts themselves. “It’s one step removed from identifying individual homosexuals in history or getting completely bogged down with physical acts and how the law should be interpreted,” he says.
The growing power of the Protestant Church motivated many of these early accusations. “The English state was trying to gain jurisdiction over things that had previously been the domain of the Catholic Church,” says Stewart. “When Henry XIII turned England into a Protestant nation rather than a Catholic one, he needed an excuse to close down all the monasteries.”
One of the charges leveled against the monasteries was that monks were having sex with one another. These cases were reported back to Parliament, and the monasteries were shut down within a few years. “It was all very, very fast,” says Stewart. “So it looks as though that was why that buggery became subject to a secular law, because it was going to be used against church people and church property. But then it remains in the English law from then on to cause all kinds of havoc.”
At the turn of the 18th century, buggery accusations became so common that they infiltrated popular culture. “You suddenly get a rush of prosecutions at the end of the 17th century, as the Society for the Reformation of Manners comes in,” explains Stewart. “They are hell-bent on prosecuting people they see as immoral. It becomes part of the culture to be able to talk about sodomy, or joke about in a negative way.”
“As for where that late seventeenth-century queer subculture came from, there are multiple explanations,” says Stewart. “I always thought it was something to do with the theater. I think there were probably various taverns and locales that were available for that kind of subculture earlier. But we just don't have any evidence until people start attempting to prosecute it.”
Stewart’s research into the early prosecution of sodomy reveals how legacies of discrimination don’t just come merely from what we call homophobia today. They also come from the pragmatic pursuit of political power. And while the origins of those early queer subcultures in England still remain a bit of a mystery, it’s comforting to know these behaviors and persons existed centuries before us, even if our only record of them is their persecution.